Neil Young is crankier than a hermit being stung by bees. He hates Spotify. He hates Facebook. He hates Apple. He hates Steve Jobs. He hates what digital technology is doing to music. “I’m only one person standing there going, ‘Hey, this is [expletive] up!’ ” he shouted, ranting away on the porch of his longtime manager Elliot Roberts’s house overlooking Malibu Canyon in the sunblasted desert north of Los Angeles. The dial thermometer at the far end of the porch indicated that it was now upward of 110 degrees of some kind of heat. Maybe the dial was stuck.
When you hear real music, you get lost in it, he added, “because it sounds like God.” Spotify doesn’t sound like God. No one thinks that. It sounds like a rotating electric fan that someone bought at a hardware store.
No one in their right mind would choose to live in the canyons outside Los Angeles, especially in the summertime between noon and 5. There isn’t enough water or shade. After a few months of summer heat, the scrub on the mountainsides is baked dry. Then someone gets sloppy with a stray cigarette butt or a campfire or the power company fails to maintain a power line and a spark accelerates into a terrifying wildfire that sends up pillars of thick smoke that from a distance hovers over the canyons like an illustration from an old Bible. News crews record burning mansions, which are intercut with the winsome llamas of the rich and famous that have been safely removed to Zuma Beach. Stragglers are incinerated in their cars.
The view was incredible, though. Young has been living up here on and off for decades. At one point, he owned more than 1,000 acres of much-coveted Malibu real estate, where movie producers and actors and billionaire tech tycoons build mansions with supersize swimming pools, grotesque advertisements of corruption and hubris, which are some of the major sins that Young rails against.
I enjoyed listening to Young rant on about the modern condition. We were vibing. He is passionately opposed to global warming, genetically modified seeds, corporate greed-heads who are despoiling Mother Nature and an assortment of other sinners who interfere with our God-given right to happiness. His ire this afternoon, directed through me and my notebook and my Sony digital recorder, was focused on the engineers of Silicon Valley, against whom he has been zealously waging war for decades. Silicon Valley’s emphasis on compression and speed, he believes, comes at the expense of the notes as they were actually played and is doing something bad to music, which is supposed to make us feel good. It is doing something bad to our brains.
The same goes for everything else that Silicon Valley produces, of course: the culture of digital everything, which is basically a load of toxic, mind-destroying crap. It’s anti-human.
“I’m not putting down Mark Zuckerberg,” he continued, his voice taking a turn. “He knows where he [expletive] up. Just the look on his face,” he said, wagging his finger toward a television screen inside Roberts’s living room, where the Facebook chief executive was giving sworn testimony before a panel of lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. “You know, he came to me in a dream the other night, and I felt really sorry for him,” he said. “He was just sitting there sweating and kind of didn’t know how to talk, because he [expletive] up so badly.” There he was, Zuckerberg, on the large-screen TV, sweating bullets.
Young was no longer the righteous wandering hippie avatar of his early album covers. He’s an old man now at 73. He’s fleshy and jowly and red-faced, with long, stringy hair. He looked like a prosperous prairie farmer (hogs or cows, some form of livestock) minus the overalls. You can imagine Farmer Neil attending church every Sunday and preaching manic sermons from the pews. What’s still the same are his eyes, smoldering like two hot coals stuck beneath his overhanging brow that featured so prominently on the cover of “After the Gold Rush,” his third album, released in September 1970, back when young people, stoned on primitive weed, might plausibly spend an entire weekend listening to his visions of a lone wanderer adrift in a lost Eden.
Yet I could tell that this wasn’t what he wanted to be talking about. Young doesn’t want to be a downer. He is passionate about music. The point of music, and of Young, is to make people feel less lonely. I had taken him to a dark place that he didn’t want to go.
“I really wish this interview hadn’t happened,” he later said, seeming more downhearted than angry.
“I feel horrible,” I answered, and I did. I was hoping to soothe the old rock star, who spoke to me through the headphones of my Sony Walkman at the moments I felt most isolated and alone. The last thing I wanted to do was make him feel bad. It felt awful. What I wanted was to hear him play music and to write more songs. “I mean, the worst thing I could have done is to make you feel defeated,” I told him, “and now that’s what I’ve done.”
