March 15, 2005, New York: Neil Young is shaving in the bathroom of his hotel room when he notices something weird going on in his left eye. It’s doubly odd because the legendary singer and songwriter had felt perfectly fine the night before, attending a raucous ceremony and inducting the Pretenders into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But now little shapes – squiggles, spirals – float on the top half of his eye. He blinks, but the squiggles and spirals remain. Seconds later, Young realises the shapes he is seeing look more like pieces of broken glass.
“I closed my eyes; then I opened one eye and pushed on it, but this thing stayed right where it was,” Young recalls. “So I thought, OK, this is not my eye. This is my brain.”
At first, the musician didn’t feel too concerned. That was before he stepped out of the bathroom to tell his 21-year-old daughter Amber that maybe she should call a doctor. “By then, everything was like mercury,” Young says. “I had to sit down because the room wasn’t easy to deal with. The left-hand side was getting bigger, the right-hand side was getting smaller, and I was not able to see much.”
A bad case of eye floaters and a dizzy sensation weren’t even the half of it. Before the next few weeks were over, the singer would go through an emotional wringer, enduring major surgery and horrible, life-threatening complications. Known for his high, otherworldly voice and songs embraced by generations of rock fans (“Heart of Gold”, “Old Man”), Young took his pain and fear and used it to do what he knows best: make music. He conjured a Grammy-nominated new album and a music documentary that, Young says, “will take you on a journey about yourself”.
On that March day a year ago, the first call went out to Rock Positano, a New York podiatrist. Young had seen Positano just the day before, complaining his foot felt numb. At the time, Positano had noted that his patient’s ankles weren’t the same size, a symptom that can indicate a blood pressure problem. Young knew he had high blood pressure but, like many people with the condition, he had never bothered to treat it.
Now, as the podiatrist heard about Young’s blurred vision, he told him to come to his rooms right away. By the time he arrived, Young’s eyes were better. No squiggles, no broken glass, no wobbly room. Still, Positano insisted that his patient get further tests.
Dr Dexter Sun, a neurologist, ordered an MRI and a brain study. When the results came back, Sun called Young and his wife Pegi into his office, then closed the door.
“Everything in the pictures looks good,” Sun explained, with a classic doctor’s understatement, “except for one thing. You have an aneurysm in your brain.”
His was no mere bulge: Young had an 8mm-long irregularly shaped bubble protruding from his carotid artery. Dr Sun concluded the aneurysm had been there for some time, but it needed to be repaired – soon.
“I wasn’t really thinking, Hey, I’m going to die,” Young comments, “but eventually if that goes unchecked, it explodes and that’s it. Curtains.”