"I took down all my music and thought, 'I should just stop,'' says a much happier and healthier Young about a dark period. "I'm bipolar and I just started thinking, 'I should just end this. I'm never going to get there.'"
Young is the kind of striking performer who commands a room. A skilled guitar player with a plaintive, emotive voice that sounds somewhat like John Darnielle crossed with a soul singer, the Portland folk musician writes engaging lyrics that reflect hard-learned lessons. Even alone onstage armed with only his guitar, he performs with an apparent fire inside. There's a mischievous wildness behind his eyes, and one gets the feeling that if Young had been on the Titanic, he would have joined the musicians performing as the ship went down instead of scurrying for the lifeboats.
In 2013, Young moved from Oregon to Nashville. Like countless songwriters before him, Young was lured by Music City's glitz and Grand Ole Opry grandeur. But Young soon found himself getting lost, adrift in a sea of dream seekers. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities, Young became entrenched in Music Row's dark side. A storm of untreated mental illness and severe alcoholism soon robbed Young of his will to play and to live.
"I was suicidal and basically trying to drink through all these emotions, burning all my bridges and not really caring," says Young. "It was terrible."
Were it not for the steadfast love of his family, Young's story might have ended there. After essentially giving up music and returning home to Oregon, Young reached a turning point when his concerned sister gave him their father's old book of daily reflections from his time in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Young's father was an alcoholic who took his own life, and Young says that haunting specter both added to his feelings of powerlessness and gave him an excuse to get wasted. He is far from alone. According to Future of Music Coalition, more than half the musicians in the U.S. are without proper health insurance and that to cope, many turn to the cheap "fix" of substance abuse to alleviate their mental ills.
Young says his two-and-a-half-year journey to sobriety was precarious and filled with struggle. "The relapses were destructive and scary. I vaguely remember one night throwing my six-month AA chip off the back deck of a bar I was busy blacking out in. And even when I was sober," he continues, "I wasn't playing music. I'd pick up the guitar and want to smash it. I had these thoughts of 'who am I now?' that were very difficult to overcome."
Young, who credits AA with saving his life, did the work, however. As he began to heal, music found its way back into his life. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Young began going to downtown's Monaco Hotel and improvising on the piano for long stretches. Soon, he could pick up his guitar and begin writing again. "Not being miserable and drunk all the time brought me the clarity that I can't have everything and that's fine. I realized, 'Hey, maybe I'm wrong, maybe this is good. Maybe I'm good.'" he says, smiling. "I realized I can stop beating myself up and just be me. That's OK and it's all I can be. The songs and the joy started to come back."
The fire in his belly hasn't been extinguished, which is apparent in the fact that Young feels comfortable enough in his own skin to take the Alberta Rose stage all by his lonesome. Young says the evening will also feature stories behind the tunes, which he hopes might inspire others struggling with mental health and addiction issues to see they're not alone.
"This is the best version of me I've ever presented—everything else was just practice. Whatever it is is whatever it's going to be. I'm fine with that," Young says. "I won't actually be alone up there onstage. A ton of great people will be holding me up."
SEE IT: Christopher Neil Young performs at Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St., albertarosetheatre.com, on Sunday, April 14. 7 pm. $20 advance, $25 day of show. Minors allowed with guardian.