Neil Young's Canada

From a town in North Ontario to the Red River Valley, a look at the places, people and sounds that influenced the icon.

By Colton Eddy & Jesse Kinos-Goodin, for q digital
Illustrations by Christine Lieu
Web development by Geoff Isaac

"I'm proud to be a Canadian — but I don't let it hold me back," Neil Young said in his 2002 biography, Shakey, a stance that has, over his 50-plus year career, put him in a unique relationship with his home country.

He spent his formative years here, inspired by small towns and big highways, constantly moving with his family from city to city and across provinces, then travelling to gigs in Manitoba and Ontario in his early days as a musician. But he was also inspired by what he refers to as the Canadian tendency to consider all sides of the story, sometimes to the point of paralysis. "There's something in Canada that teaches you that you always gotta look at both sides. See how other people could figure out why what you're saying is wrong before you're so sure you're right," he writes. "Songs like 'Rockin' in the Free World' or 'Change Your Mind' — you think there might be something Canadian in the ambiguity of those songs? Yeah. That's all it is."

Young may have left Canada, physically, in the '60s, but his spiritual connections run as deep as Manitoba's Red River. On his 2005 song "Far From Home," he affirms this love and longing for the country of his birth. "Bury me out on the prairie/ where the buffalo used to roam," he sings. "Where the Canada geese once filled the sky/ and then I won't be far from home."

On Sept. 23, Young will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame for his indelible contributions to music. Below, we look at the key places, moments and lyrics that show the influence Canada had on Young. From his childhood home in a town in North Ontario to his first recording in Winnipeg to his final moments before setting out for Los Angeles and skyrocketing to fame, this is Neil Young's Canada.

Map of Ontario Thunder Bay Blind River Ottawa Kingston Omemee Toronto

Toronto General Hospital Nov. 12, 1945, 6:45 a.m.

Neil Percival Young is born to parents Scott and Rassy Young. As he sings on "Born in Ontario," "I was born in Ontario/ Where the black fly bites/ And the green grass grows/ That's where I learned most of what I know."

33 King St. W., Omemee 1949-1953

Neil Young's childhood home

"There is a town in North Ontario," Young sings on "Helpless." His hymn to Omemee, Ont., was originally released during his stint with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in 1970. It's one of his most iconic songs, which is fitting considering this is where Young spent parts of his early childhood. While Young's family was constantly on the move due to his father's job in journalism, this small town in the Kawartha Lakes region managed to leave an indelible mark on the icon. "I think Neil would probably agree if there's anywhere either of us would point to as home, it would be Omemee," his brother Bob says in Shakey: Neil Young's Biography. Young even urged the writer of the book, Jimmy McDonough, to go to Omemee. As he put it, "they remember me like I don't."

When the two-acre property that Young called home for seven years, until he was eight, was recently listed for sale, the realtor was sure to include a picture of Young sitting on the steps with his children.

"Neil passed through during the '90s with his own actual family, just to show his kids where he lived and where he grew up," the realtor told the Toronto Star. "They knocked on the door and asked 'Hey, can I come in?' ... So they've got pictures of Neil in the house and sitting on the steps and stuff like that." The house is located near a river and train tracks, undoubtedly instilling Young's lifelong fascination with both.

Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute,
125 Chatsworth Dr., Toronto 1959-1960

On the song "Don't be Denied," from Time Fades Away, Young recounts sitting on the steps of Lawrence Park Collegiate with his friend, Comrie Smith. In Sharry Wilson's Neil Young: The Sugar Mountain Years, she uncovered that Young and Smith trace their musical discoveries to this very school. "I remember when we were kids, I'd meet Neil every day on the corner to walk to school together and he'd have his white bucks on and his transistor radio just blaring out," Smith told Uncut magazine. "He loved the Fendermen with 'Good Morning Captain.' … Neil and I both loved Roy Orbison. We would listen to 'Only the Lonely' and 'Candy Man' in my living room. We had both started playing earlier with Neil on his baritone ukulele and me with my acoustic guitar. We had thought we would form a group together when we were in junior high but then, of course, he left."

