Visionary Old Man Neil Young's New Trick: Pono

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Rolling Stone once described Neil Young in its "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" issue as a "restless experimenter... who transform[s] the most obvious music into something revelatory."

Admittedly, I don't know much of Neil Young's musical catalog, and there's something about that high-pitched voice...but wait, before you all start throwing tomatoes, lyrically he transforms obvious ideas into songs that can feel revelatory. I've also noticed that he uses his money and fame beyond the music world as an inventor, often tackling ideas such as electric cars and the battle with music piracy.

He was behind the creation of a luxury-series hybrid electric car powered by biomass, and most recently has been putting his clout behind Pono, the digital-to-analog music service he's set to introduce this week at SXSW in Austin.

He drives poetic notions of rock-and-roll freedom into everything that he says, such as his vivacious message while recently accepting the President's Merit Award at the annual Grammy party thrown by the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers wing. There, Young announced Pono's upcoming SXSW introduction, calling the talk his "commercial." It sounded epic and, with all those fanciful words written out, effective.

That being said, what makes some of Young's other extramusical contributions more meaningful than other common types of public-spirited charity work? Because Young's ego is epic too, but in the most personable, positive way.

The idea behind Pono has been rambled about for years now, but that's beside the point. A digital-to-analog music player meant to work off a handheld device, this cloud-based service is said to do just that: taking on the likes of iTunes by translating digital music to analog-quality sound. Young is currently negotiating with Sony to get album rights for its catalog transferred over to his proposed service.

Claiming "Internet piracy is the new radio" and that the bigger problem with Internet piracy is that most of the sound quality is terrible, Young has proposed Pono as his solution.

"The goal is to try and rescue the art form that I've been practicing for the past 50 years," said Young, who is scheduled to give a lecture about Pono at SXSW's Interactive festival today.

He gives a modern look at internet piracy while following the adage "if you can't fight 'em, join 'em." ("Pono" is also the Hawaiian word for righteousness.)

Arguments have been going back and forth as to whether Pono will actually work. Its full mechanics are still in the works, though it's expected to be released to the public this year. According to Britain's The Guardian, he will launch a Kickstarter campaign for the device dubbed "PonoPlayer" on March 15.

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Another Young inventions to have been fairly well-publicized in recent years is his hybrid electric car, the LincVolt. Sleekly assembled using Young's own refurbished 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible, the LincVolt has been seen as both a stylish environmental statement and a way for Young to flaunt his money. He also has outdoor speakers at his home that he can turn on with a wave of his hand, to be able to hear music while he rows out to the middle of his large lake. That kind of money.

Meanwhile, making music appear while in the middle of nature sounds some kind of amazing. It's a fair use of money.

Last year Young appeared on The Daily Show to promote Pono, saying, "I'm not trying to change the world...I'm just trying to make it so that when I look at it, it's great, you know what I mean? Not so I can make a million dollars, or even a gazillion..."

It's easy to apply Young's philosophy to his other inventions as well. Pretty things are nice, and he gets that. So his classic-car design looks pretty slick, and may be more appealing than your average boxy hybrid cars.

And then there's Young's most pono contribution yet, in my opinion: his Trainmaster Command Control. An avid fan and collector of model trains, Young actually holds many patents for various inventions involving their aesthetics.

His goal with this project was to make sure his son, Ben, could actively enjoy the trains nearly as much as his dad does. Ben suffers from cerebral palsy, and so lacks the necessary motor skills to operate an average model train.

Trainmaster Command Control was Young's novel solution. It's a programmable device that can alter controls to whatever the user prefers. As shown in the video above, Neil's son just turns his head, pushes a couple of buttons, and is granted the joy of model trains.

And here's the obligatory line about how his inventions reveal Young's "heart of gold." I do know that song. But bad pun aside, his philanthropic ideas are the work of someone who has chosen to use his time and money in delightful and productive ways. Here's to his new Pono service being worth the effort.


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