Pegi Young: Singer-songwriter who co-founded San Francisco’s Bridge School with Neil Young

The pair’s legacy in special needs education survives the ending of their marriage, which prompted Pegi to lament: ‘Why’d you have to ruin my life?’

Phil Shaw
Tuesday 08 January 2019 14:01
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Performing with The Survivors at the Stagecoach festival in California in 2015
Performing with The Survivors at the Stagecoach festival in California in 2015

Pegi Young, who has died in her native California aged 66, was married to rock musician Neil Young for 36 years before their divorce in 2014, but she never allowed the role of spouse to define her.

Her work as an educationalist, environmentalist, philanthropist and singer-songwriter in her own right with her band The Survivors ensured that Young’s life was rich in variety before she was stricken by cancer in her final year.

The Bridge School for children in northern California with physical disabilities and speech impairments is arguably her greatest legacy. She and her then-husband founded it in 1986 and funded its growth by inviting famous friends to perform at an annual concert.

Born in the city of San Mateo, south of San Francisco, Young was known as Margaret Morton before attracting the moniker Pegi. In her late teens she became something of a hippie nomad, hitchhiking around the US before returning to her home state to live in a tepee and work as a waitress, where she met Neil Young in 1974.

With her former husband in 2014 

They married in 1978 and had two children, Ben, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and Amber Jean.

Pegi became stepmother to Neil’s son Zeke, who also suffered from cerebral palsy. Unable to find a satisfactory learning environment, the Youngs teamed up with another concerned parent, Jim Forderer, and a speech and language pathologist, Dr Marilyn Buzolich, to open the school at Hillsborough in San Mateo County.

Every autumn between 1986 and 2016, bar 1987, the couple staged the Bridge School Benefit Concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, California in support of the project. Among the artists who played were Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Beach Boys, David Bowie, Elton John, Metallica and Neil’s bands, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Buffalo Springfield.

Within the context of the music industry, where relationships and marriages are strained by the demands of touring and recording, Neil and Pegi were perceived as a model of stability and fidelity. At times she was his muse – he wrote the songs “Unknown Legend”, “Once An Angel” and “Such A Woman” about her – and one of his backing singers in The Pinkettes.

In 2014, however, he filed for divorce. She later acknowledged they had been “having a rough patch” but “never in a million years” envisaged their breaking up. Neil, it transpired, had begun a relationship with actress Daryl Hannah, whom he married last year.

Pegi, who learned guitar and wrote poetry in high school, had already started to sing her own material, releasing the first two solo albums in 2007 as the prelude to three with The Survivors.

Raw, in 2016, laid bare her pain and anger over the split. Titles included “Gave My Best to You”, “Lonely” and “You Won’t Take My Laugh Away From Me”. On the opening line of track one, “Why”, she asked “Why’d you have to ruin my life?” Yet she talked of the songs bringing catharsis, and after she and Neil met at the 2016 Bridge School concert she remarked: “The night was about the kids and the school, not the Neil and Pegi drama.”

She also hosted and performed at Farm Aid, an annual fundraiser for family farmers, and was on the board Rainforest Connection, a body that campaigns against deforestation.

Pegi Young, singer-songwriter, musician and campaigner, born 1 December 1952, died 1 January 2019

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