Victoria Hotel, Fort William (present-day Thunder Bay) Nov. 12, 1964

In a hotel room on his 19th birthday, Young penned "Sugar Mountain," the song that Joni Mitchell once described as "a lament for his lost youth." When he later spoke about his early band, the Squires, and its time in Fort William in Neil Young: Don't be Denied: the Canadian Years, Young said, "We did 'Farmer John' really good back then in Fort William. We used to break loose in it. That was one of the first times I ever started transcending on guitar. Things just got onto another plane, it was gone. … That's when I started to realize I had the capacity to lose my mind playing music."

That's when I started to realize I had the capacity to lose my mind playing music.

Blind River June 1965

Young was driving to Sudbury in the summer of 1965 when his beloved 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse, "Mort" (a.k.a. "Mortimer Hearseburg"), broke down just outside Blind River. The hearse was immortalised in the song "Long May You Run," which was also the title of the album he recorded with Stephen Stills, released in 1976. Ironically, they broke up only nine days into the Long May You Run tour, with Young informing Stills of his departure via telegram: "Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil."

1948 Buick Roadmaster rolling to a stop and breaking down

David Rea's Apartment, Yorkville Avenue, Toronto 1960s

During his Yorkville coffeeshop days, Young got high for the first time, as he reveals in the recently uncovered song "Hitchhiker." "You didn't see me in Toronto, when I first tried out some hash/ smoked some then and I'll do it again/ if I only had some cash."

In the biography, Shakey, he recalls it was at his friend and folk artist David Rea's apartment, "with some members of the Allen Ward Trio — Craig Allen, Robin Ward.... It was fun. A revelation."

You didn't see me in Toronto when I first tried out some hash. Somked some then and I'll do it again. If I only had some cash

The Fourth Dimension Club, Simpson Street,
Thunder Bay 1964-1965

In April 1965, Stills played into the night at Thunder Bay's 4D club (a coffeehouse with franchises in Northern Ontario and Manitoba that Young would play regularly). The opening act? Neil Young and the Squires. "Stills' voice was phenomenal," remembered Young. "We got on quite well right away. We didn't talk about forming a band then, but we knew that we wanted to get together."

The Mynah Birds, Yorkville, Toronto 1966

Wearing black leather jackets and yellow turtlenecks, Young experimented with R&B alongside a young Rick James (later of "Super Freak" fame), who had fled to Toronto from the U.S. Naval Reserves service. The Mynah Birds were financed by John Craig Eaton (of the prominent Eaton family) before signing to Motown Records. After some complications with management, Young and Bruce Palmer bought a hearse and drove to Los Angeles, soon after forming Buffalo Springfield. Young's recordings with the Mynah Birds wasn't released until 2006.

The Riverboat, 134 Yorkville Ave., Toronto 1969

In 1969, Young (who had moved to Los Angeles by this point) played a series of sets at the Riverboat, which was one of the most famous coffeehouses in Yorkville's bustling folk scene. Apart from Young, who regularly played the Riverboat when he lived in Toronto, you could see the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Kris Kristofferson, Murray McLauchlan and Joni Mitchell, with the cover charge being around $1.75. In 2009, Young released the recording of his 1969 performances, called, simply, Live at the Riverboat 1969.

Massey Hall, 178 Victoria St., Toronto Jan. 19, 1971

Massey Hall

Neil Young and Massey Hall are synonymous. They're historically intertwined and the venue serves as a homecoming of sorts. In 1971, Young performed two sets at Massey Hall, debuting now iconic acoustic material for the first time. It was a one-man show, and Young played songs that would appear on Harvest, Time Fades Away and On the Beach. It took 36 years for the concert to be released for public consumption, captured on the album Live at Massey Hall 1971, released in 2007. Young will be honoured at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on that same stage.

Manta Sound Studios, 311 Adelaide St. E., Toronto February 1985

Young participated in the recording of "Tears Are Not Enough" with a group of Canadian musicians under the name Northern Lights. It was the Canadian response to other supergroup singles, such as Band Aid's "Do They Know it's Christmas" and USA for Africa's "We Are the World," with the goal of raising funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. Recorded in the middle of the afternoon, Young stood beside Joni Mitchell in studio and never removed his sunglasses. Corey Hart, on the other hand, did.

Kingston Penitentiary, King Street West 1985

Like another iconic Canadian storyteller after him, Young referenced a Kingston penitentiary on his song "Time Off For Good Behaviour."

