Winnipeg vs. Toronto for Neil Young

The man himself bending a string or two.

I admit that I’m kind of an asshole when it comes to music. I don’t dance unless I like the song, which means that at the vast majority of wedding receptions I’m sitting at a table by myself nursing a beverage. There’s just no way in hell I’m getting on the dance floor for “Loca People.”

Truly, one of the only songs I’ll dance to is Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” It’s a slow song — a waltz, almost — so it matches my skill set perfectly. Plus, it’s freaking Neil Young.

Before the Jets returned, Neil Young was one of the few sources of pride we Manitobans had. Other than that, we basically had the Guess Who and polar bears — but the Guess Who never reached the international stature of Neil Young. He’s one of very few Canadians in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he’s listed prominently on Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest Artists of All Time. Hell, Kurt Cobain even quoted him in his suicide note. In other words, Neil Young’s a legend, and he’s our legend — meaning, Manitoba’s legend. I should know; I have a picture of myself standing in front of his former home on Grosvenor Avenue in Winnipeg. You see, not only am I an asshole, but I’m a geek as well.

However, a quick glance at the ever-reliable Wikipedia will show you that Neil Young was actually born in Toronto. And this is where it gets interesting.

When dealing with the origin of someone who is without a doubt Canada’s most significant contribution to popular music, there’s bound to be some infighting. It’s basically expected. Therefore, Wikipedia has the categories “Musicians from Toronto,” “Musicians from Winnipeg,” “Writers from Manitoba” and “Writers from Ontario” all attached to Young’s entry. Indeed, patriotic wikipedians on the Manitoba side, presumably, have even added “Origin: Winnipeg, Manitoba” below his Toronto-birthplace listing.

The fact is that Neil Young was born in Toronto, lived in the small Ontario town of Omemee as a child (where there’s a museum dedicated to him), then moved to Winnipeg with his mother when his parents got divorced. Incidentally, he now resides in Northern California, but has retained his Canadian citizenship. So, who can truly lay claim to Neil Young?

I first listened to Neil Young when I was teenager. I bought Harvest while everyone else my age was listening to Stone Temple Pilots, which basically confirmed my position as an out-of-touch loser in the eyes of my peers. Soon, I discovered other albums in his diverse catalog, ranging from folk and country to hard rock and electronica. Looking back through them, even at a peripheral glance, I wanted to know if his lyrics had anything to say on the issue. Surely, if anyone had the authority to say which city Neil Young belonged to, it would be Neil Young.

He refers to Winnipeg in “Don’t Be Denied” and also recorded 1992′s “Prairie Town,” a duet with Randy Bachman about their Winnipeg days. Then again, he refers vaguely to Omemee (or perhaps Thunder Bay) in “Helpless” and gives a solemn nod to the backstreets of Toronto in “Love and War.” However, in an apparent homage to Manitoba with the 2005 album Prairie Wind, he scored a big point for the Peg by singing, “the Red River still flows through my home town” on the track “It’s a Dream.”

Despite this, when Prairie Wind was released, the Toronto Star published a review suggesting that Young’s references to Manitoba were just symbolic, nostalgic and borderline mythic. The articles states: “His recent self-descriptions as a prairie boy are not to be taken literally … No matter where he is or where he’s going, Neil Young remains a Toronto boy. His life and his artistic expression were shaped here.”

Winnipeggers, of course, viewed the album differently. Indeed, Winnipeg is the place where both his father and older brother were born, and where his parents got married. The Youngs moved to Toronto after Neil’s father, Scott, got a sports writing job, but the family home was always Manitoba. It was in Winnipeg, after all, where Neil Young played in his first bands, recorded his first 78s and met Joni Mitchell. Plus, I’ve heard Young’s a Jets fan.

It seems like a lot of famous Manitobans are nomadic, but that’s what happens when you live in an economically depressed area. Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton, raised and educated in Winnipeg, then later taught in Toronto. Tommy Douglas was born in Scotland, raised and educated in Manitoba, but later moved to Saskatchewan. Guy Maddin is famous for making movies fantasizing about leaving Winnipeg. Margaret Laurence, Carole Shields and Gabrielle Roy all left the province, too. Louis Riel headed south and eventually west. Hell, we can’t even keep our hockey team from moving.

So, c’mon Toronto: let us have Neil Young! Our only hope is that Young’s new autobiography will settle this once and for all.

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Andrew J. Bergman lives and writes in a dystopian Mennonite town, but feels no Orwellian sense of urgency to escape. He is the author of, among other things, the novel Inches From America. He promises that the next one will be better.