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!

 

 

B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums

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“Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved, See my heart I decorate it like a grave” – Alice In Chains, “Down In A Hole”

A few weeks ago I posted a playlist about heroin, entitled “Chasing the Dragon,” B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin. When I was compiling that playlist I ended up thinking a lot about Alice In Chains and their best album Dirt. Yes, I’m with everybody else in thinking that Jar of Flies was their creative peak, but that was an EP like Sap (another great bit of music), not a full blown album. When doing a playlist about heroin it’s hard not to think about Alice In Chains and their late lead singer Layne Staley who died of an overdose. When I put that list together I realized that I had put not one but two Alice In Chains tracks on it, both from Dirt. I really dug those two tracks on the playlist, “God Smack” and “Junkman.” I hadn’t listened to that whole album in quite a long time and so with those two tunes bouncing around my skull, I had to put it on. I love that record, but I realized about halfway through…this is an unrelentingly dark album. Why they didn’t just name it Smack I’ll never know.

It slowly began to dawn on me, I really like music on that dark edge. It wasn’t always that way. When I first started listening to rock and roll on KY/102 and then later when I started actually buying and consuming music, my tastes ran to the more upbeat. I wanted something that “RAWKED!” Van Halen, Boston and ZZ Top were amongst my early purchases. I wanted that good time, party music. I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to listen to anything acoustic. I think most of my friends’ musical tastes ran in that same direction. We were all young, testosterone driven maniacs. What’s that phrase, “young, dumb and full of cum.” My friend Drew and I used to joke that our pal Matthew’s record collection when he got to college was all heavy metal with one Fleetwood Mac album thrown in. His fixation on Kiss back then still baffles me. For my  part, heavy metal did play a big part in all of my early listening from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest to AC/DC.

I have to admit, looking back, that even then I was a sucker for a good ballad. I would have never admitted to liking sad songs back then… no, no, give me songs about chicks with a guitar solo. My first Springsteen album purchase was The River and while I loved “The Ties That Bind,” “I’m A Rocker” and “Out In The Street,” I was really, really into “Drive All Night.” The mellow tunes drew me to that album as deeply as the rockers. It’s hard to explain. You could say I was always secretly drawn to great lyrics, hence my early interest in Dylan, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. I was that odd person who could relate to songs about broken hearts and sad endings to relationships before I’d even kissed a girl let alone had a girlfriend. Maybe I was slightly depressed as a kid and thus I had this feeling that my heart was already broken from a very early age. No one ever really wants to share the dark parts of themselves, especially when you’re young. There are just some of us who feel things more deeply and life itself can break your heart sometimes…

In college I started to branch out in terms of musical tastes and that’s when I started to buy some of the darker music in my collection. I mean, in truth,  it’s not all “dark,” some of it is just sad or melancholy music. It seems even at that tender age I was like Tom Waits who famously said, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” In the old days, when things weren’t going well, I’d put on some mellow, generally sad songs and hearing these artists sing about their heartbreak and losses made me feel, well, less alone. Someone else out there had been through what I was going through now and survived. Of course, you can take the sadder end of the musical spectrum too far sometimes. After one break up, my friend the Accountant (who lived three floors below me at the time) came up to my apartment and I was listening to some funeral dirge, moping about when he said, “Say man, uh, maybe all this downer music is affecting your mood… do you have any Van Halen you can put on?” The Rock Chick used to pretend to weep every time she caught me listening to Ryan Adams.

I realize that now may not be the time to share this particular list of albums. Many of us are feeling isolated and alone (B&V’s Pandemic Playlist – Rock n Roll To The Self-Isolation Rescue). If you’re prone to depression, I would suggest maybe avoiding these albums until we’re all free to walk outside without looking like extras on the set of the television show ‘E.R.’ I know the Rock Chick feels like I do, stuck at home and slightly bored. I take my life into my hands every time I go downstairs… like they say about a blowout football game when the teams start taking cheap shots at each other, it’s getting a little chippy down there. I have always either found solace in these records, or they’re just kick ass albums that everyone should hear. Take the gold where you can find it.

  1. Alice In Chains, Dirt – I’ve already talked about this album above, but it’s truly AIC’s finest full length album. “Down In A Hole,” “Rain When I Die,” and “Them Bones” are all great tunes. It’s clear the theme of this album is heroin. The only lighter moment is the song “Rooster” about Jerry Cantrell’s father surviving the Vietnam War…if you can consider that upbeat?
  2. Nirvana, In Utero – This album was certainly Cobain’s reaction to being named the “voice of his generation.” They were trying to shrink the size of their fan base by recording some really abrasive music. You don’t record a song like “Rape Me” if you’re trying to bring people onto the bandwagon. “Heart Shaped Box” was the tune that actually turned me around on Nirvana. Something clicked for me when I heard it. I still love that song even with lyrics like, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” While some of the tracks on this LP are impenetrable, “All Apologies,” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are amongst their best. The art work told you all you needed to know about this record. I bought it in a used CD store downtown by the bar Harlings and it took me to the rest of their catalog.
  3. Pearl Jam, Riot Act – I may be wrong about this but at one time this was Pearl Jam’s worst selling record. It’s no coincidence that the first three albums on this list come from the Grunge era. That generation came of age on lithium (hence the SiriusXM station by that name that plays the music of that era). This is a later record by PJ and I’ve always considered it a bummer from start to finish. There are a few light moments like the humorous “Bushleaguer” about George W. Bush (“born on third, thinks he got a triple,” a line I use often). I’ve been listening to this album again and while it’s intense, it’s still a damn good Pearl Jam record.
  4. Big Star, Third/Sister Lovers – Big Star’s Alex Chilton was so disillusioned about the music business and Big Star’s failure to connect with a larger audience, he holed up and recorded this set of despondent songs. It wasn’t released until years after they broke up. There still isn’t an agreed to, official running order of the songs. “Thank You Friends” drips with sarcasm. “Holocaust” is despair exemplified. Big Star was a band I didn’t discover until after in life, but man I’m glad I did.
  5. John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band – Lennon’s first proper solo album after the implosion of the Beatles. He’d been going to Primal Scream therapy and the vocals bear that out. He often goes from a whisper to a scream. “Mother” is haunting. Songs like “Isolation” and “Working Class Hero” reveal a pretty jaundiced world view. I love the song “God,” where he lists the litany of things he doesn’t believe in any more… until he ends with just he and Yoko…”I believe in me, Yoko and me.” I like this album significantly more than Imagine, but that may say more about me than John Lennon.
  6. Nick Drake, Pink Moon – Drake was another artist I came to later in life. In his short tragic life he only recorded three albums. Pink Moon was his third album and it was a departure from his two power-pop albums that proceeded it. Pink Moon is just Drake’s vocal and an acoustic guitar. He was despondent his career didn’t take off but he largely refused to ever play live… He died shortly after this album came out from an overdose on antidepressants. I think that says it all.
  7. Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night – One of Young’s famous “Ditch Trilogy.” This is one of my absolute favorite Neil Young albums, if not my favorite. Drowning in despair, guilt and tequila after he fired original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who then died of an overdose, this is Young at his most raw and emotional. This album knocked me out the first time my friend Drew played it for me and it continues to do so today.
  8. Elton John, Blue Moves – People forget how huge Elton was from 1970-1975. This album isn’t dark but it’s certainly laced with a ton of melancholy. Many people feel it was Elton feeling sorry for himself after the backlash he got for admitting he was Gay. The 70s were at once a freewheeling and closed-minded time. I think he was just feeling some fatigue after 5 tumultuous years. He was bound to have some kind of let down… It’s not a great album but it’s a good one. It’s a double-LP and probably suffers in the shadow of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that preceded it by two years. The second album is particularly down. This album has the saddest song ever recorded, “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word.” I’ve got my own story about that song…but again, we can’t share all the darkest parts of ourselves.
  9. Lou Reed, Berlin – This is the bleakest, most despondent thing I’ve ever heard. Reed’s concept album about a couple (Jim and Caroline) who are German drug addicts. It’s got some great songs, “How Do You Think It Feels,” and “Caroline Says I” amongst them. But this is hard one to get through. It has grown on me significantly over the years but there is no fairy tale ending here… I dare you to listen to the song “The Kids” and not be haunted by it…
  10. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska – I was a huge Springsteen fan in high school. I had all of his albums up to that point. The River had hooked me. Then I went away for that difficult freshman year in college. I struggled my first semester due to some self-inflicted wounds (love gone wrong). I got home at Christmas and was in the mall when I saw that he had a new album out. Ignoring the stark imagery of the front cover, I thought, here we go The River 2.0. When I dropped the needle on the album and heard the stark, depressing title track I remember having the opposite feeling of the joy I felt when I heard The River for the first time. I liked “Reason To Believe” and almost immediately dug “Atlantic City,” but it took me years and years to come to appreciate this collection of songs about outlaws, losers and outcasts. Everybody feels left outside of society here. It’s a masterpiece, but I’d sure like to hear the “Electric Nebraska” – the version of the album recorded with the E Street Band… maybe we can hope for a boxset…

There you have it, my top bleak, depressing albums. Sometimes you’ve got to go dark. Again, if you’re prone to depression, you might wanna wait on these records. I’ve always loved these albums and I hope you do too. If there are albums like this that you’re into, please let me know and I’ll check them out! Otherwise, sit back, put one of these on, pour something dark and murky and contemplate…

Stay healthy and safe out there. Cheers!

