Category Archives: Neil Young

Today’s Top 5: Storms

I’d planned to trip back in time today to the fabled Summer of Love, but found myself distracted by the events of the present.

As I write, Hurricane Irma is ravaging Florida’s west coast. We’ve weathered a few hurricanes here in the Delaware Valley through the decades, though nothing of Irma’s magnitude – we’re far enough inland that they’re generally teetering on tropical status by the time they reach us. But I remember one – Irene I believe, in 2011 – that found Diane and I, and our wooly bully of a cat, huddled in our stairwell (the safest place in our old apartment) while the storm thrashed outside and tornado warnings flashed incessantly on our cell phones.

Storms (of all kinds) eventually pass, just never as fast as we would like.

1) Which leads to the first entrant in today’s Top 5, “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Springsteen wrote it following a storm of another stripe, of course, and paired the joyous melody with bittersweet lyrics about overcoming grief.

2) Storms, as evidenced by that Bruce song, work well as metaphors. This Nanci Griffith song, which was penned by her former husband, Eric Taylor, is another example…

3) …as is this one from the Nobel Prize-winning bard, Bob Dylan:

4) There’s also this classic from Neil Young:

5) And, finally, “Shelter” from Lone Justice, a song I could play on a loop for weeks on end.

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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.

Today’s Top 5: Vinyl Musings

The sun is peeking out now, thankfully, but yesterday and this morning were overcast, chilly and damp in the Delaware Valley. Yet it was warm and sunny inside my den thanks to two finds at HHH Records in Hatboro, which has fast become my favorite store: Lone Justice’s stupendous debut, which I’ve written about many times, and the Pretenders’ Extended Play, a five-song set that I mention in this flashback to November 1981.

There’s something to be said for brevity, in only the crème de la crème making the lacquer cut. Extended Play, which was released in March 1981, is a great example. It includes two tracks, “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town,” that were included on Pretenders II, which came out five months later, plus two previously unreleased tracks – “Porcelain,” “Cuban Slide” – and a live rendition of “Precious” that’s even better than the studio track.

I owned the EP back in the day, and much preferred it to II, but somewhere along the way parted company with it – not because of the music, but the format. I traded many LPs for cash in the months prior to Diane and I moving in together in 1990.

One LP that I did not get rid of: the 1973 Buffalo Springfield double-LP compilation, which brings together the essential tracks from the influential group’s three studio LPs. It’s also the only legitimate home to the nine-minute version of “Bluebird,” a track that features (according to the liner notes on Buffalo Springfield Again) 11,386 guitars.

I listened to Side 2 (“Mr. Soul,” “Bluebird,” “Broken Arrow” and “Rock and Roll Woman”) last night, and followed it with Side 1 of a future Essentials pick – Neil Young’s Harvest.

I owned it on vinyl back in the day, but – as with Extended Play – let it slip away. Then, for my birthday this year, a friend and her kids gave me the 180-gram LP. “Out on the Weekend,” the first track, is one of my favorites from it; and here’s Neil in March 1971 performing the song on Live on the BBC about a year before the album’s release.

Over at the Hideaway, Herc is counting down his Top 100 singles for 1977 – a thoroughly enjoyable read that mixes the personal with the profound. While countdowns collated from countless contributors, such as NPR’s 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women or Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, are fun (if infuriating) to read, the synopses of the individual works often miss the raison d’être for why they’re important – the backstory matters not, nor does technical precision. No, I’d argue that it’s the personal connection the music makes with listeners.

Lists such as Herc’s fill the void. It’s idiosyncratic, as any fan’s would be, and – as a result – could well be a chapter in The People’s History to Rock ’n’ Pop. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, after all. Its impact has as much to do with where we were, who we were with, and what we were doing when we first heard it, as it does the music itself. There’s no right or wrong, though – based on our own experiences, likes and dislikes – we may disagree with each other’s selections and placement. I mean, the live “Maybe I’m Amazed” at No. 64? For shame, Herc, for shame! (I jest, of course.)

Wings Over America, which was released in December 1976, came with a way-cool poster that I quickly tacked up on my bedroom wall three years later, which is when I remember receiving the expensive three-LP set as a Christmas gift. The mercurial Jimmy McCulloch (1953-79) handles the guitar solos with aplomb; listening to them just now via the above YouTube clip sent shivers up my spine.

Here’s another LP I’ve kept with me through the ages: the double-LP Concerts for the People of Kampuchea. Taken from a series of benefit concerts held at the Hammersmith Odeon in London during the last week of 1979, but not released until March 1981, it features a who’s who of then-popular British acts – both well-established (The Who, Wings) and new/relatively new (The Clash, Elvis Costello, Pretenders).

It’s probably most sought after, these days, for the three tracks featuring McCartney’s Rockestra, which consisted of many of the week’s notables in a rock ‘n’ roll-like orchestra. Here’s the “Rockestra Theme,” which was first featured on Wings’ under-appreciated 1979 Back to the Egg album. (Pete Townshend is a hoot to watch.)

But it’s also worthwhile for the other cuts, two of which I’ll feature as bonuses: This gem from the Pretenders…

…and this classic from the Who: