Thursday, July 17, 2014


IT WAS EASIER BEING A NEIL YOUNG FAN when it was my little secret. Back in the early '80s, when post-punk was giving way to new romantic, I asked for a copy of Decade for my birthday, having fallen for Neil's weird, grizzled hippy contrarian thing through songs like "Campaigner" and "Cortez the Killer." It became a secret handshake later when I fell in with a group of musicians in my favorite local bands - a way of letting each other know that we weren't just into the shiny new sound or whatever passed for angsty noise at the time.

By 1993, however, everybody was into Neil, but that wasn't why I was in such a bad mood when I arrived at the CNE Grandstand on assignment from SPIN magazine. I hated stadium shows, hated being corralled in and out, hated getting just three songs or less. Limitations can be a creative amplifier, but this just felt punitive.

It didn't help that the lead media handler for the promoter was in such a surly mood, though she brightened when I told her I was shooting for a big deal New York rock magazine, and suddenly she was offering me a seat to watch the show when I was done. I politely declined; I couldn't wait to get out of there. The only thing that interested me was Neil's backing band: Stax/Volt studio band Booker T & the MGs. I remember being starstruck watching Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn walk across the vast backstage area from their trailer to the stage while waiting for our brief spell in the pit to take our shots.

I was experimenting with colour at the time - cross-processing wildly in both directions, and one day, with most of an hour left in the colour darkroom time I'd booked, I decided to print a black and white negative onto colour paper and experiment with changing the CMY settings while burning and dodging. The result looked like this:

Neil Young, Aug. 18, 1993, CNE Grandstand, Toronto

It wasn't all that revolutionary, but no one else was doing it, and since careers were being made on technical gimmicks at the time, I doubled down on the look. Today it would be a half hour's worth of Photoshop, but back then it meant hours in the darkroom and countless scrapped prints as you cycled through all the potential colour variations and burning schemes.

The pics apparently went down a corker when I sent them off to SPIN a couple of days later. The photo editor - name long forgotten, sorry whoever you were, but thanks for the gig - called me to say that Bob Guccione Jr., SPIN's publisher, had gone crazy for the shots, and told her that I should be given as much work as possible.

That never happened. I have no record of ever getting another job from SPIN. Maybe the photo editor left, or maybe it was just that I was in distant Toronto and not New York or L.A. or Chicago. Someone later told me that they'd seen the Neil shot used in a TV commercial for SPIN. In any case, Guccione sold the magazine a few years later, and the next time I'd have anything to do with SPIN would be just last year, when I was asked to write a newspaper feature about their last print edition before they slipped into a digital half-life.

I was hoping to include a photo of the layout where this shot appeared, but my copy of SPIN, carefully preserved in my clippings file from move to move over the years, is nowhere to be found now. Maybe I finally tossed it, a lingering memory of disappointment having attached itself to the dog-eared magazine until it finally turned toxic. The last few years have been like that, I'm sorry to say.

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