Style Icon: Neil Young

Our little Style Icons series comes to an end, and it’s been a diverse group: Emmanuelle Alt, Lisa Bonet, Sofia Coppola, Amelia Earhart, Richard Hell, Jennifer Herrema, Eva Hesse, early Madonna, Kazu Makino, Anita Pallenberg, and Patti Smith. (That’s one helluva dinner party right there.) And now we finally come to our last: NEIL YOUNG! It’s fitting that he is the last in our lineup. Even though we’re egalitarian and eschewed rankings, Liz, Laura and I all know he’s the One, the #1, the one who will always steal our hearts. If this was a countdown, he’d deserve the precious final slot. Neil is really our angel, and this is why we love him.

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Kat: It is impossible to write about Neil and not try to write about all the men I have loved as an adult woman, because there has been something Neil-y in all of them and that has been entirely by design. Basically my romantic life was a mess till I decided to make things easier on myself and not give my heart to anyone that didn’t echo of Neil in some way or another, at least in spirit. I have a cocktail-party theory that straight dudes are either (Bob) Dylans or Neils (Young). Because while Dylan was elliptical and clever and sometimes heartfelt and often really smirk-y, elusive and witty-mean, Neil will always be earnest and sincere, even when he’s being all tough and incendiary (and smart-ass enough to keep things entertaining). It’s a question of head vs. heart, mental vs. emotional, words vs. gestures. A Dylan type will always look sharp and angular shambling elusively down a street, talking miles about himself or nothing in particular, but a Neil type will always wrap you up in his perfectly worn blazer when it’s cold out, even when he’s decrying the state of the world or threatening to hit someone in the face. A Neil type is hard to impress and hard to read at first, always looking out at the world through lowered, suspicious eyes, but he finds strength in being achingly vulnerable without the inherent egocentricity of being “emo”; he knows what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with his girl, and he’s always on your side. Neil Young fucking cares; he doesn’t posture, he doesn’t get up and try to pretend he’s all cool and detached and all that. The man is genuine and true, which is why his music is the perfect surrogate boyfriend. I realized this, of course, after listening to After the Gold Rush one crazy night a long time ago during those darknesses of the soul that hits you every now and then in the quest for love. Basically I was listening to the record over and over again in my bedroom, watching the shadows of my ceiling grow from the fading light outside, and feeling all-around blue. Then, somewhere around “I Believe In You” for the fiftieth time, the thought came to me: A man who can write songs like these obviously possesses exquisite emotional sensitivity; there’s gotta be more like them out there. Long story short, once I got my act together and looked for the inner Neil in all my suitors, my heart felt ten times better and my head ten times smarter. (This doesn’t go into all the dudes who are Dylans-pretending-to-be-Neils and Neils-who-wish-they-were-Dylans, but that’s like for a whole ‘nother book.)

Such warmth and straightforwardness is echoed in the rugged authenticity of what he wears. The secret to Neil’s style iconicity is that it is a type of anti-style: it is less about what he wears and more how it is worn. It doesn’t matter where you get your shirt — on the road, on the floor, in a box by the road, stolen from a lover — as long as it’s worn-in to the limits of affection and weathered by life and adventure. Clothes aren’t about being cool or sexy or fabulous; Neil is so beyond that, it’s not even funny. And of course, all this — the sincerity, the raw, plangent emotion, the gorgeousness found in the humble and everyday — is reflected most beautifully in the music, which I love best of all about Neil.

Unpredictable and willful, Neil has always charted his own course in terms of music, from the singer-songwriter perfection of Harvest to the total fucking weirdness of Trans to the shambolic ragged genius of most of his Crazy Horse records. The trick of Neil is that he’s a maverick — of sound, of songs, of matters of the heart. He goes his own twisted, ambling way, and if that’s not the mission statement of this blog, well, I have no idea what is. So, yeah, Neil Young. Our hero, our friend, our imaginary boyfriend, our shaman, our favorite dude; words almost cannot express.
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Laura: Neil Young is for the bad times.

