The Curmudgeon: Neil Young Empties the Vaults

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The Curmudgeon: Neil Young Empties the Vaults

There’s a reason Columbia/Legacy Records has given its reissues of Bob Dylan and Miles Davis the umbrella title of The Bootleg Series. It’s a back-handed acknowledgement, decades after the original debates, that the bootleggers may have been right. When rock’n’roll bootlegs became widespread in the 1970s, their advocates were arguing, “Yeah, sure, they’re illegal, but if the record companies and their artists refuse to release some of the best music of our time, unlawful work-arounds are justified. If fans can’t legally obtain Dylan’s 1966 “Judas” concert or his “Basement Tapes” with the Band, then listeners deserve to find them on the black market.”

When Columbia finally released those recordings decades later, it confirmed that, yes, these were cultural highlights of their era that should not have been withheld. Instead of trying to create an artificial scarcity of product, the industry should have released more music while these artists were at the peak of their powers. (Bootlegs should not be confused with “pirates,” exact copies of legally available recordings—there’s no justification for that.) In recent years, the labels have seen the error of their ways and have emptied the vaults of not just Dylan but also such much-bootlegged artists such as the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison. This music from these artists’ prime often eclipses the quality of their later work, and most fans prefer the best stuff to the latest.

Over the past five years, few artists have been as active as Neil Young in filling in the gaps of his discography. Young long had a habit of recording albums that he refused to release. Just last August, for example, he finally released Chrome Dreams, which was ready to be put out in 1977. Containing six of his best songs (“Powderfinger,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Pocohontas,” “Star of Bethlehem,” “Look Out for My Love” and “Sedan Delivery”), it would have been a high peak in the mountain ridge of his discography.

Instead of letting it go, however, he took “Like a Hurricane,” “Star of Bethlehem” and three lesser songs, added four newer tracks and released them later that same year as American Stars ‘n Bars, a good but not great album. The six leftover songs dribbled out in the coming years. “Look Out for My Love” was on 1978’s Comes a Time and “Captain Kennedy” on 1980’s Hawks & Doves. A new studio version of “Pocohontas” and live versions of “Powderfinger” and “Sedan Delivery” appeared on the monumental Rust Never Sleeps in 1979. Five of the original tracks were never released before 2017.

The story is even more complicated than that. In 1976, Young was ready to release an album called Hitchhiker, whose first three tracks would be “Pocohantas,” “Powderfinger” and “Captain Kennedy,” followed by seven non-Chrome tracks. Hitchhiker, fascinating though not as overwhelming as Chrome Dreams, was finally released in 2017. Most of the songs on Chrome Dreams were released within six years of their recording, so does it really matter that the album itself wasn’t? For those who consume music as singles or download tracks, it probably doesn’t. But for the minority of us who find it easier to think of an artist’s decade of work in terms of six albums rather than 70 songs, it does.

Just as it’s easier to think of a TV series in terms of a full season rather than isolated episodes, it’s easier to think of an album as a season of episodes that build one on the other. It’s helpful to think of the songs created within one or two years as a collective body of work that presents a truer sense of the artist than any single song ever could. If Chrome Dreams had been the Neil Young album between Zuma and Comes a Time, rather than American Stars ‘n Bars, his claim on being the dominant rock’n’roller of the ‘70s would be stronger than it already is. Chrome Dreams would have been an album listeners returned to again and again, in a way that its substitute never was.

During the ‘70s, one of the most popular non-Dylan bootlegs was Young’s Live at the Los Angeles Music Center, February 1, 1971. This was a stop on his 1970-71 tour, where he performed alone with acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica. Some songs were drawn from his three solo records to-date plus his work with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but more than half were unreleased at the time, a reflection of his startling productivity in those years. Compositions such as “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “See the Sky About To Rain” were first heard in these shows.

Solo-acoustic shows like these are not easy to pull off; most performers are unable to overcome the lack of a rhythm section and the sameness of the sound song after song. But Young thrived in the situation, partially because this crop of his songs was so good, but also because he was able to focus all his intention through the narrow nozzle of one instrument and his odd voice. His adenoidal high tenor was not a conventional pop instrument, but he turned it to his purpose—and found a sonic signature in the process.

The crisp sound of the L.A. Music Center album suggests that it may have been intended as a commercial release. Young admitted on his website that he seriously considered releasing a live album from the tour but ultimately shelved it to release Harvest in 1972. Once again, something valuable was lost in this decision. But not lost forever. The show was finally legally released in 2022 under the title Dorothy Chandler Pavilion 1971, joining five other shows from that same tour, all of them released since 2007. These releases use more or less the same set list; all offer striking performances, and the differences are subtle.

Carnegie Hall 1970 is notable, for it provides a generous helping of 23 songs, rather than the usual 15, allowing a deeper dive into such ‘60s songs as “Expecting To Fly,” “The Loner” and “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing.” Live at the Cellar Door, recorded in D.C., in 1970, contains the only known instance of him playing “Cinnamon Girl” on piano. Young Shakespeare, recorded at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1971, provided the soundtrack for a German TV documentary, Swing In Mit Neil Young, broadcast in Europe in 1972.

