Music History

Neil Young's Harvest turns forty

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.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse

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