B&V’s True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen – 12 Albums That Only I Love… Time to Re-Evaluate?

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“This is no social crisis, this is you having fun…” The Who, “Another Tricky Day”

We’ve all made mistakes in our lives and we’ve all had to learn to live with those bad decisions… Here it is, only day 2 of the enforced “Stay At Home” order and I suddenly feel the need to unburden myself of all my sins. Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t left my house since nine days ago and the only sins being confessed to here are musical in nature. All other sins… well, those records are sealed until 25 years after I’m gone and forgotten. While I was always someone who people confided in, I must say this confessional mood seems to be catching. I’m hearing all sorts of sordid things. I just had a friend admit to me that he saw the Little River Band in concert. Everybody loves the Little River Band but no one will ever admit to it. Ironically, I happen to have an almost sentimental attachment to their song “Reminiscing.” There, now I’m on record as an LRB fan…more confessions. The Rock Chick admitted to me this morning, for the first time in our marriage, that she saw Molly Hatchet in concert but doesn’t remember much of it… We’ve all been there (The 10 Concerts I Should Have Skipped). I’m still trying to wrap my head around her being at a Molly Hatchet concert but that’s my issue to contend with.

We’ve all made those musical mistakes. You’re standing in the record store and you have Pat Benetar’s Precious Time in your left hand and Beggars Banquet in your right hand and you end up leaving the store with the Benetar “saving” the Stones’ classic for another day. That is sadly based on a true story. Sigh. Not that there’s anything wrong with Pat Benetar but I didn’t buy Beggars Banquet until I was in college, years later (and I’m the Stones freak?).  We all have albums that we’re perhaps embarrassed about now. Maybe the album is “of its time” so to speak. I actually had a Bryan Adams record (Reckless) for a long time that I bought in the 80s. Or perhaps a relationship or friendship led you to a bad choice. I had a TLC’s CrazySexyCool for a while based on the recommendation of an adamant squeeze I had back in the day. Not every woman I dated had the Rock Chick’s impeccable taste in music.

For the most part, as a “serious” collector I’ve culled through my collection and weeded out the outliers. I try to keep everything, vinyl or CD, that I’ve ever owned but being married has forced me to thin the herd. Every time we move I find myself selling at the Used Record store vs buying… although I’m usually a sucker for that “store credit” gambit. I sell off a certain number of albums and come home with a few new ones… it’s just the circle of life. Being cooped up at home these last few nights has sent me looking through my vinyl collection yet again. I discovered a few albums that, I must confess, I just love but have less than stellar reputations. Either the critics were “meh,” or fans didn’t buy the albums but I did. Since I only write about stuff I like – God knows there’s enough negative bullshit in the world – I am often accused of being a tad “over positive” about certain artists and albums. I have to tell you, I’ve really enjoyed listening to these albums over the last few nights. These just might be albums that need a reappraisal. I asked the Rock Chick if she had any albums she loved and no one else did and she said, “I love Oasis and let’s face it nobody but me and (her friend) Rich likes them.” Rich is the one who always asks me at parties I throw to “put on some Oasis.” Although oddly, on those occasions I’ve been at his house, he never seems to play Oasis.

While only one of these albums is truly embarrassing, the rest are solid if not spectacular as some of the entries in the respective artists’ catalogs. Not every album can be Every Picture Tells A Story or Who’s Next. If you’re a career type of artist – one worthy of following an entire catalog – there will be ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys. Since nobody is really going anywhere for a while, put one of these on and dig a little deeper into the catalogs of these great artists. We all have guilty pleasures… these are mine.

  1. The Who, Face Dances -I will always be fond of this, my first Who album. “You Better You Bet” was huge on radio and I bought this record on the spot. With Kenny Jones (formerly of the Faces) on drums and Townsend’s guitar seemingly missing this doesn’t really sound like anything that came before it but I still love this album. “Another Tricky Day” is the perfect antidote for today. “Daily Records” is the nicest statement of purpose in all of rock and roll. “How Can You Do It Alone” about masturbating is funny. The Entwistle songs, “You” and “The Quiet One” both rock with that Who grit. There’s a lot to like here.
  2. Fleetwood Mac, Mirage – Sure, this was a pretty good seller, but after the epic success of Rumours and wild experimentation of Tusk this album seems like a retreat. I am drawn to the melodies and harmonies on this record. Stevie Nicks’ tracks are the gold, from the hit “Gypsy” to the country-rock of “That’s Alright” to the shimmery, sexy track “Straight Back” she could do no wrong. While none of the Buckingham tracks were “hits” I really like a lot of what he’s doing here on tracks like “Empire State,” and “Oh, Diane.” It’s a quiet little pleasure.
  3. The Rolling Stones, Black And Blue – This is basically a recording of the auditions being held for Mick Taylor’s replacement. While many guitarists tried out for the Stones – Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck amongst others – they finally settled on Ronnie Wood. This album is criticized for being a bunch of jams and reggae stuff but that’s what I like about it. The two ballads, the only tracks that required them to actually write a song, are two of my favorite Stones’ deep tracks – “Fool To Cry” and especially “Memory Motel.” In college a friend asked me if this album was any good and I said, no. I would amend that answer to yes, if your expectations for another Exile On Main Street are properly leveled. This is a fun record and “Hand of Fate” is an awesome rock song I’d love to hear live.
  4. Rush, Caress of Steel – I don’t know why this album doesn’t get more love. It’s really the precursor of 2112. All of side 2 is one track, “The Fountain of Lamneth.” It’s a fabulous epic. My all time favorite Rush deep track ends side one, “The Necromancer.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted that song…”weakening the body and saddening the mind.” The playing is impeccable. “Bastille Day” became a mainstay of their live act. This is a great Rush album that the critics savaged.
  5. Led Zeppelin, In Through The Out Door – It had been almost three years since Zeppelin had put out Presence and in that time my rock and roll awakening had occurred. I already owned Led Zeppelin II and IV (or Runes) and was eager to hear new, contemporary Zeppelin. The record industry was pinning its hopes on this album and Tusk to bolster lackluster sales. I think a lot of people were disappointed in this record but I wasn’t. Presence was such a heavy album – really shepherded by Bonham and Page – but both of those guys were in the serious throes of addiction by the time they recorded In Through the Out Door that Plant and Jones took over. The result was a mellower, more synth/keyboard oriented album. “In The Evening” is one of my all time Zep favorites. “Fool In The Rain” showcases Bonham’s still formidable drumming. I love the bluesy last track, “I’m Gonna Crawl.” God knows where they could have gone from this… alas.
  6. Rod Stewart, Blondes Have More Fun – Ok, I’m embarrassed I still like this album. I actually sold the vinyl, thus was my shame. But then I bought it again on CD. It’s a truly guilty, guilty pleasure. It’s Rod’s disco album, the record that burned the bridges with his old fanbase. I didn’t buy it for the disco camp of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.” I liked “Ain’t Love a Bitch,” I was always a sucker for ballads. “Dirty Weekend” and the title track are Chuck Berry/Rolling Stone riff rockers. I dig Rod. This is my big confession today.
  7. Jackson Browne, Lives In The Balance – After the failure of Lawyers In Love, Browne decided to get deadly serious about politics. Set that aside, these are great songs. “For America” remains a favorite of mine. The title track, “Soldiers of Plenty,” and “Lawless Avenues” all sound like dispatches from the nightly news set to guitar. The one intimate love song, “In The Shape of a Heart” is one of Browne’s most endearing songs. This isn’t for everyone, it kind of depends on your political feelings…
  8. Eric Clapton, Behind The Sun – People will shudder when I say Phil Collins produced this album. Well, he did the initial sessions but the record company rejected it. They brought in some songwriters and Ted Templeman to shore it up. That troubled history sounds like a disaster, but I dug this record. “Forever Man” remains a huge favorite. “Tangled In Love” is a great rock tune. “Same Old Blues” is an epic at over 8 minutes long. I even like the cover of “Knock On Wood.” Blasphemy? Perhaps.
  9. Neil Young & The Bluenotes, This Note’s For You – The 80s were terrible for Neil Young. He first showed signs of creative life on 1987’s Life with Crazy Horse. Then he did a 180 and put out a horn driven blues album. The blues has always been a great showcase for guitar and I love Neil’s playing on this album. I even bought the live album of this tour, put out 30 year later (Review: Neil Young, “Bluenote Cafe” (Live)). “One Thing” is the ultimate breakup song. “Married Man” is a funny upbeat track. Whether he’s playing a mellow, sad blues or a horn-drive rave up, this is a fun record. The blues will always win out for me.
  10. Roger Waters, Radio K.A.O.S. – My college roommate Drew and I may be the only two people in the world who bought this album. I really dug the title track. Clapton plays guitar on this album and joined the tour as well. If you ignore the bizarre narrative, you can really get into songs like, my favorite, “Who Needs Information,” or “Home.”
  11. Queen, A Kind Of Magic – My college roomies and I were big fans of the Sci-Fi thriller, ‘Highlander.’ This is basically the soundtrack to that film with the addition of “One Vision” which I think was from anther movie. Queen was on the downturn in America, but this is a bunch of great music. “Who Wants to Live Forever” is a great ballad. The production is very much “of its time” but this was the first sign Queen would come back from Hot Space. 
  12. CSNY, American Dream – Neil Young committed to CSN that he’d record another album with them, the first since the live album Four Way Street, if Crosby could get clean. After the much publicized police chase and incarceration, Crosby emerged clean. The bill came due for Neil. People’s expectations were for Deja Vu 2.0 and yes, this album disappoints from that perspective. I loved the title track and bought the album. Crosby’s “Compass” is a wonderful, confessional track. I love Stills and Young working together and have since the Buffalo Springfield. They spark up a little guitar battle in “Drivin’ Thunder.” Stills shines for me on “Glad That You Got It Made.” Graham Nash’s “Never Say Goodbye” is a tune that used to make me mist up. It’s gorgeous.

