Writing for Rolling Stone, music journalist Don McLeese explains:
Neil Young is the only artist in the history of modern recording to be sued for refusing to be himself. The suit, filed by Geffen Records, Young’s label for much of the Eighties, charged that he was violating his contract by recording ‘unrepresentative’ albums. In other words, Neil Young wasn’t making Neil Young music.
The problem with Geffen’s suit was that there has never been any such thing as a ‘representative’ Neil Young album. Young has made a decades-long career out of keeping his fans guessing what he’ll do next.
Even before he signed with Geffen, his ever-changing style included raw and edgy, melodic and romantic, dark and melancholic, acoustic and electric, and introspective and retrospective, with a bit of punk thrown in for good measure, all backed by whatever band he’d assembled at the time. It’s just how he worked (and still does).
This post explores how Young has managed to maintain an ongoing state of creative flow throughout his career. Even when he was creating to order for a record company, and even during the litigation that ensued.
As we’ll see, he did so by mastering the art of self-renewal, which is something we can all learn to do.
Young has recorded on the Reprise label throughout his 30+ year solo career, except for a period during the 1980s, known as the Geffen years. Record executive David Geffen had founded a new label and brought Young aboard.
The collaboration was contentious almost from the start. Geffen rejected Young’s country-esqe album Old Ways, insisting on something more rock ‘n’ roll. So, for the first and only time in his career, Young found himself trying to create to order. He came up with with the album Everybody’s Rockin.
Young really liked it. He thought it was exactly what Geffen wanted. But Geffen thought it was still too country. So he sued (for around $3 million), claiming that both albums were “musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.” Young countersued for breach of contract, claiming he’d been promised artistic free rein.
With the litigation ongoing, Young hit the road, touring with a group of Nashville musicians he put together and called the International Harvesters. It required a whole new approach, he recalls, because the audiences and venues were very different from what Young was used to. Imagine this: state fairs all over the country, with Neil Young playing electric guitar alongside first-rate fiddlers and pickers with names like Rufus, Spooner, and Pig. That’s how it was. “We were having the time of our lives,” Young recalls.
After 85 concerts, the suit settled, with Geffen apologizing to Young, and Young recording two more albums on Geffen’s label. By the time the Geffen years were over, Young’s album sales were at an all time low, and he’d lost commercial relevance.
In 1988, Young returned to Reprise. A major comeback came with the album called (what else?) Freedom, whose hit ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ was his biggest in a decade. He recalls that the song’s main lyrics – “keep on rockin’ in the free world” – just came to him one day.
Young’s creative flow never stopped during the Geffen years, but a floodgate opened once they were over. He wrote a movie soundtrack, organized major fundraising concerts, released a slew of genre-spanning records, jammed with Phish, grunged with Sonic Youth, punked with Social Distortion, chilled with James Taylor, and did a reunion tour with CSNY featuring their reunion album, fittingly titled Looking Forward.
To this day, Young is still going strong. He recently sold out two solo performances at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, and he’s planning a reunion tour with Buffalo Springfield, the band he co-founded in 1966 (before joining CSNY).
What this Has to Do with You
For someone whose famous lyrics include, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” Young has managed to do neither. How? His Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bio is dead on:
Young has consistently demonstrated the unbridled passion of an artist who understands that self-renewal is the only way to avoid burning out. For this reason, he has remained one of the most significant artists of the rock and roll era. (emphasis mine)
Self-renewal. That’s it! It’s the key to life. Literally.
By coincidence, the seminal work on this topic – Self-Renewal – was written in 1963, the same year Young made his first record? John W. Gardner writes that to be self-renewing individuals, we must maintain ourselves like a garden, with some things about ourselves being born, other things flourishing, and others dying – with the system as a whole living on.
This is exactly how Young lives and works To see how we can as well, let’s look to what he does (and doesn’t do) to maintain an ongoing state of self-renewal and the creative flow it brings:
1. He Doesn’t Use the F Word
By the F word, I mean the other one: Failure. Delving pretty deeply into Young’s history, I saw nothing suggesting that he ever perceived anything he created as a failure.
It’s as if Young doesn’t know that word. His concerts are a microcosm of his career: there’s no set list. No one (not even the band or the lighting technicians ) knows what he’s going to do. Neither does he, apparently. One song flows into the next. Working that way seems to annihilate the prospect of failure. Because it removes expectations.
