Transformer Man

Album: Trans (1982)
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Songfacts®:

  • Neil Young mystified his fans when he released the experimental synthpop album Trans in 1982. Using a vocoder to synthesize his voice on many of the tracks resulted in robotic vocals and nearly indecipherable lyrics - which was exactly what Young was going for. No one knew the singer and his wife Pegi were locked in a private struggle: Their son, Ben, was born with severe cerebral palsy and, according to doctors, nearly no chance of learning to walk or talk. The Youngs committed to an exhaustive schedule of mind and body exercises for Ben, and the experience fed into Young's musical creativity. He told Mojo magazine in 1995:

    "At that time he was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people. That's what Trans is all about. And that's why, on that record, you know I'm saying something but you can't understand what it is. Well, that's exactly the same feeling I was getting from my son."

    Young's oldest son, Zeke, was also born with cerebral palsy.
  • In this song, Young seems to be singing directly to Ben about the challenges of his therapy. "So many things left to do, but we haven't made it yet," he says. He wishes he could "unlock the secrets, let us throw off the chains that hold you down."

    Young also explored technological means to communicate with Ben. He revived his passion for model trains and developed special controls to help his son play with the train set, which explains the opening verse:

    You run the show
    Remote control
    Direct the action
    With the push of a button
  • Young was David Geffen's latest acquisition for his new label Geffen Records, and the singer didn't make a very good impression by issuing an experimental album as his first release. After a mediocre follow-up with the rockabilly album Everybody's Rockin', the label sued Young for making music "not commercial in nature and musically uncharacteristic."
  • In a 2003 interview with Q magazine, Young recalled his original vision for the album and what he would have done differently: "If I'd had the technology and the awareness I have today I could have told the story of Trans really well. I had film scripts for all of the vocoder songs. CVs of the characters. There was a baby, nurses in a hospital, and a computer guy whose head was a keypad so he kept hitting himself - they were all lip-synching to my voice... But I just didn't have the tools to pull it off. I still have a sense of loss that I didn't get to do that project and it was misunderstood. It's one of my favorites. But that was when I learned that if you do something different a lot of people will really hate you for it and just jump on you for it. It's not gonna stop me doing whatever I wanna do, but it's interesting to note that."
  • Young also worked with the Lionel toy train manufacturer to create audio, visual, and sound systems that could be used by children with special needs. In 2017, the singer put a large portion of his personal collection up for auction.
  • In 1986, the Youngs co-founded The Bridge School to educate physically challenged students like Ben, who was one of the school's first students. That year, Young began his annual Bridge School benefit concert to raise funds for the academy.

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