I get that many of these might not be your cup of tea. You never know… you might discover something you like in this pile of records. If there are “guilty pleasure” albums for you out there, let me know what they are in the comments as I may want to check those out. I’m open to anything during this time of social distancing!

Stay safe and healthy out there! And remember, as the Who sang, “this (really) is no social crisis…this is you having fun” listening to music.

 

How The Biggest Bands In the World Reacted Musically to Punk Rock in the 70s

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I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about that whole Grunge era in the 90s lately. I think the whole Grunge thing was the last musical movement that I actually got caught up in. On my first date with the Rock Chick, back in my swashbuckling bachelor days, we actually talked about music and she said, “I hate that Kurt Cobain destroyed everything that came before him.” That was sadly a very true statement. When Cobain came along – and lets face it, it wasn’t just him, there was an army of bands who came with him & Nirvana, like Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, the Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden (to name a few of my favorites) – he laid waste to everything that came prior.

The Rock Chick went on to say that day, “I liked some of those hard rock, hair-metal bands like Motley Crue, Van Halen and Cinderella. You just don’t hear that kind of music any more.” Talk about love at first conversation. This was our first date! My heart throbbed, but enough of that mushy stuff. It wasn’t only those “hair bands” who bit the dust in the wake of Grunge, everybody went down. Billy Joel crawled off to write symphonies. Bruce Springsteen decided he was John Steinbeck with a guitar. Grunge shook rock and roll to its foundation. Grunge was rock and roll stripped of its artifice, more primal and visceral in nature. Gone were drum machines and synths… enter guitar, drums and a whole lot of angst. No hair spray or frankly, bathing needed.  The Rock Chick, ever adaptable, did morph into a huge “alternative” rock fan, the offspring of Grunge if you will. One door closes, another opens as the saying goes.

Of course, this isn’t the first musical wave to rise up and challenge the established order. Punk rock, which one could describe as the pierced, demented grandfather of Grunge, was just as primal and visceral, if not way more so. Both punk and Grunge, to my uneducated ears at least, seem to strip away layers of polish that had accumulated on rock and roll and get it back to that four or five guys (or gals) in a garage bashing out tunes kinda vibe. Punk, rather than express the angst of Grunge, had more of a social protest angle to it. Punk bands, especially out of England were protesting the economic and social conditions they found themselves in and it challenged the somewhat complacent rock establishment. There was an almost nihilistic bent to it that made it dangerous. Of course, I was really, really late getting on the punk bandwagon…

Here in the middle of America, we didn’t hear a lot of punk music on the radio… Not even American punk from New York like the Ramones made it on the radio here. I can remember in the late/mid-70s sitting on the couch at the house one Sunday night and my dad was watching 60 Minutes. They did a segment on the English punk movement. They showed a bunch of young kids, a little older than I was, with safety pins piercing their nose or cheeks. They had Mohawk hair cuts and wore a lot of leather. They were all slamming violently into each other on the dance floor, not unlike a rugby scrum. My father, whose sensibilities on everything are firmly rooted in the 50s, looked over at my brother and I with a look that I now realize can only be described as… fear. I felt that he had the strong urge to jump up and cover my brother’s ears and perhaps backhand me… Looking at me, in his mind’s eye, he probably saw my hair morphing into a Mohawk… a safety pin springing magically out of my cheek. He knew how drawn I was to rebellion.

For my part, I was just as terrified. The 60 Minutes crew shot the live footage at the punk concert – a Sex Pistols’ show – and didn’t do anything to mix the sound. It sounded like harsh, frightening noise with a crazed singer screaming at people. They didn’t play any studio stuff. The old farts on that show just marveled at Johnny Rotten singing “God Save the Queen.” They actually had subtitles to highlight what I’m sure they considered subversive lyrics. This was a sign of the coming apocalypse… To me, it just sounded awful. I need a little melody. It took me years – like 20 years – to finally buy a Clash album. It was a revelation. I quickly picked up the Ramones and the Stooges. Those are some of my favorite punk rock bands. At last, I finally picked up Never Mind the Bollocks, from the once scary (to me) Sex Pistols only about 10 years ago and it’s awesome. Very simple, straight forward guitar rock. As Lou Reed said, “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” But as my friend Doug told me once, “Every punk rocker knows Lou Reed is an asshole.”

Punk rockers challenged the established rock acts that were already ensconced on the top of the world, the Rock Stars. Rock n roll had gotten bloated. There were Art Rock bands doing 15-minute, multi suite tracks like Rush or Yes, that almost had more in common with classical music than rock and roll. There were strings and overly polished production. Rock had gotten fat and comfortable. Along came punk to shake things up, and thank God it did. Instead of destroying everything that came before it like Grunge, a curious thing happened… the established rock bands, for lack of a better word, absorbed the energy and vibe. Although I’ll admit some of the artists ignored punk: Dylan had found Jesus, Bowie was over in Berlin doing his thing, Steely Dan’s jazz-influenced bubble never burst and hard rockers like Black Sabbath and AC/DC didn’t change a thing. But so many rockers were influenced by punk.

I’ve compiled the following list of some of my favorite band/artist reactions to the punk movement. At the time I’d have hardly known the stylistic change in music came from punk rock, but you live and learn.

