originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press in late March 2005
by Roger Currie, a Winnipeg writer + broadcaster
I’ll bet you did not know that I am in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland? This is a fun little story which I have been dining out on for years. You see there’s this fellow who really IS in the Hall of Fame, and we were in the same room at Kelvin High School in grade 11 way back in 1963-64. You might have heard of him. His name is Neil Young. Part of Neil’s exhibit in Cleveland is his grade 11 yearbook .. and my picture is on the same page. Pretty lame, huh? Told you it was a little story.
2005 was a difficult year for Neil. He promised that if the Junos ever came to Winnipeg, he would be here and would perform on the show. So plans were made to give him a very prominent spot on the program when the big show took place at the brand new MTS Centre. But less than a week before, Neil had to cancel. He had surgery to repair a brain aneurysm. It was not something to fool around with, but Neil managed to finish an outstanding new album called Prairie Wind before going under the knife. Then in mid-June Neil lost his dad. 87 year old Scott Young was a well known Canadian writer, author of several books including Neil and Me which he wrote about his famous son in 1984.
Neil and I were not what you would call close at all. Truth is Neil didn’t have that many close friends at Kelvin, unless they were into music. Academic studies certainly took a back seat to playing his guitar and writing songs. Neil spent two years in grade ten and was starting his second attempt at grade eleven when he dropped out of school for good in the fall of 1964.
He was tall and skinny and without much physical strength. He had polio as a youngster. His somewhat frail health was largely unknown to our phys ed teacher, Mike Kachmar. Mike was also the football coach, and in gym class he could have been mistaken for a military drill sergeant as he whipped us through sit-ups, pushups and other such torture. I recall more than one occasion when Neil was in agony and Kachmar spared him no quarter. Many years later, Neil made a triumphant return to Winnipeg performing a sold out concert at the Arena. During a quiet moment about halfway through the evening, Neil recalled his ordeal in gym class and unloaded on Coach Kachmar in colourful language which I won’t repeat here since it might scorch the page. Kachmar gleefully recalled it as “my five minutes of fame”.
I remember Neil as a fairly shy loner, an introvert even. But like many a successful performer he came alive in the spotlight, on the stage. At Kelvin, he gave a number of memorable impromptu performances in the gym and the cafeteria, and I remember them as being very funny. One song in particular called A Letter to Freddie stands out. Freddie was Fred Hodgkinson, the vice principal of Kelvin, who gave Neil more than a few detentions for his various antics.
By 1963, when we both reported to Mrs. Mollard’s grade eleven class in room 34, Neil Young had already formed his most notable Winnipeg band called The Squires (see photo). Being a painfully shy guy who wasn’t much for those community club dances that Winnipeg was famous for in the 1960’s, I don’t believe I ever saw the band perform. They made one notable 45 rpm recording featuring two of the first songs Neil ever wrote, The Sultan and Aurora on the flip side. It was recorded by engineer Harry Taylor at CKRC in the late summer of 1963. It certainly got played to death in the Kelvin cafeteria, and on the local airwaves of CKRC. All of the fellows who worked at CKRC then have memories of Neil hanging around the station, but not one of them had any inkling that he might become a superstar in the music world. Boyd Kozak had just started at CKRC in 1963. “I was working 8 to midnight, and Neil would come in and sit at the back of the studio when he got tired of his band mates. He was very much a loner and could not be described as a sparkling personality. He sure smoked a lot of cigarettes”, Kozak recalled in an interview.
In more recent times Neil Young has turned to a much more wholesome lifestyle. He once turned down a very lucrative tour of central and South America when he learned that a major sponsor of the tour was a tobacco company. He has been a tireless proponent of Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid efforts, and a quiet supporter of many other causes.
Let me end this reminiscence with a few thoughts about that darkest Friday so long ago, November 22nd 1963. Neil and I sat about three seats apart writing a major chemistry test for Dr. Golubchuk that afternoon. Just after the test papers were handed out, the P A system interrupted with confirmation of the news that changed the world. U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been killed by an assassin’s bullets in Dallas Texas. At that moment, I looked up and gazed around the room. Some of the girls were crying. Neil and I looked at each other with expressions that spoke volumes without any words. Why on earth were we trying to do this stupid test? I’m sure we both failed that day, but what did it really matter?