"My brother went to prison/ he's in Kingston doin' time / he got seven years for sellin'/ what I've been smokin' all my life," Young sings. Perhaps not a coincidence, Gord Downie's lyrics about Millhaven Institution, in nearby Bath, Ont., also reference a brother.

Lakehead University, Thunder Bay 1992

In 1992, Young was awarded an honorary doctor of letters from Lakehead University, a place near to where he played so many gigs. He spent his early years with the Squires in the mid-'60s regularly performing in local venues such as the 4D and the Flamingo Club. 

Neil Young and the Squires

"Back by popular demand," a poster reads for a 1964 gig at the Flamingo Club for Neil Young and the Squires. (Manitobamusicmuseum.com)

Rideau Hall, Ottawa 2009

Young's commitment to Canada was honoured with the Order Of Canada in 2009 — one of the country's highest civilian awards, established to mark a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to community and service to the nation.

Canada's Walk of Fame, King Street West, Toronto 2000

Found on the north side of King Street West, Young's star is situated between those of Jacques Villeneuve and Donald Sutherland.

Neil Young's Canada Walk of Fame star

Live 8, Park Place, Barrie July 2005

With a capacity crowd of 35,000 in attendance, Young closed the day after sets from Barenaked Ladies, DMC, the Tragically Hip, Mötley Crüe, Jann Arden, Jet, Our Lady Peace, Gordon Lightfoot, Blue Rodeo, Céline Dion, Bryan Adams and many more. The Canadian chapter of the Global Call for Action Against Poverty and United Kingdom's Make Poverty History campaigns concluded with a moment of peak Canadiana when Young shared vocal duties with Gord Downie on "Rockin' in the Free World."   

Manta Sound Studios, Toronto 2010

Produced by the Band's Garth Hudson, a compilation was issued of Canadian musicians covering songs from the Band. On the cover of "This Wheel's on Fire," Young is backed by one of our country's best-kept secrets, the Sadies. The Sadies were on the road when they got the call to record with Young and Hudson, so they cancelled their show in Wisconsin, drove home to discover that a sore throat had forced Young to cancel, then turned around to continue the tour in Green Bay. Several months later, the phone rang and Young was back in Toronto. They met at Manta Sound Studios near Bloor and Ossington with Peter Moore and Hudson at the console, laying it down after a few takes. Shortly after, Young and Crazy Horse brought the Sadies on the road with Patti Smith.

Map of Manitoba Winnipeg

Earl Grey School, 340 Cockburn St. N., Winnipeg 1960-61

Following the dissolution of Young's parents' marriage, the 14-year-old moved to Winnipeg with his mother. He befriended John Daniel and formed his first band, the Jades, which only had one performance at the Earl Grey Community Club. Young once said, "I knew when I was 14 that music was all I wanted to do."

Why I Chew Gum, Neil Young

At Earl Grey School, Young was on the yearbook committee and contributed a paragraph titled Why I Chew Gum, which begins: "Some people like to chew gum. I am one of them." 

The Gray Apartments, 250 Hugo St., Winnipeg 1960-62

The Gray Apartments were the first place Young and his mother lived after leaving Toronto. "Winnipeg is where it all started for me," he recalled in the book Neil Young: Don't be Denied, the Canadian Years. "I have so many fond memories of that time." That said, Young's song "Don't be Denied" tells the story of his trouble integrating into his new community.

Winnipeg is where it all started for me

Kelvin High School, 155 Kingsway, Winnipeg 1961-64

Young would have only spent a couple of years at Kelvin High, but they were instrumental. According to Neil Young: Don't be Denied, the Canadian Years, the Squires played in the school cafeteria, until Young dropped out of school in 1964. "The first time I sang in public was in the Kelvin High School cafeteria," he wrote in Special Deluxe: a Memoir of Life & Cars. He sang the Beatles' version of "Money" and "It Won't be Long." "I was terrified. I'll never forget that feeling." Young repeated Grade 10 before quitting one month into his second attempt at Grade 11. He returned for the school's 75th anniversary.

1123 Grosvenor Ave., Winnipeg 1962

In 1963, Young and his mother moved to Grosvenor Avenue, a nicer neighbourhood than their previous one, and not far from the childhood home of Randy Bachman and Nellie McClung. Several years ago, on a tour stop in Winnipeg, Bob Dylan stood out front to admire the history behind the doors and windows where Young wrote his first song, "No." Dylan and his manager were invited in for a tour, and asked many questions about Young's bedroom. This was his last home before leaving Winnipeg.