  1. Queen, News Of The World – Queen was just coming off two albums of long, complicated music (A Day At the Races, Night On the Town) and were already considering a shift to shorter, more stripped down tracks. While recording News, the Sex Pistols were in the next studio… Freddie Mercury ran into Sid Vicious (who he had been calling Sid Ferocious) and Sid asked, “Have you succeeded in bringing ballet to the masses yet?” Queen, and Freddie especially had been the target of the punk’s ire, and he replied, “We’re doing our best, dear.” Queen went into the studio and delivered a stylistically adventurous LP with tighter, shorter tracks. Sure, “It’s Late” was six and a half minutes long, but what a guitar riff. The crowning glory was Freddie and Brian May’s double-single response to the punks – “We Will Rock You” (their statement of purpose) and “We Are the Champions” (Freddie’s fuck you to them). The lyrics, “no time for losers, ’cause we are the champions” were pretty clear.
  2. The Rolling Stones, Some Girls – The Stones totally absorbed the punk ethos on this album. Of course on tracks like “Miss You” they also absorbed the disco thing too. Mick always picked up on what was now, and Keith keeps them centered and connected to their roots. Songs like “Lies,” and especially “Shattered” were stripped down with rocking guitar. No strings, no fat, just awesome. On “Respectable,” they even mocked the punk’s criticism, “Well now we’re respected in society, We don’t worry about the things that we used to be.”
  3. The Who, Who Are You – No one was more disturbed by the punk’s criticism than Pete Townshend, who saw a lot of the early Who in the punks. Who Are You was seen as a return to form for them, with loud guitars and bombastic drums. Townshend’s title track was directly addressed to the punks, “who the fuck are you?”
  4. Pete Townshend, Empty Glass – So obsessed with the punks was Pete, he continued to write songs about them on his first “proper” solo album. “Rough Boys” sounds like he wants to be friends with them. On “Jools and Jim” he complains, “they don’t give a shit Keith Moon is dead.” From his interviews lately, it sounds like Pete doesn’t care either…
  5. Neil Young, Rust Never Sleeps – Nobody dug the punks as much as Neil Young did. The punks seemed to wake Neil from the torpor he was under at the time. The first half of this album was acoustic but the second half is a bunch of blistering guitar workouts. He revamped a heavily bootlegged “Sedan Delivery” and speeded it up so it was very punk. Both the opening and closing, variations of the same song, “Hey Hey, My My” were addressed to Johnny Rotten.
  6. Iggy Pop, New Values – Iggy’s first band, the Stooges was highly influential on the punks… not as much as the Ramones as I understand it but even now hard rock guys from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Guns N Roses cite Raw Power as an influence. I didn’t hear it until a few years ago and yes its great. I wouldn’t have understood it at 13. With all that adulation how could Iggy not jump on the punk bandwagon and release this album, collaborating with old Stooge, James Williamson and Scott Thurston who believe it or not ended up in the Heartbreakers. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em Iggy.
  7. Bruce Springsteen, Darkness On the Edge of Town – Springsteen had been locked in a legal battle with his first manager since Born To Run. He was already pissed off so the punk ethos probably fit the songs he was writing. If you listen to The Promise, the box set for Darkness, many of the tunes sound like the natural progression from Born To Run, but Springsteen opted to only include dark, guitar-centric tracks here. Sonically it’s miles away from his breakthrough album and remains one of my favorites… well, it remains amongst almost every Springsteen fan’s favorites.
  8. Billy Joel, Glass Houses – Like Springsteen, Joel coopted the punk energy and took a stylistic left turn from his previous album, the E-Street-ish 52nd Street. Punchy, guitar-driven tracks like “You May Be Right” and “Sleeping With the Televison On” dominate the album. Like Iggy, if you can’t beat them, absorb them!
  9. Fleetwood Mac, Tusk – Lindsey Buckingham was so afraid of repeating himself after Rumors, and so enamored with the “fuck it” attitude of the punks he decided to take Fleetwood Mac in a totally different direction. I love Tusk, although it was seen as a failure at the time. I’m sure the band struggled as Stevie was delivering songs like “Sara” and Christine McVie with “Over and Over” and Lindsey countering with the punky “It’s Not That Funny,” or “What Makes You Think You’re the One.” Buckingham took a lot of liberties with the record and it makes it all the more interesting.
  10. Paul McCartney & Wings, Back To the Egg – McCartney is the most confounding entry here. I really liked Back To the Egg, McCartney’s attempt at doing more upbeat rock and roll again. I think he really wanted to absorb some of that punk energy but he just couldn’t commit to it through an entire album. I thought “Old Siam Sir” was rocking. But Macca just can’t help himself, he’s gotta go with soft, gauzy ballads like “Arrow Through Me.” I look at this one as a lost opportunity. But hey, it’s McCartney, he can do what he wants.

As I sit here, only 1/3 of the way through the annual “Dry January” I can’t help but think I need a little punk energy to get me going… If you feel that way during the doldrums of winter, put one of these albums on and see where it takes you.

Cheers!

LP Review: ‘Colorado’ the Return of Neil Young & Crazy Horse With Nils Lofgren!

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When I heard that Neil Young was reuniting with Crazy Horse to record an album, I’ll admit, I got excited. It was the most interest I’ve had in something new from Neil since, well, his last album with Crazy Horse, the epic Psychedelic Pill in 2012. When I heard that Nils Lofgren was going to be stepping in as the other guitarist I was doubly excited. Nils first played with Neil on After the Gold Rush, although for reasons unclear Neil had the then 17-year old guitarist play piano instead of his chosen instrument. This was clearly a reunion and album to be excited about. While I’m sure those Promise of the Real kids who have been playing with Neil of late (they’re Willie Nelson’s sons) are great guys, they ain’t Crazy Horse.

I have to admit up front, it wasn’t until college that I got into Neil Young. My college roommate Drew was into Young and I ended up buying the three-album greatest hits package, Decade (a huge investment in those days). That purchase led me to a lifetime appreciation of Neil Young and the great music he’s put out. Neil is a bit like Clapton in that he’s played with a lot of different bands. He started with Stephen Stills in Buffalo Springfield, went solo, recruited Crazy Horse as a backing band, joined Crosby Stills Nash, put together another back-up band called the Stray Gators and then went solo again. He even briefly joined Stills’ band for one album as the Stills-Young Band, Long May You Run. The grass doesn’t grow under Neil’s feet.

I was in a bar recently (shocking) and someone asked me if Crazy Horse was Neil’s version of Wings, McCartney’s backing band from the 70s. “Christ no,” I exclaimed with perhaps a bit too much passion. Who else is going to teach the children about rock and roll? Crazy Horse, or more accurately the musicians who make up Crazy Horse, began as an L.A. band known as the Rockets. After the mixed reaction to his first solo album, post-Buffalo Springfield, and after jamming with the Rockets, Neil recruited members Danny Whitten (guitar/vocals), Ralph Molina (drums) and Billy Talbot (bass) to back him on his second album, the jammy Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. He renamed them, Crazy Horse. There were other members of the Rockets who I guess didn’t seem to realize that Neil had coopted the band, but with a song entitled “Running Dry (Requiem For the Rockets)” you can’t say he didn’t warn them.

They toured to support the album and the guitar solo’ing was epic. I advise everyone to check out Live At the Fillmore East from Neil’s archive series as documented proof. But then Neil jumped into CSNY. On his next solo album, After The Gold Rush, Young kind of combined Crazy Horse and the CSNY backing band. Greg Reeves played bass (from CSNY) with Ralph Molina on drums (from Crazy Horse). Throw in Lofgren on piano and you’ve got Neil’s first masterpiece. It couldn’t have been more different than the long, extended jams on Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere. That album had long, guitar workouts like “Cowgirl In the Sand” and “Down By the River.” Gold Rush had the epic “Southern Man” but it was mostly acoustic/piano ballads.

After that Young recorded Harvest and suddenly our idiosyncratic singer/songwriter was a Superstar. His subsequent record, Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP), was seen as a repudiation of that superstardom. During the rehearsals for that tour, Young was trying to enlist Danny Whitten from Crazy Horse to play second guitar, but Whitten was struggling too much with heroin addiction. Neil eventually had to fire Whitten, who was found dead later that night of a valium/alcohol mix that has claimed so many.

Despite that, Neil carried on with Crazy Horse on Tonight’s the Night. Nils stepped in on guitar. Jack Nitzsche joined on piano. And really, Neil has been playing with Crazy Horse, off and on, ever since. There have been various members over the year, but the guys who played with Young the most were Molina, Talbot, and guitarist Frank Sampedro, who Young supposedly hired because he had good weed. Regardless of why he hired Sampedro, he’s been one of Neil’s greatest guitar foils over the years. The chemistry those guys have is amazing. These four guys have put out some amazing albums over the years: Ragged Glory (a must-have, classic from 1990), Sleeps With Angels (94), and their last outing, 2012’s Psychedelic Pill. 

