Listening to Neil Young After Coming Out

An ode to a non-binary life, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, and the joy of coming alive with the weight of Young’s words.

Music Features Neil Young
Listening to Neil Young After Coming Out

Everything good in this world once began with a greatest hits collection. I still remember it vividly, my first taste of freedom. I was newly 16 and newly licensed and newly in love, driving my mom’s old Pontiac across the county while the girl I was crushing on sat in the passenger seat. She held my hand and even took a picture of our fingers intertwined, saving it for a future Instagram post to make us “official.” It was our first date—it was my first date ever—and we did what any teenage couple does: Hit up the Eastwood Mall, a rural Ohio complex with more square-feet than the Mall of America, and aimlessly wander in and out of every store. We didn’t have much money between the two of us, just enough to, maybe, get some sort of food court supper or a tank of gas. After combing every shelf in Hot Topic, Spencer’s and Journey’s, we landed in an FYE and my gaze quickly became affixed on her thumbing through the store’s extensive, endless CD collection.

It was like I had known her forever and not at all, as she pulled out various copies of blink-182 albums and the glint of her nose ring collided with that of the jewel cases. It begged the question of whether or not this is what Macaulay Connor meant when he told Tracy Lord she was “lit from within” in The Philadelphia Story. On the other side of the aisle, I gravitated to the section labeled “NEIL Y UNG” (the “o” had been lost to the sands of time, presumably) and pulled out a used CD titled Greatest Hits. A buddy of mine told me I’d be into Neil, and I’d seen my father get a bit teary-eyed when “Old Man” came on the radio in his truck once. So there it was—16 songs to encapsulate one lifetime, resting beneath a cracked cover and a ripped liner-notes booklet. It would become six of the best dollars I ever spent.

That girl and I, we thought it’d be fun to just turn down a bunch of roads—refusing to use a GPS—and see where we landed. So we played that Neil Young greatest hits CD until it took us someplace new. Of course, neither of us expected to land in Western Pennsylvania, somehow avoiding crossing into the neighboring Keystone State through the turnpike and paying the astronomical tolls. “Down By the River” ripped through the speakers, until the sturdy, raucous backbone of Crazy Horse helped shepherd “Cowgirl in the Sand” into our ears with a menacing, unkempt, quasi-jangly two-part riff—one in the right ear from Neil, one in the left from Danny Whitten. “Hello, ruby in the dust,” Neil greeted us in the second verse, after having bent the car sideways with a Whitten-accented solo. “Has your band begun to rust?”

I had grown up on rock ‘n’ roll—the prophecy of face-melting tempos and prophetic, operatic singing from big-pricked Adonises existing as a tome in my parents’ house. But this was something much different, much rougher around the edges. It sounded like I had felt—ugly. I was slack-jawed and transformed, as if I’d always been searching for that feeling, that sound, that noise. Later, I dropped my date off at her mother’s house, and we shared a hug goodnight and I sped home, hitting rewind on “Down By the River” and letting the blisters guide me across two towns, back to a world I kept hidden from everyone else.

Neil Young

A year earlier, doctors with cold hands diagnosed me with a sex chromosome disorder of the male phenotype—or intersex, to the layman. “Oh, God, I’m a hermaphrodite” was one of the first thoughts that ran through my mind. But I wasn’t that, though the ninth episode Friends’s eighth season would lead you to believe otherwise. I lived the first 15 years of my life as a boy because that is the body I entered this world with. Put my blood under a microscope, though, and you’ll find that the crucial male denominator—that devilish, no-good Y-chromosome—is plum missing from the whole helix. “What the hell does that mean?” was likely my second thought, having just been touched, measured, examined and questioned for nearly two hours in a dim lab room by strangers and then told, bluntly, that my body can’t make its own testosterone. I felt fucked.

There was a moment soon after that, though, when my parents and I sat in an examination room together and listened to an endocrinologist prescribe me testosterone enanthate, that I think about often. You could see it in their faces that something had been taken away from them—perhaps the certainty of their son’s boyhood, which would now exist only through a gel rubbed across his stomach nightly. But now 11 years removed from it all, I think something was given to me then. Maybe it was a life, maybe it was hope. Maybe it was both. Let’s go with both, if only for both’s sake. There is something freeing about your life going into reset, even if the side-effects aren’t particularly copacetic at the time (and likely never will be).

