Neil Young’s Journey Through the Past

Neil Young’s Journey Through the Past

Neil Young’s Journey Through the Past

As he prepares to vote in his first American election, the eccentric singer-songwriter’s Archives project unearths his own lost history.

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Rumors swirling around Neil Young’s long-lost, mid-1970s album Homegrown, released in June to considerable critical acclaim, boded a sense of archaeological discovery. The record had been shelved for decades because it was, in its composer’s words, “a little too personal.” Capturing the deterioration of Young’s relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, Homegrown was mottled by bad vibes, with songs like “Separate Ways,” “White Line,” and “Try” tracing the tragic contours of love and love lost. During its extended period in absentia, the record’s reputation swelled. It became an almost haunted relic, too troubling to confront head-on, relegated to the dusty attic of memory, chains locked and tied across the door.

Around the same time Homegrown was recorded, Young’s roadies and touring crew crisscrossed the continent in handmade, ribbed T-shirts reading equal time for past present and future. At the time, it was an oddball in-joke. But it’s become something of a slogan for Young, whose current look in his career’s rearview mirror coincides with a feeling of forging ahead. Young received his American citizenship earlier this year, after living for a half century on visas and green cards, with the express intention of voting in American elections. To mark the occasion, he has released a severely earnest political anthem, “Lookin’ for a Leader,” and filed a lawsuit against the sitting president’s reelection campaign for playing some of Young’s songs (including “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World,” originally conceived as an anti-Bush I broadside). Officially an American for barely a year, Young is positioning himself as an elder spokesman of the protest movement, while simultaneously digging through some of the grubbier, grimier corners of his long and varied musical career. At present, Young has one foot in the future, the other in the past.

But the hype that Homegrown might rank as some profoundly personal breakup album—Young’s Blood on the Tracks or Blue or Jagged Little Pill—didn’t really bear itself out. The more intimate sentiments are buffered by boozy (and weedy, and cokey) jams like the title track and “We Don’t Smoke It No More,” and a far-out spoken-word interlude, “Florida.” Bracketing its being “too personal” to confront head-on, there’s a more plausible explanation for why Homegrown languished so long in his vault: It was just too good.

In 1975, Young gathered some friends where he was holed up in LA’s Chateau Marmont and played two unreleased albums back-to-back: Homegrown, which his label anticipated as a commercial return to form in the fashion of the 1972 best seller Harvest, and Tonight’s The Night, a rollicking, off-kilter, apocalyptic mess. Young’s label, his manager, and his more sober-minded contemporaries all hated the latter record. But the room of jumped-up musicians reacted rhapsodically. (No wonder: Tonight’s the Night is the LP equivalent of a motel room’s worth of up-all-night coke bingers shambling into the street only to be denounced by the daylight.) The matter was settled, and Homegrown was, until now, shelved.

The album’s release is part of a larger Neil Young Archives enterprise, which includes reissues of live concerts, the unearthing of lost film footage, and an interactive website rebuilding, in incredible detail, the work of a major yet always elusive artist: a Vietnam-era protest rocker, turned Reagan-supporting ’80s square, turned grunge godfather, turned ceaselessly experimenting legacy act. Much of this material—including the live releases Roxy: Tonight’s the Night, Songs for Judy, and Tuscaloosa, this year’s Homegrown, and the forthcoming follow-up to his Grammy-winning Archives Vol. 1 box set—devote attention to the period between 1973 and 1976.

It was a wildly fertile period for Young that was, not incidentally, also a commercial nadir. It saw him deliberately veering away from the mainstream success afforded him by albums like Harvest and After the Gold Rush and 1972’s “Heart of Gold,” Young’s first (and as yet only) US No. 1 single, which positioned him near the top of the pantheon of the emerging ’70s soft rock sound. “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road,” Young wrote in the liner notes to 1977’s Decade compilation. “Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.” If, as he sang on his breakout hit, Young was “a miner for a heart of gold,” the mid-’70s saw him turning up a string of dead canaries. Young has spoken thoughtfully about the importance of any artist to welcome failure—to say, “You’re okay with me, failure, come right in.” Young’s years in the ditch period saw him not only embracing failure but actively quarrying for it.

