Friday, September 21, 2012

Neil Young and Model Railroading: “I am the Wizard of Oz”

If you like Neil Young, and you like model railroading, you’ll like two recent articles in the New York Times.

The articles, by Times media reporter David Carr, cover a wide variety of topics related the Canadian singer-songwriter’s life, including his interest in O scale trains. One of the articles—a blog post titled Well Hello, Mr. Soul—contains two photos of Young’s layout.

From that post:

“Just in case I was too wound up about making sure I was getting all I needed for a big rock-star profile, we stopped at the train barn for about an hour. This is a place where Young is supremely comfortable, a miniworld he built with his own two hands, where he controls everything with technology that he helped make. 

“I found the layout baffling and thrilling—there were rocks and chunks of redwood from all over the ranch and he had let some of the verdant moss go dry to ‘model the drought’ that was going on in the world at large. 

“There were at least six different trains on hundreds of feet of track and when Young, with a little urging on my part, set everything to motion, we weren’t so much a journalist and subject as a couple of grown men on a caper, playing with a massive train set in the middle of the day. It was sort of magical in there and the fact that the guy who made it and ran it also wrote some of the most important songs in the rock canon seemed a little beside the point. It was hard not be charmed by the remarkable execution of a deep obsession.”

In Carr’s longer print piece in the Times Magazine, titled Neil Young Comes Clean, he writes the following:

“For no reason other than it pleases Young, the model-train barn near his home is framed by two actual rail cars. Back in the day, he and his pals used to snort coke and drink wine and tinker with the model layout until it grew into 3,000 square feet of track and trains.

“Young picked up a controller that appeared to be capable of landing a rocket on an asteroid and reminded me that, as an investor in Lionel Trains, he invented Train Master Command Control (which allows you to run multiple trains at once), as well as RailSounds (which provides realistic railroad audio). Young lost a lot of money on his investment, but he’s still a board member at Lionel and ended up with a lot of cool gear, so it all sort of worked out.

"As different trains began to move slowly, Young choreographed and narrated. ‘There’s all different buttons I can press to make them go fast or slow, but they’re all going the same speed, so they’re not going to run into each other except at a crossover,’ he said. “I am the Wizard of Oz in here. I can make anything happen because I know how it all works. Music is math.”

Bonus factoid: Neil Young grew up in Winnipeg, where I live. His old house, on Grosvenor Ave., is a must-see for many fans; in 2008, when Bob Dylan was in town, he surprised the home’s owners by showing up unannounced and asking for a tour.

Click here to read quotes about model railroading from Young's new book, Waging Heavy Peace.

Caboose outside Young's train barn.


  1. Rod Stewart once mentioned that he and Neil Young talk fairly often about their modeling. I think it makes the greats even greater.

  2. Rod's HO layout is featured in the current issue of Model Railroader Magazine. I met Neal a few times at the TCA York train meet in York Pa. He used to set up a layout in a tentoutside one of the halls.

  3. im a small time working musician/with a few small but old time lionel sets...ive done this way before I knew stars did too..but its good to know neil/rod have as good of tastes in hobbys as me*