Neil Young has always been a little too hot to handle, so passionate and smart and always a little bit off his rocker, which might be part of the glory and also the downside of being Neil Young. Yet what weirds me out most about his emotional weather patterns, which are superfamiliar to me from my teenage Walkman years, is the new sense that each of his individual miniflights and tantrums was being processed by a tiny hyperaware control freak who lives inside Young’s personal control tower. The little man charts every little fragment of new meaning or awareness and what its trajectory might potentially signify on a giant whiteboard. Young hears you listening, and he is hip to that angle, and he incorporates that in his next riff. Polite conversation under such conditions can be a baffling and frustrating type of experience. After an hour, we agreed to turn the tape recorder off, and Roberts orders pizza. But the little man in the control tower was still up there, watching.
My diagnosis, after a lifetime of listening and an afternoon on Roberts’s porch and a couple of longer off-the-record interviews about his life and work, is this: Neil Young is trapped in a cycle of second- and third- and fourth-guessing, which is an affliction that is not unique to his brain. To escape from this cycle, he is continually forcing himself back into the moment and then trying to capture that feeling and energy, which is a specific kind of artistic choice. That larger cycle, combined with his magnificent control over his art, is what makes him such a uniquely vital and generative artist, at an age when peers like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger have become skeletal holograms of their former selves. When he looks back, which is something he did often during our conversations, it is toward the specificity of what some younger version of Neil Young did in a particular moment when he really nailed it. The latest live album he released was recorded at a gig in 1973, in Tuscaloosa, at the University of Alabama; it is part of an archival series, and they are all miracles. As Young once put it, “I’d rather play in a garage, in a truck or a rehearsal hall, a club or a basement.” What he is after is not some ideal sound but the sound of what happened. The missed notes and off-kilter sounds are part of his art, which is the promise of the real, but also, even mainly, of imperfection.
The idea that big technology companies are engineering all that back-and-forth out of his music just kills him. It’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t want to write music anymore, he admitted. I tried once again to console him.
“The songs always came to you in bunches,” I said. It’s an encouraging thought. But Young was only willing to meet my optimism halfway.
“I’ve got great melodies, and the words are all profanities,” he answered. “I was just telling Elliot the other day, I’m not interested in making any more records,” he insisted, plunging us down once more into the void. “They sound like [expletive].”
Young’s belief in the saving power of music couldn’t be any more personal. In 1951, at age 5 in Ontario, he got sick with a fever, which turned out to be polio. His father, the hockey writer Scott Young, chronicled the Toronto Maple Leafs and wrote young-adult novels about stouthearted boys on ice that were a staple of Canadian boyhood. Neil was not meant for hockey. His mother, Rassy, was a sharp-witted panelist on the popular weekly Winnipeg television show “Twenty Questions”; she was always intensely protective of her son. When I asked him about what it felt like to be a sick child and to grow up lonely, he said: “I loved playing music, and I wasn’t that alone. You know that’s what I wanted to do, that’s what I wanted to do with my life, and that’s all I paid attention to.”
Maybe Young could have become a big rock star without that childhood illness, without being so complicated. His peers talent-wise, at 19, included genius musicians like Stephen Stills, Duane Allman, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, the last of whom was the greatest American popular musical talent maybe ever. What set Young apart from that company was his sustained refusal to bend to anyone else’s idea of what audiences wanted to hear. His signature move was to accomplish something amazing and then blow it up, in the pursuit of something that would sound even more real.
“Neil Young,” his first solo album, recorded in 1968, at 22, after his departure from the supergroup Buffalo Springfield, showed off ageless melodies combined with clever, wised-up lyrics (“I used to be a folk singer/keeping managers alive”). The album failed to sell. The sound was too pretty and too clever at the same time. His second studio album — and first with his longtime band Crazy Horse — “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” is my personal favorite Neil Young record, and was also Elliot Roberts’s favorite (he died two months ago). It introduced what became Neil’s defining edge, i.e., the sound of his ruminations, distortions and mistakes. The album made it to No. 34 on the American charts, and included the hit “Cinnamon Girl.” He wrote much of the album while running a fever of 103.
