Neil Young is a prolific, peripatetic artist who has recorded and toured at a breakneck pace for five decades. He's afraid of nothing, makes almost a fetish out of experimentation, and has released dozens and dozens of records—the sheer number of which now obscure his major accomplishments and may make him difficult for newcomers to get to know.
Neil Young by Linda McCartney, late 1960s
His reputation and importance rest on a string of superb records made in the decade following 1969. These are Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), After The Gold Rush (1970); Harvest (1972); the live Time Fades Away (1973) which is still not available on CD and has been "written out of history" on the official website (Young has bad memories from the tour); the iconic On the Beach (1974); the willfully perverse and artistically courageous Tonight's the Night (released in 1975 though recorded two years earlier); and Zuma (1975). All seven are equally indispensable for either the diehard fan or the newcomer, although the only way to get Time Fades Away is on vintage vinyl, as a bootleg, or on YouTube.
Time Fades Away, Tonight's the Night, and On the Beach are the so-called "Ditch Trilogy," a name which comes from Neil's famous comment in the liner notes of Decade: "'Heart of Gold' put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch."
Also from the same period are the two great Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young albums, Deja Vu and 4 Way Street.
Rust had already set in when Neil released the last must-have album from this period, a pastiche of then-current and earlier material, 1977's American Stars N Bars. The career-summing "best of" from the whole period is called Decade, orginally a 3-disc compilation. Both American Stars'N'Bars and Decade contain the must-have guitar anthem "Like a Hurricane."
The twin codas to the decade (ending a run that would be enough for a whole career for most musicians) were Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust, both from 1979. The titles are a bit confusing. Rust Never Sleeps was a live album debuting new material, like Time Fades Away had been. Although it wasn't quite as good as the earlier album, it holds its own. Live Rust, on the other hand, was a combination of a traditional live album and a traditional greatest hits—and doesn't contain much material from Rust Never Sleeps. So the two albums aren't nearly as closely intertwined as their titles might have you believe.
The 1980s could be dropped almost entirely from Young's catalog and little would be missed. It was a time of personal turmoil, commercial struggle, and artistic uncertainty. Basically, what Neil did was lose his way—without losing his nerve. The result was a string of defiant, searching, but wretched genre records. There was Old Ways (country), Trans (techno, heavy on the vocorder), Everybody's Rockin' (rockabilly, for god's sake), the awful Landing On Water ('80s synth-pop [!]) and finally the dismaying This Note's for You (horn blues), which elicited one of the funniest and most scathing music reviews ever written in The Village Voice and a very funny comment from another reveiwer, who said something along the lines of "this album actually isn't quite as bad as it sounds." The undeniable if infrequent flashes of brilliance on these albums glimmer like lost coins seen through four feet of murky water.
The folkie fivesome
The best-selling album of 1972 in the USA and the record that put Young in the pantheon, was, of course, Harvest (remastered in 2009). Although Neil later "headed for the ditch," as he says, he's also periodically returned to melodic, gentle, almost easy-listening folkie albums throughout his career—seemingly when he needs a shot of sales, re-anchoring, or a defined change of pace from his musical pinballing. The first Harvest reprise was 1978's Comes a Time; then came 1992's Harvest Moon, Silver & Gold from 2000, and finally Prairie Wind from 2005. If this is the Young you love, these five will do it for you.
Godfather of grunge
As with all great artists who keep questing, sooner or later the questing takes on a nobility of its own, and/or finds a new audience. Neil redeemed himself in many peoples' eyes in 1989 with Freedom and the searing EP Eldorado (released in a limited edition of 25,000, only in New Zealand), followed in 1990 by the hard-rockin' Ragged Glory. The hit song off Freedom, "Rockin' In the Free World," which was released in both electric and acoustic versions, reached #2 on the US charts.
Notoriously, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana quoted Neil's lyric "it's better to burn out than to fade away" (from the song "Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)" on Rust Never Sleeps) in his suicide note. Young, who had tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to contact Cobain before his death, was so shaken that he dedicated is 1994 album Sleeps With Angels to Cobain, although Cobain is not named on the album. Young now prefers to emphasize the line "Once you're gone you can't come back."
Neil continued his hard-rock Godfather of Grunge turn by recording with Pearl Jam in 1995 (the undistinguished Mirror Ball).
