Neil Young's peers happy the Canadian rocker finally getting due from Grammy

Cover August 21, 2009

By Nick Patch, The Canadian Press
LOS ANGELES - When Grammy gives its person of the year award to Neil Young this weekend, a star-studded cast of performers will be on hand to serenade the Toronto-born rock legend.

Sheryl Crow, Elton John, James Taylor, k.d. lang and John Mellencamp are just a few of the names who will perform at Friday's MusiCares gala, and who will presumably have a chance to meet the elusive singer/songwriter.

Many Canadian artists who hold Young up as a Canuck icon still haven't had the pleasure.

"I've always wanted to meet him," Stompin' Tom Connors told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.

"He's got a great name for himself throughout the world and he's well thought of back here in Canada. I'm looking forward to meeting him someday.

"If you see him before I do, let him know that I'd be willing to meet him, sit down and have a few beers."

He's not the only one.

Vancouver singer-songwriter Dustin Bentall was thrilled when he nabbed a coveted spot in Sarah McLachlan's benefit concert, Summer Sessions at Ambleside, last summer.

Bentall was particularly tickled that he would be sharing a bill with Young, who was set to perform in the second-to-last slot of the evening.

"We went backstage and it was so heavy," Bentall recalled. "I was sitting there and all of a sudden I could hear a little faint noise of a Wurlitzer, an electric piano, not plugged in. I could hear those notes, and I looked over, and the door of (Young's) trailer was open and he was sitting there, playing his piano, warming up.

"It hit me like a tidal wave. I could not believe I was that close to him, you know? And he was so cool.

"Unfortunately, I didn't get to spend one-on-one time with him, because he's probably my biggest idol, my biggest inspiration as far as getting into music and writing. But I did get to make eye contact with him and come within 10 feet of his presence."

This has been a particularly fertile in time in Young's long career. Over the past year, the first volume of his oft-delayed archives collection hit stores, along with "Fork in the Road," an album of new material. Meanwhile, a new Jonathan Demme-directed concert flick, "Neil Young Trunk Show," debuted at the South by Southwest film festival last March.

That film also came to the Toronto International Film Festival in September, along with a touted public appearance from Young. It didn't happen, with Young ultimately telling reporters he never knew about the supposed gig.

He also didn't make it out for a June tribute concert in Toronto that featured Cowboy Junkies, Issa, Steven Page and Carole Pope.

Next month, Hal Willner will bring his Neil Young Project to Vancouver, as Lou Reed, members of Broken Social Scene and Ron Sexsmith celebrate Young's catalogue with a concert during the Olympics.

Count Sexsmith among the Young fans who has never had the pleasure of shaking his hand.

"I've met a lot of my heroes, but I haven't met Neil and I haven't met (Bob) Dylan," Sexsmith said in a phone interview.

"I don't really set out to meet people. ... But the year that I won my Juno in Winnipeg (in 2005), Neil was supposed to perform and I was really excited about possibly getting the chance to meet him but that was when he got sick, you know, and had the close call. If it happens, it happens."

Still, he says he loves Young's work.

"When I started out playing bars, I had to learn an awful lot of Neil Young songs, because that's pretty much all anyone wanted to hear," he recalled.

"I'm sure if you went to any bar in Ontario or across Canada, you'd still hear it. ... He has this strange place, anyone can pick up an acoustic guitar and play one of those songs. As a songwriter, that's something you kind of aspire to."

Randy Bachman, who grew with Young in Winnipeg, echoed that sentiment.

"You could go to any street corner in the world, and I mean in the world, and play a cassette or CD or whatever of Neil Young and (people) will say '(That's) Neil Young," he said.

"He has a voice like no one else, he plays guitar like no one else and he writes these songs that are so honest and ... first takes, if you know what I mean. He doesn't really polish up anything. It's whatever comes out."

Young's peers are pleased that he's being honoured by Grammy - especially considering he's never actually won one of the trophies (he's nominated for two going into Sunday's show).

Norah Jones will perform at the MusiCares function for Young. A fan since she was in college ("I bought 'After the Gold Rush' and I just fell in love with him," she recalls), Jones says she's met Young after performing at his Bridge School Benefit.

"He's just so open and giving and just such an amazing musical force," Jones said. "He's really sweet."

Added Jeff Tweedy, whose Chicago band Wilco will perform at the MusiCares event: "He's right up there in terms of a constant in my musical life as an influence and as a mentor. He's kind of just a force of nature. And I take him for granted sometimes like I take the sun for granted ... I'm really happy the sun comes up every day and I'm happy Neil Young keeps making records."

"He's always been a really gracious guy, a really down-to-earth guy," added Tom Cochrane.

"That's what impressed me the most about him, outside of obviously his prodigious songwriting talents and the fact that he's a lot like John Lennon. He's like our Canadian John Lennon. He always wrote songs from his heart and never pulled his punches. He's been a great role model for me and countless numbers of other artists and I'm very proud to say that he's a Canadian singer/songwriter.

"Good for Neil. He's a big influence."