My family kept my hormone therapy a secret until I was in college, when we’d finally reached a point where bringing it up took far less effort than covering it up. I was also writing about it a lot in undergrad workshops—working on what would, eventually, become the manuscript for my first published book—so tip-toeing around the subject everywhere else in life wasn’t worth the hassle. Dorm RAs were doing wellness checks on me for the Coke bottle full of used insulin needles beneath my bed; certainly the inevitable 20 questions from a nosy aunt, too, would pass.

But in high school, you can only hide so much. I walked the halls with giant red welts under my shirt from the gel (which would grow in size, itch and shame years later when I transitioned to needles), yet my voice slowly started to deepen—many, many months after everyone else’s had. No matter how often I tried lifting weights, I couldn’t build muscle mass. My arms and legs were thin like wind chimes; tufts of hair immune from decamping across my face and chest. I didn’t look like the boys in my class, and I certainly didn’t feel like them, either. The first lesson in being intersex is you must come to terms with your own otherness, your own in-betweenness. You can pass for one thing, only to have it ripped away from you by a doctor every six months at a check-up.

When I was a teenager, just wearing the wrong set of clothes got me labeled a fag (in hindsight, they were onto something) in the same way that nosy aunt had, over-and-over again, called me a metrosexual to my face and to my mother’s for years beforehand; the mere thought of even attempting to hold conversations with these people about chromosomes and sex with mutual, well-intentioned nuance felt impossible. And, the very real likelihood of my existence becoming defined by a defense of No, no, I promise I have a cock every waking second of my remaining three years in school was likely a death sentence far more severe than the one my parents believed I’d received in that Cleveland Clinic examination room. So, as time passed, my hormone therapy and my intersexuality blended into the backdrop of my life. I played sports, smoked copious amounts of pot, kissed girls and labored through the same, profound fits of heartbreak like everyone else.

And then, too, my music taste became just as chameleonic as my biological sex. Though I listened to presumably heterosexual rock music for much of my childhood, it changed like the weather during my teen years—taking shape in whatever way made sense in the puzzle of my friends’ interests. There were phases of Drake, Nirvana, Bob Dylan, Chief Keef and whatever other various musicians whose songs I could rip from SoundCloud, Grooveshark and YTMP3. You take the good and you take the bad. I have fond memories of sleeping on my neighbor David’s trampoline and listening to Pearl Jam’s cover of “Last Kiss” over and over, only to hop in a kid named Andrew’s Chevy truck the next day and, begrudgingly, listen to Machine Gun Kelly’s debut album (I am from Northeast Ohio, after all).

But when a tech-wiz friend of mine, Josh, bypassed the restrictive internet filters on one of our school’s computers, landed on YouTube and played “Powderfinger” by Neil Young and Crazy Horse for me for the first time, it was as if the color that made my belly look like stained glass had rushed right back to my cheeks. “This song is about cocaine,” Josh said, positively chuffed at his own drawn conclusions. I shushed him, not interested in any of that lyrical shit. I wanted to hear those guitar solos. And that is the crux of Neil Young’s work—he has composed some of the most twisted, fucked up guitar music any six-string savant could ever dream of cooking up. When he sings about someone shooting their lover in “Down By the River,” the guitar solos shudder like the barrel of a gun and the harmonies of Crazy Horse ring in like a funeral choir.

Neil Young

Between the ages of 11 and 15, I had a real behavioral problem. My mom and I did the math a few years ago, coming to the conclusion that I probably spent upwards of 70 days sequestered in in-school suspension in eighth grade for various offenses alone. If we went to school together and you’re reading this, you likely already knew that and your image of me now likely remains shaped by it. I probably bullied you at some point, or said something insensitive in your proximity. And I have probably since extended you an apology—if not through words then through the passing of time and its sometimes-prudent knack for grace. But I did get better, eventually, miraculously. My parents decided it was puberty that came a-knocking. For a long time, I, too, chalked the sudden shape-up to the inescapable destiny of getting older and aging out of certain reckless abandons. But hindsight is a hell of a drug, and you don’t often know you were forced to grow up fast when you’re in the middle of doing it.

