Here, Neil Young's music shows the power of music to navigate human emotion.Mike Zebbel

In the cupboard under my stairs lives an expansive, plastic-encased series of photographs – of my parents before they had children, my older brother before I was born, and of many people I don’t recognise. Among the fading film and memories lived my favourite photograph of my Dad: a still of him sat (looking effortlessly cool) on the steps in our back garden when I was very young. He’s mid-song, a guitar perched on his knee.

There aren’t many photos left of him in our house: when my parents’ marriage broke down and my Dad moved out, he took a lot of the pictures of him in his heyday with him. They were destined to proudly line the walls of his new bachelor pad when he moved in six months later, but today marks a year since his death, and these ephemeral freeze frames remain untouched in a sealed box of his memories, a lasting testament to his identity.

I had convinced myself that the reason I neglected to indulge in my Dad’s memory through returning to these images was that I simply didn’t need to. After he died I got on with my life. I had done so with such impressive efficiency that I believed I had no need to grieve. It was only through revisiting the music he treasured, that I came to realise how deeply embedded the need for me to stay connected to his memory still is.

Johnny Cash and Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, and Eric Clapton. As I listen to these artists, a reel of long-forgotten memories awakens: of experiences and emotions and sensations. There is one artist, however, for whom the picture show is frozen, a singer who has instilled in my consciousness such a strong and unmoving recollection of who my Dad was and who he, with little say on the matter, will always be.

Neil Young’s songs were scattered throughout my childhood – like Where’s Wally, I have stitched into every depiction of my Dad’s life tracks from Young’s albums, obscured perhaps by the banality of memory, but inveterate nonetheless. When I listen to his music my senses are hijacked by bitter-sweet emotions of love, warmth, pain, and grief. Above all, I am instantaneously taken back to that photograph of my Dad with his guitar.

When we were little, my Dad had a ‘recording studio’ set up in our garage where he would play one of his dozen guitars or blast out his favourite bands at high volume. In the living room he would perform renditions of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’, or Cash’s ‘Hurt’; occasionally we were fortunate enough to play audience to an original song – memories I wish now I had placed more import on when they were fresh. For my seventeenth birthday he bought me a record player and gifted me the vinyl of his then-current favourite artist. One of my fondest memories was a game we used to play in the car which, quite mundanely, consisted of me having to name the artist and song for whatever was playing on the radio, a game which when playing felt like the closest I could ever get to my Dad. My relationship with my father was difficult and at times hostile, but whenever there was music playing we were able to connect.

Neil Young’s music is the apotheosis of this imperfect, disjointed, but fundamentally and chronically human dynamic I shared with my Dad. Songs like ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’ possess auditory tear gas, but it is Young’s album A Letter Home, which he released in 2014 and which we presented my Dad with on his fifty-second birthday the same year, that is really capable of completely overruling my autonomy and emotions. The album – Young’s 34th – consists of covers of songs by Springsteen, Dylan and co., and was recorded in a 1947 Voice-o-Graph vinyl recording booth in Jack White’s studio. It opens with a spoken word track in which Young addresses his mother, Edna, who died in 1990.

“Music may not be the drug of choice for all who grieve, but it embodies the innate desire we all share to be able to stay connected and remember those who we can no longer see, hear, or speak to”

These one-sided snippets of heartfelt conversation are woven into the record, serving as a symbolic reminder that this was (while not one of his most widely known or acclaimed albums) Neil Young’s most personal and honest. Young believes the record, consisting of “rediscovered songs from the past recorded on ancient electro-mechanical technology”, unleashes “the essence of something that could have been gone forever”. In this brief synopsis, Young explicates the feeling I have been trying to verbalise throughout this entire article, the feeling not only of being able to breathe life into old memories with music, but of the necessity of doing so for the sake of their survival. Music may not be the drug of choice for all who grieve, but it embodies the innate desire we all share to be able to stay connected and remember those who we can no longer see, hear, or speak to.

My Dad lived his life through music. It makes sense that it is through music that I intend to keep him alive after his death. Neil Young, who will no doubt have an enduringly significant place in my heart, allows me to manifest in his music all the best parts about my Dad, those I want not only to remember but to honour.

The two men are inherently connected in my mind. The sum of their two parts – Young’s music merging with my Dad’s life and death – is a force on its own: a body of life that exists beyond that of either my Dad’s or Young’s. And it is through my recognition of this life form that I have finally allowed myself to start to come to terms with my Dad’s premature death. I am moving forward. No longer in brutal denial of death’s significance, but with an appreciation that as long as I listen to these songs and these voices, my Dad will continue to exist

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