If you’ve spent real time in Venice, California, you know Hinano Cafe. If you haven’t spent time in Venice, you should go to Hinano, maybe you’ll run into Neil Young. I did.
Hinano is one of those bars that’s been around forever and proudly maintains the ethos of a rowdy biker bar from the 1970s. It has a sawdust-covered floor, warm pitchers and a killer jukebox loaded with the Allman Brothers and Merle Haggard. The bar sits at the end of Washington Street, just a few feet from heaven: the Pacific Ocean.
In December 2004, I was sitting at the splintered bar drinking beer at seven in the morning when Neil Young walked in carrying a pack of guitar strings. He was wearing sweatpants and three flannel shirts. He shot the bartender an awkward wave and hoisted himself over the corner pocket onto the green felt of Hinano’s sacred pool table. There were six of us in the bar: a few surfers who chose morning beer over the morning set, an old salty on the way home from the pier with a bucket of bass on ice next to him, the bartender and me.
Next to Neil on the pool table was a faded Carhartt, an empty pint glass, a coffee thermos and his battle-scarred Martin acoustic with a broken string. The hour-long task of changing that string was a passionate dance between the artist and his instrument. One of the surfers left. Now there were five.
I ordered another perfectly shitty beer and was talking with the old salty next to me about his beloved Dodgers when he whispered, “Love this one.” I realized Neil Young was quietly playing the song, Old Man. Without turning around to see the rock icon sitting on the pool table, I smiled. “Me too, man.”
A year earlier, at Farm Aid, I saw Neil Young introduce the same song with a story about the old foreman who lived on his ranch. “He came with the place when I bought it,” he said. “Wrote it for him.” I remember wondering how old that foreman was in 1972 when the song was released on the Harvest album. Watching Neil Young play his beat-up old Martin on the pool table in Hinano, I knew the answer: the old rancher was younger then than Neil is now. It was beautiful, sad and crushing — and the song never sounded better.
Halfway through the second verse, he stopped. “I’ve been first and last. Look at how the time goes past.” He said the line again, no guitar. Another surfer left. Now there were four.
Neil nodded his head and flashed a thumbs-up to the bartender, who wasn’t looking. I was. He played it again from the top of the verse, but in a different key. It was stunning. Instantly Neil Young transformed into his younger self, smiling and talking to the old foreman. For a fleeting moment the heavy, thin-haired, aging singer in front of me was transported back to his carefree 24-year-old self, laughing beside the Old Man who came with Redwood Ranch. The last of the surfers headed out. Now there were three.
It was 9 a.m. and I knew a thirsty breakfast crew would be there soon. So did Neil. For the first time, he looked up and smiled at the three of us, his audience. I knew what was about to happen. He played Old Man from the beginning all the way through, shifting with each verse between the weathered rancher of 60 and a 24- year-old kid. The unknown legend shared his story with a few surfers, an old fisherman and me, in a tiny Venice Beach bar before breakfast.
That magical morning in Venice was a far cry from 10 years later in Austin, Texas. Neil Young and a gaggle of rock superstars claimed to be on the verge of revolutionizing digital music with a new product called PonoMusic. The brand had a simple purpose: to create the highest-quality sound of music in the world. The rock legend was at the helm, but the ship went down hard.
Neil Young’s brand is not as simple as the digital music player with good sound he was pushing at SXSW two years ago. Neil Young is an honest, folk-rocking storyteller whose songs are soaked in empathy. “I’m a lot like you” is a line living in every song he writes. He listens more than he talks and he sticks up for the guy who needs it most. He’s Farm Aid. He’s Woodstock. He’s Standing Rock. He’s a guy who wears three flannel shirts just in case he sees a shivering stranger in a beach bar at sunrise. He’s a barefoot kid’s first kiss under a harvest moon. He’s that Old Man who takes care of the fences and cows on a California ranch.
Branding today is about cultivating a digital footprint and strategizing public perception. But you can’t create a brand for Neil Young. Album after album he relentlessly tries to walk in every man’s shoes; to experience struggle and to sing it from the mountaintop. He’s an example of a person involuntarily becoming his own brand over time, and it’s impossible to brand empathy. We won’t fully know Neil Young’s brand until the Old Man is dead and gone and we try to create a footprint for all those shoes he walked in.
Yesterday at an airport in North Dakota I was waiting for my delayed flight home. Walking into the terminal’s lone restaurant, I noticed Neil Young at a table drinking coffee and laughing with the waitress. In the guitar case beside him I imagined that battle-scarred old Martin acoustic with the broken string from years ago at Hinano in Venice. I remembered the sawdust on the floor and the taste of that perfectly shitty beer. I wondered if those surfers caught that perfect morning set, if that old fisherman lived to see his Dodgers win the N.L. West last year. I thought of the old rancher talking to the young rocker on a barroom pool table at seven in the morning.
Two weeks ago Neil Young played at Standing Rock for everybody supporting the Sioux Nation. It was his 71st birthday. I heard he played the song Old Man. Love that one.