I loved Psychedelic Pill. I remember seeing Neil interviewed around that time and he said something like, “I just play better guitar with Crazy Horse.” I give credit to Sampedro. The songs on Psychedelic Pill evolved out of long, extended jams. There are three songs that run, 27:36, 16:49 and 16:27 respectively. Damn. Listening to those long guitar workouts evokes listening to classical music as much as rock and roll… well classical music played by really loud instruments. When I heard that Sampedro had retired, I wondered if that was the end of Crazy Horse… Enter Nils Lofgren, guitar virtuoso. I thought, well this album is going to be another jamming, guitar-fest. As with everything with Neil, I was in for a surprise.

Colorado, the new Neil Young and Crazy Horse album isn’t anything at all like Psychedelic Pill. This is, for the most part, a collection of tight songs, with only one long jam. The tracks run from 2:45 to around 6 minutes, save for “She Showed Me Love,” which runs over 13 minutes. The album was recorded up in the mountains, in Colorado, hence the name. Molina, Talbot and Neil Young are, as mentioned joined by Nils Lofgren on guitar, piano and vocals. I’ll admit again, this album was nothing of what I expected. It’s muted and somewhat somber. The theme is pretty obvious – Neil has turned his concerns to the environment (long a concern of his) and climate change. I don’t hear any current bands taking up the mantle of writing protest songs so it’s left up to the man who wrote the greatest protest song ever, “Ohio,” to step up and do it. Nobody else is writing lines like, “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own…” And folks, we are definitely on our own when it comes to climate change.

I’ll be the first to tell you this album is no masterpiece. But I’ll say it’s a strong Neil Young and Crazy Horse album. It’s the strongest thing he’s done since their last outing. I’m not trying to knock Promise of the Real, and I hear they’re great live, but I just haven’t connected with any of Neil’s work with them. Like Joe Strummer once said, and I’m obviously fond of repeating, “Never underestimate the chemistry of four guys in a room.”

The first track I heard on XM Radio in my car was “Rainbow of Colors.” Like most of the reactions I’ve seen, I did not react well. It comes off as an anthem, much like “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” from Ragged Glory. It comes off as more of a hymn than a song. I have to suspect that played live with people singing along, it’s much more effective. It’s really the only song on here that I would call a “clunker.” Neil’s voice has aged and it creaks a bit here and there, but if you’re complaining about Neil’s vocals at this stage in the game, you’re probably on the wrong train.

The best moments on this album are the acoustic ones. “Think of Me” is the opener, and it’s an upbeat acoustic track that competes for the best track on the album. The other track that I think is a standout is “Green Is Blue” a heartfelt ballad which serves as requiem for the environment. Those two tracks are worth the price of admission here. “Milky Way” is an acoustic-based love song and it’s another great track. Album closer “I Do” is another affecting, stripped-down, quiet ballad and is a perfect end. I like “Eternity” until the backing vocals start singing “clickety-clack” to sound like a train. We get it from the drums, it’s about a train. “Olden Days” is a great mid tempo thing led by Neil’s guitar while he sings about seeing an old friend (or perhaps a lover).

The rocking songs are bit of a mixed bag. “She Showed Me Love” is the 13-minute epic. The she of the title is, of course, Mother Nature. I can’t tell if lines like “I saw Mother Nature pushing Earth in a baby carriage” are Neil joking about how old he is, or just awkward. The guitar work stretches the tune and makes it interesting to me. “Help Me Lose My Mind” is a track that sounds like a grunge rocker from the 90s, something Nirvana might have done. I like the line from that one, “I have to get a new television…to make the sky look like the Earth is flat.”  “Shut It Down” is a glorious noise, it almost sounds like Punk rock. Neil sings that track with an urgency.

Again, this album is not a Neil Young & Crazy Horse masterpiece, but it’s a damn good album from these guys. Fifty years removed from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, its nice to see Neil turn back to Crazy Horse and record such a strong record. The chemistry between them and with Nils is still something to behold.

And lets face it, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to “shut the whole system” down every now and again…

 

 

LP Review: Neil Young & The Stray Gators’ Live ‘Tuscaloosa’ From the Archives

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Neil Young has once again opened his vaunted Archives and released a live album, Tuscaloosa, from a show in Alabama on February 5, 1973. Say what you want about Neil Young, but to go down to Alabama and sing the song “Alabama” with lyrics like, “Make friends down in Alabama/I’m from a new land/I come to you/And see all this ruin/What are you doing Alabama,” you have to admit he’s got some church-bell sized balls. I’m surprised he didn’t double down and play “Southern Man,” his other scathing indictment of the south. “Alabama” and “Southern Man” were the tracks that inspired southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd to write the response, “Sweet Home Alabama.” You have to remember in Alabama in 1973, other than the use of automobiles, it was still 1866. It’s a wonder Young made it out of the state alive.

Neil Young’s “archive game” is amongst the best. Only perhaps Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen have released more archival music than Neil Young has. I can only hope Prince and Tom Petty follow the path blazed by those guys. Of course Petty’s extended, double-album version of Wildflowers has been held up indefinitely by a lawsuit between his daughters and his second wife. Even Prince’s screwed up legal situation pales in comparison to that stuff going on, but I digress. If you haven’t, you should really check out neilyoungarchives.com. There is a subscription fee, if you’re really into Neil, but there is also some free content. You can pretty much find everything he’s done out there.

The 1973 tour was in support of Neil’s biggest album yet, his commercial breakthrough, Harvest. The hit from that album “Heart of Gold,” made Neil Young the most improbable of superstars. It’s pretty clear how uncomfortable he was in that kind of bright spotlight. When he introduces “Heart of Gold” on this album, he mentions that he turned down the offer to let it be used in a commercial. He says he and the band were going to re name the song, “Burger of Gold.” It draws a laugh from the crowd, but you can tell Neil is bothered.

The Harvest tour was fraught with problems. During rehearsals for the tour Neil had to fire his old friend, guitarist Danny Whitten (the leader of Crazy Horse) because he was so messed up on drugs and booze. The night after he was fired, Whitten was found dead of mixing booze and valium (aka diazapem). Neil felt a crushing amount of guilt. To make matters worse, his backing band, the Stray Gators – Kenny Buttrey on drums, Tim Drummond on bass, Ben Keith on pedal steel and slide guitar, and Jack Nitzsche on piano – were all session players instead of musicians Neil knew (well, he knew Nitzsche). Buttrey demanded the then-unheard of sum of $100,000 to play on the tour, to make up for lost studio session money and the rest of the band soon stuck their hand out. Neil said yes to the demand but it pissed him off royally. Anger on top of guilt made for an explosive combination. All of that added to his discomfort with being a superstar made for a less than ideal atmosphere. Then someone turned  him onto tequila, which he drank copiously on the tour. They knew which drug to legalize when they ok’d tequila. When I drink tequila, and I never drink tequila, I’m either going to fight you or try to fuck you and many times, both at the same time. Stick with bourbon, it’s safer.

The legend goes that the crowds who showed up to see Neil on the Harvest tour, expecting an evening of acoustic strumming and hits were surprised and horrified by the raucous and loud playing of the Stray Gators. Neil didn’t make it any easier for them by choosing to play a bunch of new, unheard-of-at-that-time songs as he had decided to record this whole train wreck. It was his goal to cut his next album live on this tour and to take a stylistic left turn, to get out of the middle road where he’d found himself and head into “the ditch.” As I listened to Tuscaloosa, the first two-thirds is just what the crowd expected – acoustic tracks, played faithfully. It’s only that last bit where the Stray Gators turn it up to 11 and play a bunch of unheard, new tracks. I have to imagine the crowds were at least initially happy with their evening but then it took an odd turn.

The shows on that tour usually started off with Neil doing an acoustic set, which he’s often done since. He comes out with an acoustic guitar and plays “Here We Are In the Years” from his first album. Then he sits down at the piano and plays “After The Gold Rush.” I have to think, at roughly 45 minutes long, this album is a truncated version of the concert. I’ve read he left a couple of songs from this concert off the record, just because he’s Neil Young, and the rest of the show wasn’t even taped. Neil is nothing if not mercurial.