CKRC, 155 Carlton St., Winnipeg Fall 1963

Winnipeg DJ Harry Taylor of CKRC offered the Squires studio time in order to cut a single. In the fall of 1963, "The Sultan" b/w "Aurora" was released by V Records. They were both instrumentals, written by Young, with the A-side track relying heavily on the gong. "It was my first recording session and I was just glad to be there for the experience, but I was still searching for the right sound," Young says of it. Fewer than 300 copies were pressed; copies now sell for upwards of $4,000. A year later, they recorded Young's first vocal performance, "I Wonder." Young asked Taylor what he thought. "You're a good guitar player, kid," Taylor said, "but you'll never make it as a singer."

The 4D Club, 2000 Pembina Highway, Winnipeg October 1965

This legendary Winnipeg club was a regular venue for Young, and it's where the Squires made their debut in August 1964. But perhaps more importantly, it was also where he met Joni Mitchell, in October 1965. As the story goes, Young played Mitchell "Sugar Mountain," a song he had written about the end of childhood just before his 19th birthday in Fort William, Ont. Mitchell was so moved by the song that she wrote "The Circle Game" in response.

Falcon Lake Summer 1987

Found just outside of Winnipeg, geographically, and in the deep dives of Buffalo Springsteen's catalogue, musically, "Falcon Lake (Ash on the Floor)" is an instrumental piece by both definitions of the phrase. In his collaboration with filmmaker Jonathan Demme, Heart of Gold, Young talks about the Buffalo Springfield song and obsesses over the hours he spent at the jukebox in Falcon Lake with his first girlfriend, Pam Smith. It's said Young learned Ian and Sylvia's "Four Strong Winds" — a song he would later cover — from that same jukebox. 

Four Strong Winds that blow lonely. Seven seas that run high. All those things that don't change, come what may.

Blue Note Café, 220 Main St., Winnipeg June 27, 1987

Young helped put this Winnipeg venue on the map when he got onstage after midnight in the summer of 1987 and proceeded to perform with his former school bandmates, the Squires. According to a fan, "Neil Young stepped up to the microphone and announced, 'Hi, we're the Squires and this is our first gig in 25 years.'" A live album featuring performances from Young's '87-88 U.S. tour is also called Bluenote Café, and when he released his 1988 album, This Note's For You, it was credited to Neil Young & the Bluenotes.

Red River 2005

"The Red River still flows through my hometown," Young sings on "It's a Dream," from 2005's Prairie Wind. The Red River forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota and cuts through the Red River Valley before emptying into Lake Winnipeg. The Red River has also been referenced as a central organizing point for residential schools, which Young further criticized in his song "Powderfinger."

Alberta Map Fort McMurray

Fort McMurray September 2013

Young argued against the Keystone pipeline from the Canadian perspective, discussing the effects in Fort McMurray: "Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima," he said. "Fort McMurray is a wasteland. The Indians up there and the native peoples are dying." He and Willie Nelson led the charge in what they called a fight against climate change, even headlining an anti-pipeline concert in Nebraska. Young also released a new song inspired by his fight called "Indian Givers."

Map of British Columbia Vancouver

Ambleside Park, Vancouver September 2009

In 2009, Young performed a benefit concert alongside Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan for McLachlan's School of Music, which provides music education to underprivileged youth. Young opened his set by performing the song "Goin' Back."

I think I'm going back to the things I learned so well in my youth. I think I'm returning to those days when I was young enough to know the truth.

BC Place, Vancouver March 2010

Some 60,000 people gathered inside Vancouver's BC Place while millions tuned in to the closing ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. One man. One harmonica. One guitar. Young performed a weighty rendition of his anthem "Long May You Run" before the Olympic torch was extinguished. Earlier, he and his brother Bob had attended the gold-medal game in men's ice hockey — Canada versus the United States.


Neil Young will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET. For more information, go to cbcmusic.ca/halloffame. Be sure to tune into q Monday, Sept. 25 for more Hall of Fame coverage.

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A musician's musician: Neil Young's catalogue of influence