BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH–AND BEWARE THE HYPE OF THE “LOST” ALBUM. AS prolific an artist as Neil Young has been–averaging an album per year every year since 1969, he’s also known for aborting some of his projects and/or reworking others, to their detriment. (See his album, Old Ways, recorded twice, the latter version universally panned by all those who heard both sessions). Bob Dylan–Young’s great hero, peer and contemporary–has a similar track record.
To paraphrase the bard from Hibbing, Minnesota, Young has been plunging through his “back pages,” exhaustively releasing his archives over the last two decades or so while continuing to issue new music at a frantic pace. Of any musician, including those fifty years his junior, Young may have one of the best websites online. Stylized as a dusty old filing cabinet, the effect is less that of some hippie luddite and more of someone who has always obsessively catalogued his career, but also his stubborn determination to evade his detractor’s wishes for him to remain a living Golden Oldie, or to glue him to one or two styles, those in which he achieved maximum commercial exposure(i.e, the country-rock troubador and the garage rock icon leading those “primitives” known as Crazy Horse).
Over five decades Young has explored many more styles, of course, which sometimes enrages his own fans. When I was first turned onto him in the very 80’s–the “David Geffen” era(hahaha)–he dropped one record which reminded you of Kraftwerk and another one in which he seemed to be pretending he had always been a rockabilly star. I like both modes, but I confess to have loved the more classic Neil Young played on my local radio station in Lexington, Kentucky. You know, the “acoustic” Neil Young of Harvest or the “electric” Neil Young of Rust Never Sleeps, an album which actually balances those dual sides. Before there was “classic” rock radio, Neil Young was in great rotation. And damn right he should be. Other than Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Steely Dan, The Who, Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones, no one owned the rock side of the musical aisle as much as Young.
Despite a legendary crabbiness, mentioned in nearly every profile of him, Young has always been an excellent interview subject. In spite of being viewed as some type of laconic hippie dopehead cowboy, his passions for life and music burn through tropes like wildfire. He’s the “wound-up” type: once you get him started, he might not stop talking and he’s liable to tell you everything on his mind. Which may be a reason he publicly and legally disputed the interviews he agreed to with biographer Jimmy McDonough for the excellent bestseller Shakey. (A nickname, with cruel connotations as Young is an epileptic.)
Shakey is so great because McDonough captures what Young’s fans fantasize is his true voice–which is far more than an author just providing a strict transcipt of conversations for a biography. Shakey is both straight-forward yet folksy, piercing and rambling like many of his guitar solos. It’s a fan’s book through and through, with McDononough not holding on to any bullshit “objectivity.” Interspersed with Young’s commentary, it may be the best extended piece on Young ever written.
And both have plenty to say about Homegrown in Shakey, which was first published in 2002. McDonough had access to the unreleased material culled from recording sessions between 1974-75, of which he raved about for pages.
Ostensibly a “breakup” album in the same confessional vein as Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Homegrown chronicled Young’s pain from the dissolution of a relationship with actress Carolyn Snodgress(who inspired the classic song, “A Man Needs a Maid” among others, including the moaning saturnine brilliance of “Motion Pictures”).
Apparently Young shelved the record for two reasons, according to McDonough and others. Young had played two unreleased records back-to-back for a group of musicians–including members of The Band, who did some recording with Neil over this period. The wispy introspection of Homegrown was premiered alongside the very good-but-abrasive downer of an album, Tonight’s the Night(itself a song cycle about the drug-induced death of some of Neil’s band members and road crew). Allegedly Band bassist Rick Danko said “Go with the raw one,” which had a keen influence upon Neil.:
There was another factor involved in the decision. Young had pulled from the emotional nakedness of Homegrown. “It was a little too personal…it scared me, ” Young told Cameron Crowe a short time later. “I’ve never released any of those. And I probably never will I think I’d be too embarrassed to put them out. They’re a little too real.” To his father he would describe the album as “great songs I can live without.”
“‘He expressed to me he couldn’t listen to the whole thing, it was so intense,” said Elliot Mazer. “I said, ‘Don’t listen to it–you don’t listen to your own albums anyway.” In the next few years, Young would parcel out various cuts from the Homegrown sessions: “Little Wing” and “Old Homestead” to Hawks and Doves. “Star of Bethlehem” to American Stars ‘n Bars, “Love Is a Rose” and “Deep Forbidden Lake” would be released on Decade. But to hear Homegrown in its entirety is to hear Neil Young at his best.