Overall I’d tell you I really like this record. If you compare it to his last archival live release, Tonights The Night Live, (Review: Neil Young’s ‘Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live’) they are vastly different. There is a dark mood that hangs over this concert album. The tensions with the band are palpable, if just under the surface. It’s clear on Tonights The Night Live, where he’s backed by his pals in Crazy Horse, he’s happier and having a lot more fun. The staggering thing is that album was recorded only 7 months after this album in TuscaloosaOne might describe this album as a tad brooding.

The middle of this record, after Neil plays his brief 2-song solo set, is really brilliant. The Stray Gators come out and play one of my all time favorite Neil Young deep tracks, “Out On The Weekend” and it’s just stellar. I’d never heard it played live before and they nail it. Ben Keith on pedal steel really shines on this part of the set. During the lead into the song “Harvest,” Neil introduces the band with all the warmth of a “Dear John” letter. “Harvest,” “Old Man,” and the big hit “Heart of Gold” are all played well and the crowd seems to really enjoy that part of the set.

And then, like someone flipping a light switch the band blasts into “Time Fades Away.” That songs first lyrics are amongst my favorite Neil Young lyrics, “Fourteen junkies, too weak to work…” The guitar solo from Neil during “Time Fades Away” is monumental. I have to wonder why he didn’t use this version on the album of the same name. The Gators continue jamming on a host of newly written stuff that probably did baffle the crowd, but still sound great here. It was an awesome night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Look Out Joe” which Neil dedicates to returning Vietnam vets, “New Mama,” and the final track, “Don’t Be Denied” would all end up coming out later on either Time Fades Away or Tonights The Night. The versions here are great if not a tad shambolic. I like my rock and roll messy and Neil and the Stray Gators certainly deliver. The only track that the crowd would have known during this electric part of the set is “Alabama,” which again, what balls Neil had to play that song deep, deep into that southern state.

I do love that Neil introduces “Don’t Be Denied,” one of his most autobiographical, vulnerable songs as being about “an aspiring folk singer…” By this point in his career, Neil was a little past aspiring. This concert album is an interesting look at a pivotal and fascinating part of Neil Young’s career. Eventually tensions between Neil and the Stray Gators would lead him to fire Buttrey and bring in Johnny Barbata to play drums. He also brought in Graham Nash and David Crosby to do backing vocals… he must have needed some friendly faces. That line up is the one that ended up on the follow-up album, (the first of the legendary “Ditch Trilogy”), Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP).

Check this album out and be sure to check out the Neil Young Archives. Fair warning: you can get lost in there…

Cheers!

Review: Neil Young’s ‘Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live’

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Heart of Gold – This song 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.” – Neil Young, from the liner notes of his superb greatest hits LP, Decade.

I’d like to tell you that I was born with a fully formed musical identity. Sadly, that’s not true. Everybody’s taste in music changes and evolves, especially if you’re a music spelunker like us here at B&V. I remember reading a long time ago that whatever you’re listening to in junior high school/high school is likely the music you’ll listen to the rest of your life. Thank God some kick ass music came out in the 70s/early 80s. For me, a lot of my musical gestation took place in college. I was lucky my freshman year to meet one of my future roommates, Drew. Drew helped shape my musical tastes as much as anybody I can think of, give credit to or perhaps better said, blame.

I was a basic Stones/Springsteen fan and Drew was a Who/Billy Joel fan. Clearly we each had something to teach each other. The countless hours we spent together in our college town’s lone record store are amongst some of my most cherished memories from that time. I learned a hell of a lot from Drew back then. There was also a girlfriend in there who was a lot of fun who I learned a lot from too, but I’m married now and those records are sealed. One of the key artists that Drew turned me onto, that he knew extensively but was a blindspot for me was Neil Young. I don’t know why I’d never listened to Neil. “Heart of Gold” was about the only tune I knew and I thought it was ok. I thought of him as being like the Eagles, sort of country rock… little did I know. I hope I wasn’t one of those “I don’t like his vocals” people. I already loved Bob Dylan by that time, so I don’t think that was it. Young doesn’t sing like Steve Perry, but the emotion and passion he puts into his vocals are incredibly moving. His songwriting can be dream-like, bizarre, spot-on and deeply affecting all at the same time.

By the time Drew turned me onto Neil Young, Neil had so much music out there, I thought I’d never catch up. I didn’t have that kind of bankroll. So I did what I often did as a poor student, I bought his greatest hits album, Decade. Decade was a bit of a landmark “greatest hits” package. It was a full three albums long, which was a hefty price tag. I used to blanch at the thought of buying double albums, let alone triple albums. It also encapsulated Neil’s entire career from 1966 to 1976 (hence, the name) – there were tracks from the Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, solo and a track from the Stills/Young Band. There were hits but there were also deep cuts and a few songs he’d never released before. I suspect it may have been the model that Bob Dylan’s box set Biograph  was built on. It was truly a superb package and a great place to start your Neil Young collection. Although Neil’s Archive, Vol 1 box set probably supersedes it now. In the liner notes, quoted above, Neil mentioned taking his career “into the ditch” where he met “more interesting people.” And with that one line, hand written in the liner notes of a greatest hits package, Neil was able to actually provide a name to a trio of albums that make up the period of his career from 1973 to 1974 that have henceforth been known as, The Ditch Trilogy.

The Ditch Trilogy consists of three of my all time favorite Neil Young albums: Time Fades Away (1973), On The Beach (1974) and Tonight’s The Night (1975). Tonight’s the Night was actually recorded after Time Fades Away and before On The Beach but the record company sat on the record for two years. They didn’t want to release it because they thought it was too bleak. Neil has cited Time Fades Away as his least favorite record and for years it was out of print. I couldn’t find it anywhere… the only person I knew who owned it was, yes… wait for it… my old roommate Drew. Finally it was released last year (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP). Now that I’ve heard all three of the Ditch Trilogy albums, its my opinion, if you’re going to spend an afternoon listening to all three with a nice sour mash – and everybody should – you should listen to the records in the order they were recorded vs the order they were released (i.e, Time Fades, Tonight’s The Night, Beach). The albums make more sense that way.

To truly understand the Ditch Trilogy, one needs to look at Neil’s career up to that point to give it some context. 1970 was a huge year for Neil Young. He’d joined CSNY and they released Deja Vu. In the same year Neil had released the album that made him a star, After the Gold Rush. The CSNY momentum continued with the amazing live album, 4-Way Street (1971). I can still remember walking through the living room at my college place and hearing Drew listening to 4-Way Street… the music at that place was always kick ass thanks to Drew, but I digress. By 1972 there was a lot of pent-up demand for another Neil solo record. He delivered the biggest selling album of 1972, his masterpiece, Harvest. Suddenly Young was a superstar and he did not handle it well but who does? (Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame) The hit song “Heart of Gold” was enormous. It was so big it pissed Bob Dylan off… he thought it was actually one of his songs when he first heard it. He thought he’d been ripped off… Supposedly his response was “Forever Young” a hidden jab at Neil. Who knows if that’s true or not…

To support Harvest, Young convened a group of session musicians in New York to prep for a tour. The pressure on Young was immense. The musicians all demanded $100,000 each for the tour, an unheard of sum back then, which supremely pissed Young off. He was touring on the pastoral, mellow grooves of Harvest with an openly hostile relationship with his backing band. To help balance things, he invited his friend from Crazy Horse, guitarist Danny Whitten to join the tour as rhythm guitarist. Unfortunately Whitten’s substance abuse problems, booze and heroin got in the way. Neil was quoted as saying, “he just couldn’t cut it. He couldn’t remember any of the songs.” So Neil did what he had to do, the show must go on. He fired Whitten. I had always heard he’d given Whitten $50 and a plane ticket back to L.A. and that Whitten had OD’d on $50 worth of heroin. Actually, he’d mixed booze and valium into a lethal combo. Literally, this happened the night after Neil Young had fired him. Now added to the pressure of having the biggest record in the world and a hostile band environment was an enormous sense of guilt. I don’t know how Young continued on tour. Oh, yes perhaps I do… he discovered and started drinking tequila. I try to avoid tequila… I used to say, they knew which drug to legalize, tequila. If I drink that stuff I’m either going to fight you or try to fuck you… maybe both at the same time… but enough about me.