Looking back on decades of working this way, Young told the BBC:
I would have a big hit record, and then I would have what some people would say … was a miserable, terrible record, and I’m going, “what a great record that was” – I really liked that because it’s going against the grain, it’s got an individual thing, and it’s not trying to be anything other than what it’s doing.
Critics and fans often don’t ‘get’ Young’s records when they first come out. They take a while to grow on people. He’s an acquired taste and so is what he does. Gardner’s words fit well here:
You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.
Young connects with his audience in his own way. But he’s not trying to please or win approval. So the F word doesn’t even come up.
Takeaway: Ditch your metaphorical set list. Remember that your work cannot be, as Young says, anything other than what it’s doing. If what it’s doing reaches people, great. If it doesn’t, also great. Maybe it will someday.
2. He Knows Why He’s Doing It
All along, Young has been ‘doing it for himself.’ That’s how his fan base emerged and grew over time. Asked by the BBC whether he’s actually made an effort to build an audience, he replied:
I’m always interested in reaching out to anyone who wants to listen, but really, I’m doing it for myself, so [my fan base has] been a coincidence.
Young reaches out to those who want to by performing unrehearsed concerts and releasing unpolished albums. Why obsess over details, when it’s the power of sound he’s going for? He finds it through immersion in the process, not by trying to figure out what people want and endeavoring to deliver.
We might think we have to reach some semblance of success before we can work without an eye toward approval. But we would be wrong. For many creative people (see here and here), it’s precisely what fuels success in the first place.
This approach can work beautifully for entrepreneurs as well. Want to know how? Read Derek Sivers‘ book Anything You Want. In the hour it will take you to finish it, you’ll see that doing something because you love the process can serve as a brilliant business model.
Takeaway: Know why you’re doing it. Make sure it’s because you love the feel of the process. Then all you need to do is follow the last words of Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous Ted talk: “Have the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”
3. He Gets Himself
Young has a tremendous self-understanding. He’s knows what fits with who he is and what he’s doing. He pays attention to what works and what doesn’t – for him. And he proceeds accordingly. His own words make these things clear:
I live for playing live. That’s what I do. I hate studios … where you have to go down a hall and see other people playing and you feel like … you’re a soup – you’re cream of mushroom and they’re tomato.
As long as it’s good music and I’m playing with my friends, I don’t care what genre it is. All my music comes from all music — I’m not country, I’m not rock ‘n’ roll, I’m just me, and all these things are what I like.
[M]y records aren’t that polished. I’m not going for that. I’m going for the essence of the song. I’m not a record crafter, that’s not my job. It may be someday, but it isn’t right now.
I’ve learned one thing: you don’t want to close the door on anything. I closed the door on everything and every time I’d do something new, I’d say, “this is it, I’m not doing anything else anymore … just this matters.” And then I was wrong.
Takeaway: With Young’s words as a guide, ask yourself: What do you live for? What really is it that you do? What does (and doesn’t) feel right? What is it that you’re going for? Have you closed the door on anything? What have you been wrong about?
4. He Creates His Own Groove
Young is groove personified. Groove is a musical term defined as rhythmic drive that creates a song’s momentum. Rocker-turned-neuroscientist Dan Levitin tells us that when music has good groove, it creates a sonic world where external time seems to stand still – we want to stay there, and we don’t want the song to end.
Does that remind you of anything? Groove is is analogous to creative flow, the state of intense absorption and pleasure that for many of us is the main motivation for doing creative work.
Young’s career has amounted to one massive state of good groove. He didn’t let anyone snap him out of it. Not critics, not fans, not Geffen. When Young got sued, he was on his own, without a record company. So what did he do? He assembled International Harvesters and did what he loved. Groove intact, he toured and played in what amounted to a whole new world for him. It’s hard to think of a better example of self-renewal.
Takeaway: Tend your metaphorical garden. Find your groove. Take charge of it. It’s yours, so don’t let others snap you out of it. Think of it as refuge, a teacher, and a place where you build skill.
Photo by 6tee-zeven.
Over to You:
Have you ever had your creativity constrained, by a client, an employer, or someone else (or perhaps yourself)? If so, how did affect your work? How did you deal with it?
What’s your take on the F word when it comes to creativity?
Are you able to work without an eye toward approval? If so, what advice do you have for others?