And I was forced to grow up quickly, that much I have reckoned with. When I turned 11, I’d only had about four years-worth of memories in my head to work with—having subconsciously blocked out everything that occurred between me being sexually abused by a family member in a second-story bedroom at my grandmother’s house when I was five and the core moments from the years after that are all but lost to the blackened faraways of my own recollection. I can’t remember much of that period in my life, save for the act itself both times it happened. I think, being diagnosed as intersex when I was, it offered me a chance to finally become intentional with my own self-preservation—to be deliberate as hell with what parts of myself I choose to hold onto.

I wrote an essay a few months ago about Jerry Reed and the memories I have of my grandfather, reveling in minute details—like the smell of his overalls and the way he organized his garage. A friend of mine texted me that she wished she could remember parts of her childhood so vividly, and it made me think of a tweet I saw recently, where someone said writers should only publish three to five personal essays in their lifetime. I disagreed with the sentiment then and still do—as I have no choice but to catalog and document even the most fleeting and challenging moments I take on. Maybe those moments get published, maybe they don’t. But I can’t afford to lose any more memories.

That is what draws me into Neil Young’s music, too. He is immune to the fantastical, often letting his pen transport us to ornate renditions of the very same complexities we reckon with, too. Across the dozens of studio albums he’s made, Neil has slowly been coming to terms with his own mortality and fallibility just as I am deciphering my own and as you have been deciphering yours. Take “Sugar Mountain,” which Neil wrote on his 19th birthday in 1964 as a complicated ode to growing up and growing out of innocence. “You can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain,” he lamented. “Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon, you’re leaving there too soon.” Even on a recent record of his, like 2022’s World Record, Neil is still interrogating the passages of age. “Time was long ago, when we were just children,” he sang. “The sun would rise and the sun would fall on the changing days.”

I kept up with Neil’s music all throughout high school, exploring various parts of his catalog to a nauseating degree at times. The same summer I got my first-ever car of my own, my parents gifted me a cheap Crosley turntable and, soon after, my dad passed his record collection down to me—which included a beat-to-shit copy of Harvest that I eventually wore out myself. By that point, my online explorations had led me to Neil’s Ditch Trilogy, and this was years before I’d use those three records to better make peace with my uncle’s suicide. Back then, I was an On the Beach fan for the love of the game and not yet for the ramifications of what inspired its recording in the first place. I’d drive past the Eastwood Mall to a hole-in-the-wall vinyl shop called the Record Connection and ask if Jeff, the owner, had any copies of Tonight’s the Night. He never did, but he’d satiate my wants with copies of After the Gold Rush and Comes a Time that I already had but couldn’t pass up. He always saved the LPs with handwriting on the covers for me, including an original pressing of American Stars ‘N Bars that said “Mark” across Neil’s squished cheek.

Neil Young

When I put out my first book three years ago, I found myself writing a lot of poems that included references to popular culture. Neil cropped up there, in a poem about using needles to take testosterone—as I found something to latch onto in a lyric like “an ocean of shaking hands that grab at the sky” and felt compelled to explore just how there might be a connection there, between Danny Whitten’s overdose and the ways I fly too close to God whenever I stick a needle into my own thigh or arm or stomach. “I am made of a thousand things,” I wrote then, “all inherited from a horizon of sharp touch.”

When I did press for that book, many interviewers tip-toed around the intersex themes—and I understand why, as it does seem daunting to ask questions about an identity you aren’t well-educated about, even if I don’t practice that same kind of restraint in my own work. But those writers would challenge me on the pop culture references, asking what pushed me to enter those realms and whether or not I would call myself a “pop culture poet.” It was all superficial fodder on their part—a mark of latching onto familiarity instead of interrogating perspectives beyond their own. But any press is good press (or so they say), and I found myself regurgitating the same response just in different syntax. To be intersex is to never hear or see or read about yourself in media. It’s a forgotten existence that, when remembered, is often only remembered as the punchline of an unforgiving joke. I wrote about my hormone therapy injections in relation to Neil Young’s friends dying from overdoses because just a shred of that felt real to me, real to what I was experiencing in my parents’ kitchen or in my dorm bedroom.