Young joined with Stills, David Crosby and Graham Nash (my personal ordering of talents) in the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, with Young positioned as the defiant outsider against the gorgeous harmonies of the latter three. CSNY turned Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock” (she watched the festival on TV) into a generational anthem, and then imploded. (Side note: The year after Neil Young got sick as a child, Mitchell — then a young girl living in Fort Macleod, Alberta — contracted polio during the same outbreak of that disease. She also found herself in writing songs. Maybe something about that childhood illness, which left both children weakened for several years, altered the way that Young and Mitchell processed the evidence of their senses. The dreamy harmonics both favored, and the way that the music and the words shade into each other, suggests both the wooziness and the emerging clarity that a child coming out of a fever might experience.)
Young’s fourth solo album, “Harvest,” distilled his songwriting gifts, which had been given broad exposure through the supernovalike appearance and implosion of CSNY, into a collection of Southern California-inflected hits like “Heart of Gold,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Old Man” and “Words (Between the Lines of Age)”; it became the best-selling American album of 1972, despite critics labeling the raw vulnerability of the songs as off-putting, self-pitying or as one critic put it “embarrassing.” The AM radio success of “Harvest” cleared a path toward the stratospheric levels of commercial songwriting success and luxury-hotel-suite destruction enjoyed by the Eagles, a supergroup of superbrilliant songwriters who, unlike Young, preferred highway driving.
In response to the success of “Harvest,” Young switched up his style again, obliterating his hit radio melodies with epileptic seizures of dissonance and feedback. (Young himself suffered from epilepsy, to the point that he would have seizures and sometimes black out.) “Heart of Gold,” as he explained it in his liner notes, “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there.”
For the time being, there would be no more pretty melodies and note-perfect guitar playing. Instead, Young’s music centered on a distinctive alternation of melodic beauty, earsplitting feedback and passages where he seemed to be playing his guitar with his fist. On a third or fourth listen, these passages often revealed themselves to be part of larger, deliberate, gorgeous patterns that bent the listener’s ear in the directions that he wanted it to go. You had to listen to the whole albums all the way through to really hear the songs. Young’s own guitar playing sounded too deliberate to express the fullness of his own sound, so he often featured the rhythm guitar playing of Frank Sampedro, who played loud rock ’n’ roll in his garage, which was the sound that Young was after in perfecting imperfection.
Within his own specific lineage of deeply melodic rock-guitar playing, incorporating infinite branching possibilities and a taste for soulful, aggressive dissonance, Young is great to listen to. But a better pure player than Young would be a guy like, say, John Frusciante, the former guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who is wildly talented. Give both men 30 seconds to solo, and Frusciante would blow Young off the stage, just as Duane Allman would blow Frusciante off the stage. Young is something else, though. He’s a genius, a word that can be usefully defined as the ability to create and realize an original style that, in turn, can for decades generate its own genres of music containing the DNA of deeply original songs by other extremely talented, original songwriters and musicians, all of whom owe something to him. His music helped shape the melodic-depressive post-Beatles catalog of Pacific Northwest angst, which was brought to its songwriting peak by Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and Elliott Smith, the Irving Berlin and Cole Porter of suicidal ideation and addiction. Cobain committed suicide on April 5, 1994. Smith, who was an even more intimate songwriter, in the same catchy, brilliant, self-pitying vein, stabbed himself through the heart and bled to death on Oct. 21, 2003, in an apartment in Los Angeles. While the circumstances of both deaths are disputed by conspiracy theorists, Neil Young is indisputably still here.
