Neil Young's Harvest turns forty

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The year 1972 saw the death of the hippies -- or, at the very least, the decline of the movement from idealistic young go-getters playing with the fire of radical social change to an out-of-control inferno of hard drugs and failed dreams. Neil Young's Harvest wasn't the first to comment on these dark times (Joni Mitchell's Blue or James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" come to mind), but it seems to cement the era in a coffin of melancholy and soft optimism.

The heady years leading up to that album were a jerky ride for the folk-rock troubadour. Having played guitar with Rick James in a Canadian R&B band (no joke!), he went on to perform on national televison with Buffalo Springfield, then left that act and joined history's most popular supergroup (CSNY) and, finally, became a solo veteran of a bygone era -- all before the age of 26.

During this period, Young somehow found the time and energy to record three solo albums. Known throughout his career as a prolific songwriter, he once wrote three classic gems -- "Cinnamon Girl," "Cowgirl in the Sand," and "Down by the River" -- all while nursing a temperature of 103. His third release, After the Gold Rush, featured a song critical of a post-segregated South, "Southern Man," in which Young rhetorically asks, "When will you pay them back?" The song earned the adolescent songwriter a place on the shit list of Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, who wrote in "Sweet Home Alabama" that "I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern Man don't need him around anyhow."

By 1971, Young had assembled so many songs, he famously said to a reporter that the only thing he could think to do was go on the road and play them, the idea being that the new songs would be released on a live album. All that changed toward the end of the tour, when Young made an appearance on the new Johnny Cash on Campus TV show.

The night before taping, Young met Elliot Mazer, who was running Area 615 studios down the street. Mazer encouraged the soft-spoken hippie to record his next album at the studio. Young checked it out and said okay, let's do it -- like, right now. Mazer scrambled to find a backing band for the improvisational session. Despite it being a Saturday night, a working night for most any musician, Mazer assembled a group that pleased Young (bassist Tim Drummond just happened to be walking down the street at the perfect time). He dubbed them the Stray Gators, and they would be the backing band throughout the album's recording. That night, they laid down the tracks that would become some of Young's most beloved material: "Harvest," "Heart of Gold," "Old Man" and "Dance, Dance, Dance."

On the show the following night, Young premiered a new song, "Needle and the Damage Done," a heart-ripping ballad about the heroin addiction of his guitar player, Danny Whitten. Afterward, he invited fellow Cash guests Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor back to the studio to record backing vocals for "Heart of Gold" & "Old Man" -- along with a few other songs that would be released years later.

Afterward, Young retreated to his new ranch in rural northern California. It was there that he had written "Old Man," a sentimental tome about the caretaker of his ranch -- a simple, geriatric farmhand who was baffled that the grungy hippy had amassed enough wealth at 24 to purchase his own ranch.

It would be here that part two of the Harvest recordings would take place. After setting up the musicians in the loft of a barn, Mazer recorded the songs remotely from below. Instead of wearing headphones, the musicians used PA speakers as monitors, which allowed a lot of leakage of various instruments into the microphones -- a sound that would drive most engineers batshit but that Young really loved.

He was constantly trying to catch the wave of improvisational inspiration -- not over-thinking anything, yet pushing his craft to the ultimate limit. The ranch sessions delivered organic style recordings of "Are You Ready for the Country," "Alabama" (a song that would get him in further trouble with Ronnie Van Zant) and "Words."

In contrast to the dusty, leaky sound of the ranch recordings, the songs "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World" were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. The grand scale of the symphony provided an epic weight to the songs -- which some critics would go on to call "bloated" and "overdone."

Former bandmates Crosby, Stills and Nash were employed to provide their transcendent harmonies as backing vocals to "Needle & the Damage Done," which was plucked from a live recording of Young performing at UCLA.

Whenever an album withstands the elements of time and is written about years later, the typical storyline of its release goes: The critics loved it but fans hated it. This is not the case with Harvest. Rock writers like Lester Bangs despised the down-home folk stylings that populated the radio waves of the early 1970s -- he once went so far as declare a personal death threat to James Taylor. Both Bangs and Young were lamenting a period of lost youth and failed dreams. The futures they longed for actually looked quite similar; they just sounded very different.

(Thankfully, it was long after Bangs's death that Neil Young admitted to a Rolling Stone interviewer that he originally wanted the Harvest LP to be 100 percent biodegradable -- a fact that would have caused Lester Bangs to drink a gallon of cough syrup and set himself on fire.)

Record buyers of the time loved Harvest. On the strength of the radio hit "Heart of Gold," the album quickly reached #1 in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, and it would go on to be the best-selling album of 1972.

The sudden and unexpected surge of fame didn't bode well for the media-shy Neil Young, who was notoriously anti-celebrity. When CSNY headlined the legendary Woodstock festival, Young intentionally skipped the band's acoustic set, and when he joined them for the electric set, he angrily warned the cameramen filming the documentary: "One of you fuckin' guys comes near me, and I'm gonna fuckin' hit you with my guitar!"

Having quit two bands just as they were becoming top-billing acts (Buffalo Springfield, CSNY), the idea that he would become a rock god as a solo performer was daunting to Young. In the liner notes for the compilation Decade, he described his fame as having "put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there."

While Young was taking control of his fame, his personal life was beginning to split apart. After learning of his newborn son being diagnosed with cerebral palsy, tragedy struck again with the deaths of two key members of Young's regular backing band, Crazy Horse: guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Whitten had been the inspiration of the song "Needle and the Damage Done" while he was still alive (he was kicked out of the band for being too fucked up to play), and Berry's death would be documented in the song "Tonight's the Night." During shows that followed, Young would preface these songs with a subtle anti-drug tone; in Decade, he writes "I'm no preacher, but drugs killed a lot of men." An interesting take on substances from a man who once cost Martin Scorsese a small fortune digitally editing a coke booger out of Young's nose for his film The Last Waltz.

With delayed albums, poor sales and a failing voice, the ride through the ditch that Young desired was indeed rougher. Whether he intentionally imploded or the record-buying public simply lost interest is debatable -- though the kind of fame that embodied Young in 1972 was never repeated.

If not his sound, Young's aesthetic certainly was repeated. Throughout the first half of the '90s, ripped jeans and flannel shirts were the uniforms of constructed rebellion. Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder mirrored Young's anti-camera line in the live video for the song "Even Flow" -- "This is not a TV studio!" he yells at the director before beginning the song. Young eventually invited the band to play with him on his album, Mirror Ball.

Kurt Cobain's association with Young is most famously known for the grunge king plucking a line from the song "Hey Hey, My My" in his suicide note. But on closer inspection, the lyrics found in Harvest's "Heart of Gold" -- "It's these expressions I never give/That keep me searching for a heart of gold/And I'm getting old" -- express an existential frustration with fame and self-loathing, a theme that can easily be heard in the post-meteoric rise of Cobain when he sings "teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old," in the opening lines of the song "Serve the Servant." Both artists had a difficult time dealing with the pressures of becoming a generational touchstone -- Young decided to reject celebrity and challenge his audience (such as with his rockabilly or electro-rock phases in the 1980s), while Cobain ultimately took a more permanently self-destructive path.

Whether anyone was paying attention or not, Neil Young has continued to push himself and his craft, staying in the ditch and keeping his head down. The quietly sad and romantically pastoral songs of Harvest not only mark the end of a counter-culture, but continue to speak to generations of idealistic music fans, slowly outgrowing their own time.

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