I have listened to Neil Young forever and often thought about what it would be like to meet him. Would he be a groovy guy? Would he invite me into his backyard, grab his guitar and sing “Cinnamon Girl?” Or would he be aloof and give me the brush-off?
None of the celebrities I’ve met have been friendly. I hoped Neil Young was different. He wasn’t your typical icon; he was more of a rebel. He didn’t wear designer clothes, and he was from Canada. Canadians were more down to earth.
My best friend thinks I’m stuck in the 60s.
“Jonathan, why don’t you cut your hair and join the modern world? That hippie crap just isn’t cool anymore.”
My best friend was right. I am out of date and probably uncool. That’s because I still love the music, and no one playing today gives me the same rush as Neil Young. So, I keep searching for the spirit of the 60s in today’s world, not found in country music or the lame playlists in coffeehouses. Unfortunately, none of the valuable messages we heard in the 60s is getting through to people anymore. Instead, we’re all a bunch of musical automatons, numb to the spirit of music, listening to the tunes on Spotify and never hearing the quality sounds from a turntable.
I often wonder what runs through the minds of the 60s rockers who grow old and see how the world has deteriorated. Some of them have probably become jaded and lost their passion for writing songs. I don’t think it has happened to Neil Young. If I met him, I bet he wouldn’t be obnoxious, like when I said hello to a famous athlete and he gave me the finger. Neil might be a little moody and not welcome me, but he’s still playing music that matters. Songs that have a political, social, and environmental message.
One sunny weekend, I got on my Yamaha 500 and headed to Santa Cruz from my home in Long Beach. I heard a while back that Neil Young had a ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I had a recurring dream about running into Neil Young and Daryl Hannah strolling a random street. In the dream, I brought the album Harvest for Neil Young to autograph. We started talking, and I discovered we had much in common, especially our love of miniature trains and taking long walks in nature. We hit it off so well that Daryl asked, “Why don’t you come to the ranch for dinner?”
Of course, that would be awesome if it happened. I would not be an imposition or overstay my welcome. I knew Neil and Daryl were busy with many projects, and I wouldn’t want them to think I was a nutty groupie obsessed with rock stars.
However, I’m old enough to know that these dreams rarely come true, no matter how often you have them or how much you manifest them to the Universe. But the idea of a chance encounter with Neil Young inspired my trip up north.
Once in Santa Cruz, I parked my bike on Locust Street. I kept my eyes peeled for anyone with scraggly brown hair, wearing an old pair of moccasins, a frilly suede jacket, a harmonica in his shirt pocket, and a guitar pick between his teeth. Santa Cruz had many bizarre-looking people, like old shirtless hippies with dreadlocks, bikers with tattoos on their faces, artsy types with hair the color of rainbows, and punk rockers lapping up a Tom and Jerry’s ice cream cone. And then there was one guy playing the accordion who looked like the Jolly Green Giant. Thank God he wasn’t playing polka music.
I sat at an outdoor cafe watching strangers walk by as I ate a tofu scramble, waiting for one pedestrian to hop on one leg down the street with a guitar in tow, playing “Cowgirl in the Sand.”
Chances are it would never happen, but I didn’t let it get me down. So instead, I listened for the sounds of Neil’s tremulous voice and his high-pitched twangy guitar, looking up to the sky, hoping to find a harvest moon, some colored balloons, or blue windows behind the stars.
And just as I imagined my dream had come true, there he was, as plain as day. Neil Young was walking toward me in the flesh. He was six-foot, wore a flannel shirt, and had a folk guitar strapped to his shoulder. Although he wasn’t with Daryl Hannah—it had to be him.
“Excuse me!” I said as soon as he was in earshot. “Are you Neil Young?”
“I wish I were,” he said. “Everyone mistakes me for him. I guess I’m his doppelgänger.”
“Have you ever met him?”
“I spotted him once, coming out of a music store. That’s when he lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains.”
“Yeah, I think he’s in L.A. with his wife.”
“Of course, she’s an actress. She would work close to the studios.”
“But I saw David Crosby a couple of years ago,” he said proudly as if it were a good compromise.
I loved David Crosby, but he wasn’t Neil Young. I sounded excited, anyway. And for a few minutes, we talked about some of our favorite Neil Young tracks. Then he said, “I gotta go. I’m in an acoustic folk band, and we need to get ready for a gig. If you’re staying for a while, we’re playing at the Jawbone tonight.”
“I’ll catch you next time I’m here,” I said, shaking his hand.
“Hope you find Neil Young,” and continued on his walk.
I leaned back and finished my tea. It was a gorgeous California day in downtown Santa Cruz. I accepted what life offered, despite Neil Young being a no-show.
A street performer on a brick sidewalk caught my eye. He wore a bowler hat and strummed a large handsaw with a bow. Making music from a simple garage tool intrigued me, so I sat for a while and enjoyed the one-person concert.
After I finished the tea, I went up to the man.
“Can you play ‘Down by the River’ by Neil Young?”
“One of my favorites,” he said.
I stuffed a few bucks into his Vlasic pickle jar, and he tipped his hat.
He wrinkled his instrument to get it in tune and played like he knew the song better than Neil and Crazy Horse.
I watched the musician in awe. It sounded like a trembling metallic whistle that hit all the right notes.
The musician had the saw handle tucked between his knees as he strummed the metal part softly with a bow. He said he aimed for the sweet spot. And he said he frequently played with a wooden saw or one that featured flattened teeth.
And when that song was over, he asked, “How would you like me to play ‘Mr. Soul?’”
“That would be a treat.”
And between songs, he said, “Once David Crosby by and joined me in ‘Wooden Ships.’”
“Yeah, another guy told me he saw him, too. So, where’s he living now?”
“He’s passed recently. But he used to live in Santa Barbara, atop a mountain overlooking the ocean.”
And as the street performer played another tune, I smiled at the beauty of his music. The precision with which he played was mesmerizing. Then, I dropped another two dollars into the pickle jar and asked the man to autograph my Neil Young album.
“Thank you for the concert,” I said.
Just then, a man dressed in a silver Martian costume passed me, replete with antennas and wearing an old pair of moccasins.
My intuition told me to call out to the man.
“Hey, Neil!” I cried.
The man turned and winked, and I watched him walk down the street with a giddy-up in his step, then hopping on one leg.
That’s how I knew it was him.