Today, “Five Questions” are put to Sharry Wilson, author of Young Neil; The Sugar Mountain Years. The book focuses on Neil Young's childhood and early years, providing a highly-researched document of those “Sugar Mountain” years, from 1945 to 1966.
What surprised you most about Neil’s childhood?
I did so much research on Neil’s childhood that nothing about it surprises me anymore, but what seemed to surprise readers – judging by the comments and reviews the book has received – are his early dedication to chicken farming and his musical precocity, beginning with a plastic Arthur Godfrey ukulele his dad bought him as a gift in 1957.
Neil's music is often infused with a sense of place and of longing. What about the Canadian landscape of his childhood influenced that sensibility?
He was actually exposed to quite a variety of Canadian landscapes, from the urban (Toronto and Winnipeg) to the rural (the town of Omemee, Ontario, the tiny hamlet of Brock Road, Ontario, and the vast expanse of the Western prairies). His family also introduced him to a broad range of deeply Canadian music and literature. His Granny Jean Young, for instance, played honky-tonk piano for miners at a copper mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba, while his father Scott socialized with such luminaries as Governor-General's Literary Award winner Robertson Davies and the prolific writer and broadcaster Pierre Berton. I think you can hear all these disparate influences in his work.
A lot Neil’s work often seemed like it was written by an old soul. Do you think the constant motion of his youth contributed to this? If not, why do you think that comes across?
His family’s constant moves did make him “the new kid in class” almost every year, so it wouldn’t be surprising if there are echoes of loneliness and dislocation in his music. On the other hand, he’s said that he learned to roll with it – to make the best of what came to seem, for him, a kind of constantly shifting normality. Maybe that’s good training for a career musician.
You saw the legendary ’71 Massey Hall show that was re-released a few years back. We’ll assume you’ve listened to the recording. How does it jibe with your memories of that show?
It seems to jibe pretty well. One thing I remember is how attentive the audience was – a kind of reverent silence, punctuated by bursts of enthusiasm whenever his banter or the lyrics of a song mentioned Canadian or local subjects. I think the song that impressed me most that evening was the newly-introduced “Journey Through the Past.” Neil called it “a song without a home,” since it wasn’t on any album then available.
Any idea why "you can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain?”
Well, it’s a song about childhood, and childhood doesn’t last. Neil wrote it on his nineteenth birthday, in the Victoria Hotel in Fort William, Ontario, where the Squires were performing. He had recently left Winnipeg for a full-time career playing music, and it must have seemed as if his childhood years were dwindling in the rear-view mirror. “Sugar Mountain” was his wistful look back.
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