Neil Young and Dad: Writin’ in the Free World

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By: Greg Mitchell

It’s hard to explain or defend, but I have been a Neil Young fan for (gulp) almost 40 years, from Buffalo Springfield to the new Jonathan Demme film tribute, and I did not know until today that his father was a famed Toronto sportswriter who also covered World War II and, believe it or not, the JFK assassination.

In fact, I thought he was maybe some kind of farmer, since Neil grew up in the Canadian sticks that he sings about in his latest album “Prairie Wind.” All I knew for sure about his father (my fandom only goes so far) was this: He gave Neil his first guitar, actually a ukulele, when he was a boy. To a guitar thrasher, that seemed like quite enough.

This new information about Scott Young surfaced, for me, only this morning, after E&P Managing Editor Shawn Moynihan, who happens to moonlight as lead singer of a fine “power-pop” band called The Atomics (you can find them on MySpace), forwarded a recent interview with Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour from the Toronto Sun. Gilmour at one point asked if it was true that Neil Young’s father used to write for that paper, which the interviewer confirmed.

A little googling turns up that Scott Young, who passed away last June at the age of 87, was a well-known sports journalist for both the Telegram (forerunner of The Sun) and Toronto’s Globe and Mail, as well as the author of many books (including several hockey classics and the inevitable “Neil and Me'”). As a young man, he first worked for a Winnipeg newspaper as well as writing for Collier’s, Argosy, and Sports Illustrated.

Before specializing in sports, he covered World War II from London for The Canadian Press wire service, as well as the Kennedy assassination. He frequently appeared on the “Hockey Night in Canada” Saturday night telecasts, which I rarely missed growing up just across the border in Niagara Falls, N.Y. So I probably watched Neil’s father before I ever heard or heard of his son. (Given this hockey connection, it’s surprising Neil didn’t title one of his greatest songs, “Hello Cowgirl in the Stands.”)

And how about this: Scott Young gave up his newspaper career in the early 1980s, dismayed by what he saw as a bad trend in the journalistic profession — the use of “unnamed sources.” So, like his son, he was a bit ahead of his time.

When his father died last year, Neil said that he had learned from his father, “The most vivid way to get an idea across was to lay oneself bare in the knowledge that others would identify with the bareness, the sometimes painful truth.” One of his most haunting songs begins, “Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were,” although reputedly inspired by another older fellow.

Shawn Moynihan found the revelations about Scott Young’s career oddly relevant concidering an incident we covered last September. Here’s how E&P reported it at that time — which now begs to be seen in a different autobiographical light.

At a press conference after his annual Farm Aid concert, held at Tinley Park in Chicago on Sunday, famed rocker Neil Young called an article about his organization in the Chicago Tribune “the sickest piece of journalism I’ve ever seen” and “a piece of crap.”

Then according to an account published today, he tore up a copy of the newspaper and stomped on it.

According to the Chicago Tribune report, Farm Aid contributed only 28% of its revenues to farmers last year. The rest of that money, according to the report, went to defray concert expenses.

But at the news conference Sunday, Young, co-founder of Farm Aid, said their goal was to generate awareness, not to fundraise.

“We’re trying to do a good thing. And these people at the Chicago Tribune need to be held responsible. …

“We are not purely raising money to give to farmers,” Young said. “That’s only a small part of what we do. We are available 24/7, 365 days a year to the American farmer. That’s what we do. That costs a little bit of money.”

If those expenditures were included in the total, it would show that the charity spent 76% of its budget on its mission of helping farmers, Farm Aid officials said.

That’s well above standards set by the Better Business Bureau and other charity watchdog groups, Glenda Yoder, associate director at Farm Aid, said.

An article by the Tribune’s music writer, Greg Kot, quoted another Farm Aid stalwart, Willie Nelson, wryly revealing, “We’re not happy until our critics are unhappy.”

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