It’s the birthday of Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young, born in Toronto in 1945. He had a rough childhood: he was stricken with polio when he was six years old, and nearly died. Even after he recovered from the outbreak, his health was so bad that he could hardly walk. His parents took him to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, that December so he could regain his strength; they ended up staying for six months, and young Neil spent hours watching all the shiny new American cars drive by. He developed a lasting love of cars during this period, and he always names them. Over the years, he’s had vehicles named “Hank,” “LincVolt,” and “Pocahontas.” “Every car is full of stories,” he once said. “Who rode in ’em, where they went, where they ended up, how they got here.”
Even as a kid, he loved music, and he learned to play the ukulele after he received a cheap plastic one in his Christmas stocking. As the years went by, his love for music deepened, until it meant more to him than school. He dropped out of high school to form a band — the Squires — in 1963. They played in coffeehouses and clubs around Winnipeg, where Neil had moved with his mother after his parents’ divorce. Neil bought himself a car to get the band to their gigs. It was a hearse, which he dubbed “Mortimer Hearseburg.” When “Mort,” as he called it, inevitably broke down beyond repair, Young bought another hearse, a 1953 Pontiac that he named “Mort II.”
He got to know a lot of up-and-coming musicians, like Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, and the Guess Who, while touring on the Canadian folk circuit. Mitchell loved his song “Sugar Mountain” so much that it inspired her song “The Circle Game.” By 1966, Young had formed the band Buffalo Springfield with his friend Bruce Palmer, along with Steven Stills, Richie Furay, and Dewey Martin. “For What It’s Worth” was the first single off their debut, self-titled album, and it hit the Top Ten. That same year, Young developed epilepsy, and began having seizures — sometimes while on stage with the band. And in 2005, he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm.
Neil has three kids: a son, Zeke, with actress Carrie Snodgress; and Ben and Amber Jean with Pegi Morton. Zeke and Ben both have cerebral palsy; Zeke’s case is mild, but Ben uses a wheelchair and speaks through a computerized communication device. Ben shares a love for model trains with his dad, and Neil built a 3,000-square-foot model railway system on his California ranch so that he and Ben would have something to do together. He also bought a part-ownership of the Lionel Train Company, helping to save the company from bankruptcy. In return, he worked with Lionel to design controls that would be easier for his sons to operate. In the 1980s, Neil and Pegi co-founded the Bridge School for children with severe physical and speech impairments. Up until this year, Neil and Pegi held an annual, weekend-long benefit concert that brought in big names like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty to raise money for Bridge School.
Young broke his toe in 2011, which took him out of commission for a while. To kill the time, he wrote an autobiography: Waging Heavy Peace (2012). In the book, he writes: “Writing is very convenient, has a low expense and is a great way to pass the time. I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn’t know what to do next.”