Scott Sandie, editor of Broken Arrow magazine, reviewed Young Neil: The Sugar Mountain Years in the June 2014 issue. His review has been reposted on Thrasher's Wheat.
In the same issue of Broken Arrow I was interviewed by Bernie B. Shakey. I've posted the whole text below (with Bernie's permission).
BBS: Hi Sharry. It's a pleasure to conduct an interview with you. It probably makes sense to start at the very beginning: Do you have an earliest Neil Young recollection you can share? Or a moment when you realized Neil was "The One" to follow?
Sharry: I knew Neil was the one to follow after I saw him in concert for the first time at Massey Hall on January 19, 1971. I attended the late show. (An earlier show was added after the first show quickly sold out.) I was already familiar with Neil's material from After the Gold Rush, but it was seeing him live for the first time that convinced me I would be a long-time fan. I purchased Neil Young and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere shortly after seeing him at Massey Hall. I wanted to know more about him.
BBS: Massey Hall, such a legendary Neil Young show. What was it like for you when Neil, 36 years later, decided to release this concert as part of his Archives Performance Series? Did you have to pinch yourself? Did the show sound like you remembered it?
SW: I have a soundboard recording of the late show in my collection somewhere. I was thrilled to receive it. But I was even more pleased when Live at Massey Hall 1971 was released. It's an edit of both the early and late shows, but the sound is excellent and it captures the mood well. It really takes me back.
I remember being disappointed that Neil didn't play "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," but I was overjoyed to hear "Don't Let It Bring You Down." I also remember being impressed with "Journey Through the Past." I liked Neil's singing and piano playing and thought the melody was catchy. The audience also loved his nod to Canada in the lyrics. So many great songs that night, many of them brand new.
BBS: Before we dip into the deep end on Neil, I have to ask about something completely different: The Beatles. I know you've seen them, not just once, but twice! Please take us back in time. Did you realize just what you were seeing at the time, how historic it was? And what do those concerts mean to you now, nearly 50 years after they occurred?
SW: The Beatles were my first musical love. I learned about them through my older sister. She purchased a few of their early 45s and then their first lp release in Canada – Beatlemania! With the Beatles, followed by Twist and Shout. We watched with the rest of the world when the Beatles made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on February 9, 1964. A Hard Day's Night was released during the summer of 1964. I remember seeing the original run of the film at our neighbourhood cinema. The girls in the audience would scream en masse whenever there was a close-up of any of the Beatles. My sister, of course, purchased the soundtrack recording.
Then the biggest excitement of all. The Beatles were going to perform at Maple Leaf Gardens on September 7, 1964. (I was nine years old at the time.) It was decided we could attend but only if our mother escorted us. She was concerned about the crowds and there were reports of young girls fainting when they saw the Beatles. Our three friends also attended with their mother. We had seats on the floor but they were way in the back on the extreme right. I remember it was so cool to see the Beatles perform songs that I knew from their albums, such as "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The constant screaming of audience members also made a big impression on me. My ears were ringing when it was over. I was lucky enough to also attend their second show at Maple Leaf Gardens on August 17, 1965. My friend’s father had given her a pair of tickets that he had received from a business client. I was thrilled when my friend asked me to go with her. They were excellent seats – around row 20 on the floor near the centre. It was around this time that I purchased my first Beatles single – "Eight Days A Week." The Beatles also made a third appearance at Maple Leaf Gardens on August 17, 1966. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a ticket for that show.
I knew the Beatles were huge at the time, but had no idea they would endure for so long. Their music still sounds fresh today.
BBS: Great recollections, Sharry! Two Beatles concerts by the age of 10! Unreal! I hope you kept your ticket stubs. So, this was 1965, six long years before your first Neil Young concert at Massey Hall in 1971. What is it that led you to Neil? Do you remember the first time you heard his voice, and what you thought?
SW: My older sister, the same one who introduced me to the Beatles, had a great collection of 45s. Two of those singles were "For What It's Worth" and "Sit Down I Think I Love You" by the Buffalo Springfield. I liked both of those songs a lot and remember reading about the band in various teen magazines. I saw them perform on TV and remember that Neil caught my eye. I liked his fringed buckskin jacket, his dark hair and muttonchops and general demeanor.
