Saturday, February 6, 2010

Memories of Artist-Activist Neil Young

By Deborah Levine

Neil Young is 64-years old and is the current MusiCares Person of the Year. I'm not surprised that Young received the honor given his decades of work with Farm Aid and Bridge School Concerts. Some of the biggest names in the business serenaded Young with his own songs: Elton John, James Taylor, Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, Leon Russel, and Keith Russell. Young was quoted as saying that he'd forgotten how many songs he'd written.

How did Young hit retirement age? He's at the point in his life when he either 1) created so many songs he lost count or 2) really can't remember.

This kind of thing happens when you're talented, successful and 64. Jack Black was the emcee at the event. Black talked about how the young singers on stage had been influenced by Young's unique style. How ironic! Black and the young'uns weren't even born when Young began his career. But I was, and I was in the audience at Young's debut all those years ago.

I was a student at New York University in NYC in 1971. I attended the Greenwich Village campus and got to take part in the Village life. Singers and dancers performed in the lofts and modest studios in every nook and cranny in the Village. Public concerts in the park were commonplace as were artists exhibiting their work on the sidewalk. The wild artistry of the sixties was still with us; the commercialized disco era wasn't yet launched.

I hung out with friends at the NYU radio station. We listened to Carole King, Carly Simon and James Taylor who were then emerging on the scene. So much social change was in the air, but not fully formed. A fellow student argued with me that women singers would never equal the fame of their male counterparts. I objected naming several famous women, and in a sign of the times, he said African American women didn't count.

One winter evening, the radio crowd decided to go to the debut concert of a new, unknown singer named Neil Young. I tagged along and found myself in a large, run-down studio with chairs set up theater style. The stage was slightly elevated in theater-in-the-round style. A long singer was seated on a wooden chair, playing his guitar and singing into a single microphone. Dressed unremarkably in jeans, Young's full head of dark hair obscured part of his face. It was vintage Village.

Young's haunting voice filled the room. The crowd was a well-educated group and well-behaved. We quietly listened, nodding to the words which could be clearly understood. Young's style was slightly reminiscent of Bob Dylan's thoughtful, folksy, nasal style. There were no back-up singers or flashy staging here.

Suddenly, a young couple appeared in the aisle. They danced to the music, gyrating in flashy moves that announced the arrival of disco. Totally at odds with the tone of the concert, they stood out unashamedly and, to most of us, jarringly. I turned to a friend and said, "Wow! They must be really moved by the music." The friend turned a jaded eye towards me and replied, "Don't get excited. They're dancers hired by the studio to hype this guy. That's how a debut works."

I gazed back at the intense young man on stage and wondered how he kept a straight face with all that nonsense prancing around in front of him. It looked like he had his eyes closed as he sang 'A Horse with No Name.' Smart move. I did the same and said a silent prayer for his success. I figured he could use a few words on his behalf with the Good Lord in his chosen profession.

It turned out that Young didn't need my prayers. He's had an incredibly rich, successful and long career. Reports are that when a balding, graying Neil Young took to the stage to thank everyone for the MusiCares Award, he announced that he was worn out by all the festivities. He said it was time to go home, but promised to keep going. He hoped his new songs would be as good as his early ones.

If you don't remember all you've written anymore, it's OK. Neither do I and it doesn't matter. You're a role model for young people beyond the impact of any particular song. Your integrity and good works have made their mark. Just close your eyes, play your guitar and sing, Neil.

Deborah Levine is a Diversity Expert with various diversity degrees and numerous awards. Brought up in British Bermuda, she was inserted into America in grade school. The coping skills of an immigrant are easy to spot, as is the island softness in her voice. Her varied background includes Harvard University, New York's garment district, dance troupe director, media liaison and urban planner. Based in Tennessee, Deborah is known internationally as a 'diversity pioneer' and mentors executives from around the world.

Deborah is an award-winning author whose work ranges from global leadership guides to diversity stories for children. Deborah is Editor of American Diversity Report which is read in 70 countries and features more than 50 veteran authors and new voices. Deborah's style is amusing and fair, as she believes in poking everyone equally.

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