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Harvest turns 40 (YIKES!)

[RandyS reports: This article on Relix from Jaan Uhelszki mentions our own Thrasher by name. ]

 From Relix magazine:
 Published: 2012/01/18
 by Jaan Uhelszki Gleaning Gold: Neil Young’s Harvest Turns 40

[Ed2 notes: Glad that Jaan U is still around. One of the first to report 
in Internet magazines about Neil Young. The latter which should not die out or censored 
because of SOPA or PIPA]

I have always had dark heroes.

Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Brian Jones all captured my imagination. 
Their deep mysteries, their devotion to otherworldly muses, their 
wrecked cool and even their idiosyncratic clothing kept me enthralled as 
I pored over the exoticism of their guitar excursions like they were 
consecrated texts concealing some code that would reveal the profundity 
of a great unseen world.

And in some ways, they did. This unholy trinity opened up whole vistas 
of thought and sensations, allowing me to develop what Ralph Waldo 
Emerson referred to when describing transcendentalism: “an original 
relation to the universe.” It was both music and extra-musical—but at 
the heart of it, what they were imparting obscured more than it revealed.

I liked the idea that rock stars were not like the rest of us. That they 
existed in some alternative universe breathing in saffron-scented air, 
wearing tight velvet stovepipe pants, riding in chauffeur-driven Aston 
Martins—all while thinking great thoughts of profundity and consequence 
and consorting with woman who resembled The Beatles wives and 
girlfriends, or winsome fashion models.

But if I am entirely honest with myself, my greatest mystery has always 
been Neil Young. And unlike the aforementioned guitar gods, his mystery 
wasn’t as occult or obvious—but rather more homegrown and inexplicable 
because it occupied that unsettling juncture between the familiar and 
the unknown, like a human manifestation of Shirley Jackson’s short story 
“The Lottery.”

Neil Young may look like the rest of us—may even appear to act like the 
rest of us—but at the core, you know he really isn’t. That’s even before 
we get to the Pontiac hearse that he drove from Toronto to Los Angeles 
in 1966, or how the Buffalo Springfield came into being because all the 
members just happened to be stuck in the same LA traffic jam—in a moment 
that seemed to momentarily subvert the law of physics and geography to 
make musical history.

At the center of my devotion to Young is his emotional austerity and 
loneliness that has always mirrored my own. I have a theory that the 
artists that you most revere are the ones that reflect something of 
yourself back to you, to show some wound or strength in a more 
exaggerated form, allowing you to understand yourself better. For me, 
that has always been Young and never so much as on his fourth album, 
1972’s Harvest —with its trajectory of wanting love but not quite 
knowing how to give into it wholly; looking for a heart of gold, but 
finding a heart of darkness.

There are few places as uncomfortable as the full surrender of your 
affections—for me, anyway.

And for Young, I suspect.

At least back in 1972.

***

Beyond Neil Young’s ability to manipulate events, traffic conditions, 
overcome health concerns or be my own personal mirror, I think his 
greatest gift is his unfathomable, often wary imagination.

Do words descend on him like Jeanne d’Arc’s visions, fueled by his (and 
her suspected) epilepsy? How can one explain where a song like Buffalo 
Springfield’s “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” comes from, with images 
that feel pulled from Greek tragedy with an economy of language that 
brings Ernest Hemmingway to mind?

Part poetry, part obfuscation, Young has always created a culture of 
unease, first witnessed here, oddly asking, “Who’s putting a sponge in 
the bells I once rung?” then demanding, “Whose seeing eyes through the 
crack in the floor?”—an early reveal of his incipient paranoia and 
ability to sense some threat that the rest of us are only dimly aware of.

Whether paranoia is heightened awareness or just acute self-awareness, 
it’s something that Young has honed to high art, allowing him to pull 
things out of the ethers—seemingly ordinary images—and put a slight 
counter-clockwise twist on them, transforming the commonplace into 
something unruly and unexpected.