In my life, the pattern goes like this: the worse I feel about anything and/or everything, the more I love Neil Young. It’s an entirely exponential process, which is somewhat encouraging; if I woke up one morning to find my skull shaved bald, a horse’s head tucked beneath my bedsheets, my apartment incinerated, my dog runneth over, and a note from my boyfriend saying he’d skipped town with some girl who was totally prettier than me, at least I’d know that Neil would sound better today than he ever did before. When every single thing in your life feels completely hopeless, it actually isn’t! Neil is always there for you. Misery loves company, after all.

The fact that Neil Young is a Scorpio proves that astrology is real. The fact that Neil is a Scorpio and I am a Cancer proves that we are perfect soulmates. The fact that Neil is a Scorpio and I am a Cancer and we are both native Torontonians proves that we are such perfect soulmates that the words “perfect” and “soulmates” do our deep connection absolutely zero justice and that I will never love any man as much as I could potentially love Neil. Something I like to do when I am depressed or bored or waiting in line at the bank is picture in my head a fantasy dreamworld I like to call “Laura in the Beatles”. “Laura in the Beatles” is a complex narrative that I have been developing since I was in my mid-teens.

The story goes something like this: Laura (me) was born in 1940 and grew up next door to John Lennon in Liverpool, joins the Beatles as bassist/feminist icon (in case you’re wondering, John and Paul could trade off on rhythm guitar depending on who is doing the lead vocal), has long hair when the boys’ is short, then short when theirs’ is long. Laura-Beatle runs away to the West Coast during the Summer of Love, meets/falls in love with Neil Young, brings Neil on the legendary Rishikesh trip (which is where they write the majority of their collaborative cutesy-wutesy Liverpool-meets-Los Angeles double LP chock-a-block with some of the best duelling male-female vocals you’ve ever heard), the Beatles break up, and Laura-Beatle and Neil move to the country and make their own jams and/or compotes and live happily ever after.
My point being? I’d pick Neil over a Beatle. Case closed.

Here is a video of Neil Young performing Heart of Gold in 1971 at the apex of his Lurch-y hotness. This performance practically emanates manic depression and is so tortured, tragic, morose, heartfelt, and melancholy that nine out of ten times I watch it, I can’t help but cry a little.

Liz: It’s funny being a girl who’s crazy about Neil Young. You’d think boys would be the ones to totally get it, but then they say the dumbest things when you try to talk about it with them. Like the dude I was drinking whiskey with a couple weeks who told me, all eye-rolly and dismissive, “Oh, everybody goes through a Neil Young phase.” (First of all: Hi, not true. And secondly: It’s not a phase, it’s an all-consuming love made of mystery and magic!!) Or another bloke who, in response to my lengthy sighing over Neiler’s creepy hotness, shot back: “Yeah, he was hot for like two seconds 35 years ago!” Whaaaa??

So apparently boys fully grasp neither the love nor the lust aspect when it comes to old Shakey. And that’s all right, ’cause it means lots more fun for us girls. And for me so much of that fun has to do with taking in the creepy hotness of which I spoke last paragraph – in fact, not since my early-20s Stones obsession has there been a rock star I’ve so enjoyed just looking at. And not since my early-teenhood Kurt Cobain obsession has there been a rock star who’s so directly influenced my personal fashion sense. There’s some similarities between the two – the plaid flannel, the blue jeans faded to the point of threadbareness – but Neiler’s got that whole Western thing, with the buckskin and beaded jewelry and occasional fringed poncho. It makes sense that I’d find him now that I’ve been living in California a while and gotten to the age where moving even further west and turning into a total beach hippie sometimes seems like the best idea. I haven’t quite managed to make that leap yet, but for now I’m cool to just hang out in my sorta-new cowboy boots and coyote’s-tooth-and-wolf-charm necklace, wear out my copy of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and look at stuff like this little movie of Neiler singing “Down By The River” in 1969, quite possibly at the height of creepy hotness: