Category Archives: 1976

Neil Young: Hitchhiker – The Review

1976 was a weird year to be Neil Young. From February to June, he and Stephen Stills were hunkered down at Criteria Studios in Miami recording their lone duo project, Long May You Run, that didn’t turn out as hoped. And in June, Neil embarked on a much-anticipated tour with Stills – only to quit after nine dates for reasons that may or may not have had to do with a throat ailment. The now-infamous telegram he sent his compadre read “Dear Stephen, Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.”

About three weeks after sending that telegram, on the evening of Aug. 11, 1976, Neil entered a Malibu recording studio and, with fellow traveler David Briggs mixing live in the control room, laid down a set of songs while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and, in one case, piano. The only breaks, he recalled in his Special Deluxe memoir, were for weed, booze and coke – and, perhaps, conversation and jokes with pal Dean Stockwell, who sat in the studio’s quietest chair. Neil has said that he envisioned the session as his take on one of Bob Dylan’s early albums, when the bard spun magic with just his tunes, guitar and harmonica.

Side 1:

  1. Pocahontas
  2. Powderfinger
  3. Captain Kennedy
  4. Hawaii
  5. Give Me Strength
  6. Ride My Llama

Side 2:

  1. Hitchhiker (Like an Inca # 1)
  2. Campaigner
  3. Human Highway
  4. The Old Country Waltz

At the time of the session, it should be noted, not all the songs were new – “Human Highway” dates to (at least) 1973, and that year’s ill-fated studio reunion of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and Neil said on Facebook that he recorded “Pocahontas,” “Powderfinger” and “Ride My Llama” for Zuma in 1975, but left them behind. The difference between those (and future) recordings and these: Hitchhiker presents the songs in their purest essence.

In short, it’s a true great lost album. While it does harken back to the early ‘60s LPs recorded in a matter of hours by Dylan (and others), it possesses a cynical post-Watergate/post-Vietnam sensibility due to its tales of disillusionment, self-doubt, drugs and death. The title track, which chronicles Neil’s drug history, is a good example:

If it had been released at the time, it may well have been embraced by the Harvest-era fans who turned away once Neil veered from the middle of the road to the ditch with Time Fades Away, On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night. The melodies, in other words, are pure Harvest.

The executives at Reprise, his record company, supposedly heard the songs as demos for a new album, and not a finished product. They suggested he flesh them out with a band.

Instead, as Neil’s apt to do, he moved on. Eight of the 10 songs surfaced on later albums, sometimes fleshed out, sometimes not: “Pocahontas,” “Powderfinger” and “Ride My Llama” anchored Rust Never Sleeps (1979); “Captain Kennedy” sailed on Hawks & Doves (1980); “Hitchhiker” hitched rides on, in part, Trans (1982) and, in whole (but with an added verse), on Le Noise (2010); “Campaigner” pressed the flesh on Decade (1977); “Human Highway” opened Side 2 of Comes a Time (1978); and “The Old Country Waltz” danced within the grooves of American Stars & Bars.

The two previously unreleased songs, “Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength,” date to Neil’s breakup in 1975 with the actress from “A Man Needs a Maid,” Carrie Snodgress. “Hawaii” is a pleasant parable about “vitamins” and moving on, and – to my ears, at least – is the weakest of the songs; “Give Me Strength,” on the other hand, is a gem.

In retrospect, it’s easy to question the judgment of those Reprise executives. But, to quote from one of my favorite songs, there’s more to the picture that meets the eye. For the context, see my first paragraph: Neil basically sabotaged the sales of Long May You Run before its September release the moment he bailed on the Stills-Young tour. And, even if they weren’t pissed at him for doing so, the earliest Hitchhiker could’ve been released – without stepping on the other album’s sales – was early 1977. What’s the easiest way to say no to an artist? Tell him his project needs work.

And, in some respects, let’s be glad they did. Rust Never Sleeps would not be the album we know and cherish without “Pocahontas,” “Powderfinger” and “Ride My Llama”; and what would be Comes a Time without one of its best tracks?

If you’re a diehard Neil fan, picking up Hitchhiker is a no-brainer. If you’re a casual fan, pull it up on Apple Music or Spotify and enjoy. It’s a magical, mystical set.

