Review: Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ – The Lost Masterpiece, In The Vaults 45 Years

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It was a little too personal…it scared me.” – Neil Young on not releasing Homegrown

While I’m like most of you out there – a huge music fan – there is something about the inner music geek in me that gets really pumped for the release of a “lost album.” By lost album I mean a record that an artist has recorded and for whatever reason decided to keep in the vault instead of release to the public. There’s a lot of reasons for shelving an album that’s already “in the can,” as the saying goes. Usually it’s the record company… the dreaded suits. It almost always gives the unreleased record an enormous amount of mystique. Ryan Adams completed Love Is Hell and when his record company refused to release it the word on the street was that it was “too dark.” Naturally that led the music geeks and Ryan Adams’ fans to clamor for its release…too dark, yes please! The record company finally relented and it was released. It’s a really good record… but uh, I’ve heard darker albums. Put on Big Star’s third album if you want bleak.

Typically an artist (or a band) will gather to write and record a group of songs. When they have enough tunes or perhaps better said, a cohesive group of songs, they release an album and go on tour. Rinse, repeat. There are those artists who are so prolific they record more than enough songs for the album. They record until the creative well is dry before stopping and going on tour. They pick the best tracks and leave the rest in the vault or save them for the next album. The aforementioned Ryan Adams is merely one of those type of artists. There are several others like Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young who had such an overflowing creative font that they have vast amounts of unreleased music. All of that unheard music leaves the music geek in me wondering… what’s going on in that vault and how do I get in there to listen? I’ll bring my own beer… These deep and full vaults are what bootleggers live for.

While there are many artists with a ton of unreleased tracks in their vaults it’s still a bit more rare for an artist to go through the entire creative process to record a full album – finished production and completed down to the track listing – and then rescind the record. Springsteen sent a single disc version of The River to the record company and changed his mind and pulled it back. While most of those songs got on the final 2-LP album, the original single disc version was still of interest because of the unreleased track “Cindy” and the rockabilly version of “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch).” Prince pulled The Black Album and released the tepid Lovesexy. The Black Album, which was eventually released, was purportedly too X-rated to be released. It was widely bootlegged and finally saw release.

While pulling back an entire LP is rare, I would have to say the king of recording an entire album only to put it on the shelf is Neil Young. He’s got more unreleased full albums than any artist you can name: Chrome Dreams, Toast with Crazy Horse, Homefires, and Oceanside Countryside to mention but a few. Finally, through his superb Neil Young Archives, he’s started releasing some of these albums. The famous Hitchhiker recorded in 1976 just came out in 2017 (LP Review: Neil Young’s Album From His Vault, ‘Hitchhiker’). It seems at long last one of Neil’s most famous unreleased albums, 1975’s Homegrown has been released after 45 years of sitting in the vault. It was worth the wait.

Now as a “warning label” I have to echo a comment I got a few weeks ago on my post on the first single “Try” (New Single: Neil Young’s “Try” From the Long Awaited Vault LP, ‘Homegrown’), from a reader, “Introgroove.” Neil is about to release his second box set of vault material, Archives, Vol. 2 in late summer/early fall. He’s teased the release of this follow-up to 2009’s Archives, Vol 1 for quite a while, so we’ll see if it comes out… As a warning, some of these archival releases are probably going to be included in Archive Vol 2. During the build up to Vol 1, Neil released a series of previously unreleased live LPs which I snapped up. When Vol 1 came out I was crestfallen to find that all 3 LPs I’d purchased (including Live At Massey Hall, Live At the Fillmore East with Crazy Horse, and Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury Hall) were all in there. I wasn’t going to buy them twice. We’re 11 years down the line and I’m willing to take the leap for the studio stuff, but I wanted everyone to know these will probably be in the box set if you want to wait. The inner music geek in me won this current argument and I’ve been turning up Homegrown since last Thursday.

Homegrown has a storied history. It was recorded toward the end of Young’s darkest period marked by the three albums known as “the Ditch Trilogy.” Hearing Homegrown makes me wonder if we’re going to need to recalibrate that to The Ditch Foursome. Neil became a world wide superstar after the release of his landmark country-rock album Harvest. Neil didn’t react very well to his new found fame. He hired a band of mostly session musicians who he didn’t get along with, took them on the road, turned it up loud and recorded his next album, the first of the Ditch Trilogy, Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP). Prior to the tour, he had to fire guitarist Danny Whitten, his only friend in the band, because Whitten’s drug use was out of control. A day later, Whitten was dead from a lethal combination of drugs and booze. Young was guilt-ridden and depressed… and he did what artists do, he turned his grief and anger into music… while drinking a ton of tequila. I avoid tequila. I’m either gonna fight you or kiss you when I’m on tequila… and possibly both at the same time…

It’s been said that the Ditch Trilogy was a reaction to his new found fame and his inability to deal with that success. It was certainly also a chronicle of the personal problems he was going through including but not exclusive to Whitten’s death. In many ways the music could also be seen as a metaphor for the angst felt by the 60s generation as they watched their ideals and idealism slowly die away as the greed and narcissism of the 70s took over. The greatest artists always seem to be an antenna for what’s going on in the world (subconsciously or not) and one has to wonder if Young was just overly tuned into that.