Though I like all these, my favorite is Massey Hall 1971, recorded in Young’s hometown of Toronto. He turned 25 during this tour, and though his voice already had the thin nasality that would always mark it, it had an innocence and clarity in this period it would never have again. And in Ontario, the Canadian references in “Helpless” and “Journey Through the Past” drew cheers that seemed to disarm the singer and make him sound sweeter than ever.

During these tours, Young often closed the show with “Dance, Dance, Dance,” a stomping, infectious, country two-step. He never released it on a regular album, giving instead to his backing band Crazy Horse for their 1971 debut. Later he wrote new lyrics to the same music and called the result “Love Is a Rose.” He never released that song on a regular album either, instead giving it to Linda Ronstadt, who had a top-five country hit with it. Young had done solo-acoustic shows before this tour, back in the years before After the Goldrush, when he was still playing small folk coffeehouses. Two of those shows have been released since 2008: Sugar Mountain—Live at Canterbury House 1968 from Ann Arbor and Live at the Riverboat 1969 from Toronto. Though less self-assured than the 1970-71 shows, they provide a revealing look at his earliest songs. Both the Riverboat and Massey Hall albums are two of the eight audio discs in the 2009 box set, Neil Young Archives Vol. 1: 1963–1972.

“Sugar Mountain,” for example, is a long song about the innocence and awkwardness of adolescence. Written in 1964, when Young was 19, it captures both the fondness and embarrassment one feels when looking back on those years. The songwriter definitely had ambivalent feelings, for he would often poke fun at the song when he performed it in concert, but he kept performing it because audiences loved it. It never appeared on one of his regular albums, though the Canterbury House recording was the B-side on two different singles (“The Loner” and “Cinnamon Girl”) and on the Decade compilation. It was slated for the Hitchhiker album that never got released.

In 1972, Harvest gave Young the biggest hit of his career: a #1 album and a #1 single in “Heart of Gold.” He wasn’t entirely comfortable with his success and told interviewers that he wanted to leave the middle of the road and get back into the ditch. His next album in 1973 was his first solo live record, Time Fades Away, which was drawn not from the legendary solo-acoustic tour nor the raucous Crazy Horse tours but from the post-Harvest tour with a country-rock quintet called the Stray Gators.

It was a disappointment to anyone who’d heard the earlier bootlegs. The Stray Gators (featuring steel guitarist Ben Keith, keyboardist Jack Nitzsche, bassist Tim Drummond and various drummers) eventually evolved into an effective unit, but at this point they were too stiff and disjointed to be effective. In 2019, an Alabama show from that same tour was released as Tuscaloosa, but it was even weaker than Time Fades Away.

He followed up the tour, though, by taking Keith, Drummond and Crazy Horse’s drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot into the studio to make one of the best albums Young ever made: On the Beach, released in 1974. He planned to follow that up with another album with Keith and Drummond: Homegrown. It included early versions of “Love Is a Rose” and “Star of Bethlehem,” but it also included underwritten road songs, jokey drug numbers and a recitation of a dream over wine glasses and piano strings. He decided not to release this album either, though in this case it was probably a wise decision.

Instead he decided to release some tapes he’d recorded with Keith, Nils Lofgren, Molina and Talbot in 1973 before On the Beach. A lot of the singing and playing was off-key and ragged, but these songs about musicians burnt out from touring, drugs and lost idealism were the most emotionally powerful work Young had ever done. He played these tapes and Homegrown back-to-back for the Band, and they told him he had to release the earlier album. It came out as Tonight’s the Night in 1975, long after the five musicians who made it had already road-tested the material as the Santa Monica Flyers in 1973. The L.A. show from that tour was released in 2018 as Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live. It has crisp sound, but uneven performances and jokiness, as if the band shied away from the subject matter.

A recording of the London stop on that tour was finally released less than a year ago as Somewhere Under the Rainbow 1973. The sound is boomy at times, but the music was full of the same edge and dread that made the studio album so effective. It’s a great album. It’s worth the money just for its unhinged, 12-minute version of “Tonight’s the Night.” Eight minutes in, the band starts chanting the title line as if it were a warning to the unwary over the noisy guitars and bass. Young goes into a spoken monologue about his confrontation with longtime roadie Bruce Berry just before the latter’s death. Then the band rebuilds the song to the climactic line about the dreaded phone call: “I heard that he died out on the mainline.” It’s the epitome of the way a live improvisation can transform a studio recording.

Young’s 1975 album Zuma was one of his best rock’n’roll efforts, featuring eight tracks with Crazy Horse and one with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But the sessions at a studio in Point Dume, California, yielded so much good material that it could easily have been a double album with 17 tracks. He proved as much by mixing the eight Crazy Horse songs with eight more tracks with that band and releasing under the title Dume as one of the 10 discs in the 2020 box set, Neil Young Archives Volume II: 1972–1976, released in 2020. It’s available today as a stand-alone album. Such rarities as “Hawaii” and “Kansas” hold their own next to such concert staples as “Cortez the Killer” and “Barstool Blues.” Also in that box set are the complete versions of the Tuscaloosa, Homegrown and Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live albums.

