Pegi Young Death Cause: How Singer, Bridge School Co-Founder Dies at 66
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Pegi Young, the singer-songwriter who was married to Neil Young for 36 years, died Tuesday after a yearlong battle with cancer. She was 66. “[She] passed away surrounded by her friends and family in her native California,” reads a short statement on her official Instagram account. “We request that the families’ privacy be respected at this time.”
Young was working as a waitress at a diner near Neil Young’s ranch when they met in the mid-Seventies. “Never saw a woman look finer,” Neil Young wrote in his 1992 classic song “Unknown Legend,” one of several songs about their love that also include “Harvest Moon” and “Such an Angel.” “I used to order just to watch her float across the floor.”
In the early years of their marriage, Young devoted herself nearly full-time to raising their daughter Amber and son Ben, the latter born with cerebral palsy. But in 1994, she began singing background vocals for her husband, starting at the Academy Awards when she joined him on “Philadelphia.” Six years later, she hit the road with him on the Friends and Relatives tour and became a mainstay in his band over the next decade. “When I started touring with him, I get treated pretty much like any other band member,” she told Songfacts in 2011. “He certainly doesn’t cut me any more slack than anybody else. If he wants to hear something a certain way, he’s the clear boss, leader of the band.”
In 2007, Young recorded her self-titled debut LP with keyboardist Spooner Oldham, guitarist Anthony Crawford, bassist Rick Rosas and pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith. She went on to record four more albums and tour extensively. “I think it’s somewhat of a natural progression,” she told the Boston Herald in 2010. “I was writing and singing and playing a bit in my own fashion when I was younger, before Neil and I got together [in 1974]. It was a return to a longtime love of mine. I think it is up to me to do the best job I can do. I don’t take it casually. I’m not the next young hot thing.”
In addition to her music career, Young devoted much of her time and energy to the Bridge School. She founded the esteemed institution in 1986 to help kids like Ben that have severe speech and physical impairments. The annual Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, California continually attracts A-level talent and helps raise money for the school. David Bowie, the Who and a Temple of the Dog reunion have all highlighted the annual event.
“It was my idea to have Bruce Springsteen play that first year,” in 2010. “He was just coming off a three-year rock and roll tour with Born in the USA and I thought that if he was anything like me, he’ll want to do something completely the opposite now. We’ve been so blessed over the years with artists donating their time. Looking back at that first year, it seems like an exercise in simplicity compared to what it is these days.”
In 2014, Neil Young filed for divorce from Pegi. “We were having a rough patch,” Pegi told Rolling Stone. “But I never would’ve thought in a million years we would be getting divorced. So, yeah, there was a bit of a shock value there.” She poured her heartbreak into the songs on her last LP, 2016’s Raw. “It told a story,” she said. “I kind of look at it as a soundtrack to the seven stages of grief. You’ve got anger, then shock and disbelief. As we go through the album, the later songs show my growth and … I can’t say total acceptance, but I think the last song, that wonderful Don Henley song [“The Heart of the Matter”], talks about forgiveness. That’s really where it’s at, you know?”
She wanted the album to convey to others going through a similar situation that they are not alone. “We go through things we may not’ve expected, what we thought was maybe our future,” she said. “But even if we get the shock of our lifetime, life goes on. You figure out who you are again, and you just keep going on. I’m a living persona of that.”