To add to all of this mayhem, Neil brought along a mobile recording studio to capture it all on tape. Instead of a folky, country-rock evening the fans were expecting they got the electric Neil. Blaring, blasting guitars like it was an armed assault instead of a concert. To add to that, he performed a bunch of newly written songs that nobody had heard. It’s tough to attend a concert when you don’t recognize the music. When you know and are familiar with the songs, it multiplies the enjoyment exponentially. God knows what the audiences thought, but the resulting album, Time Fades Away is brilliant. After the tour, one of his roadies (and CSNY’s roadie) Bruce Berry succumbed to drugs and OD’d on a lethal mix of cocaine and heroin. Man, what a shitty year.

After the tour, Neil holed up in his studio with a band he dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers which consisted of Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums) both from Crazy Horse, Nils Lofgren on guitar (and in a surprise move, Neil had him play piano, an instrument he had previously never played) and Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar. As mentioned above, the album was pretty grim. Its basically the recording of a man exorcising his demons. It’s not often that an artist can lay himself and his emotions so nakedly bare in front of the world. I can only compare it to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. The two versions of the title track which bookend the album both reference the late Bruce Berry who “was a working man, he used to drive that Econoline van…” The performances are ragged and messy. They all sound like a first take, where the band is just watching Neil and trying to follow along. And I will say, it’s a very druggy album. There are a lot of drug references and Neil sounds fucked up half the time. There may be no hits on this record, but there’s not a Young fan who doesn’t consider it a masterpiece.

Last week Young released another superb entry in his wonderful Vault Series. Apparently, even though the record company refused to release Tonight’s The Night Young decided to play some live dates at the Roxy in Los Angeles in September of 1974 and play the unreleased album. And, as usual, he recorded the concerts resulting in this great live, vault release, Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live. While the performance still starts and ends with the song “Tonight’s the Night” he doesn’t just play the album in it’s running order. He also omits a couple of songs, the Danny Whitten sung “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” and “Borrowed Time.” He also adds as an encore, “Walk On,” that Neil introduces as an old song, despite the fact that it wouldn’t be released until a year later on On The Beach.

I might be slightly overstating this when I say this was a bit of a bracing listen. I don’t mean that in a bad way… it’s just a surprise. I’ve heard the original LP so many times, it’s etched in my mind, it’s part of the canon. So to hear Neil get up and be joking on stage – he starts by saying the first topless woman to jump on stage wins a prize of some sort… it was the 70s, way before Me Too, so let’s not get upset – is kind of shocking. In terms of the music, it’s played with more precision than on the original album. Obviously the band was much more familiar with the music by the time of these performances and everybody plays at a high level. The cloud of grief that hangs over Tonight’s The Night seems to dissipate here quite a bit, not that this is joyful music. “Roll Another Number (For The Road) swings so much it sounds like something Hank Williams might have done. The songs are still tough and gritty, but Neil is engaged and seems to be enjoying playing them. I love the way he bears down on his guitar when starts playing the title track to begin the show. Everybody plays so well here. I wonder how the crowd remains as enthusiastic as they do since no one in the room, who isn’t on stage, knew the material.

For me, and I admit, I’m a completist (guilty as charged), this is an essential companion piece to Tonight’s The Night. The lighthearted manner in which Young plays these tunes is evidence that the grief he was feeling was slowly lifting. I think this live album is a key link between Tonight’s and the follow up, On The Beach. I actually went out and listened to this on Neil’s archive web page, which I highly recommend to anybody, neilyoungarchives.com which is free for now. I will warn you… if you’re a Neil fan, you can get lost in there. I pulled it up one Friday in February and the next thing I knew it was Monday… At the very least everyone should go out to the Archive website and listen to this phenomenal historical document. Tonight’s the Night really comes alive in this performance… and don’t forget to put on the entire Ditch Trilogy with a nice tumbler of sour mash… you can thank me later.

 

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

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“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.

Neil Young’s “Hitchhiker,” The Title Track From A Lost Album From His Archive

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“When I was a hitchhiker on the road, I had to count on you…” – Neil Young, “Hitchiker”

No one loves releases from an artist’s archives more than we here at BourbonAndVinyl. There are certain artists that have a treasure trove of unreleased material, recorded over the course of their career. Dylan, Springsteen and Neil Young are probably the foremost artists that spring to mind in this category. It almost sounds like the Rock N’ Roll Archive Law Firm of Dylan, Young and Springsteen… Dylan started the whole archive craze with his Bootleg Series. Actually to be completely correct, he probably started it all prior to that with his brilliant box set, ‘Biograph,’ which combined hits, album cuts, live cuts and unreleased material to tell the story of his career. ‘Biograph’ seemingly launched the box set business and showed record companies there is a strong market for these “vault” releases. I published a guide to Dylan’s Bootleg Series previously, ( Dylan’s Bootleg Series – A User’s Guide ).

Springsteen has released the box set, ‘Tracks,’ to clear out a small fraction of his unreleased studio stuff. Bruce also continues to release quality-sound live concert recordings ranging from ’74 to ’16 and just released the first ever soundboard from his 1977 tour… Don’t tell my wife, but that review will be coming soon. You could go bankrupt buying those old Springsteen concerts and she doesn’t need to know how much I’m spending… Speaking of concert recordings, The Grateful Dead, who have a long, storied bootleg history, have been releasing live concerts “from the vaults” even longer than Springsteen has, and deserve at least a mention here. However, I just can’t get into the Dead… that endless noodling drives me nuts, but if you’re into them, we don’t judge here at B&V. In my opinion, if you want jam band stuff, try Gov’t Mule or The Allman Brothers.

Neil Young got into the “vault” releases in a big, big way with his box set, ‘Archives Vol. 1,(1963-1972)’ released in 2009 which grew out of what was to be ‘Decade 2’ the follow up to the spectacular 1977 greatest hits package ‘Decade.’ As with anything Neil Young, he went way overboard and ‘Archives 1’ ended up being eight discs long, with interactive Blu-Ray versions and fabulous sound quality. No wonder it took almost 30 years to complete. While there were unreleased versions of songs, ‘Archives 1’ relied heavily on previously released material from his albums of the period. I didn’t purchase it, because I already had most of those albums excerpted from that time period. There were a number of live, concert albums contained in the box, that were released separately as stand-alone LPs. I bought ‘Live At The Fillmore East’ which was with the original Crazy Horse (Danny Whitten!), although it was only the electric half of that concert. I also purchased, from ‘Archives Vol 1,’ the ‘Massey Hall’ show and ‘Sugar Mountain: Live At The Canterbury House 1968,’ which were all acoustic performances. Neil is that rare artist that has two sides – roaring, rocking, electric distortion (usually with Crazy Horse) and quiet, sometimes spacey, acoustic songs. Often he performs both at shows, in different sets.

After ‘Archives Vol 1’ came out, we vault enthusiasts had to keep waiting as ‘Vol 2’ kept getting delayed. Now I’m hearing Neil is going to stream all of his material online… We’ll have to wait and see. While I’ve been waiting for ‘Vol 2’ to come out, I was happy to see a few years ago, Neil release ‘Live At the Bluenote Cafe’ from his ‘This Notes For You’ tour. That live album was reviewed on B&V and I still love listening to it, but I love the blues. ( Review: Neil Young, “Bluenote Cafe” (Live) ). One of the things that had me most looking forward to ‘Vol 2’ was the rumor that it would include a number of Neil’s “lost” albums. Neil is one of those rare artists who would go into the studio, cut a whole album worth of material and then pull it back and put it on the shelf. Prince was notorious for this as well.

There are several of these “lost” albums that I’ve heard of, and probably lots more in existence. ‘Chrome Dreams’ is one of the few studio bootlegs I have of Neil. There is purportedly an album from the late 90s/early 00s that Neil cut with Crazy Horse in San Francisco, in a studio famously used by John Coltrane, named ‘Toast.’ Another one I’ve heard of, but not a whole lot, was the all acoustic LP Neil shelved in 1976, ‘Hitchhiker.’ I was shocked the other day, when I saw it pop up on iTunes. Rather than wait until September 8th, the release date, I immediately ordered the single song available, the title track.

The ‘Hitchhiker’ LP was recorded in one long night, August 11, 1976, with just Neil Young on acoustic guitar and David Briggs, his friend/producer in a Malibu studio. Neil only took breaks as he labored all night for “beer, weed or cocaine.” Sounds like hazardous working conditions. Many of the songs on the track list are songs that have popped up on other albums (‘Rust Never Sleeps,’ ‘Comes A Time’) over the years. Some of these tunes were even on ‘Chrome Dreams’ which makes me wonder if that was merely a compilation of earlier tracks like say, ‘Freedom’ vs a newly cut album that didn’t get released.

