Gone and Back

After a near-fatal aneurysm, Neil Young proves he's the ultimate rock'n'roll survivor 
 

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March 15, 2005, New York: Neil Young is shaving in the bathroom of his hotel room when he notices something weird going on in his left eye. It's doubly odd because the legendary singer and songwriter had felt perfectly fine the night before, attending a raucous ceremony and inducting the Pretenders into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But now little shapes – squiggles, spirals – float on the top half of his eye. He blinks, but the squiggles and spirals remain. Seconds later, Young realises the shapes he is seeing look more like pieces of broken glass.

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''I closed my eyes; then I opened one eye and pushed on it, but this thing stayed right where it was,'' Young recalls. ''So I thought, OK, this is not my eye. This is my brain.''

At first, the musician didn't feel too concerned. That was before he stepped out of the bathroom to tell his 21-year-old daughter Amber that maybe she should call a doctor. ''By then, everything was like mercury,'' Young says. ''I had to sit down because the room wasn't easy to deal with. The left-hand side was getting bigger, the right-hand side was getting smaller, and I was not able to see much.''

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A bad case of eye floaters and a dizzy sensation weren't even the half of it. Before the next few weeks were over, the singer would go through an emotional wringer, enduring major surgery and horrible, life-threatening complications. Known for his high, otherworldly voice and songs embraced by generations of rock fans (''Heart of Gold,'' ''Old Man''), Young took his pain and fear and used it to do what he knows best: make music. He conjured a Grammy-nominated new album and a music documentary that, Young says, ''will take you on a journey about yourself.''

On that March day last year, the first call went out to Rock Positano, a New York podiatrist. Young had seen Positano just the day before, complaining his foot felt numb. At the time, Positano had noted that his patient's ankles weren't the same size, a symptom that can indicate a blood pressure problem. Young knew he had high blood pressure but, like many people with the condition, he had never bothered to treat it.

Now, as the podiatrist heard about Young's blurred vision, he told him to come to his room right away. By the time he arrived, Young's eyes were better. No squiggles, no broken glass, no wobbly room. Still, Positano insisted that his patient get further tests.

Dr Dexter Sun, a neurologist, ordered an MRI and a brain study. When the results came back, Sun called Young and his wife Pegi into his office, then closed the door. "Everything in the pictures looks good," Sun explained, with a classic doctor's understatement, "except for one thing. You have an aneurysm in your brain.""

His was no mere bulge: Young had an 8mm-long irregularly shaped bubble protruding from his carotid artery. Dr Sun concluded the aneurysm had been there for some time, but it needed to be repaired – soon.

''I wasn't really thinking, Hey, I'm going to die,'' Young comments, ''but eventually if that goes unchecked, it explodes and that's it. Curtains.''

It was at this point that Neil Young, the patient, ran headlong into Neil Young, the artist. For decades, Young has planned his songwriting and recording around the phases of the moon and, aneurysm or not, the time was perfect for creating a new album. He'd written one song, ''The Painter,'' and had nine to go. He planned to fly to Nashville in a few days in order to finish the project.

As surgery on the aneurysm wasn't scheduled for a couple of weeks, Dr Sun approved the musician's trip, as long as he immediately started taking blood pressure medication to prevent the bulge from rupturing.

In Nashville, Young worked like a man possessed. ''I think of this album as his life flashing before his eyes,'' says Pegi, who occasionally doubles as a backing singer. He began pouring out songs about the forces that shaped him – family, friends, faith and his upbringing in the small Canadian town of Omemee, north of Toronto.

Sweet memories blow through the verses, but Young tempers them with the inevitability of death and dying. The title song, ''Prairie Wind,'' with its lyrics – ''Tryin' to remember what my daddy said/Before too much time took away his head'' – is a reference to his father, Scott, who died last year. A sports journalist and author who suffered dementia for years, his father now visits him, Young says, in dreams.

With three songs recorded, Young returned to New York for an examination by his surgeon, Dr Y Pierre Gobin, who told him that he would repair Young's aneurysm by running a catheter through a femoral artery, located in the upper thigh, up via his thorax and into his head. The bulge would be sealed with tiny coils.