But he is stumped. Let’s take a moment to look at the future of recorded sound, the topic that has got him so overheated. The invention of the phonograph in 1877 by Thomas Alva Edison, a k a the Wizard of Menlo Park, and one of the great visionaries in American history, marked the culmination of several decades of attempts to capture the magic of sound in physical, reproducible form. Early sound recorders used a large cone to capture the air pressure produced by sonic waves created by a human voice or an instrument. The cone directed sound waves against a diaphragm attached to a stylus, which thereby inscribed an analog of those waves onto a roll of paper or a wax-coated cylinder. The use of electrical microphones and amplifiers by the 1920s made it possible to record a far greater range of sound with far greater fidelity.
Magnetic tape, which was pioneered in Germany during the 1930s, propelled another giant leap forward in fidelity, while also beginning the process of freeing sound from the physical mediums on which it was recorded. Tape could be snipped and edited and combined in ways that allowed artists, producers and engineers to create symphonies in their own minds and then assemble them out of multiple takes performed in different places and at different times. The introduction of high-end consumer digital-sound-recording systems by companies including Sony and 3M further loosened music’s connection to a physical medium, thereby rendering sound infinitely plastic and, in theory, infinitely reproducible. Then came the internet, which delivered on the mind-boggling promise of infinitely reproducible sound at a cost approaching zero.
At ground level, which is to say not the level where technologists live but the level where artists write and record songs for people who care about the human experience of listening to music, the internet was as if a meteor had wiped out the existing planet of sound. The compressed, hollow sound of free streaming music was a big step down from the CD. “Huge step down from vinyl,” Young said. Each step eliminated levels of sonic detail and shading by squeezing down the amount of information contained in the package in which music was delivered. Or, as Young told me, you are left with “5 percent of the original music for your listening enjoyment.”
Producers and engineers often responded to the smaller size and lower quality of these packages by using cheap engineering tricks, like making the softest parts of the song as loud as the loudest parts. This flattened out the sound of recordings and fooled listeners’ brains into ignoring the stuff that wasn’t there anymore, i.e., the resonant combinations of specific human beings producing different notes and sounds in specific spaces at sometimes ultraweird angles that the era of magnetic tape and vinyl had so successfully captured.
If you want to envision how Young feels about the possibility of having to listen to not only his music but also American jazz, rock ’n’ roll and popular song via our dominant streaming formats, imagine walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Musée d’Orsay one morning and finding that all of the great canvases in those museums were gone and the only way to experience the work of Gustave Courbet or Vincent van Gogh was to click on pixelated thumbnails.
But Young hears something creepier and more insidious in the new music too. We are poisoning ourselves with degraded sound, he believes, the same way that Monsanto is poisoning our food with genetically engineered seeds. The development of our brains is led by our senses; take away too many of the necessary cues, and we are trapped inside a room with no doors or windows. Substituting smoothed-out algorithms for the contingent complexity of biological existence is bad for us, Young thinks. He doesn’t care much about being called a crank. “It’s an insult to the human mind and the human soul,” he once told Greg Kot of The Chicago Tribune. Or as Young put it to me, “I’m not content to be content.”
I was surprised to find myself talking with Young at all. He only really agrees to speak with the press, or to the press, to publicize something new and weird, like his 3,000 square feet of miniature Lionel train track that he housed in his barn or the experimental film he recently made with his wife, Daryl Hannah. For years, Young also put on a benefit concert for the Bridge School, which educates children who have cognitive and sensory disorders. Young’s sons, Zeke and Ben, both have cerebral palsy.
That’s another thing about Young that rescues him from nihilism and self-pity: He does stuff, even if what he does sometimes seems loony. He made a documentary and a YouTube channel about converting his 1959 Lincoln Continental to operate on alternative fuels, and he has been known to distribute unlicensed non-G.M.O. seeds at his shows, from which his fans can grow their own, uncontaminated grains. A few years ago, he appeared on David Letterman’s show to introduce his PonoPlayer, which was his first attempt to right the wrongs that streaming music is doing to our brains. “It means righteous in Hawaiian,” he told Letterman, who seemed both impressed by the device and thoroughly perplexed by the need for it. “Is this a digital way of recording analogous sound?” Letterman asked. “I’m struggling here to find something I can understand.”
