Neil Young tells Conan O’Brien he was so “petrified” of messing up on The Johnny Cash TV Show that he can barely remember appearing on it

Neil Young
(Image credit: Gus Stewart/Redferns)

Neil Young joined Conan O’Brien on his SiriusXM show, Team Coco Radio, this week for a conversation that took a trip down memory lane, with Young revisiting some of the most important songs from his childhood, discussing the enduring power of radio, and sharing memories of performing on The Johnny Cash Show in 1971.

While the past year has seen Neil Young and Crazy Horse release their new studio album, World Record, in November, Young has also been in archivist mode, finally releasing Toast in July last year having recorded it in 2001 before deciding he couldn’t handle releasing it at the time on account of it being too sad. Meanwhile his 1972 classic, Harvest, received a deluxe reissue to mark its 50th anniversary. 

If O’Brien was hoping to catch Young in reflective mood, his timing could not have been better. The theme of yearning for the past figures highly in their conversation, as does Harvest, specifically with regards to The Needle And The Damage Done, which Young performed on The Johnny Cash Show – a day Young admits that he has little recollection of. 

The segment picks up with Cash talking to some students at Vanderbilt University – the episode is titled Johnny Cash On Campus – before cutting to Young at a packed Ryman. Unaccompanied, Young plays The Needle And The Damage Done his go-to acoustic guitar, the Martin D-45, before performing A Journey Through The Past. 

Young says he didn't get a chance to speak to Cash. That was okay, though. Mr Cash was busy. And besides, Young might have been too nervous to talk. Looking back, he admits those TV spots were terrifying

“This was The Johnny Cash show. You’ve got to realise, in our eyes, doing this, I’m like 23 years old,” Young tells O’Brien. “I’m going on a television show. I was petrified, because I was thinking about the song I was going to sing, and whether I was going to screw it up or not. That’s all I thought about, so I really don’t remember much else about it.”

Young’s segment aired on 17 February, and was notable for being Cash’s first live, performance of Man In Black, which he had recorded only the previous day at Columbia Studios. Other acts included the Dillards, and notably James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, both of whom collaborated with Young on Harvest, playing on Heart Of Gold and Old Man. 

I’m going on a television show. I was petrified, because I was thinking about the song I was going to sing, and whether I was going to screw it up or not

O’Brien turns the discussion to a number of songs of particular significance to Young, such as Cash’s Ballad Of A Teenage Queen, and Four Strong Winds by Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia, the latter particularly resonating with a pre-teen Neil Young.

“I loved it so much that I would put nickels and dimes in the jukebox to play it over and over and over again until I didn’t have any change,” says Young. “I’d just stand there in front of it and listen to it. It was a beautiful song. For some reason, it really, really got to me. I could feel the magic of the music.”

The version O’Brien plays, however, is not exactly as Young recalls it. The original was in mono and here it was in stereo. Young explains how time and memory plays tricks on us, particularly when a track has been remixed. 

You can check out clips from the interview with O'Brien below, and find out more about Team Coco Radio at SiriusXM. Neil Young's latest album, World Record, is out now via Reprise.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.