Expectations don’t often live up to reality. Fortunately, that’s not true of Hitchhiker, Neil Young’s most recent archival release. Like two of his other “great lost” records, Homegrown and Chrome Dreams, it has become the subject of great speculation and more than a little impossible-to-live up to rock ‘n’ roll mythology. Young’s hardcore fans have been talking about Hitchhiker for decades, and Young himself has done quite a lot to build the hype and mystery surrounding it in interviews over the years. It’s one of those records along with Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Prince’s Black Album and Brian Wilson’s Smile that has increased in reputation to such an extent with the passage of time that to delay its official release any longer seemed like an unnecessary cruelty to Young’s long time fans.
Hitchhiker captures Neil Young in peak creative form. Recorded in one sitting on the night of August 26, 1976 at a studio in Malibu, the album showcases ten solo acoustic songs, many of which later became fan favourites to be featured on albums such as American Stars and Bars, Decade, Comes a Time, Rust Never Sleeps, Hawks and Doves and Le Noise. Young remembered the session fondly in Special Deluxe, his 2011 memoir:
I spent the night there with David (Briggs) and recorded nine solo acoustic songs, completing a tape I called Hitchhiker. It was a complete piece, although I was pretty stony on it, and you can hear it in my performances. Dean Stockwell, my friend and a great actor who I later worked on Human Highway as a co-director, was with us that night, sitting in the room with me as I laid down all the songs in a row, pausing only for weed, beer, or coke. Briggs was in the control room, mixing live on his favorite console.
For all of the substances that may have been consumed, there’s nothing sloppy about the recordings made that night. As loose as Neil Young sounds, he consistently sings with total conviction and rarely slips out of tune. Delivered off the cuff, with song after song flowing effortlessly, Hitchhiker could never be mistaken for careful and meticulous finished pieces of work, which is probably what makes them so appealing to listen to. Laid down without overdubs, background vocals or additional musicians, Hitchhiker offers an impression or blueprint of songs that were—for the most part—more fully developed at a later date. Taken in that light, ‘Hitchhiker’ might just be the best demo this side of Nebraska that anyone has ever had the privilege to hear.
A large part of the attraction of releases like Hitchhiker has to do with the rarities and unreleased songs that they feature. “Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength” are the two songs on the collection that have never been released elsewhere, while the title cut never saw the light of day until Young finally re-recorded it for 2010’s Le Noise.
“Hitchhiker” is the most interesting of these three, but it’s a song that has never quite lived up to its potential. It’s one of those weird ballads that Neil has always struggled with, and rarely gets right. Some of the ideas were worked out in “Crime in the City’ from 1989’s Freedom, but in its initial form, the title track is a song about the lost highway of drug abuse. But, unlike “Too Far Gone” or “The Needle and The Damage Done,” it doesn’t really work that well because it lacks an emotional or narrative center. It’s one of the few songs that has continued to elude Young. Despite the sonic improvements that provided emotional cues for the narrative on his Le Noise rendition, the lyrics continue to chafe and resist an easy flow. Maybe Neil Young will continue tinkering with it until he gets it right.
No one should buy ‘Hitchhiker’ expecting to hear the definitive version of any of the featured songs. Instead, listeners are given the opportunity to hear a gifted artist communicate the joy he obviously experiences in making music as he explores and connects with his newest compositions. The record, taken as a whole, offers an invaluable glimpse into the working process of an artist who has long valued spontaneity and direct emotional connection above all else. Yet, for all of Neil Young’s hippie looseness, he was also—at least at this stage of the career—his harshest critic and most ruthless editor. For, as interesting as songs like the unreleased “Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength” may sound at this stage of the game, it has to be admitted that they don’t hold a candle to a lot of the other material Young was writing in the mid-’70s.
These recordings are clearly works in progress and their main function was to capture these songs in their raw form with the intent of developing them at a later date. For example, the tentative swipe at “Human Highway” stands out as a song that really did improve immensely when he recorded it for Comes A Time. Similarly, as hurting and immediate as the acoustic impression of “Powderfinger” is, the electric setting that Young finally chose when it was included on Rust Never Sleeps was better for the emotions conveyed in the song. It’s also exhilarating to hear Young exploring melodies and picking patterns on familiar songs like “Pocahontas” before they were locked in and resolved. Unexpected instrumental passages and undeveloped narratives like we hear on “Ride My Llama” are surprisingly frail and lovely and hint at the melodic resolutions that came later. “Campaigner” has yet to find the fire Young kindled on the Decade version, and the frenzied guitar picking on “Captain Kennedy” was never lassoed in quite the same way again when he re-recorded it for Hawks and Doves.
If we could go back to a time where we had never heard these songs before, Hitchhiker would more than stand on its own as a brilliant piece of performance art. Stripped of the subsequent mythology or knowledge of what these songs would eventually become, each performance remains beautiful in its own right. Young’s delivery is so fresh that the songs seem to hang as delicately as drawings in the sand, waiting to be wiped away by the rising tide. Thanks to David Briggs and his tape recorder, they were preserved. Now, more than forty years after it was recorded, that one “stony” night in Malibu where a single musician set down his newest tunes, accompanying himself on guitar, is available for everyone to enjoy.