Neil Young Comes Clean
By DAVID CARR
Driving down the hill above his ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, Neil Young took a deep whiff of the redwood forest momentarily serving as the canopy for his 1951 Willys Jeepster convertible.
“I can still remember how it smelled when I first pulled in here — I was driving this car,” he said, recalling the trip in 1970 when he bought the place and named it Broken Arrow, after the Buffalo Springfield song.
The author of some of the spookiest, darkest songs in the American folk canon seemed jolly on this late-August day. Even if he was accompanied by a reporter, generally not his favorite species of human, the motion soothed him. “I’ve always been better moving than I am standing still,” he said.
Young, 66, spotted this land out the window of a plane banking out of San Francisco four decades ago and now owns nearly 1,000 acres of it. His song “Old Man” is a tribute to the caretaker who first showed him the place.
“I ran out of money, so I had to sell some of it,” he said. “That’s O.K., because it was too big. Everything happens for a reason.” He kept his eyes on the narrow road through the giant redwoods.
It was hard to reconcile the affable guy motoring along on a sunny day with his past incarnations: the portentous folkie of “Ohio,” the rabid anti-commercialist who gave MTV the musical middle finger with “This Note’s For You,” the angry rocker who threatened to hit the cameramen at Woodstock with his guitar. He was happy partly because he was here.
“For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it,” he said. “You really have to be in a good place, and then you have to be either on your way there or on your way from there.”
We would spend a few hours creeping along — he drove slowly but joyfully, as if the automobile were a recent invention — on our way there or on our way from there, the ranch where Young lives with his wife, Pegi, and their son, Ben. His longtime producer and friend, David Briggs, who died in 1995, hated making records here, deriding the hermetic refuge as a “velvet cage.”
In addition to the studio, where more than 20 records have been made, there is an entire building given over to model trains, another where vintage cars are stored and another piled with his master recordings. Llamas and cows roam under cartoonishly large trees. It seems like a made-up place, an open-air fortress of eccentricity meant to protect the artist who lives there. But what it has most of all is not a lot of people.
“I like people, I just don’t have to see them all the time,” he said, laughing. David Crosby, his bandmate in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, used to describe the complicated route into his ranch as “my filtering system,” Young said.He made a bunch of rights and lefts through the forest before getting out to unlock the gate. Others might have an electronic gate, but Young likes the mechanical experience of slipping a key into a padlock and swinging something open. He is fundamentally analog, despite the occasional electronic excesses in his music. He likes amps with knobs that go to 12 and things that click when you touch them.
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