His next remedy, which is why he invited me out to Roberts’s home, is a website that he calls the Neil Young Archives: a digital repository of his recorded work that he introduced last summer at considerable personal expense. (“Let’s say, ‘Well over a million dollars,’ ” Roberts suggested to me later, with a sigh.) The interface for the Archive looks like a set of old file cabinets that might have been heisted from an old-time bail bondsman’s office. By clicking open the various cabinets, you can stream every song that Young ever released and a growing portion of his unreleased songs in information-rich file formats and play them back through a DAC, which is a digital-to-analog converter device that approximates the sound of good vinyl.
“What I do with my life now is I try and preserve what I did so that decades from now it will still be there,” Young said. “I wish I could do this for Frank Sinatra. I wish I could do it for Nelson Riddle. I wish I could do it for all of the great jazz players. I wish I could do it for all the great songwriters and musicians and everybody who recorded during the time and before the time that I did. But I can’t.”
There are audiophiles who mutter politely but approvingly about Neil’s crusades. And there are the non-gear-heads who remain passionate about American popular music and the miracles it contains. Ooooh-la-la-la, la-la-la-la. That’s the harmony on “Down by the River,” and it’s glorious, right? Your whole brain relaxes in a warm bath of sound. Now try to feel that pure glory and relaxation, that sense of wide-open spaces, the unique confluence of cultures and sounds that together make up America’s purest and least-expected gift to humanity and all the history and pain and loneliness and satisfaction behind it, in a lo-fi digital stream.
At the center of Young’s efforts are his own engineers, who are at least as important to him as Old Black, his favored Gibson Les Paul. “He wants the honesty of what went down, not some pasted-together overdubbed representation that’s not the truth,” John Hanlon, one of his favorite engineers, told me from the modest beach house where he takes breaks from recording and remastering miles of Young’s tapes. When we met, he had just completed mastering a 1973 live performance at the Roxy of “Tonight’s the Night,” which is one of Young’s finest and most harrowing records. The rawness of the anger and the sorrow and the joy that are all mixed up together on that record transcends any particular cut. “The truth is that the human condition is imperfect,” Hanlon says of that record. “He captures that imperfection. He wants to capture it in its birth, at the moment that it happens.”
Hanlon has spent years working his way up the Young recording hierarchy, at the topmost rung of which lived an engineer and producer named David Briggs, whose driving, funny, off-kilter personality is best captured in a photograph that shows him in a cowboy hat holding a long black rifle; the gleam in his eye suggests that he wouldn’t mind shooting someone. “That’s the guy that I wanted to find out about,” Hanlon recalls. When Briggs died, Tim Mulligan, who had been mixing Young’s live shows since the 1970s, inherited some part of Briggs’s mantle. Then came Hanlon, who was brought up to the ranch in 1990 to engineer “Ragged Glory.”
“He’s a control freak,” Hanlon says, in a tone of complete approval. “If he wants your opinion, he’ll ask for it. If he doesn’t, it’s foolhardy to wade in. He’s 10 steps ahead of you in his thought process.”
Young’s favorite place to listen to his own songs isn’t the studio, Hanlon says. It’s behind the wheel of his car. Consciously, you’re driving the car, which leaves your mind more open, which is a trick that Briggs taught Young. “We get on the two-lane blacktop,” Hanlon explains. “There’s something that happens when you drive, without trucks. You hear what comes to the top without focusing too hard.”
The physical condition of 40- and 50-year-old master tapes from the golden age of rock ’n’ roll depends on how they were recorded and stored and on what kind of tape, which is why remastering old recordings is such a pressing necessity and why digital-recording technology, as opposed to low-quality streaming services, can be a gift to musicians, properly deployed. While some types of tape, like Scotch 250 tape, are usually fine, even after decades in storage, other forms of analog tape haven’t fared as well. “Ampex 456 half-inch, quarter-inch tape,” Hanlon says, when I ask about the worst offender. Run it through a pinch roller to play it, and the backing comes off as an oily gunk. You need to bake it in an oven at low heat to reconstitute the backing and make the tape usable. With Young’s old Buffalo Springfield stuff, you could see right through the Mylar, Hanlon says, which means that the music on those tapes, or some of it, is simply gone.
Tim Mulligan has worked together with Neil since “Harvest,” in 1971. His first session was a remote in the old hay barn where Young recorded “Words,” along with “Alabama” and “Are You Ready for the Country.” The guy who knew how to bake Ampex tape, he tells me, was George Horn, a mastering engineer who worked at CBS San Francisco and later at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. “George had a crude setup using a hair dryer and cardboard box,” Mulligan recalls. “We then upgraded to a convection oven with a candy thermometer and timer.” The tapes were carefully rewound, then cleaned, lubricated and repaired until they were playable again and could be rerecorded. After a few precious days, the old tapes turned back into gunk.
The master tapes for “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” were in particularly bad condition, Mulligan recalls. So it’s important to get the work done right and get it done now.
Even engineers in Silicon Valley can hear a difference in the stuff they are selling and what Young’s team is so desperately trying to preserve. As Tim Cook, the head of Apple, recently told a reporter, without any evident trace of humor, “We worry that the humanity is being drained out of music.”
Steve Jobs, Cook’s predecessor, was also a big music fan. “He listened to vinyl in his living room because he could hear real music,” Young told me. “ And he loved music.” When I ask if he ever spoke directly to Jobs about turning Apple’s iTunes into a platform for music that didn’t sound bad, Young nodded.
“Oh, yeah,” he answered. “He said, ‘Send us your masters and I’ll have my guys do what they can with them to make them sound great.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s impossible, your iPod won’t play anything back.’ ”
Jobs disagreed. “He said, ‘Well, our guys can make it so that your music can play back through it.’ And you know he was right,” Young said. “It does play back, and you can recognize it.” He pauses. “But it’s not my music.”
When Jobs’s biographer asked him about Young’s offer, as related in the biography “Becoming Steve Jobs,” Jobs snapped, “[Expletive] Neil Young.”
All of my life, I had never rid myself of the preposterous idea that someday Young would vouchsafe to me some life-altering truth, until one day it happened. My younger son, Elijah, I told Young, has a great ear for music, but his ability to process sensory information is off, which means that he has been drowning since birth in an ocean of sound. This has led to problems with language and balance and nausea. From the time he was born, his hands were also clenched into tiny fists, and they remained that way for over a year. He seemed to be in some kind of pain.
Otherwise, he is a bright, intensely curious child, who is fascinated by the workings of cause and effect and understands language at a normal 5-year-old level but repeats words with great difficulty. To compensate for his deficits, Elijah was blessed with a rock-star smile that can light up a room — a smile so bright and warm that he learned to use it to distract people from his obvious physical discomfort, in a world that was always wobbling and flipping over, and from his inability first to talk and then to pick up small objects or insert a screw into a bolt. Instead, he smiled at people. When they asked him his name, his inability to produce intelligible sounds made him turn away quickly in frustration, which was usually interpreted as shyness. He would try to build a tower out of blocks, then knock down all the blocks. Then he would turn back to them, laugh and flash that smile.
A child in pain is a tragedy and a burden that can be all-consuming, but that’s not how I experience Elijah. He is my friend. He is a source of joy and love and warmth, who has also been the cause of several hundred sleepless nights, which can in turn be the source of soaring anxiety. Thanks to Elijah, I have become aware that speech is a conscious act that requires the coordination of 32 muscles in the mouth, 16 of which affect the shape and positioning of the tongue.
It could be cerebral palsy, a light case, perhaps, Young replied, in an oblique reference to his sons. It is something like that, but it’s not that, so I wasn’t sure exactly how to answer. It’s not genetic. It’s not fatal. Something was inflaming his young brain, disrupting the formation of healthy neural connections; the cause might be historical, or ongoing. Either way, there were kinks in the channels through which sights and sounds flowed. Either those channels had to be ironed out or new ones had to be opened up.
I asked Young what it does to a marriage to have a child like that. Neil has been married three times. His ex-wife, Pegi, Ben’s mom, was a singer-songwriter and environmentalist but died on Jan. 1, 2019, of cancer. She had worked with Young, to whom she was married for 36 years, before divorcing in 2014, to establish the Bridge School.
“It’s good for the marriage,” he said firmly. “If it’s a good marriage, it brings the marriage even closer together. It’s one of life’s great experiences. It’s an enriching thing because it teaches you the value of love.”
Young’s immersion in a program of intensive therapy for his son Ben led him to become obsessed with new ways of hearing and modulating sound. His album “Trans” was a monument to his attempts to communicate with Ben and to find a musical language that could convey what Ben was hearing — and perhaps even serve some therapeutic purpose. As Neil put it to his biographer Jimmy McDonough, the album was “the beginning of my search for a way for a nonoral person, a severely physically handicapped nonoral person, to find some sort of interface for communication. The computers and the heartbeat all have to come together here — where chemistry and electronics meet.”
In that moment, talking about our sons, I realized how all of Young’s obsessions fit together: They are centered in a common understanding of experience and how it shapes us. Human development is led by our senses. Our senses exert a formative and shaping pressure on our brains. So if our experience of the world around us can damage our brains and our souls, it makes a kind of intuitive sense that music can also help us feel better. Every musician, and every music fan, believes that.
It was this belief that led me to the work of a French doctor named Alfred Tomatis, who, in the late 1940s and ’50s, began manipulating sound in the hope of healing people. Among his patients were opera singers and fighter pilots, whose brains had stopped processing sound correctly as a result of work-induced auditory trauma. Because our fight-or-flight response is connected to our auditory system, any disturbances can cause a host of physical symptoms. Tomatis came up with a treatment that involved decreasing or emphasizing specific frequencies of what he believed to be particularly salient forms of music — including Gregorian chants and the music of Mozart, which is perhaps the most perfectly structured and at the same time most effortlessly fluid sound that human beings have ever made (at once the most human and the most perfect music on the planet). These interventions helped retune the muscles that control the auditory pathways through which sound makes its way to the brain.
In the 1950s, Tomatis successfully used his techniques to help opera singers whose prolonged and eventually traumatic exposure to their own vocal extremes left them unable to hear high and midrange sounds. After graduating from medical school, he worked for the French Air Force, where he noticed that prolonged exposure to certain ranges of sound produced by factory machinery and jet engines produced a range of negative physiological and psychological effects, in addition to hearing loss.
But Tomatis’s methods languished in relative obscurity for the second half of the 20th century in part because they didn’t align with the then-dominant machine model of our brains, which suggested the organ contained a set of parts that performed specific functions. Once broken, those functions could not be restored.
The machine model of the brain “has been a disaster clinically,” says the psychiatrist Norman Doidge, who over the past decade has popularized much of the pioneering work in the science of neuroplasticity in two best-selling books. “We now know that mental and sensory experience and activity actually change the brain’s ‘wiring’ or connections,” Doidge told me. As Eric Kandel, one of Doidge’s teachers at Columbia, defined it, “Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change its behavior as a result of experience.” In 2000, Kandel was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology.
At dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant in Toronto, I told Doidge about Elijah. What particularly interested me, I said, was that his symptoms mirrored those of a child to whom Doidge had devoted a case history in his second book. Could he help us?
Maybe, he said. With proper reshaping of his auditory cortex, Elijah’s balance might get better and his nausea might stop, which would in turn make it possible for him to develop more normally. Doidge suggested that we take Elijah to the Listening Center in Toronto for an assessment. The center is run by Paul Madaule, who was first Tomatis’s patient in France, then his assistant.
Coincidentally, I added, Young experiments with masking and distorting sound contained some similar ideas. He had two sons with cerebral palsy. “He was probably on to something,” Doidge said.
Spending a day and a night in downtown Fresno, Calif., is like walking into the dreamscape of a midperiod Neil Young album, with once-glorious movie palaces taken over by churches that minister to addicts and drunks. The signs along the way advertise Aladdin Bail Bonds, the Mezcal Lounge and the Lucky You Tattoo parlor. One of the messages of Neil Young’s music has always been that flat spaces are lonely, and the people who inhabit them feel small.
In the next year, Young would announce that he was releasing a book about sound, “To Feel the Music,” written with Phil Baker, who helped developed the PonoPlayer. He also found enough new inspiration to record an album with Crazy Horse, his first in seven years, called “Colorado.” While I was in town, I was able to catch a show.
Fresno’s sizable vagrant population was distinguishable from the concertgoers clustered outside the Warnors Theater mainly by the amount of dust on their shoes. The concert had been announced only a week earlier, which meant that pretty much everyone there was a local — the kind of audience that Young likes best. The inside of the Warnors Theater has been perfectly restored, with a high gilded ceiling and gorgeous acoustics.
“I’m still living the dream we had/For me, it’s not over,” Young sang onstage, facing his band, Crazy Horse, with Nils Lofgren on guitar. There was something clumsy and vulnerable in the way that the men faced each other onstage, bowing back and forth as they soloed in a show of old-school male competitive affection.
“Thanks for coming out,” he told the crowd when he was done. “We appreciate it. Glad you could get those tickets. I like seeing you people here.” A cigar-store Indian hovered over his shoulder. I counted only four people in the audience who were holding up phones. He played “Tired Eyes,” then “Powderfinger,” flailing away at his big old guitar laid across his bouncy gut. “You are like a hurricane/There’s calm in your eye/I wanna love you but I’m getting blown away.”
“God bless you, Neil,” an old hippie lady in a blowzy floral dress shouted. Maybe he only looked cranky. He finished another song and gazed up at the ceiling in wonderment, admiring the great cathedral of sound in which he was standing.
I don’t know if the evils that Neil Young is warning us about will come to pass. I don’t know if G.M.O. seeds are truly killing us or if all the missing information that Silicon Valley is engineering out of music and the rest of our lives is doing something truly evil to our brains or whether these are simply the latest obsessions of a habitually cranky, inventive, restless man.
There are plenty of neurologists who remain skeptical of the idea that sound can help rewire people’s brains. What I can also tell you is this: I listen to rich audio files through a decent-quality DAC and I hear more, and it makes me feel better. Also: I don’t know when or how or if certain parts of my son’s brain will get unstuck. I don’t know whether he will learn to talk in a way that his friends or teachers or people besides me and my wife and his brother and sister can easily understand. I’m not even sure what degree of change is desirable. Some brains, like Neil Young’s and Joni Mitchell’s, are just wired differently.
That said, I will never forget watching Elijah during the first week of his therapy in Toronto, as modified Mozart was piped into his brain and he just suddenly looked down at his little fist and started opening and closing his hand for the first time — because suddenly, he could. After the second session, six weeks later, his reflexes and fine-motor skills had markedly improved, to the point where he could catch a ball or slap his mother across the face when she says “no” to his request for another marshmallow. He isn’t nauseated anymore. He can walk and even run, while continuing to be a joy to be around. Just the other day, in the bath, waiting for his mother to come home, he looked at me and said, “Oh, me home, Mama!”
I listened to the tapes that Elijah was hearing, on which Mozart’s perfect sound was continuously interrupted by filtering that sounded like static, before it then reasserted itself — an effect that is familiar to any Neil Young fan. The filtering effects had helped in whatever way to heal Elijah’s brain. So what is the effect of engineering so much complexity out of the music we listen to, and replacing it with fake, jacked-up sounds, doing to my brain and to yours?
It’s strange to imagine that Young might be a prophet of sorts — but maybe not. His lesson is that everything human is shot through with imperfection. Filtering that out doesn’t make us more perfect; it is making us sick. He’s a great artist, which means that he sees and hears more, which may make him a loon, but is also why he is still worth listening to.
“These places are so great,” Young said onstage in Fresno. “We’re so lucky they’re still here.” He sang, in fine voice: “He came dancing across the waters/With his galleons and guns.” At 73, he is still a man walking through a hurricane, which begins inside a perfect melody that dissolves into dissonance and feedback, inside of which there is something wonderfully, miraculously whole.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of a recording engineer. He is John Hanlon, not Jon.