Jim Sullivan remembers Pegi Young
Eight years ago, I had a phone interview with Pegi Young who was on tour and opening for the great British acoustic guitarist Bert Jansch. They were going to be playing a small Boston-area club. The story was for the Boston Herald and more than a few readers were miffed I was interviewing the opener, not the headliner.
I’d seen Jansch open for her then-husband Neil Young about seven months prior and wrote a bit about him – yes, he was great – but the assignment was Pegi and we all knew why that was, very much including the subject of the interview.
“I have so much respect for Bert,” Pegi told me. “He is so talented, and so humble.”
Pegi had met Neil in 1974 while working as a waitress at a spot near his ranch. They married in 1978. Pegi, who first sung backup with her husband in 1983 as part of the Pinkettes on Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks tour, had released a self-titled debut album three years earlier, with musicianly help from her husband, guitar ace Marty Stuart and singer Maria Muldaur. She had a new one out, the bluesy, soft-rocking “Foul Deeds.” She had a recording contract with Warner Bros. via Neil’s Vapor Records label.
“Because of who I am and who I’m married to, I’ve had enormous opportunities to do things that another musician – especially a woman of my age, coming out of the blue – would not normally have,” Pegi told me, answering that elephant-in-the-room query from me.
She was 58 at the time, starting to record professionally just three years prior. “If not for my husband I wouldn’t have Warner Brothers behind me,” she added. “I wouldn’t be talking to you. I get that. There’s a lot of music out there and a lot of really talented people. Some people resent that and say, ‘You’re on the fast track and why should you be there and not me or not my friends?’”
Pegi played music, non-professionally for years, but her primary roles were wife, mother and philanthropist. In 1986, she co-founded The Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, Calif. with Neil. The Bridge School is the San Francisco Bay Area school that aids children with severe speech and physical impairment. (The Youngs’ son, Ben, has cerebral palsy; their daughter Amber has epilepsy.) The superstar-studded Bridge Concerts – with acts including David Bowie, Elton John, Pearl Jam, Arcade Fire, Tom Petty, Ministry, Bruce Springsteen, Pretenders, Willie Nelson and Foo Fighters – ended in 2016, two years after filed for divorced.
Pegi served as president and executive director over the years. She also helped outs Neil’s Farm Aid shows and served on the board of the environmental organization, the Rainforest Connection.
As to music, in 1994, at the Academy Awards ceremony Pegi joined Neil singing backup on “Philadelphia.” Six years later, she joined Neil again on tour, doing that several times and giving her the confidence to make a record.
“I think it’s somewhat of a natural progression,” Pegi said. “I was writing and singing and playing a bit in my own fashion when I was younger, before Neil and I got together. It was a return to a longtime love of mine.”
“I think it is up to me to do the best job I can do. I don’t take it casually. I’m not the next young hot thing. I might be the next, uh, something thing.” Foul Deeds had are five originals and four covers, including CD’s kickoff, the Will Jennings-Peter Wolf song, “Pleasing to Me.”
It’s mostly a mid-tempo record, with songs of heartbreak and yearning spread over the disc.
“The songs are melancholy and go toward the dark side,” Pegi said. “It seems to me the human condition is not an even, steady experience. Some people wake up every day and feel happy and bless them, but I think most people have a really wide range of emotions they experience within a day, within a week, within a month, and over a lifetime. Some of the stuff that triggers my writing comes from personal experience, some of it comes from being an observer.”
Pegi’s death was officially announced by a friend, Michelle Gutenstein-Hinz: “With great sadness, we confirm that on January 1st, after a yearlong battle with cancer, Pegi Young – mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, musician, activist and co-founder of the Bridge School – passed away surrounded by her friends and family in California. We request that the families’ privacy be respected at this time.”