Health Lifestyle & Leisure Music News

Daddy is a Rock Star: Neil Young’s Big Red Button


The “Godfather of Grunge,” Neil Young has two children who suffer from cerebral palsy and a third fighting epilepsy. Being a creative genius, Young invented the Big Red Button, a device allowing his quadriplegic son to enjoy playing with an electric train set. Fans can see Neil Young perform live this week in Hollywood, Florida.

By Todd McFliker

Neil Young is a Canadian singer-songwriter who is known as the “Godfather of Grunge.”  Young is one of the most respected and influential musicians of his generation, known for his signature falsetto voice from both Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Beyond four decades spent exploring musical styles that have thrilled legions of worldwide fans, Young’s most meaningful inventions have been for his son, Ben, who suffers from cerebral palsy.

In 1972, the rock star had a baby, Zeke, with actress Carrie Snodgress. Zeke was born with a rather mild case of cerebral palsy.  He today works as a sound engineer on a number of his father’s projects.  But in 1978, Neil Young and his wife, Pegi, were stunned to realize that their son, Ben, had cerebral palsy as well.  Ben’s case is much more dramatic, as he is a nonverbal quadriplegic with partial loss of use of his limbs and torso.

Ben’s cerebral palsy is so severe that Young had to come up with a new way to share his love of miniature train models with him.  First, the rock star created the Big Red Button.  The gently domed button almost three inches across was built so that Ben, who didn’t have the fine motor skills necessary to flip a train set’s switches, could enjoy making the trains run just like any other kid.

Young then worked out a system that let the new device replicate whatever complex maneuver was last run on the system, allowing Ben to rerun them with a single tap. The Big Red Button hooks up with another of Young’s inventions, the CAB-1, the first remote control device for model trains.

Neil Young
Neil Young performs in Hollywood, Fla. this week.

All of the work Young did to engage and entertain his son led to a partnership with Richard Kughn, owner of Lionel Corp.  The team eventually created Liontech, a research and development company that provides Lionel trains with exclusive new model train control and sound systems, influenced from Ben’s original train.

The notable and unique inventions led to the Whizzer, a device created specifically for Young. The machine physically changes a guitar amplifier’s settings to pre-set combinations. The Whizzer is connected to foot switches operable by Young onstage in the same way as an effects pedal.

Young’s third child, daughter Amber Jean, suffers from epilepsy, an affliction Neil Young himself began experiencing with the onset of epileptic seizures in his twenties.

Wanting to make a positive impact for his own children and others, Young helped found the Bridge School, an educational organization for kids with severe verbal and physical disabilities.  The rock star and his wife have organized the annual non-profit charity concert held at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California almost every October since 1986.  Young is known to play an acoustic set each year with Pegi singing backup.  Some giants of the industry have performed at the annual fundraiser as well, including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam and Dave Mathews.

By the time the nineties rolled around, Young set music aside to devote himself full-time to his family.  In fact, Ben’s health is so personal that Young released Trans, a strange album with electronically distorted vocals that grew out of an effort to communicate with his speechless son by computer.

Classic rock fans can catch Neil Young on his current trek through the South.  Click here to grab tickets to Thursday’s Neil Young concert in Hollywood, Florida or upcoming shows in Biloxi, Mobile, or Pensacola.

There are certainly benefits to growing up when Daddy is a Rock Star.  Check back with next week to learn about the death of Roger Waters’ father and growing up with his overbearing mother, as discussed in the best-selling concept album, The Wall, currently touring the world.

A newlywed, Todd McFliker is an award-winning reporter, photographer, and the author of All You Need is Love to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. He earned his Masters in Communication from Lynn University.