LP Review: Neil Young’s Album From His Vault, ‘Hitchhiker’

neil-young-hitchhiker-full

“You ready Briggs?” – Neil Young to producer David Briggs, August 11, 1976, Malibu

It would be easy to look at the track listing of ‘Hitchhiker’ and be confused. “Wait a minute, I’ve seen all of these tracks before…is this a greatest hits album?”…I can almost hear you say. And yes, eventually most of these tracks came out on other albums… But on a magical night, August 11th, 1976 Neil Young entered a studio in Malibu with producer David Briggs and cut all 10 of these tracks. He and Briggs had made a habit of going into the studio, on nights with a full moon and cutting music. According to Wikipedia, Neil wouldn’t have anything prepared, he’d just sit down with an acoustic guitar and harmonica and say, “Time to turn on the tap…” Purportedly, he’d only pause in recording the songs that night to take breaks for “weed, beer or coke.” If that’s how Neil turns on the “genius” tap, I think we need to get a friendly beer distributor to send a loaded beer truck over to Neil’s… maybe pick up a dealer or two on the way… I’m not condoning anything, just saying though…

Neil Young is one of those rare artists, like Dylan, Springsteen and yes, Prince who can go into a studio and cut a full album’s worth of material and then, strangely, shelve it. There are songs that appear on 1989’s ‘Freedom’ that were originally written and laid down in the mid-70s. I was always baffled when I heard bootlegs, as to why Neil wouldn’t have put out these songs/albums that he’d cut when he recorded them. What was he thinking? I’d ask myself. In the case of the all-night session for ‘Hitchhiker’ he submitted the results to his record company and they rejected the album as sounding too much like a demo. Re-record this stuff with a band they said… If we need any proof record company guys don’t get art, just listen to this album. This album would have been a great appendix to his “Ditch Trilogy” and would have been better than the ‘Stills/Young’ album he actually put out in 1976.

I’ve heard a lot of bootleg, demo type stuff. One needs only to turn to Bob Dylan’s box set ‘The Cutting Edge’ to hear an artist cutting demos and shaping songs. Typically you get a lot of studio chatter… ‘Hitchhiker”s songs sounds like a complete set of songs. There’s no start/stop moments here. These songs don’t feel like demos. These are fully realized songs. Give credit to the only other person in the studio that night, producer David Briggs, for catching the immediacy and brilliance of these songs as they were being formed. Briggs literally captured Neil’s lightning in a bottle or, well, on tape. For the most part, these songs were eventually released in the form they were originally recorded in August of 76… proof these tunes don’t sound like demos. What’s great about ‘Hitchhiker’ is this album, from deep in Neil’s vault, gives us the chance to finally hear all of these songs as a set. This is the way to listen to these songs, as a complete piece, versus a track or two on scattered albums. That’s what makes this essential Young listening, instead of something for completists.

“Pocahontas,” a song so epic even Johnny Cash covered it during the American Recording period with Rick Rubin, kicks off this album. I’ve always thought it had dreamy, trippy lyrics… perhaps Neil’s consumption the evening it was recorded explains that feeling. It was eventually released on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ It’s the same track found here, although Neil overdubbed some weird squeaky sound-effects onto it, for reasons unclear, on it’s eventual ‘Rust’ release. I love the version here, stripped to the bone. Also from ‘Rust’ is “Ride My Llama,” basically as it appears on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ One of the revelations here is the original version of “Powderfinger,” here, acoustic. “Powderfinger” is one of my favorite tracks, not only from ‘Rust,’ but ever. The epic electric guitar on the ‘Rust’ version seems to imitate the violence that occurs in the lyrics, like Hendrix playing “Machine Gun.” Who are these men on “the white boat comin’ up the river,” and why are they armed. Are they revenuers coming to seize the still? Why is our 22 year old hero firing shots from “daddy’s rife” which felt “reassuring” in our hero’s hand? Supposedly, Neil Young offered the tune to Lynyrd Skynyrd before their fateful plane crash. I can’t imagine it getting any better than Neil’s version… Neil has always had two sides to his music – the epic electric, usually with Crazy Horse and the quiet acoustic of say, ‘Harvest.’ This version of the song encapsulates that dichotomy perfectly.

“Captain Kennedy” was another great tune, released eventually on ‘Hawks And Doves,’ in much the same version as here. “Campaigner,” the excellent track here was released on Neil’s epic greatest hits record, ‘Decade.’ “Even Richard Nixon has got soul…” Does he? “Human Highway” was also cut that August night in Malibu but not released until ‘Comes a Time.’ “Country Waltz” was released in a different form on ‘American Stars ‘N Bars,’ which by this point in the song list you have to wonder… why wasn’t this released in 1976. The craziest thing to me was the version of the title track, “Hitchhiker” was released in a weird version on ‘Le Noise’ the 2010 album produced by Daniel Lanois. I’ve always felt like ‘Le Noise’ was a missed opportunity… I’ve often referred to it as “Le Crap.” The version here is so far superior… Again, I wonder how this song took so long to see the light of day…

The song that is a real revelation to me was “Give Me Strength.” It, and “Hawaii” are the only tracks I don’t believe have ever seen release on a Neil Young album. “Give Me Strength” is an amazing track and frankly, worth the price of admission here. “Hawaii” is an OK track, and I can see perhaps why it was left in the can. It’s an album track, nothing revelatory.

Again, the fact that most of these tracks, 8 of 10, came out in some form or other over the years may make this album seem superfluous. But trust me, it’s not. This form, all acoustic, cut together as a piece, is the way to hear this record and to hear these songs. This is essential for any Neil Young fan. Pick this one up asap.

Chris Cornell, who toward the last part of his life was recording acoustic-based songs, and then returning to Soundgarden for loud rock n’ roll said he kind of got how Neil could go from loud rock to acoustic. It was great to have the option… This album is some of the best of Neil’s acoustic, quieter, non-Crazy Horse side. “Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her…” I hope he’ll pry open the vault for more of this! It’s truly a treasure.

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