“If I could just live my life As easy as a song I’d wake up someday And the pain would all be gone…” – Neil Young, “Gateway of Love”
As long time readers know, I’m terribly impressed with Neil Young’s archive management. Other than Bob Dylan I can’t think of an artist who does a better job of going back through the archives and releasing the unreleased, so to speak. Neil Young is unique in that he has a number of complete albums that he recorded but then chose not to release for whatever reason… perhaps Prince was the same way but I can’t think of anybody who rivals Young in this department. Neil has gone into the archives recently and released albums he previously shelved like Hitchhiker and Homegrown and I loved both of those acoustic based gems. He continues to release complete concerts also – much like Springsteen does – mostly acoustic shows from the early 70s.
For us long time Neil Young fans we got a treat when Neil recently released another LP he originally shelved. This time it’s not an acoustic affair, oh no, this time it’s an album he recorded in 2001, Toast, with Crazy Horse. I love Neil’s work with Crazy Horse – Frank Sampedro, guitar/keyboards; Billy Talbot, bass; Ralph Molina, drums. They’re a sloppy, hard rocking, jammy band. I’ve always loved what I heard Neil Young say in an interview once about Crazy Horse, “I just seem to play better guitar with Crazy Horse.” Indeed. Some will argue with me but I think Frank Sampedro was the greatest guitar foil Young ever played with. Yes, I loved Danny Whitten or you could say Young and Stills spar pretty well but Sampedro brings out that primal guitar God in Young like nobody else.
To put Toast in context, it’s best to start at the beginning for me… I became a fan of Neil’s in the early 80s. I had shied away from Young in high school because I was hung up on the vocals… hey, we’re all young and foolish at one time. But when I got to college my roommate Drew turned me onto Tonight’s The Night and After The Gold Rush. I was hooked. I started my collection with his brilliant 3-LP (vinyl) “greatest hits” package Decade. It was a great primer for a new Young fan. Or is it for a young Young fan? Say what you want about Neil Young, it was really hard to climb on the bandwagon in the 80s, perhaps the worst decade of his career.
The 80s started off OK for Neil. I’ve always liked 1980’s Hawks And Doves, and I think it sold pretty well. Although that might have been sheer momentum. He was coming off one of his strongest albums in years, Rust Never Sleeps. He could have done almost anything and people would have bought the follow up to Rust. Then after Reactor, one of his weakest with Crazy Horse, the wheels came off. He started doing these weird “genre exercises.” There was Trans, which was… well, I don’t know what that was other than terrible. Then he did a rockabilly thing Everybody’s Rockin’. I mean, what? The album was like 25 minutes long. I remember this guy Tim dropping by my house at a party I was hosting while my parents were away and he’d just seen Neil on the tour for that album. I was like “Dude, why would you attend that show”…because that’s how I spoke at the time, everyone was “dude.” At that point David Geffen and Geffen records, who Neil had recently signed with (before Trans) sued him for making “non-commercial music.” He responded with Old Ways, a full on country album. Don’t fuck with Neil, he’ll push back.
After all that 80s horribleness – and I didn’t even mention the un-listenable Landing On Water, that I actually purchased – the 90s were actually a damn fine Neil Young decade. The Grunge guys were all seemingly inspired by Neil, especially his sloppy work with Crazy Horse and suddenly he was back in fashion. It didn’t hurt that he was coming up with some of his finest material in, well, a decade. He’d finished up the 80s in a very strong fashion – just like he had the 70s with Rust – with Life (an underrated LP with Crazy Horse), This Notes For You (with the Bluenotes) and culminating with the comeback album Freedom. That led to a string of great 90s records, including Ragged Glory with Crazy Horse, Harvest Moon, Sleeps With Angels (again with “the Horse”) and even his LP with Pearl Jam Mirror Ball… although I’d call that last one good, not great.
To finish up the 90s, after a tepid LP with Crazy Horse, Broken Arrow, Neil was coaxed into doing a CSNY reunion. The critics savaged Looking Forward but I loved it. Like American Dream, it should be on my list of albums only I like (B&Vs True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen; 12 Albums That Only I Love – Time to Re-Evaluate?). If you haven’t heard “Slowpoke,” from that album it’s the best Neil ballad ever. After seeing CSNY with my very pregnant friend the Jean Genie – you can’t imagine the dirty looks I got as people thought I was subjecting my wife to rock n roll… she’s a friend, assholes, and it was her choice to be here… – I couldn’t help but wonder what the new millennium would bring for Neil. It started off in wonderful fashion with the acoustic driven Silver And Gold. If Harvest Moon was the sequel to Harvest, was Silver And Gold the sequel to After the Gold Rush? I don’t know but it was a great, mellow album. I loved the song “Buffalo Springfield,” which I urge everybody to check out.
