What I've Learned: Neil Young
This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Esquire. You can find every story we've ever published at Esquire Classic.
A best moment in music? Sometimes when I’m playing my guitar, I get to a point where it gets very cold and icy inside me. It’s very refreshing. Every breath is like you’re at the North Pole. Your head starts to freeze. Your inhalations are big—more air than you ever thought there is starts pouring in. There’s something magical about it. Sometimes when it happens, you wonder if you’re gonna be okay. Can you handle it?
Yes, there was something good that came out of having polio as a kid. Walking.
The sound of a harmonica hits you directly. There’s no language barrier.
The wisest person I ever met had to be my companion in the hospital a few months ago. I was recovering from complications after an operation to remove an aneurism in my brain. She was about eighty-five years old and maybe five feet tall. An old black lady from South Carolina. This young nurse wasn’t really in touch with what she was doing, and the old lady would tell her how to do what she needed to do without telling her. She never talked down to her, just gave examples. I felt that this old woman must be deeply religious, but there was nothing forceful about her. I woke up one morning at a quarter to six and looked out the window. Fog was on the bridge outside the room, and I said, “Well, that’s just beautiful.” And she said: “Yes, it is.” She turned toward me with this eighty-five-year-old face that didn’t have a line on it, no strain, nothing, and she said: “So the master’s not taking you. It’s not your turn.”
Courage is a mindless thing. People say, “Wow! How could you do that?” And you say, “How could I not do that?”
It's like having two eyes. You either look through one eye or you look through the other. Or you look through both of them. Sex is sex. Love is love. Love and sex is clear vision.
There’s something peaceful about boxing. If you beat the hell out of a bag or go against a competitor, you and your reflexes will be so at one that you won’t have time to think about anything else. You have to be totally yourself to box.
Epilepsy taught me that we’re not in control of ourselves.
When I was six, I really didn’t know what God was. But I did know about Sunday school. I was reading a lot about God, but I was bored. I couldn’t wait to get out of Sunday school. God was secondary to the whole thing. But as time went by, I got more and more angry, to the point where I didn’t like religion. Hate is a strong word. But I just kept getting angrier and angrier ... until finally I wasn’t angry anymore. I was just peaceful, because I thought: This is not fruitful for me. I rejected the whole thing and found peace in paganism. Jesus didn’t go to church. I went way back before Jesus. Back to the forest, to the wheat fields, to the river, to the ocean. I go where the wind is. That’s my church.
Epilepsy taught me that we’re not in control of ourselves.
Most people think it’s the other way around: that time is going faster and we’re doing less. But really time seems to be going faster because we’re cramming so much into it.
Our education system basically strives for normal—which is too bad. Sometimes the exceptional is classified as abnormal and pushed aside.
One thing that has come out of having children with cerebral palsy is strength. At first it made me very angry. I was almost looking for a fight. I was always looking for someone to criticize my son in my presence. I would envision different scenarios in which I would become violent reacting to people’s reactions to my children—especially to my severely handicapped child. Eventually, he taught me that was not necessary. Just by being himself. By being a gift to us. He showed us how to have faith and belief and inner strength and to never give up. I look around and see people hurting themselves for no reason. Drinking too much. Taking drugs. Beating themselves up in some psychological way. That really bothers me, knowing that these people got everything they needed to succeed. All they have to do is believe in themselves and in the gifts they’re wasting. And yet there are all these other people on the planet who have none of the gifts that are apparent. The gifts are all locked up inside, yet their spirits are so strong that they just keep on going. And I think: This person who has this spirit, why can’t he have some of the outward gifts?
Maybe this is a little too thoughtful, but we’re all just passengers in a way.
The best is approaching. I have everything—well, not everything, but a lot of things that I’ve accumulated through my life experiences. It’s easier to communicate through music than it ever has been before. It’s easier to play. It’s easier to sing. It’s easier to write. Nothing is forced.
When my doctor discovered the aneurism in my brain, he said I’d had it for about a hundred years. He told me I’d had it for such a long time that I shouldn’t worry about it ... but that we’d have to get rid of it immediately. Yeah, that’s Zen medicine. He’s very wise. I trusted him completely. All the people who took care of me were absolutely the best at what they do—even though there was a complication, a complication that has a one-in-twenty-seven-hundred chance of happening in my type of operation. They go into your brain through an artery in your thigh. Later, when I was out of the hospital, my leg exploded. I was out on the street and it just popped. My shoe was full of blood. I was in some serious trouble. I was about fifty yards from the hotel and I just made it. The ambulance came about ten minutes later. I don’t know if I need to go into this. I don’t know if the event is important. But the result was. That’s what led me to that lady. The wisest person I’ve ever met.
Subscribe to Esquire—we'll send you a print magazine!
From: Esquire US