A few more years passed where I was peripherally aware of Neil. I heard a few songs that I really liked while attending a friend's party (circa 1969-70). I asked who was singing and was told it was Neil Young. I discovered the songs were "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand." That caught my attention, but it still wasn't enough.
An AM radio station in Toronto – 1050 CHUM (the same station Neil listened to when he was young) – was playing "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" in heavy rotation, starting in early November 1970, continuing into December and then into the new year. I remember being immediately attracted to the song and loved hearing it over and over. I was taken by Neil's unique voice, simple yet true lyrics and lovely melody. I would sing along with Neil, and taught my then four-year-old sister the lyrics so she could sing along too.
That was the song that did it for me. The first Neil album I purchased was After the Gold Rush. Then came Neil's concerts at Massey Hall in January 1971.
BBS: Your time with Neil stretches back 45 years, when you were a young teenager. Now, you're much older. So my question is this (hopefully you can follow it): Do you find yourself still loving The Artist (i.e., Neil) the same as you did when you first fell in love with his music? Do the songs still affect you in the same way? Your life has changed, but the songs you loved very early on have not, they remain just as they were when you first heard them at 16. Yet your life, 45 years later, is presumably much different. Does the music still have the same meaning to you?
SW: I was fifteen years old when I purchased After the Gold Rush. I loved Neil's music but I also had a bit of a teenage crush on him. I thought he looked totally cool with his patched jeans, plaid flannel shirts and long, straight, dark hair parted in the middle.
There have been periods in my life when I haven't followed his career as intently. This was especially the case when my kids were young (circa 1985-95). It was more difficult to get out to shows and my attention was focused on domestic issues. I tried to keep as up to date as possible by continuing my subscription to Broken Arrow magazine. It was my lifeline to Neil at the time.
The 80s were not my favourite Neil period but I don't think I'm alone in that regard. I jumped back on board with renewed interest in 1996 when Neil and Crazy Horse performed at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario on October 31st. Neil came came on stage and said "Boo!" before launching into "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" with Crazy Horse. That was an amazing concert.
I still love his music as passionately as I did when I was a teenager but it means more to me now because of the history involved. I continue to be astonished and delighted with his output.
BBS: So, now let's get to the heart of the matter - your book, Young Neil, an exploration of the early years of Neil Young. When did you first think - "Hmmm, maybe I should write a book about Neil." And what made you go from thinking it to actually doing it? An incredible accomplishment, Sharry.
SW: The idea for the book formed gradually over time. I had contributed a number of shorter pieces about Neil's early years to Broken Arrow magazine, the most recent being "A Shakey Education" in 2010. It was at that point that I made the decision to expand the article into a book length work. I thought I had the resources available to do an effective job, but it also meant a lot more work. I remember feeling overwhelmed at times, but I was given some excellent advice by seasoned writers. "Focus," "Keep digging," and "One chapter at a time." That seemed to do the trick.
BBS: So it's been four years since you've been engrossed in the writing of Young Neil, I can only imagine the time commitment necessary for such an endeavor. You're likely thinking of Neil 24x7. When you wake up in the morning how much time lapses before you start thinking of Neil Young?
SW: I've actually been working on Young Neil for five years if you include the time I spent researching and writing prior to the publication of "A Shakey Education." That was the largest piece I had written on Neil's early years up to that time. I used some of the material from "A Shakey Education" for my book.
It's been a very intense journey and learning experience. During the past year I've been more involved with the formal editing process (i.e., getting permissions and copyright clearances for photos, organizing the images and entering them on a spreadsheet, going through the different stages of the copy-editing process).
I've had to be super-focused on Neil and do think about him every day. I usually listen to Neil in the car on the way to work every day so that gets me off to a good start.
BBS: Surely this has been a very intense journey for you, as Neil must be a hero of sorts; you want/need to get the story right. Can you quantify in some way what the research process has been like, especially trying to get long-ago, cloudy facts accurate?
SW: I've been extremely fortunate in regard to my research for the book. I was born and raised in Toronto and still live in the Greater Toronto Area. I'm a decade younger than Neil, but I remember what it was like to be a child in the Province of Ontario in the late 1950s and '60s. It made it easier to navigate Neil's childhood world.
First-rate archival material was readily available and I took advantage of the situation. (I knew where to look.) I went on a number of research-related field trips in Toronto and also further afield to Omemee, Peterborough, Brock Road and Winnipeg. I obtained a lot of crucial information from conducting personal interviews. I spoke to Neil's former class mates, friends, band mates and acquaintances. I tried to be scrupulous with my research, checking and then double-checking facts, figures and other assorted information. I also made the decision to document my sources heavily.
BBS: How many people would you say you interviewed during your research? Can you tell us about some of the colorful characters you met along the way? Anyone stand out?
SW: I interviewed approximately 150 people in total. Not all of them were fruitful, but there were many individuals who went above and beyond the call of duty.
I think I interviewed Ken Koblun the most. (Bass player in the Classics and the Squires.) I lost count of the number of times I spoke with him over a period of two years. I found that phone interviews were the best way to interact with him. He was a font of knowledge about the Squires. He was also very generous in supplying images to use in my book. I feel that I forged a real connection with him and that he enjoyed talking with me. He's extremely detail-minded and talks very quickly. I had to write fast when interviewing him.
I was thrilled when I tracked down Neil's first bass player. I had always thought that Ken Koblun held this honour, but this proved not to be the case. Ken had a part in helping me track down this individual. I don't want to reveal his identity just yet, but there's an amusing story about how I figured out who it was. This person was instrumental in providing information about Neil's little known pre-Squires history. He also supplied me with a number of very cool photos for my book.
Don Marshall, drummer in the Esquires, also went above and beyond the call of duty in helping me transcribe an accurate history of Neil's time with that band. We exchanged hundreds of e-mails over a three-year period. I also interviewed two other members from this band and the discussions were very fruitful. I obtained some excellent images from them to use in my book.
I interviewed Ross F. "Clancy" Smith by phone on half a dozen occasions and we also exchanged e-mail. I guess he would definitely rank as a colourful character. He's quite eccentric and holds strong opinions on many subjects.
Jim Kale, bass player in the Guess Who, also provided a memorable interview and proved to be a colourful personality. I spoke with him for over an hour and he shared some great memories.
BBS: Ahh, now there's a name from the past, "Clancy Smith," the tortured student in Buffalo Springfield's great song, "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing." What was Neil like during his school years? Was he an outcast? A misfit? Did he get picked on by fellow classmates? What did you find out?
SW: He was an average student during his elementary school years. English was always his best subject, even during his high school years. He was never very good at sports, so that set him apart from other boys. He could skate a bit but didn't play hockey (Canada's national pastime). He was an avid fisherman from a young age and a more than competent golfer. His keen sense of humour was consistently noted by class mates.
He began to experience some conflict with other students as he got a bit older. His parents' separation, and then divorce, set him apart. (Divorce still wasn't common then.) His disinclination for sports also set him apart from the jocks in the class.
His grades began to slide exponentially as his interest in music increased. School wasn't important anymore. Music was all that mattered. He empathized with others who were outcasts and different in some way. He was a total music geek. Girls wanted to be around him but he was too involved with music. He flunked twice during his high school years and was on the verge of repeating his year when he decided to quit school and make music his career.
BBS: "Music was all that mattered." Hmmm, I guess some things never changed for Neil. You mention his parents, Rassy and Scott Young, two very interesting people whose marital conflict is well documented (as an aside, Scott's book Neil & Me is superb). As you did your research did you feel you got closer to Neil's parents? How pivotal were they to Neil's growth as an up-and-coming artist?
SW: I did gain some additional insight about his parents. I achieved a better understanding of Scott's point of view. He was trying to be supportive with Neil, but it was hard with such a great geographical distance between them. He was alarmed by Neil's poor marks at school and feared that he would never graduate. (He was right about that.) Neil and Scott were constantly butting heads over his poor performance at school. There was friction between Scott and Rassy, with Neil bearing the brunt of Rassy's complaints. He naturally gravitated to his mother because she supported his music career unequivocally, while it was more complicated with his father. Scott came to be more supportive of Neil's career over time whereas his mother was his number one fan from day one.
It's interesting to ponder what might have happened if Rassy and Scott hadn't divorced. Would Neil have finished high school? How would living in Toronto with both parents have differed from living with Rassy in Winnipeg? I still think he would have pursued a music career, but the Toronto music scene in the 1960s was a much different animal than its counterpart in Winnipeg. The environment wasn’t as welcoming and nurturing to young musicians just starting out.
BBS: There have been dozens of book written about Neil over the last 40+ years, but very few have focused on his Canadian years. One that did - Neil Young: Don't Be Denied - was written by John Einarson. How will your book differ from Einarson's?
SW: John Einarson’s Don't Be Denied is a groundbreaking work about Neil’s Winnipeg years, and it was a valuable resource, as were some of his other books. But Young Neil has a broader focus, looking at Neil’s youth biographically and in the context of the times. I address Neil’s earliest years in Ontario, and I think I’ve also unearthed some valuable new information about his pre-Squires time in Winnipeg.
BBS: Even though he's called America home for nearly 50 years, Neil is unabashedly Canadian; he loves his birth country. What does Neil mean to Canadians? How influential and important has he been to the culture?
SW: Neil is a Canadian icon, arguably more well known worldwide than Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell, two fellow Canadian icons. He's a source of pride to many Canadians. (Although, not all, as his foray into the oil sands debate and Native rights has not endeared him to everyone.) Neil's massive success once he moved to the U.S. proved to Canadians that we could be equal competitors on the world stage.
I personally feel that Neil has two hometowns – Toronto and Winnipeg. He's loyal to both in different ways and retains distinct memories from that time. Whenever he plays Toronto the audience always responds with enthusiasm when he makes a reference to Canada, Toronto and elsewhere in the country.
He's covered widely in the Canadian media and stories about him are quite common in the press. He's highly visible to the majority of Canadians, even those who would not consider themselves fans. He's been bestowed with many honours in Canada for his music and philanthropic efforts.
Although Neil takes pride in being a Canadian I think he truly considers himself a citizen of the world.
BBS: A "citizen of the world;" I like that Sharry. In a March 2014 Rolling Stone interview, Neil was asked: "What's the most Canadian thing about you?" Neil's reply: "That I care about Canada, and Canada's environment. I care about the stewardship of the land, and I care about the First Nations people. And I care about hockey."
What do you think, Sharry?
SW: I think Neil was speaking from the heart and the quote expresses his strong feelings for Canada and the environment. He's displayed his commitment on many levels and his sincerity shines through. His love for hockey is readily apparent and a great Canadian trait to have.
BBS: As many know, Neil Young had a chicken egg farm as a child, a vocation he seemingly passed down to his youngest child, Ben Young. Do you see any symbolism here? What's up with Neil and eggs?
SW: I don't think it's that unusual that Neil has passed down his love of chicken farming to his son. He's also shared his interest in trains with Ben and his enthusiasm for cars. Neil still has the same hobbies and interests he held as a child -- trains, cars and chickens. Chicken farming has become Ben's vocation and he's made a great success of his operation. Neil must be very proud of Ben's accomplishments.
BBS: Have you ever met Neil Young? Do you plan to send him a copy of Young Neil?
SW: I have never personally met Neil, although he did autograph an item for me once. I was in a crowd by the stage door at Massey Hall in 2007 after one of his shows. I raised my arm over the back of a taller person in front of me. I felt the weight of Neil's sharpie signing the CD sleeve, but I didn't speak with him at all and our eyes never met.
I've made some additional attempts to meet him since then but none have worked out for one reason or another. During my most recent unsuccessful attempt I resigned myself to the fact that I most likely will never meet him and that I should just be content with the situation.
An advance reader's copy of Young Neil: The Sugar Mountain Years is being mailed to one of Neil's close associates. I forwarded the full mailing address to my publisher. I was told by this close associate that he would share the advance copy with Neil and include it in their library. I was thrilled to hear this.
I believe Neil is aware of my book, at least to some degree. He expressed interest in using "A Shakey Education" as a Blu-ray Live Update, part of The Neil Young Archives (Vol. 1). Everything was ready to go but then Neil never gave his final approval. I think he put the kibosh on continuing the Blu-ray Live Updates project because no new material has been sent for a few years.
It's my understanding that Neil has also read an earlier version of part 1 of Young Neil. I sent this to the same close associate and I believe he was going to pass it on to Neil. This was about a week prior to Neil's appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival for the screening of Neil Young Journeys in September 2011. My husband and I were in the audience at the Princess of Wales Theatre for that screening. Neil and Jonathan Demme participated in a post-show interview and Q&A session. Neil spoke about his childhood a lot. I was in Neil childhood heaven.
BBS: That's all very interesting Sharry. I do hope you get to meet him once. For me, luckily, this happened in 2012. Fate and luck intersected and there I was, standing right next to Neil. I had to shake his hand, so I did, and somehow managed to murmur a quick "thank you." A moment I will truly never forget, something seemingly so small that means so much.
So, what will it personally feel like for you when you finally see your book available for purchase in a local Toronto bookstore later this Fall?
SW: Each step of the book publishing process has been fascinating for me. I'm sure I'll be thrilled to see my book on display at local booksellers. The ultimate reward for my efforts. It's immensely gratifying to think that my work will be read, and hopefully enjoyed, by others.
BBS: Can you describe what goes into writing a book like this? The time commitment? The discipline? Obtaining and selecting the photos? Coming up with a marketable title? Sounds like a lazy walk in the park - LOL.
SW: They say everyone has a book inside them. Mine is obviously to tell the story of Neil Young's childhood. The experience can best be described as an overwhelming urge that quickly turned into an obsession.
The original title was Neil Young: A Canadian Childhood. It was my publisher who suggested Young Neil. I liked it right away and we debated whether Young Neil or Young Neil Young was better. Then we discussed a subtitle. The Sugar Mountain Years was one of my suggestions. It was a true collaborative effort.
I've basically devoted the last five years of my life to completing this book. The time commitment involved is obscene. In addition to trying to work on it a bit each day, I devoted two entire Christmas holiday periods to the task. I discovered that I wrote most productively late at night and into the wee hours of the morning. The interviewing required seemed overwhelming at times. I had to be extremely organized and plan my next moves in advance. My research included day trips to various archives in Toronto and also out of town. Field trips were also part of the research process. I took a lot of photos to document my efforts. Some of them appear in the book.
Obtaining other photos for use in the book was a real education for me. I was really naive about this particular process and I was on a steep learning curve. I remember feeling overwhelmed when it came time to organize the photos for submission. I had to obtain signed permissions as well as copyright clearances. My publisher requested that I enter specific information about the photos on a spreadsheet with about half a dozen different columns. I had to label all of the photos in a similar manner and sort them into chapter folders. Then I had to enter them on the spreadsheet in the order they appear in the chapter. I spent about 8 months getting my photos in order. I submitted well over 200 images. Approximately 130 made the final cut.
In many ways I was well equipped to work on a book. I've been employed as a proofreader for 34 years – 25 years in publishing and 9 years in advertising. A formal editing process is used in both fields so I was used to the rigours involved. I was thrilled that only a light copyedit was required for my book.
BBS: Sharry, is there anyone you want to thank, give credit to, for helping you during this Young Neil journey?
SW: There are many people I’d like to thank, but above all others I'd like thank Scott Sandie for believing in my work early on and providing invaluable support, advice and encouragement. He provided a forum in which to publish my earlier work and I truly believe I would not have written the book without his initial input.
BBS: I would like to close by stating a name, and for you to say a few words about that person and how he/she related to Neil during his Canadian Years. Let's start with Comrie Smith.
SW: Comrie Smith was Neil's first musical friend. They spent a lot of time at the Smith family home, listening and talking about records. They would meet every weekday morning to walk to school together. Neil would always have his transistor with him and they'd talk about music. They'd also haunt a local record shop together. Comrie was the one who joined Neil when they used to “sit on the steps at school and dream of being stars.” When Neil returned to Toronto in mid-1965 he renewed his friendship with Comrie Smith. Most notably, they recorded some songs on a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the attic of the Smith family home during the fall of 1965. Some of these songs appear on The Neil Young Archives (Vol. 1).
Neil met Vicki Taylor during his time in Yorkville in the mid ’60s. She was a folksinger who had a local hit with one of her songs, the multi-versed "The Pill." She rented an apartment above the Night Owl on Avenue Road and was well known for being a den mother to young, starving musicians. Vicki felt that Neil could benefit from her care and she let him crash on the floor at her place on a few occasions. Neil met John Kay (then with the Sparrow and later, more notably, Steppenwolf) at Vicki Taylor's apartment and it was also where Neil first heard Bert Jansch's debut album. Pot and pills were also plentiful at her place and Neil experimented with both. Neil sometimes played Monday-night hootenanies at the Riverboat as part of the Public Futilities, a folk group also comprised of Vicki, Donna Warner and Elyse Weinberg.
Joni and Neil share much in common. They were both stricken with polio when they were young and both came from families that moved around a lot. Neil and Joni both spent their teenage years in the Canadian prairie provinces and both had played the ukulele when first discovering their aptitude for music in the late 1950s. Joni famously wrote the "Circle Game" in response to Neil's "Sugar Mountain" and he experienced a real feeling of recognition from that. Neil wrote "Sweet Joni" for her, although it remains unreleased. They reconnected for various projects over the years and they remain true friends.
Omemee holds a special place in Neil's heart. His first childhood memories are from this time when his family life was stable, loving and secure. It was wonderful community to grow up in. Everyone knew everyone else, time unravelled slowly and Neil could indulge in favourite activities such as fishing and train watching. "Helpless" is Neil's loving ode to Omemee, although he has noted that "the town in north Ontario" celebrated in the song is actually an amalgamation of several places he recalls fondly from his childhood. I personally feel that Brock Road was also a special place for Neil during his childhood.
Neil and Bruce Palmer clicked immediately. He's the one who recommended Neil for the empty slot in the Mynah Birds. He was also Neil's co-conspirator in illegally selling some of the Mynah Birds' equipment to finance their road trip to L.A. Bruce was the one who hatched the plan with Neil. They'd talk about it while sitting in The Cellar coffeehouse in Yorkville.
Neil had a true and loyal friend in Ken Koblun. Ken was in it for the long haul. He and Neil were the only members of the Squires to be in the band the entire length of time. Ken's ambition was to continue playing bass in the Squires and follow Neil wherever he wanted to go. Then things started to go awry in June 1965 in Fort William and they couldn't get anything together in Toronto. Ken played in the Buffalo Springfield for a short time in early 1967, replacing the absent Bruce Palmer. Ken enjoyed success for a number of years playing bass with Three's A Crowd, a Canadian band.
Neil loved Mort. The 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse was his first car and an important part of his identity. It was also the principal means of transportation for the Squires. It was perfect for carrying the band’s equipment. Neil truly mourned Mort's demise. He famously wrote "Long May You Run" in memory of Mort. His second hearse, a 1953 Pontiac, was anointed Mort II.
Neil's music has been a huge part of my life for over 40 years. I've followed him through all the different stages of his career. It's the music of my life. I developed a keen interest in his early years in Canada and I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to write about it in a book.
BBS: Sharry, I appreciate you taking the time to discuss Young Neil with me. I get the sense if we ever met we'd likely talk Neil for 48 hours straight before taking a breath. Best of luck to you as you launch your book.
SW: My pleasure. It was a positive experience. Thanks for the good wishes about my launch. It's exciting to think about. It's more than a bit surreal that I'll be going head-to-head with Neil in October when Special Deluxe is also being released.