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Today’s Top 5: December 2, 1976 (via Rolling Stone)

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Yesterday, I explored the Archive – no, not our attic, but an ephemera store in Lansdale, Pa. I was there once before, found its contents fascinating, and with time to kill yesterday spent a good three hours combing through second- and third-hand books, magazines and other things, including 45s, LPs, sheet music, maps, autographed pictures and…did I mention magazines? You name it, chances are they have a copy – though not the “Women in Revolt” issue of Newsweek, sad to say. The treasures I came home with were relatively modest: two issues of Rolling Stone, one Creem from ’81 and two Newsweeks (one from 1966, the other from ’69).

fullsizeoutput_1112This Rolling Stone is dated December 2, 1976; I covered much of the year here, so won’t repeat myself. But in addition to marking America’s bicentennial, the Flyers crushing the Soviets and a presidential election, the year is notable for a few personal reasons: I finished elementary school in the spring, turned 11 in the summer, and entered Loller Middle School, the first of two middle schools in the combined Hatboro-Horsham school district, in the fall. (Hatboro-Horsham had one middle school for 6th and 7th grades and another for 8th and 9th grades.) Oh, and that summer my family moved from a rented townhouse on the edge of Hatboro to a home in its heart, which meant instead of taking the bus, I walked to the school. The trek was about half a mile, and took me past Burdick’s, a newsstand-soda shop that also sold reams of candy.

Oh, and at Loller? Unlike every other school in the district, jeans were banned. (I’m sure that added clothing expense went over well with parents.)

With that said, here’s today’s Top 5: December 2, 1976.

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1) Linda Ronstadt – “Tracks of My Tears.” Linda, whose first Greatest Hits album had just been released, graces the cover. The Cameron Crowe-penned article delves into how her life had changed since the release of her breakthrough album, Heart Like a Wheel, two years earlier. (The entire article is available online.) The set collects her hits from 1967 (“Different Drum” with the Stone Poneys) through 1975’s Prisoner in Disguise, which is where this rendition of the classic Smokey Robinson & the Miracles hit comes from.

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2) Jackson Browne – “Here Comes Those Tears Again.” A simple ad hawks Browne’s fourth album, The Pretender, which was his first release following the March 1976 suicide of his first wife, Phyllis. This song was co-written with Phyllis’ mother, Nancy Farnsworth, but predates Phyllis’ death by a year or so.

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3) Heart – “Dreamboat Annie.” As I explained back in October, the Dreamboat Annie LP took some time to sail up the charts.

 

fullsizeoutput_111b4) Bob Dylan – “Lay, Lady, Lay.” In the lead review, Kit Rachlis calls the Hard Rain album an “enigma,” “atrociously recorded,” “problematic,” “a psychodrama of the most solipsistic sort” and a “revisionist critique of [Dylan’s] of his own past. He is not so much reinterpreting his work as blowing it apart.” That is to say, “Mostly his voice pushes the songs past recognition, beyond interpretation.” Of the performance of this classic song, he observes that it’s “no longer a request, but a demand.” And if, after all that, you’re still not sure what he thinks of Hard Rain, he concludes with: “Like a true primitive, Dylan’s work functions as a direct megaphone to himself. The result has been some of the most brilliant art that popular culture in this country has ever produced. But it also means that Dylan is at once his own best and worst critic. Hard Rain is the product of the latter.”

Unfortunately, I can’t find any tracks from the live album on YouTube. So, instead, here’s a 45 for “Lay, Lady, Lay” from 1969 –

5) Lou Reed – “You Wear It So Well.” Lou’s Rock and Roll Heart album did not win over reviewer Frank Rose, who says that it’s “less a collection of rock & roll songs than a series of meditations” and, after giving Lou his due for the continued influence of the Velvet Underground, observes that “[t]he key phrases [on the album] are all refrains: ‘I’m banging on my drum’; ‘You wear it so well’; ‘You’re caught in a vicious circle’; ‘It’s just a temporary thing.’ Reed chants them like mantras, until they’re almost stripped of meaning. He has scooped out their depth and given us nothing but surface.” Ouch!

And that’s that. Kinda. Here, in descending order, are the concluding sections of the Linda, Heart and Dylan pieces.

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Today’s Top 5: It Was 40 Years Ago Today…

Oct. 22, 1976: Election fever swept the nation on this, the date of the third and final debate between President Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, a former governor of Georgia. It was a tight race in which both candidates showed grace and temerity, and respect for one another despite the (expected) attacks upon each other’s positions. Both were good men.

The first debate, in September, was accented by a technical glitch that caused the sound to be lost for 27 minutes.

The second debate was marked by a major blunder by Ford, who claimed that Eastern Europe was not under the domination of the Soviet Union.

The bemused reaction of panelist Max Frankel, a reporter for the New York Times, says it all. That may not have been what Ford meant to say, mind you, but words – then, now and forever – matter. At the third debate, Carter faced the fire for an ill-advised interview he gave Playboy magazine. In the Q&A, he said, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Fairly tame stuff, perhaps, but…words matter.