The Neil Young Archives series has released some interesting mid-‘70s, solo-acoustic performances. Citizen Kane Jr. Blues 1974, released in 2022, is a sonically compromised but revealing set that unveils material from the upcoming On the Beach. Songs for Judy collects 23 songs from Young’s opening acoustic sets during a 1976 tour with Crazy Horse. The sound is good, and the singing is vivid.

As the ‘80s dawned, Young issued a series conceptual genre albums. His last effort on his original Warner/Reprise contract was 1981’s underrated garage-rock effort with Crazy Horse, Re-ac-tor. He then signed with Geffen Records and released 1982’s techno-rock project, Trans, 1983’s rockabilly revival, Everybody’s Rockin’, 1985’s trad-country album, Old Ways and 1986’s synth-rock outing, Landing on Water. He was back on Reprise for 1988’s blues-rock record, This Note’s for You.

These were controversial albums; Geffen even sued their own artist for not turning in a typical Neil Young album, as if you could even define such a thing in such a varied career. While it was fun to hear him stretch his songwriting and performing muscles to tackle each genre, none of these were as bad as naysayers claimed nor as good as his ‘70s work.

In 2011, he released A Treasure, a concert album from the 1984/1985 tour with the International Harvesters (Keith, Drummond, pianist Spooner Oldham and a Cajun fiddler) in 2011. In 2015, he released Bluenote Café, live performances from the 1987–88 tour with the Bluenotes (five horns and a rhythm section). Like the studio albums they were supporting (Old Ways and This Note’s for You respectively), these were fun but not great.

During this seemingly lost decade, Young and Crazy Horse would often do pop-up shows at small bars on the California coast. The bootleg tapes of these shows are extraordinary, bursting with a sonic thunder and emotional abandon that the decade’s too-polite studio albums never touched.

A sample of these shows was finally released in 2021 as Way Down in the Rust Bucket, taken from a 1990 warm-up for the next studio album, Ragged Glory. Nonetheless, the bar gigs with Crazy Horse are under-documented, a crucial missing link in Young’s development that could reshape our notion of the 1980s.

Young rebounded with two of the best albums in his career, both with Crazy Horse: 1989’s studio effort Freedom and 1991’s follow-up live album, Weld. The decade saw two more great albums: 1991’s Ragged Glory and 1994’s Sleeps with Angels, both with Crazy Horse, as well as two better-than-average albums: 1992’s Harvest Moon with the Stray Gators and 1995’s Mirror Ball with Pearl Jam. Dreamin’ Man Live ’92, released in 2009, presents all ten songs from Harvest Moon, the 20th anniversary sequel to Harvest in live, solo acoustic arrangements. But the ‘90s remain under-documented in the Neil Young Archives series.

In 2001, Young finished another album that he refused to release. The songs on Toast, recorded with Crazy Horse, reflected the troubled state of his marriage at the time, and ultimately he decided it was too much of a downer to release. Instead he recycled one of the songs and re-recorded three others for a substitute album, 1992’s Are You Passionate? cut with Booker T. Jones. It was another mistake. Toast, finally released in 2022, took emotional risks that the replacement record evaded. The somber but tuneful material on Toast captures that twilight state when a relationship has too many problems to feel stable but also too much lingering affection to discard.

In 2003, Young released Greendale, one of the most underrated rock operas ever. Tracked in a studio with Molina and Talbot, it offered more complicated characters and a more coherent narrative than Tommy, The Wall or American Idiot. Granted, Greendale followed up eight really good songs with two lousy ones (bald sloganeering from the youthful character Sun Green), and even the best numbers offered generic blues and country vamps under Young’s sing-talking. Nonetheless, these were some of Young’s best lyrics in years.

Some pressings of the original CD came with a bonus DVD of Young presenting the whole album at a Dublin concert in solo-acoustic arrangements that made the words easier to follow. Better yet, Young introduced each number with a spoken monologue that fleshed out the characters’ back stories and made the whole fictional world easier to imagine.

On the subsequent American tour, guitarist Frank Sampedro rejoined Crazy Horse for denser versions of the songs. Behind the four musicians singing and playing at the front of the stage, roadie/actors on the rear riser inhabited a theatrical set and mouthed the lines that Young was singing. That visual element made the narrative easier to follow—and to care about. In 2020, an audio CD from the tour was released as Return to Greendale. A limited edition DVD was released simultaneously, but it’s now hard to find.

Two months ago, Young released a newly recorded album called Before and After. It’s a return to the solo-acoustic format but with a twist. These 13 songs were recorded in a studio as one continual medley without any pauses between selections. The songs themselves range from 1966’s Buffalo Springfield to 2021’s Barn, and except for “Mr. Soul,” the songs avoid the predictable concert staples to make new connections across the different eras of his career.

It’s an enjoyable listen, even if the mix is sometimes wonky—a noisy harmonica can obscure the lead vocal at times. But the delivery seems less focused than on his great solo recordings from the ‘70s. Every artist has his or her peak years, and it’s a relief that artists like Young have finally relieved bootleggers from the responsibility of documenting those high points.

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