In ’73 Young recorded the masterpiece Tonight’s the Night but the record company didn’t want to release it. It is a truly bleak record but I love it. In early 1974 he released On the Beach which isn’t much more cheerful. That summer he went on tour with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for a stadium reunion tour. At the end of ’74 and early ’75 he recorded what would become Homegrown. The album is all about the end of his relationship with Carrie Snodgress who’d inspired many of his great songs including “A Man Needs A Maid.” They’d had a child together, Zeke. But things had finally ended and Neil recorded Homegrown to chronicle his heartbreak. At the last minute, Young pulled Homegrown and decided to release Tonight’s the Night instead. I’ve heard two stories on why he made that decision: a) he had a listening party and people liked Tonight’s the Night better or b) Rick Danko of the Band told him he should release Tonight’s the Night instead of Homegrown. I can’t imagine a group of people at a listening party picking the former so my money is on the Danko story. Neil has always said Homegrown was “too personal” to be released.

Homegrown then sat in the vaults for 45 years. For once we can say that Neil was holding on to a true masterpiece. Even on the first listen this record had the feeling of an instant classic. That may be because we’ve heard some of these tracks before as Neil put many of them out on other records “as is” or slightly altered. “Homegrown” rerecorded with Crazy Horse and “Star of Bethlehem” (as is) both came out on American Stars N Bars. “Love Is a Rose” came out on the compilation album Decade. “Little Wing” came out on Hawks And Doves. I really like hearing these songs in this album setting which is what Neil originally intended. Making Homegrown, for me, an essential Neil Young album.

The break up theme is established immediately on the opening track “Separate Ways.” It’s a mellow, acoustic track that reminds me of “Out On the Weekend.” Levon Helm of the Band plays drums on this track and he’s just extraordinary. “We go our separate ways lookin’ for better days sharin’ our little boy who grew from joy back then…” Heartrending stuff. The next track, “Try” strikes a more hopeful tone and has quotes from Snodgress’ quirky mother throughout. “Mexico” is a stark ballad set to piano, where Neil tells his son goodbye as now he’s a “travelin’ man.” “Love Is A Rose” sounds like a sweet ballad but really is a “swearing off love” song. “Little Wing” and “Star of Bethlehem” make more sense as the last two tracks on this album vs the way they were sort of tossed onto other LPs. “Kansas” is a short, acoustic song where Neil seems to be singing to a groupie with whom he’s sought some comfort. As someone who was a fool for love and suffered through more than what I consider my fair share of breakups, I’m knocked out that Neil could put almost a full album worth of heartbreak together and make it so emotionally affecting. (Or is it effecting? I never know…)

There are lighter moments. The title track, an ode to growing your own pot isn’t as heavy as the version on Stars N Bars and has a more rustic feel here. “We Don’t Smoke It” is a bluesy vamp of a track… I’m sure it’s fun to hear live. “Vacancy” is probably the heaviest rockin’ tune on the album but it does carry that break up theme. It’s the one angry moment in a collection of classic Neil laments. “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there.” He goes on to sing, “You come through in the weirdest ways.” True frustration seeps into the core of that song. “White Line” a track that was rerecorded with electric guitars by Crazy Horse is acoustic here with a fantastic bit of guitar work by the Band’s Robbie Robertson. You forget how virtuoso all those guys in the Band were. I love this quieter version of the track.

The only track here that should have been left off is “Florida.” It’s a weird fever dream of a song. Its a spoken word piece where Neil rambles about hang gliders in a downtown area of a city in Florida… maybe Miami? As he’s speaking someone is dragging a wet finger over the rim of a glass. While I don’t dig it, my wife’s cat got up, meowed at me and left the room when it came on… I think he hates it and he’s pretty open-minded. I can’t imagine dogs liking that track either. Including “Florida” here just gives us a snapshot of where Neil’s head was at back then. He would soon come out of his funk with the release of Zuma in 1975. Although with tracks like “Stupid Girl” and “Drive Back” perhaps by Zuma his grief had merely morphed to anger.

I’m certainly glad we got this important document from one of Neil’s darkest and yet most interesting periods. Somehow as we all face these current heavy times, it makes me feel better to get this dark little postcard from Neil…like the post office just discovered it and finally all these years later delivered it. It’s as if it’s saying to me, it was dark back then but it got better. It always gets better… it can’t get worse?

Be safe out there. Wear your masks. Cheers!

 

 

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