That and his dedication to never do the expected, even in small ways. 
 From changing band members and configurations at will to making a 
rather straightforward record after four albums which showed him to be 
the inscrutable loner, often injured by love and loss. From the 
bewildered recriminations of “What Did You Do To My Life” to the wistful 
longing of “I’ve Loved Her So Long,” to asking for a woman to save his 
life in “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” all on his eponymous debut in 1968, 
to the elusive females of “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Cinnamon 
Girl”—dream girls from his second record, 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is 
Nowhere, the lyrics and images are intangible and anticipatory.

By the time that Young released his third record After The Gold Rush in 
1970, he appears to have had a deep experience of love, loss and 
romantic redemption. But the best song from that disc, “Only Love Can 
Break Your Heart,” is about his Crosby Stills Nash &Young bandmate 
Graham Nash’s break-up with Joni Mitchell. Though Young had married 
Susan Acevedo in 1968 (and divorced her by 1970), the song’s lyrics 
suggest that Young had yet to allow himself to become totally lost in a 
relationship.

It’s not until he became smitten with actress Carrie Snodgress after 
seeing her in the film Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) that he let 
himself be more forthcoming, autobiographical and less oblique than he 
had been on record—chronicling the beginnings of his 
romance-cum-conquest of Snodgress in the third verse of “A Man Needs a 
Maid,” which was slated for the forthcoming Harvest .

A while ago somewhere I don’t know when
I was watching a movie with a friend.
I fell in love with the actress.
She was playing a part that I could understand

That is, of course, after expounding in the first lines that all he 
really needed was “someone to keep his house clean, fix my meals and go 
away” —lines much more indicative of the character of the relationship 
than anyone would have suspected in those early days of 1971 when the 
couple met.

It’s exhilarating for the listener to be able to crack open the 
backstage door into the personal life of this brooding, dashed 
romantic—even approaching rock soap opera. But if it was intoxicating 
for fans to find him documenting the history of his relationship, then 
it was more intoxicating for the actress who didn’t have any idea who 
Neil Young was at the time of Harvest’s release. “I wasn’t a rock and 
roll girl,” she told the New York Times in 1990. “I said, ‘Neil Young. 
Neil Young. Where do I know that name from?’”

Nevertheless, she said, she fell “madly and immediately” in love with 
Young and abandoned Hollywood, walking out on her contract in order to 
travel with the rocker and share his Northern California ranch. In 1972, 
she gave birth to their son Zeke. As for her career, “I decided that I 
was going to be in love, I was going to give it everything I had.”

Unfortunately, Young wouldn’t or couldn’t do the same. It was as if he 
had one eye fixed on the exit door—or as he so poetically put it in 
“Alabama,” as he was speaking about the intersection of the then-new 
South and the old South and the problems that it posed: “Your Cadillac 
has got a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track.” He could have 
just as easily been speaking about himself in this relationship, which 
ended in 1977.

What I find most unnerving is that after the ambiguity of “A Man Needs a 
Maid” and his rather offhanded declaration love for Snodgress, Young 
follows the song with “Heart of Gold,” signifying—like Bono a decade 
after him—that he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

Neil Young scholar Keith Bonney, founder of the preeminent Neil Young 
fan site, thrasherswheat.org, contends that, “It is the search for love 
that drove his songwriting.” But I’m not certain that’s correct; the 
greater quest might be for something altogether different and more 
elemental.

There aren’t any accidents in an album’s sequencing and Young had to 
have thought hard about where he wanted to place “Heart of Gold” in 
respect to the rest of the songs. Was its placement a message to 
Snodgress or to himself? Perhaps the “heart of gold” that he’s searching 
for is his own, given the use of the personal pronoun: “I’ve been in my 
mind and it’s such a fine line that keeps me searching for a heart of 
gold.” This particular journey is the search for self.

Young first met (the then) Nashville, Tenn.-based Harvest producer 
Elliot Mazer at a party that Mazer had thrown for Johnny Cash. It would 
be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.