I’ve listened to the title track “Hitchhiker” from this album almost non stop since yesterday. When I heard this was just Neil playing acoustic guitar, I thought the song would come off sounding like a demo. I was wrong, this is a fully realized song. It would be at home on side one of ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ or either side of ‘Comes A Time.’ It’s a hypnotic, tone poem of a song. There are so many levels to the autobiographical lyrics. On the surface it’s the story of Neil hitchhiking from Toronto to Los Angeles. However, I think it could be also read as his journey from obscurity to superstardom. He also, very honestly, chronicles his journey from hash to amphetamines to weed. He even gets valium, but he “still couldn’t close my eyes.” Sound-wise this song reminds me of “The Needle And the Damage Done.” I know he later released this song on the Daniel Lanois produced ‘Le Noise’ but this is the definitive version of this song.

If you’re a fan of Neil’s acoustic side, this is a must have. I can only hope this will bring more vault releases of Neil’s “lost studio albums” in the future. I’ll definitely have more about this when the album comes out, but for now, turn this on and ride the highway with Neil…

Cheers!

Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP

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“Fourteen junkies, too weak to work…” – Neil Young, “Time Fades Away”

There are certain albums that for various reasons have taken on a certain “mystique” over the years. In most cases it’s albums that don’t get released. Prince had “The Black Album,” an album that was supposedly so perverse it couldn’t be released… we have to save the children from such sex talk in music (cue the PMRC). Years after the rumor of the album, Prince finally released it and it was, to be generous, meh. Ryan Adams’ record company rejected “Love Is Hell” because they thought it was a downer so he released “Rock N Roll” instead. The fact that his record company rejected “Love Is Hell” brought so much interest in this supposedly “dark” album, that the record company finally released it. It’s an ok Ryan Adams LP… I mean, dark is kind of his thing. You’ll never find Ryan Adams being played at a party here at the B&V house, that’s for sure. One could describe Ryan’s music as, “Music to Overdose to.”

Usually albums only carry this kind of heavy mystique if someone dies during or shortly after the albums release. “Blackstar” by David Bowie and “You Want It Darker” by Leonard Cohen will always carry a little more weight because they can be read as an artistic farewell to the world and to their fans. Jimi Hendrix’ last recordings are always heralded as people wonder, what might have been. People point to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s final song on his final album, “Riviera Paradise” as a signal that he was headed into an all new creative direction that would have changed music and guitar as we know it… had he not passed away in that tragic helicopter crash. It’s like a painter whose paintings become more valuable after they’ve died. I’m surprised more rock stars don’t fake their death more often but that makes me sound like an agent hustling for coins.

Of all the artists around, other than maybe Bob Dylan, Neil Young has more than his share of “mysterious,” unreleased albums. “Chrome Dreams” is an oft bootlegged, amazing record that Neil chose not to release in 1977. It would have been as big as “Harvest” in my opinion, which may be why Neil chose not to put it out. That “fame thing” never worked out too well for Neil. He said in the liner notes of “Decade” that “Harvest” found him in the middle of the road and very popular so he chose to steer into the ditch, “It was a rougher ride, but you meet more interesting people there” (I believe is the direct quote). He’s put out most of the songs on other albums, but taken as a whole “Chrome Dreams” would have stood with some of his best work.

Of all of Neil Young’s unreleased and released albums, the one that always had the most intrigue for me, for some reason, was “Time Fades Away.” Part of the problem was you simply couldn’t find the record. I could never get my hands on it. After the initial release, Neil refused to release it on vinyl or any other format so copies of the album were really hard to find. Neil basically disavowed the record. My college roommate Drew was the only guy I know who could have been capable of even finding a copy such were his “completist” tendencies, but I don’t think even he had a copy. It was like you had to “know a guy” to even hear the thing, which I never did.

The backstory alone is enough to draw a rock and roll obsessive like me in… Neil Young, fresh from his twin triumphs of “After the Gold Rush,” and the even bigger success of “Harvest” was set to go on tour. It’s hard to overstate how popular Neil Young became after “Harvest.” I heard a story once, that Dylan heard “Heart of Gold” on the radio and thought it was one of his songs. When he realized it was Neil Young, he felt ripped off and wrote “Forever Young” as some sort of angry, “you ripped me off, you dick” kind of a song. Who knows if that’s true. Anyway, Neil gathered members of his “Harvest” band, the Stray Gators, and invited Danny Whitten from one of his other backing bands, Crazy Horse to New York to rehearse. Unfortunately Danny Whitten, a very talented guitarist and songwriter in his own right, was addicted to heroin. He’d already been kicked out of Crazy Horse, who were working on their own without Neil, because of his drug addictions. Whitten just couldn’t “hack it” at the rehearsals. He was taking a lot of Valium to help him kick the heroin habit and it was just destroying his timing. Finally Neil had to tell Danny he was fired and gave him $50 and a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. That very night, the night Neil Young fired Danny Whitten, Danny was found dead from mixing alcohol and $50 worth of Valium. Enter…. guilt and despair.

So after releasing his biggest album, with thousands of adoring fans waiting to hear the soft rock troubadour of “Harvest” come out and sing “Heart of Gold,” Neil plugs in his electric guitar and attempted to conquer his demons. Oh, and he brought along the 8-track mobile recording machine to document the whole thing. At the time, one of his band members turned him onto tequila. Ah, tequila. As I used to say in my younger days, the authorities knew which drug to legalize. When I drink tequila, which I rarely do, if I drink too much of it, I’m either going to fight you or fuck you, and quite possibly, both at the same time. Add tequila to a depressed, fragile mental state like Neil Young was in and God knows what can happen. Apparently the fans were not impressed. Part of the problem with concert audiences is that it’s hard to play new, unheard music for a crowd. They want to hear the hits, songs they’re familiar with. This was especially true in 1973 when the crowds were not that sophisticated.

At long last, I discovered this “lost” live album on iTunes. I had always heard that the music on this album was all loud, screaming guitar. It was going to be all noise like “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black).” That is not exactly the case. The band did not get along well and Neil’s vocals were so fried he brought in Crosby and Nash to help sing harmonies, although, this wasn’t an album big on harmony. I will say, this is a very, very good Neil Young album, although I prefer the even darker music found on “Tonight’s the Night.” One might see this as a companion piece to “Tonight’s the Night” and “On The Beach” which are some of Neil’s darker works.

The album starts off with the raucous title track, which is one of the best here but I’ve always liked my Neil Young a little ragged. “Yonder Stands the Sinner” is another ragged rocker that jumps out at me and it’s followed by the great song “L.A.” (“city in the smog…”). But interspersed with those rockers are a couple of delicate, beautiful piano ballads, “Journey Through The Past” and “Love In Mind.” I never expected this kind of balladry from a guy on tequila. The crowd claps politely at the end of “Love In Mind” but you kind of feel they’re not thrilled.

The centerpiece of the album for me, is the beginning of what would be side 2 for you vinyl enthusiasts, “Don’t Be Denied.” It’s a a better autobiography than Neil’s book “Shakey.”It’s a long, mid tempo song about Neil’s love of and dedication to music. It tells his life story from being a bullied kid at school, to forming a band. It’s one of his best songs and coincidentally was recently covered beautifully by Norah Jones. It’s really the only hopeful bit of light in an otherwise dark album.

After the ballad, “The Bridge,” another lovely piano and harmonica song, Neil and the band launch into the epic, eight-minute “Last Dance.” I really like the ragged guitar riff in this song. Although, it’s so bleak that it wouldn’t have been out of place on “Tonight’s the Night.” At the end of the song, Neil just howls, “no, no, no…” When Neil sings, “Wake up, it’s time to go to work,” it’s with an utter lack of enthusiasm.

“Time Fades Away” is a portrait of an artist who is really suffering. And by sharing that pain with us through his art, he let’s we who are also suffering know we are not alone. That’s the power of an album like this. And powerful is the word I would use to describe this record. For anybody out there who likes to explore the musical backwaters of an artist’s catalog, like I do, this is must have music. Although, I wouldn’t recommend putting this on at Christmas… not a lot of Yule time joy here….

It’s a dark ride, folks. Stick together and take care of each other. Cheers!