But I was also using pop culture references to trick casual readers into buying into the magic of my book in the first place. If you can write about the NBA Slam Dunk Contest and make it queer, make it a bit uncomfortable midway through, you can rope in a lot of eyes and ears. And maybe that’s what I am doing here, again. A good magician never reveals their secrets; a great musician tells you exactly how they did the trick, shows it to you and still fools you into buying in on it a second time. So here you are, expecting this to be an essay about Neil Young. And it is about him, somewhat. But it’s also an essay about me and about how I have engaged with his music after coming out as non-binary.

I had been slowly workshopping the whole they/them of it all over the last year and change. First, it was in my author’s bio at the bottom of all of my Paste articles. Then there was a change in my Twitter and Instagram bios. I was unsure of it until, during a staff meeting, a co-worker referred to me as “they” in passing. It was such a small little thing, but it meant the world to me then (and Jacob, if you’re reading this, thank you for that), and it was further emphasized when I was out to lunch with Chris Farren in Columbus, and he used “they” for me, too. I hadn’t even told anyone about my pronouns, as I still wasn’t even fully sure I was going to stay true to them in the first place. But when people you adore and respect refer to you in the way you have so deeply hoped everyone else would, it changes your perspective a bit. It shows that, even though you said nothing to them, they paid enough attention to you and had the wherewithal to just go with it and not make a fuss. And what a gift that is, and I know it’s not a type of grace I will always have the privilege of receiving. Still, maybe I’m a little delulu about it and will allow myself to revel in the naive joys of it every now and again.

I came out to my mom a few days before Christmas 2023. I explained to her, though, that she didn’t have to call me “they”—that having that conversation with my dad (who, at this point in his life, has lost all ability to compassionately reason with complex conversations) or even our extended family members, was not worth the headache it would likely cause. This is not to suggest that, if I were to tell him about all of this, he would admonish me from his life or forbid me from entering his house. Certainly not. If me tattooing my hands didn’t do the trick, then a pronoun change surely wouldn’t, either. But if I am being honest with you, I’m not telling my dad because I am just tired. I can’t stress enough just how tired I am. But there’s another layer to that truth, too: I may not be a man anymore, but I will always be a son. And that—through all of our misgivings and our fights and our cursing—still means something, somehow, somewhere. Maybe you can relate?

Neil Young

Whenever I write about Neil Young, I struggle to not make it personal. In many ways, the grief of my life has become personified through the ache of his music. It’s like destiny, if you believe in that kind of thing, that he and I are alive during the same lifetime—if only for a short while in the grand existence of whatever is meant to come after this and after us. I think a part of me has always, deeply, felt non-binary in the company of Neil’s work. In his songs, you can have countless flaws and still be loved by somebody. On a Neil Young album, I exist and you exist, too. Like how we are genetically compelled to enjoy pop music immediately upon entry into this existence, I, too, am cosmically imbued by smoky, grieving Canyon riffs and nasally vocals time-worn with war-era sorrow. One of my first thoughts after coming out was “It’s no wonder I love the album Trans,” but then, when I returned to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere for the first time with new pronouns, it was like I’d solved the fucking Da Vinci Code or something. “Holy shit, this is what it feels like to finally hear yourself in music you’ve loved for so long?”

In my family, the idea of a name holds a lot of weight. In bed with a recent lover, I made a quick joke mid-fuck about me not having a Y-chromosome. “How does it feel to be in bed with a woman?” I ask. But I have not always been so forthright with my own existence. To be born a son and to be born an only child, you are brought into a world that is already predetermined for you—you must carry on the last name that made you, lest your bloodline die out by the curse of your own failures. For years, I returned to my parents’ home with various partners, only to listen to my father make a comment about me being the last Mitchell unless I have a son of my own—because who am I if not somebody else’s dream slowly dying out? Better that than a burden, I suppose.

