In Neil Young’s recent acceptance speech at the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame ceremony, he mentioned his dad buying him a ukulele as a kid. He’s also quoted in Shakey: A Neil Young Biography as saying he first started to play music on a plastic ukulele, going on to “a better ukulele to a banjo ukulele to a baritone ukulele – everything but a guitar.”
Join me now as we enter an alternate world, a world where Neil’s sportswriter father, Scott Young, is offered a job in Hawaii, taking his son with him. Young Neil adapts well to his new tropical surroundings and gets even deeper into the ukulele in it’s homeland. He’s soon in high demand performing at luau’s and hotels across the islands.
Hawaii Neil soaks in the folk, country, and rock stylings of his peers on the mainland and merges them with traditional Hawaiian music, soon writing his own songs. One of the earliest is “Haleakala Mountain” (“Oh to live on Haleakala Mountain, with my ukulele and a hula girl too…”)
A band called Buffalo Springfield passes through Hawaii on tour and Neil opens for them, striking up a friendship with Stephen Stills, the band’s guitarist. They write a song called “Kahuna Sunset” together, but it’s not released till decades later.
As the 60s become the 70s, Neil becomes known for the feedback and distortion he applies to his electric ukulele, and the series of albums he records with local band Crazy Crab. He never abandons his Hawaiian affinities, though, turning out songs such as “Coconut Girl” (which starts out “I wanna live with a coconut girl / I could be happy the rest of my life with a coconut girl…” and is famous for it’s one-note uke solo), “After the Lava Rush,” and “Like a Volcano” (chorus: “You are like a volcano / There’s lava in your eyes…”). He also acquires what some say is an unhealthy obsession with the island’s volcanoes. This may be a result of drug-induced paranoia in the early 70s, as he turns out a series of downbeat albums following his worldwide hit “Tiki of Gold.”
Two controversial tracks from around this time are “Cook the Killer”, wherein Neil vents his anger at 18th century explorer James Cook for being the first European to establish contact with Hawaii, which resulted in the destruction of the indigenous culture. The other is “A Man Needs a Lei,” but the less said about that one, the better.
In 1975, his old friend Stills comes to the islands with his band, Crosby, Stills and Nash, to make an album with Neil. It, alas, remains unfinished, though some songs find their way onto other Neil Young records.
Capping the end of his volcano preoccupation, he releases Lava Never Sleeps, followed by the mellow Comes An Island Time, which finds him covering classic Canadian songs like “Four Strong Winds” and traditional Hawaiian songs like “Aloha ‘Oe”.
The 1980s find Young as a restless experimenter, playing his uke through synthesizers and computers. This angers his record company and he loses some fans, but by the end of the decade he returns to more familiar hard rocking and country folk uke ways. His “Keep on Ukeing in the Free World” is a career revitalizer and he issues a steady stream of albums in the 90s and beyond, some considered artistic triumphs and some not. He records an album with grunge pioneers Pearl Jam, now considered a classic work and the progenitor of the “UkeGrunge” genre, which took over the world for a brief time. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder catches uke fever from Neil and records his own ukulele album.
In 2017, Young issues an archival work, Waverider, recorded solo with a weathered ukulele in the 70s on a lava field by the ocean. The sound of the waves crashing and the lava sizzling as it drips into the sea backdrop these tracks, some of which (“Chowderfinger”, “Ride My Dolphin”) he would record for later albums. There’s even a track called “Hawaii” which had also been attempted for that aborted mid-70s Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young project. “The Old Kahoolawe Waltz” closes the album, and we drift lazily back into reality…..