After Silver And Gold I thought it was going to be another golden decade for Young in the 00s. But then in 2002 he drops Are You Passionate?, a soul record. Literally a romantic, soul record. We were back to the 80s and the genre exercises again. To really immerse himself in this genre he even hired soul giants Booker T. and the MGs (Booker T. Jones/keyboards, legend Donald “Duck” Dunn/bass, Steve Potts/drums) as his backing band. Sadly guitarist Steve Cropper wasn’t employed… that might have at least brought some interesting guitar dueling to the party. I was baffled. The album also included his 9/11 tribute song “Let’s Roll” which was a little over the top. I heard the record but didn’t pay any attention. I did know that Crazy Horse played on one song, “Goin’ Home,” that I liked. I had sort of forgotten all about that record, much like Everybody’s Rockin’.
About ten years ago I’d heard rumors of yet another “lost” Neil Young & Crazy Horse album, recorded in between Silver And Gold and Are You Passionate? in 2001 named Toast. The name of the studio they’d recorded it in was named Toast Studios. It was in a then depressed part of San Francisco and the condition of the studio matched the surrounding neighborhood. I guess there were rats and roaches everywhere. Young had said of this album, Toast, “it was too sad to release.” Well, everybody loves sad Neil, so the cache this thing gained over the years it was locked in the vault was pretty intense. It was with great anticipation that we all waited for Toast to see the light of day.
What I didn’t realize and never discovered on the interweb was that before hiring the legendary soul band Booker T and the MGs, Neil tried out some of the Are You Passionate? material with Crazy Horse. Over half the tracks on Toast ended up in some form, occasionally with a different title, on AYP? When I discovered that this was the seed of that failed genre exercise I hesitated on purchasing Toast. It was hard to imagine the hard rocking bashers in Crazy Horse handling the soulful, heartbroken material better than the MGs. Boy I was wrong (per usual, ask my wife). One of the delights of this newly uncovered gem is listening to how nimble Crazy Horse are handling this material. The songs are inherently soulful and yet Crazy Horse plays it with such dexterity, I have to say Neil didn’t gain anything hiring another band.
The muse for all of this music was Young’s deteriorating relationship with his wife Pegi, who with his daughter Astrid sing back up vocals on some of these songs. Young usually shows up in the studio with complete songs but for these sessions he spent a lot of time sitting on the floor of the studio scribbling lyrics on a note pad while the band stood out back smoking and probably doing everything they could to avoid the vermin around the studio. The immediacy of Young’s writing on the fly comes through on the album.
As mentioned, the song “Goin’ Back” which uses Custer’s Last Stand as a metaphor for a beleaguered lover in a failing relationship (rather brilliantly I might add) was the only track from these sessions with Crazy Horse that made the actual Are You Passionate? album. This might be the same track I can’t really tell. It’s an epic rocker and may be my favorite here. There are a few tracks that didn’t make it to AYP? and I’m still amazed Neil left them in the vault so long. “Standing In The Light Of Love” is another rock gem of a song. It sounds vaguely Ragged Glory-ish to me. It’s a thrashing, Crazy Horse in-all-their-glory kind of track. The other is one of Neil’s poignant character studies, “Timberline” about a lumberjack who loses his job and then loses his faith in God. It’s a chugging rocker that Young sings in a painful howl. Both are just great tracks.
“Quit” is the track that opens Toast and it’s a low key soulful track and I’ll tell you I think this Crazy Horse version outstrips the MG’s version on AYP? by a mile. Pegi and Astrid sing the backing vocal/refrain of “don’t say you love me…” I could see why Young has said it was too sad to release. It’s like reading a letter to an ex girlfriend whose moved on. “How You Doin’?” (which turned into “Mr. Disappointment” on AYP?) is much better here as well. He doesn’t sing it in that growl like the previously released version. This is such a beautiful track… Neil’s always had a little soul in there – he was in the Mynah Birds with Rick James after all.
There are two long, 10-minute plus, epic Neil Young and Crazy Horse tracks here, “Boom Boom Boom” (which became “She’s A Healer”) and “Gateway of Love.” “Boom Boom Boom” is 13 minutes long and I love every minute of the song. Neil’s guitar emits sad wails of sound. There’s even a trumpet solo that reminded me of the Bluenotes. Listening to this song is a lot like wandering into the basement of the Green Lady Lounge and discovering a groovy band swinging… “Gateway of Love,” quoted above has some of the most raw, naked emotional lyrics of Young’s career. “I still feel you in my heart’s eye” is another lyric from the song that just grabbed me. “Gateway of Love” may be one of Neil’s best broken heart songs and he’s a man who has written many, many broken heart songs.
As you can tell I am thoroughly impressed with Toast. Is it a lost masterpiece? I’m not sure I’m ready to say that yet. It is a very, very good Neil Young & Crazy Horse record. Had he released this album instead of AYP? it might have changed how I look at the entire first decade of this millennium for Neil. This album ranks up there with Ragged Glory for me as a latter day standout record. Only Bob Dylan has a penchant like this for having a great album on his hands and then deconstructing it and releasing a lesser version. Forget all about Are You Passionate? and consider Toast as it’s own entity. This is great late period Neil Young, simply sensational stuff.
Put this one on late at night while you ruminate about former lovers over a tumbler of fine whiskey… it’ll sweep you away.