“I love albums that take you to different places song by song.” Mazer 
says today from England of Harvest . “I mixed the entire album but 
really mixed each song as a song.” The stark collection, recorded at 
various locations—ranging from Jan. 30, 1971 at UCLA’s Royce Hall (“The 
Needle and The Damage Done”) to the February and April sessions at 
Mazer’s Quadrafonic studio to the two songs recorded with keyboardist 
and arranger Jack Nitzche and the London Symphony in March 1971 to the 
September sessions at a barn-turned studio at Broken Arrow ranch in 
Woodside, Calif.—presented Mazer with a challenge.

“The fewer instruments and voices that are in a mix, the harder it is to 
make a complete and cohesive sound,” he says. “There is no compression 
or limiting on Harvest . We wanted the full sonic and dynamic ranges of 
those instruments and voices.”

Those voices include Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor providing back up 
vocals for “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man.” Young also convinced his CSN 
compatriots to appear on the record in different configurations, 
prompting David Crosby to comment, “Neil needs us about as much as a 
stag needs a coat rack.” However, their appearances imbue “Are You Ready 
for the County,” “Alabama” and “Words” with a richness and depth, and at 
times, a lightness that the songs wouldn’t otherwise possess.

“His songs imply those parts,” Mazer says of the various personnel’s 
contributions to the record. “Sometimes he would tell [drummer]Kenny 
[Buttrey] to not play a high-hat. On one song, Kenny sat on his right 
hand. Neil also met [guitarist] Ben Keith on these sessions. The two of 
them bonded, which turned out to be a continual working relationship 
between them until Ben passed away last year.” Other contributors 
included pianists John Harris and James McMahon and guitarist Teddy Irwin.

When asked if Young was going for a particular concept, Mazer says that 
they never discussed anything. “The songs are the album and they spoke 
loudly when he played them,” he says in a producer-like way. “He played 
us a song, which for the most part, spoke to what was to be played and 
how it would sound. Neil is an amazing and physical guitarist. His 
movements imply the rhythms.”

Simply put, says Mazer, “The music flowed and we all did what we did the 
best.”

Harvest quickly reached the top of the Billboard charts, giving Young 
his only No. 1 record in his long career, but also making him back away 
from his fame, all but disowning it, denigrating the song in the liner 
notes for his 1977 retrospective, Decades. “This song put me in the 
middle of the road,” he reflected. “Traveling there soon became a bore 
so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting 
people there.”

The most revealing part of Harvest —in regard to where Young’s emotional 
compass was pointed to at the time—is in on the title track “Harvest,” 
where he sings, “Dream up, dream up/ Let me fill you with the promise of 
a man,” rather than the man himself.

While that signals an enormous amount of self-awareness about his 
limitations, it doesn’t absolve him of the responsibility of giving the 
relationship all he has, something made material when he sings, “Will I 
see you give more than I can take? Will I only harvest some?”

What did Carrie Snodgress think about when she heard that line? Was it a 
portent of a rocky future?

I don’t know about her, but I saw red flags.

***

It wasn’t until 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps that Neil Young even got close 
to emotional surrender. The idea of harvest, however, would haunt him 
for years after, as he named his 1992 album Harvest Moon and his band 
(during his 1984-85 tour) the International Harvesters, silently begging 
the question of the one-time teenage egg farmer: What is it that he is 
harvesting or wants to harvest?

As for the actual song, “‘Harvest’ is one of my best songs,” Young 
admitted to his biographer Jimmy McDonough in 1993’s Shakey , seemingly 
reversing his original verdict of it. “That’s the best thing on Harvest . ”

“I was in love when I first made Harvest , ” he went on to tell 
McDonough. “With Carrie. So that was it. I was an in-love and 
on-top-of-the-world type guy.”

“All those relationships songs—it’s ‘I want to, but I can’t,’” suggested 
McDonough.

“Right. Good thing I got past that stage,” Young responded.

“How did you do it?” asked McDonough.

“Time, I guess,” Young initially surmised. “Getting the right woman. 
That was a good thing.”

Even so, there is still the taint of “The “Loner” about Young even 
today. The early song that first appeared on his 1968 self-titled solo 
album revealed an unapproachable heart, and an emotional stoicism, 
perhaps from the early wounds suffered by his parents’ divorce that 
never seemed to heal—and something that would fester in what is probably 
the second best song on Harvest , “Old Man.”