First of all–and this is the most disappointing–Homegrown is not completely the Homegrown long promised. What should have been twice the length has been whittled down to a dozen tracks. Why not the full number of tracks? Why not a double cd/LP? What about a boxed set? Why can’t there be multiple options for listeners/consumers? Any release at this point is for the obsessive Neil Young fan not the casual one.
It sure as hell works with the “legacy” reissues Columbia regularly gifts Dylan and Miles Davis fans. Presented with exhaustive detail and inclusion of material they truly honor the artist and their audience.
It’s frustrating that for whatever reasoning Young wasn’t truly understanding of his core audience, of people who have been stoked about the existence of Homegrown for decades. I wasn’t expecting the Lost Scrolls but something more substantial than a dozen tracks.
Homegrown, this incarnation available for release, is not the Holy Grail. Nor is it the equal of Dylan’s double shot of marital discord(Blood on the Tracks and Desire), which are both almost flawless. Nor am I ready yet to elevate it to the upper most tier of Young solo recordings, unimpeachable classics such as After the Gold Rush, Harvest, American Stars ‘n Bars, Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust, Freedom et al.
It’s not as a completely rewarding listen as Harvest Moon, Prairie Wind or his stunning, stunning archival live albums. However, the finest moments here are so transcendently pure, that even after a few(or many) listens the ripple of them lingers within you.
The best tunes throughout sound like outtakes from the Gold Rush–Harvest era. Loping country-tinged ballads like “Separate Ways,” which features Levon Helm on drums, Ben Keith on steel and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. “Star of Bethelham,” which Young had enough sense to include on American Stars ‘n Bars(still my favorite of his solo albums, which I probably love so intensely because it was the very first Neil Young album I purchased with my own money as a youth).
Robbie Robertson also helps propel “White Line.” The duo between the two men may superficially remind one of the similar alchemy Robertson and Dylan shared on their two joint cuts “Dirge” and “Wedding Song” off Planet Waves, but this tune has its own DNA, its own power.
“Kansas” is Young at his most spooky, a tune which grows more desolate as it unwinds. There’s a familiar pattern to Young’s acoustic guitar strumming, to the darkly descending chord pattern he employs as a turnaround and to the burrs of harmonica he adds. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the one/we’ll know before we’re done,” he warns a woman who’s name he can’t remember.
“Kansas,” like “Mexico,” is an extremely brief tune, but the former is even more extraordinary. Though only 1 minutes and 40 seconds, this gentle, yearning piano ballad immediately ranks as one of the finest songs in Young’s catalog. Somewhat in the mode of “Learning to Fly” or “Broken Arrow,” “Mexico” might remind you of some lost Brian Wilson gem. The lyrics are very simple, yet it’s Young’s evocative piano playing and beautiful singing which catapult the song into the stratosphere. It’s absolutely perfect–and over way too soon.
Just as I wish “Little Wing” could extend forever. This is not a cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic, but an original sharing the same name, a privilege it merits. It’s only a little longer than “Kansas” and “Mexico,” leaving you aching for more. It’s autumnal beauty and delicacy is almost unmatched.
“Vacancy” is the best of the rockers, which are otherwise a troubling lot on Homegrown. Presumably the original incarnation of the title cut won’t please too many people accustomed to the version which closes American Stars ‘n Bars. I can appreciate its burliness, but it substantially pales to the better known version. And the paint-by-numbers blooze of “We Don’t Smoke It No More” seems much longer than its 5 minute mark. It conjures up Tonight’s the Night, but wouldn’t merit inclusion on a vastly underrated album.
And what to make of “Florida?” One of the more bizarre moments in the man’s discography, it will leave you scratching your head. A bizarre spoken-word performance more reminiscent of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, has Young telling a fanciful story over musique concrète constructed by Young and Ben Keith. Are we really to believe the Twilight Zone narrative offered here, or judge it an imaginative lark from stoned musicians? And while fascinating upon its first few spins, I already know how I will feel about it in the future. Why did Young waste valuable space/bandwidth on such a track, when surely more deserving songs merited a place?
“Homegrown is the missing link between Harvest, Comes a Time, Old Ways and Harvest Moon,” Young told Jimmy McDomough. I think most fans will concur. It’s superior to Old Ways, but falls drastically short of the seamatic brilliance of those other records. I would add only American Stars ‘n Bars to that list. What’s here on Homegrown isn’t deliverance, but connection. If you think of it that way, instead of the lost great Neil Young album, its flaws become less negligible and strengths gain ever more depth.