With a week to go before the operation, Young returned to Nashville, where he wrote and recorded another five songs. But every day, the surgery loomed larger – and so did his fear.

''I was terrified,'' Young says, ''knowing I might not be the same, that they could screw up – because Pegi and I have lived with people with brain injuries our whole lives.''

And so he has. Zeke Young, now in his mid-30s, the singer's son with the late actress Carrie Snodgress, was born with cerebral palsy. Six years later, Ben, Young's son with Pegi, was also born with cerebral palsy, so acute that he was rendered mute and quadriplegic. CP isn't considered a genetic condition, and the Youngs think of themselves as ''chosen'' by their sons.

Which means that for years, the Youngs have thrown themselves into helping their boys. Pegi was one of the founders of The Bridge School in Hillsborough, California, near the pair's three-and-a-half-square kilometre ranch. The school's goal is to allow children with severe speech and physical challenges to interact and communicate in any way they can. High-tech, low-tech, whatever it takes, The Bridge tries to help its students break through.

''I've had people tell me they didn't realise they could communicate with somebody who maybe looks different, and feels unapproachable,'' says Pegi. ''We get by that, and it's just so cool.''

The night before his operation, Neil and Pegi gathered Amber, Zeke and Ben, reassuring them that the surgery wasn't a big deal, that it would be a complete success. Then, privately, the couple went through intensely emotional decisions about what to do if everything didn't go as planned.

In the end, everything went well in the operating theatre, and Young quickly returned to his New York hotel to recuperate.

Two days later, walking to a local restaurant on his first trip out after the surgery, Young managed half a block before hearing his foot make a strange sucking sound with each step. He looked down to see his leg awash in blood. The point of entry for his aneurysm repair – his femoral artery – had suddenly reopened, a very rare event that may not be preventable but is treatable. Elliot Roberts, Young's manager, called frantically for an ambulance on his mobile phone. Back at his hotel and feeling like he was about to faint, Young lay on the floor to get his head low. His body shaking, he put his fingers on the opening to stop the bleeding.

''Now I know how people feel when they get shot,'' the singer says. ''My body was freezing.'' When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics put him on a stretcher. One of the paramedics asked Young to cross his arms on his chest. ''I don't like that position,'' he said, joking.

''We're not going to lose you,'' the emergency service worker responded, even as Young's blood pressure plummeted and the paramedics worked to stabilise him.

At the hospital, a member of Young's surgery team waited in the emergency room. He, too, promised the singer that they wouldn't lose him. Still, the doctor held the puncture site closed with his own hands for 30 minutes, and it eventually resealed itself without the need for additional procedures. Through it all, Young never lost consciousness.

When Young was finally moved to a room, he requested that someone from the hospital stay by his side. ''I was kind of worried about what was going to happen next,'' he says.

The hospital sent a volunteer, an elderly woman who assured him, ''You came very close to leaving, but you're fine now. It's just going to get better.''

The two talked about religion, Young telling her his faith was based in nature, in the moon, the forest, trees and animals. The woman listened attentively, but reminded him not to forget to thank ''the master.''

''She shepherded me through, like an escort,'' Young says.

The last song he wrote for his album was ''When God Made Me,'' which harks back in tone to a 17th-century hymn. ''All these words came flooding to me,'' he says. ''I was thinking, Wow, I've never written anything like that before.'' Only later did Young learn that his Nashville recording studio had been a church in a prior incarnation.

Young wishes he'd never had his aneurysm, but concedes that great things have come as a result. Time magazine's review called Prairie Wind an ''exceedingly personal album [that] contains some of the finest music of his legendary career.'' It was nominated for two Grammy Awards: for best rock album and best solo rock vocal performance.

And Young's friend, Oscar-winning film director Jonathan Demme, who first worked with him on Philadelphia, filmed two Young shows at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in August 2005 for a powerful documentary called Neil Young: Heart of Gold.

''He's really a magician,'' Demme says. ''He's someone who responds creatively and emotionally to everything he comes in contact with.''

Young knows that his lasting image is that of a rock'n'roller, but hopes the album and the film will show another side of him. ''It's not about rebellion, but about life, and not just my own,'' he says. ''Everybody has had their trials, and they teach you something, make you a better person. Mine just happens to have been extreme.''

 

 
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