Shortly after becoming the owner of Broken Arrow, a 1,500-acre ranch 
located in the hills south of San Francisco, Young penned “Old Man,” 
inspired by the Louis Avila, the caretaker of the ranch.

In the first line, he sings, “Old man, look at my life. I’m a lot like 
you are.” Given Young’s age and his place in Toronto’s social 
stratum—his mother, Rassy, a TV presenter; his father, Scott, a 
celebrated sports journalist—the comparison seems forced.

In fact, for quite some time, Young’s father was under the assumption 
that the song was about him—something he addressed in his book Neil and 
Me (2009):

In March of 1972, I took my family for a month in Florida, and was there 
just after Neil’s new album, Harvest, was released and went straight to 
the top of the charts within two weeks. Every time I turned on my car 
radio in Florida, I heard “Heart of Gold,”the first single released from 
that album. Then, almost as often I would hear another from that 
album,“Old Man.” Well, sure, “Old Man pleased me a great deal. In 
Florida and back in Canada during the many months while “Old Man” was 
well up on the charts, people would mention it to me as if I were some 
sort of co-proprietor, at which I would just nod and smile like Mona 
Lisa. Never question a compliment is my motto. “Old Man” was also such a 
nice change from some of the songs whose accusatory gist I had applied 
to myself years earlier.”

A few months later, Neil was in Toronto and the father and son met up. 
After a walk, Neil said to the elder Young:

“[There’s] something I should clarify,” his father recalls his son 
telling him. “You know that song, ‘Old Man?’”

“Yeah, I love it.”

“It’s not about you,” Young told him. “I know a lot of people think it 
is. But it’s about Louis, the man who lives on the ranch and looks after 
things for me—the cattle and the buffalo and the food and all that. A 
wonderful guy.”

So at the end, what binds Neil Young with Louis Avila—his aging 
caretaker—and not to his father? The need for love—the underlying 
premise of this entire album that was released on Valentine’s Day in 1972.

In the second verse, he sings, “Old Man, take a look at my life. I’m a 
lot like you are/ I need someone to love me the whole day through/ Oh, 
one look in my eyes and you can tell that’s true.”

It was as if the 18 months that it took to record the album—a process 
hampered by Young injuring his back while trying to move a piece of wood 
at Broken Arrow—allowed him to be as contemplative and as transparent as 
he ever had. To use those hooded slate blue eyes as a portal into his 
psyche, instead of as dual weapons capable of pinning hapless listeners 
to the wall. Was it the pain pills that he was forced to take that 
causing him to drop his guard, or was it something else all together?

“I was in and out of hospitals for the two years between After The Gold 
Rush and Harvest , ” he revealed in 1975. “I recorded most of Harvest in 
a brace. That’s a lot of reason it’s such a mellow album. I couldn’t 
physically play an electric guitar.”

Perhaps the confined, broken body set something free in him. Maybe 
that’s what allowed him to publicly declare his affection and issue a 
cautionary tale—more a naked plea—to Crazy Horse guitarist Danny 
Whitten, when he penned “Needle and the Damage Done.” True prophesy is 
embedded in the anxious words and sharp rhythmic breaks. Although 
Whitten would live for another nine months and four days after the 
release of the album, Young knew that he had already lost him.

It wasn’t only Whitten’s death that unsettled Young; Harvest represented 
a loss of much greater magnitude. Suddenly the success of the 
album—which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic—thrust him 
into superstardom, even eclipsing CSN’s fame. He claimed to reporters 
that having a chart-topping single made him feel “empty.”

“I tried to stay away from the success as much as possible,” Young told 
Cameron Crowe in 1979. “And being laid up in bed gave me a lot of time 
to think about what had happened. I thought the popularity was good, but 
I also knew that something else was dying.”

Dramatic? Perhaps. Dark? Certainly. But my heroes have always been dark, 
and Neil Young is probably the darkest of them all—even when back lit by 
a Harvest moon.
_________________________________________
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