Maybe that, too, is why “Cowgirl in the Sand” feels so definitive to me. “Old enough now to change your name,” Neil sings in the chorus. “When so many love you, is it the same?” Yes, absolutely. Sometime in college, I asked my parents to stop calling me Matthew. It was far too biblical and far too boyish for me. Hearing it now makes me think of my childhood, and thinking of my childhood makes me remember how quickly it was taken away from me. If therapy has taught me anything, it’s okay to let go of the shapes we once were. Matt isn’t any better, I guess. But, it does feel like a small act of liberation. Proudly, I am now free from the name pinned on me after a doctor announced “It’s a boy!” to the heavens in a Warren, Ohio hospital room.

Recently, though, I moved back to the very town I came of age in, near Warren and a stone’s throw from the room my mother gave birth to me in. Leaving a drab, rural haunt in the middle of nowhere for the brightly-lit big city (Columbus, very notable for its rich, metropolitan excess), only to return broker and kinda, sorta, not the same gender you were when you left the first time—God, what a nightmare that can be. As I type this, I am still paying rent for an apartment three hours away that I am no longer living in.

When I was packing away all of my things, as my ex tented a book on her chest in the next room, I had “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” playing through my AirPods. I had no idea where my next stop would be, what city I might find some semblance of safety in. Maybe Cleveland, where I spent much of my childhood dreaming of living; perhaps Akron, where my dearest friend and her fiancé are. I am somewhat of a countryside romantic, though, always daydreaming about what it may be like to learn how to live in a rural town not hellbent on wanting to end you. “I think I’d like to go back home and take it easy,” Neil sang into my ears, as I draped a porcelain duck in bubble wrap. “There’s a woman that I’d like to get to know living there.” The truth then slowly crept into my body: There’s a woman in me that makes me want to play this game, as Neil says. She is beautiful and she is waiting for me in the crooked shadows of where someone first gave me a body desperately in need of a couple thousand tomorrows.

There’s a quiet in this town that you can’t find anywhere else. There’s far less noise now than there was when I was in the closet, too. When you pay rent to lie in bed with noise pollution, you begin to forget that there is a life beyond the busyness. Deer clamor to the grassy lot between my current house and the one I grew up in next door. I work with the screendoor open, listening to the bugs and the winged creatures make music while the clouds thin out. My dog Georgia and I listen to the birds talk back and forth at each other; I put my hand beneath her chin and she sniffs my wrist, unaware of the gender of whom it belongs to, only interested in the familiarity of its smell.

Last week, Neil’s archives announced his next release: Early Daze, a collection of late-1960s Crazy Horse recordings that have rarely seen the light of day, along with beloved tracks that have appeared on compilations elsewhere on and off since the seventies, like “Wonderin’,” “Winterlong” and “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown.” One song was put out in tandem with the announcement—“Everybody’s Alone,” done up in a different mix than what we hear on Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972). As fate would have it, as I gear up to go to my first-ever Neil Young concert this week, once again Neil is in my ear, adding more rooms in his catalog for my existence to fill into: “People talkin’ to me, someone saying that I’m not the same,” he opines in the second verse. “That’s not so easy to be, but when I’ll learn to be free, I wonder if I’ll miss the pain.”

I put the track in my headphones, smoke a cigarette outside and watch the neighbor across the street put up a “go woke or go broke” yard sign. The motorcyclists fly by and Georgia chases ants on the sidewalk. I hear Danny Whitten’s guitar simmering beneath Neil’s, and it’s like reuniting with an old pal. The riffs sound metallic, the Crazy Horse incarnation as complete as it could ever be. Georgia and I go back inside, into the summer-swelter of a bedroom without air conditioning, and I take my shirt off. I look in the mirror at my concave chest meant to brandish a perfect rack and the child-bearing hips the enanthate couldn’t shrink away; I jab a needle into the muscle of my thigh and push the plunger inwards. I hear the echoes of someone doing lawn work behind my bedroom. Mowing, it seems. A pinhole of blood rushes to the surface of my skin and the sun basks down, engulfing the ground in monstrous heat—a perfect day to do something. A perfect day to be anything at all.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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