Rising to stardom as a member of Buffalo Springfield before striking out as a solo artist, Young loosely fit the mold of the ’60s protest rocker. Hits like “Southern Man” and “Ohio” were lacerating, name-and-shame anthems. Across his “Ditch Trilogy”—On the Beach (1974), Tonight’s the Night, and Zuma (both 1975)—Young turned that scathing incision inward. (I’d also include 1973’s shambling live album Time Fades Away as part of the Ditch Expanded Universe.) These are artifacts of what Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh called “the post-hippie, post-Vietnam demise of counterculture idealism.” They were also records that, as Robert Christgau wrote in his review of On the Beach, proved “easy to dislike.” (He gave it an A-.)

Young likewise restyled himself as effortlessly dislikable. Gone were the hippie-friendly fringed leathers, replaced by utterly square seersucker jackets. Now packing out hockey rinks, he ditched his acoustic for a Gibson Flying V, trading his early vulnerability for a parodic posture of rockstardom, antagonizing fans who came to hear the hits. This reinvention teetered thrillingly on the verge of total career self-sabotage. Thrilling because Young is at his creative best when, to all appearances, he’s at his worst. He’s one of those rare souls who absorbs ostensibly negative descriptors (“ragged,” “bleak,” “desperate”) as accolades. In his ripping biography Shakey, author Jimmy McDonough praises a ditch-era live show as Young’s “disillusioned best.” Of all the backhanded compliments, that one sticks. Neil Young is practically the poet laureate of disillusionment.

Disillusionment sparks from the friction between the dream and reality. A cynic is never disillusioned, because he knows the dream is bogus to begin with. To be disillusioned is to genuinely lose something—like the narrator of Joyce’s “Araby,” who toddles off to a fancy bazaar to purchase a gift for his young love, only to find the enchantment conjured in his mind dispelled by merchants counting money, a scene of gaudiness revealing the romantic hero to himself as little more than “a creature driven and derided by vanity.” Disillusionment is the pain of the veil’s being lifted.

Young’s dream was that of any scrappy folkie coming of age in the ‘60s. He wanted to make it. So in 1966, Young, a regular of Toronto’s lively beatnik scene based around a boho breeding ground now teeming with archly gaudy upscale retail, struck out southbound to Los Angeles in a secondhand 1953 Pontiac Hearse. In his 2012 memoir Waging Heavy Peace, Young calls LA “the promised land,” where all the music was happening. Barely a decade later, squarely in the ditch, his attitude had changed. As he sings on the Manson murders-inspired “Revolution Blues,” from On the Beach:

I hear the Laurel Canyon
Is filled with famous stars
But I hate them worse than lepers
And I’ll kill them in their cars

Yet, unlike Manson, himself a failed songwriter of zero talent, Young’s embitterment emerged not from failure but success. Whinging about the hardships of establishing oneself as a beloved singer-songwriter may feel a bit rich. But Young’s complaint is less with achieving fame than with its character. The rock star who finds success is forced to comport to expectations, robbed of the sense of individualism that was their sole commodity. Young saw himself revealed, as he sings on “Don’t Be Denied,” as “a pauper in a naked disguise, a millionaire through a businessman’s eyes.” Fames’s wages weighed heavier than its comforts.

Beyond his splintering relationship with Snodgress, Young’s post-stardom personal life was rocked by the fatal overdose of Danny Whitten, the singer-guitarist of Young’s backing band, Crazy Horse. Barely a year later, veteran Young roadie Bruce Berry passed under similar circumstances, inspiring the doom-and-gloom deathwatch vibe of Tonight’s the Night. But Whitten’s death, and its effect on Young’s mood and music, was obvious even earlier, and ran deeper. “I felt responsible,” he told Jimmy McDonough. “It was such a loss. You can’t count on things.” Time Fades Away, the 1973 live release that followed Whitten’s death, is shot through with yearning to return to some way-off, untroubled shore. (On “Journey Through the Past” and “Time Fades Away,” he sings of his native Canada as if it were some mythic Xanadu of distant memory.) It’s a theme that runs through the ditch period records, and the Archives project itself. Young’s songs—particularly in this period he seems so keen on revisiting—pine for the past in a way that resists simple nostalgia. They’re suffused with pessimism, with the pang of wanting to get back to a place he cannot access, because it was never there.