The legendary bus crash
Neil had joked for many years about a "bus crash album" (referring to his touring bus), which would allegedly contain many famously unreleased albums and songs, bootlegs (of which there are many—I have more than 100, most collected originally from all over the world by my friend K), and live performances. Neil Young Archives Volume I: 1963–72 was finally released in 2009, out of a total of five volumes promised. There was to be one every three years. Although the first Archives release disappointed many fans, as the time period covered did not intersect with the more desired unreleased albums, a number of fine historical live recordings were issued in its wake, mainly on vinyl, including Sugar Mountain: Live at the Canterbury House, Live at Massey Hall (the first recommendation among these releases), Live at Fillmore East with Crazy Horse, and several others. None of the promised remaining volumes of the Archives series have been released.
Neil Young is always interesting, and there are many fine songs not on the albums listed above (two lesser-known stunners, for instance, are "Fountainbleu" from The Stills-Young Band's Long May You Run and "Change Your Mind" from Sleeps With Angels.)
Many kinds of artists, not only musicians, can learn from Young's intensity, drive, and refusal to compromise. In print, Neil's own memoir Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream was well received, and the unauthorized Shakey: Neil Young's Biography is a great window on the man and the artist.
(Thanks to Jim Schley, who made me into a Neil Young fan in 1977)
("Open Mike" is the free-form open-topic page of TOP. A day late this week, it usually appears on Sundays.)
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Steven Willard: "A very nice 'history.' All I need is a few bars of Neil on an intro and I'm taken right back to my college days. I've always liked his voice, but I can understand how some might think he sounds like Alfalfa sing in the Little Rascals. Love him, hate him, he certainly is distinctive, and man has he turned out the songs. Thanks."
John McMillin: "Thanks for a nice summation of a most complicated career. I'll never have or want all of Neil's work, but as long as I have a guitar, I'll never stop trying the play his 'simple' debut tunes, without attaining the rhythmic precision of his masterful finger picking. Looking back to an early treasure like Massey Hall, it seems that Neil arrived on the scene with every talent he'd ever need. Those first albums were so perfect that he had to wander away into sloppiness and experimentation to avoid repeating himself. He couldn't get better, so he got weirder as he followed deconstructed laments of his style wherever they might lead."
B Grace: "Everybody's Rockin' is actually a fun album once a person knows of the story of its creation. I'm not a true Neil Young fan but I'll stand in his corner on that album."
Mike replies: Betty Lou's got a new pair of shoes.
beuler: "What grabs me about Neil Young songs is the 'in your face' honesty with no sugarcoating. It provides a very direct connection to the artist himself and not so much the work as an artistic piece. Many singer/songwriter's songs can be successfully covered, buy when you listen no Neil Young, what you hear is the man. It might be ignorance on my part, but I don't think anyone has successfully covered any of his songs (with the exception of 'Rockin' in the Free World')."
Mike replies: One of the paragraphs I cut from this post was about covers. It's a fascinating topic, but perhaps better for a more knowledgable writer than me.
Wayne: "A: Neil Young, Cat Stevens, Warren Zevon. Q: Who are artists you should never try to cover? Last year, I believe it was in July, our neighbors across the street were holding a party, complete with live band. The band was pretty bad to begin with, but then they tried to cover a Warren Zevon song—I believe it was 'Lawyers, Guns, and Money,' no less...I had to go inside and turn the TV on.
"You should do a commemorative writing on Warren. This was pretty good. My favorite Neil Young song is 'The Needle and the Damage Done.' We are contending with the H problem in our family. I believe that song has given me more strength than anything. It is such a lonely song, but yet, goes so far in taking away the personal loneliness of the experience. Thank you Neil."
Ed Waring: "I was lucky enough to see Neil at Glastonbury Festival in 2009 and it was absolutely mindblowing. Having heard all kinds of stories about his somewhat wilful live performances we intended to watch the first 20 minutes and wander off having ticked the Neil Young box. Instead we were presented with an absolutely incendiary greatest hits set that was totally mesmerising. There were about eight in our group who had never even heard off him and were blown away.... A real and genuine legend."
Earl Dunbar: "I have not heard Neil live, but I have been to concerts at Massey Hall. If there is a better acoustic space, I don't know it. I was able to catch an unplugged Bruce Cockburn there, and it was magic. I can only imagine what Neil would be like there. My theory is that any musician who plays Massey elevates their game because they instinctively feel the lady deserves the best. That's my belief and I'm sticking to it."