Ford, it should be noted, held and still holds the distinction of being the lone American president to never be elected to a national office. (Three years prior, President Nixon’s chosen numbskull of a v.p., Spiro Agnew, was swept up in a bribery scandal that dated to his days as Maryland’s governor; he resigned, and Ford ascended from the House of Representatives to the vice president’s office with overwhelming votes in the Senate and House.) For his part, Carter also holds two unique distinctions: He’s the only U.S. president to have once lived in subsidized housing; and he’s also the only president to have been inside a post-meltdown nuclear plant, which he was in 1952.

On a broader scale: America, which celebrated its bicentennial on July 4th, was doing okay – not great, but not bad. Unemployment for the year clocked in at 7.7 percent, down a few ticks from 1975; and inflation for the month averaged 5.5 percent – less than half of what it was in October 1974.

The year began with a true moment of greatness: the Philadelphia Flyers squashed the Soviet Red Army hockey team in a 4-1 win that also saw the crybaby Russians leave the ice for a spell.

Other quick-hit highlights: the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X; the Viking 1 probe landed on Mars; Son of Sam began his killing spree in New York City; the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers played their first football games; and the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series. Popular TV shows included Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, M*A*S*H, Charlie’s Angels, The Six Million Dollar Man and One Day at a Time.

Films released that year include quite a few classics (or what I consider to be classics, at any rate): Rocky, Carrie, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, Network and The Bad News Bears. (Rocky and Carrie had yet to be released by the time of the debate, however.)

And for music? Well, I was 11 years old this autumn; music was not an all-consuming passion, though I enjoyed it. (See here for a timeline of that.) That said, in 1976, there were three strains of music: AM, FM and disco. AM was pop; FM was rock; and disco sucked. (Bad joke. And, yes, I’m leaning on stereotypes with the AM-FM breakdown.) No, the era of leisure suits was hitting on all cylinders by about this time – the No. 1 song of the week was…well, look below. That said, October 22nd marks the release of one of the truly classic albums of all time – Night Moves by Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band.

And, yes, that’s a hint of what’s to come with today’s Top 5.

segernightmoves1) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – “Night Moves.” Night Moves, the album, was initially rejected by Seger’s record label: that’s a factoid that, if I knew, I’d forgotten until Seger’s Facebook page posted this: “Capitol rejects the album. Bob and Punch decide to bring Night Moves back to Capitol’s radio team to rally support. Steve Meyer secretly taped the music as it was being played and took it to Paul Drew, who programmed all the RKO Top 40 radio stations in the country. If Paul liked one of your songs, it was guaranteed to become a hit. Two minutes in to listening to the title track, Paul declared the song as a ‘smash.’” How the LP could initially be rejected… one can only wonder how deaf the executives were.

Anyway, sad to say, but Night Moves – along with most of Bob’s albums – seems slated to be forgotten due to its absence from the streaming services, iTunes and Amazon’s download store. I can think of few greater sins. Sure, Ultimate Hits – which is readily available – includes a few of its classic songs – but no context.

2) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – “Mainstreet.” There’s a nostalgic pull on many of the songs on Night Moves. This one, for instance. It takes me back to a specific night in my college career, when the professor for my non-fiction writing class took us out for a field trip that ended at a watering hole called the Hotel Do De in Bellefonte, Pa., a neighboring town of State College. We walked in to hear a bar band called the Insiders cranking out a solid version of this song. (I’m not sure why it’s stuck with me, but it has.)

3) Heart – “Magic Man.” Another act that was making headway that fall: Heart. Ann and Nancy Wilson and band released Dreamboat Annie in Canada in August 1975 and the U.S. in February 1976. It took time to get off the ground, however, due to the city-by-city marketing plan of the record label. “Crazy on You,” the first single, cracked the charts in the spring and received a lot of FM airplay; and “Magic Man,” the second single, cemented their success. The week of October 16th, it was No. 14 and soon to peak at No. 9 (according to Weekly Top 40).

4) Al Stewart – “Year of the Cat.” Billboard, in its October 23rd edition, calls the Year of the Cat album “mellow,” “well arranged” and “progressive without being pretentious.” The title track is a classic, especially in my feline-centric household –

5) Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots – “Disco Duck (Part 1).” Whenever I hear someone my age or older lament the sad state of modern music, I think of songs such as this, which was a super-huge popular hit that topped the pop charts on the week of October 16th, 1976. No generation can stake the moral high ground when it comes to anything; we all have our highs, our lows and our in-betweens. And make no mistake: “Disco Duck” was a low. A real low.