“Cortez the Killer,” Zuma’s seven minute mini-epic about the brutal campaigns of Hernán Cortez, provides Young’s clearest expression of this idea. Young describes the unperturbed life of Cortez’s Aztec victims in knowingly idealized terms: an Eden of beauty and noble sacrifice, where “hate was just a legend.” Suddenly, in the last verse, he blasts into the present tense, turning his mind to a love he let slip, wondering how he lost his way. Connecting personal loss to the sweeping pain of colonial history, “Cortez the Killer” also ties the intimacies of individual passions (that feeling of being in, or out of, love) to the grander feeling of romanticism, of the singer of as some modern-day conquistador. As the song abruptly fades out (the result of an embraced in-studio error), it’s as if its singer, having lost his way, is renouncing the enterprise altogether. Young indulges backwards-looking romanticism only to shrug it off.

Excepting a few of its weirder pieces, like the title track (in which a wonderfully shaggy, out-of-step instrumental locks into a satisfying foot-stomper about growing your own pot), Homegrown feels out of place with much of the ditch era material. Its romanticism is earnest, played down the middle of the road. It’s a record by the Neil Young who lives in everyone’s minds: the warbling, vulnerable songbird, turning blunt lyrical phrases like, “Love is a rose but you’d better not pick it / It only grows when it’s on the vine.” But its release is less about the easy nostalgia of revisiting a bygone era, and more about revisionism. It offers a new vantage on this compelling era in Young’s career, inviting the listener to imagine a whole alternate history.

For Young, nostalgia is as seductive and empty as fame. Instead, he practices what English historian J.H. Plumb might term “destructive” history. Yet it is destructive in a critical and ultimately productive way, because, as Plumb writes in The Death of the Past, it “dissolves those simple, structural generalizations by which our forefathers interrupted the purpose of life in historical terms.” As a song like “Cortez” illustrates, situating oneself in some flow of history offers, in the final analysis, little comfort. When he sings, on “Lookout Joe” from Tonight’s the Night, that “old times were good times,” there’s a sense, given the song’s enumeration of tragedies befalling its colorful cast of characters, that he doesn’t really mean it. Young’s fixation on pastness (be it in individual songs or his whole Archives endeavor) bespeaks a desire to reframe the present, expanding and tweaking his own story as an artist. It’s an act not of self-exaltation but self-criticism—what Christgau called Young’s “obsessive self-examination.”

These releases—oriented less toward lost masterpieces and more towards warts-and-all documentation, chocked with goofs, abandoned half-ideas, audience-alienating in-jokes, and bracingly honesty music—eat away at the idea of Young as an artist lost in wilderness in the mid-’70s, adrift between radio hits like “Heart of Gold” and 1977’s “Like a Hurricane.” Homegrown effectively proves that Young very well could have offered label (and listener) a friendly follow-up to Harvest: a record that would assure his place as another scraggly-haired, pigeon-chested soft rocker in the James Taylor mold. He just didn’t want to.

There’s a political underpinning to all this, as penetrating as the more direct indictments of “Ohio” or “Southern Man.” Young’s unromantic streak puts the lie to moral majority, MAGA-style conservatism, which rings false precisely because it relies on an idea of the past that never existed in the first place. Conservatism regards history as a respectful young man regards his elders—with a crude sense of deference to his forebears. The past is conceived as an inheritance, offering the repose of regarding oneself as part of a larger narrative.

Young’s on-the-sleeve politics, meanwhile, have always seemed a bit evasive. Anti-Nixon protest songs led, in the ’80s, to wishy-washy support for some Reaganomic policies (predictably, Young seemed to double down on this the instant he was called out for it); lifelong activism around stewarding the environment was undercut by the post-9/11, pro-war torch song “Let’s Roll.” More recently, in addition to threatening to take the president to court (embracing the tradition of eager American litigiousness), he has expressed support for Joe Biden, and for Black Lives Matter, writing on his website that America needs to “deal with our white insecurities.” He also, even more recently, vowed to uncouple his Archives website from Facebook, claiming that “the corrupt social platform” was “screwing with our election.” Even that one word—“our”—is significant. It suggests that Young, a newly certified American, self-described “old white guy,” and consummate artist of disillusionment, hasn’t succumbed to the cynicism that US politics seems to encourage.

While Young may rebuff any strict adherence to anything like a progressive agenda, there is a progressive spirit that moves through his music. It’s not about mining for one thing or another but an endless process of interrogation. Not just self-sabotage but a productive, constructive form of destruction. It’s easy to square this wiggliness on certain issues with his refusal, always apparent in his music, to be pinned down. Call him a hippie, and he’ll put on a seersucker jacket. Call him a square, and he’ll drop an electro album. He holds the rare honor of having been sued by his record label for not sounding enough like himself. It hasn’t stopped him.

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