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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I Heart TV: My So-Called Life

As long as I’m taking a gauzy walk down memory lane, here’s the first draft of another I Heart TV essay – my favorite of the contributions I made to the book. My So-Called Life was, is and will always be one of my all-time favorites, so being able to celebrate it in print…and mention Wonderfalls, Freaks & Geeks and Juliana Hatfield in the process?!…was something I truly cherished.

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“When someone dies young, it’s like they stay that way forever,” muses 15-year-old Angela Chase in the memorable “Halloween” installment of My So-Called Life, which found her entranced by a student said to have died in 1963. In a weird way, the same thing applies to TV series, like My So-Called Life, Wonderfalls or Freaks & Geeks, that were axed before their time. We’re left with a handful of episodes and the promise of what could have been if only…if only.

The drama, which debuted in August 1994 and lasted a scant 19 episodes, told the story of Angela, her family and friends; and while it’s probably best remembered these days for introducing the mercurial acting talents of the Emmy-nominated Claire Danes to the world, it featured an equally capable supporting cast. Bess Armstrong ably portrayed Patty, Angela’s homecoming-queen mom who struggles with the conundrums many working mothers face; and Tom Irwin was simply terrific as quixotic dad Graham. Likewise, Angela’s friends became real-life acquaintances—her troubled pal Rayanne (A.J. Langer), gentle Ricky (Wilson Cruz), heavy-lidded crush Jordan (Jared Leto), ex-best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) and geeky neighbor “Brain”—er, Brian (Devon Gummersall). Even little sister Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit) comes across as a believable kid whose bratty behavior we understand: she wants to be in the epicenter of the universe—where Angela lives. (Small wonder that for Halloween she dresses up as her older sis’.)

In many ways, due to the use of voice-over narration, the episodes play in part like diary entries woven into the fabric of ongoing stories. Unlike a diary, however, each episode expands the viewpoint to reveal the perspectives of other characters; and also tells their stories independently of Angela. The most notable plotlines are Angela’s infatuation with Jordan, whose inability to articulate anything of substance proves as frustrating to him as it is for us (and leads to a wondrous season-ender in which he turns to “Brain” for help); troubled Rayanne, who reminds Patty—and us—of kids we knew; Ricky’s descent into homeless hell and rebound to stability; and the slow growth of Graham’s restaurant ambitions, to say nothing of his possible dogging around. In the pilot, we discover that he almost stepped out on his wife; and in the finale, he again veers close with feisty restaurant partner Hallie Lowenthal (Lisa Waltz).

 Of course, there’s also Brian’s quiet yearning for Angela. It’s only when he becomes Cyrano de Bergerac to Jordan’s Christian de Neuvillette in the last episode, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” and she learns the truth, that she begins to see him in a new light. It doesn’t stop her from leaving with the hunk, mind you, but the quizzical look she gives Brian says it all. If there had been a second, third or fourth season, that would have been explored. One hopes.

What lifted MSCL above a well-acted suds fest, however, was the superlative writing. Stewarded by creator/co-executive producer Winnie Holzman, who earned an Emmy nomination for the pilot’s script, the show explored topics not generally associated with “teen” dramas of the 1990s, including body image, Ricky’s homosexuality and the world of metaphysics. In the Halloween episode, Angela interacted with a ghost; and in “Other People’s Mothers,” which finds Rayanne spinning out of control, there’s an introduction to tarot that, in the installment’s final moments, sounds suspiciously like real life: “The cards are read in sequence. Each card leads to the next. We move from terror and loss to unexpected good fortune, and out of darkness, hope is born.”

As good as they are, however, it’s the Christmas episode (“So-Called Angels”) that sends shivers up my spine no matter how often I view—or think about—it. Alternative rock-pop genius Juliana Hatfield guest stars as a seemingly homeless girl who appears to Angela and, on Christmas Eve, to Patty; and guides both to Ricky, who’s been living on the streets since being banished from his home. In the final scene, we see Juliana turn away from the camera; and, with the flap of a wing, ascend—like the guardian angel her character is—towards heaven. Of course, to single out a specific episode for praise is akin to recommending just one Juliana Hatfield album—it can’t be done, as each has something special to offer and deserves to be heard.

It matters not, really, whether one believes in ghosts, the tarot, angels or dreams. What matters is that the characters are so believable that we, the viewers, embrace them much as we do the people in our daily lives, quirks and all. Angela, Brian and the rest are no different than many a teenager, forever thinking they’re seeing the full picture when, in truth, they’re viewing slivers. As the season progresses, however, they gradually begin to grasp the complexities of life. In “The Substitute,” for example, Angela’s inspirational English teacher (Roger Rees) turns out to be a deadbeat dad on the lam from the law; yet he still motivates her to hold onto her ideals, and risk suspension in order to distribute the school’s banned literary magazine. Likewise, Patty and Graham—though more clued in about life—are far from perfect, with each confronting the same challenges many adults face at one time or another.

In the end, though, watching My So-Called Life is indeed like viewing photos of someone who passed too soon. We lose ourselves in the snapshots and episodes, laughing at every mention of Tino (the show’s own Godot) while, at the same time, wishing for a different conclusion. And when Angela slides into the passenger seat of Jordan’s car in the finale’s final moments, her eyes glued on Brian…sadness seeps in. In a flash, everything that could and would have been is no more—except in our hearts, where Angela and friends live on.

I Heart TV: The Wonder Years

After we moved in together in October 1990, Diane – who was and is far less of a TV fanatic than me – suggested that we watch The Wonder Years, a show I’d never seen due to the quirks of working retail (i.e., nights) for much of its first two seasons. And, too, I just assumed it was your standard-issue sitcom. But Diane persisted and I eventually relented, if only to humor her – and immediately fell in love with the series. Its evocation of suburban teen life was letter perfect.

As soon as I could – which wasn’t for a few years – I began taping it on VHS. (I likely still have some of those tapes, somewhere.)

Anyway, flash forward 27 years and we’re again watching The Wonder Years, and again it’s thanks to Diane – she gave me the DVD set for my birthday in July. Since, we’ve slowly been working our way through the seasons. In my opinion, it’s retained all of its charms and lost none of its luster.

Which leads to this: the first draft of the first essay I penned for TV GUIDE’s I Heart TV tome, which was published by Sasquatch Press in 2007. (I also wrote about The Daily Show, My So-Called Life and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson). At the time, I should mention, I was knee-deep in a years-long effort to digitalize old family pictures and movies. Importing the analogue past into the digital present was a time-consuming endeavor for me back then (and, in many respects, remains so).

The final version, which was about five or six drafts later, was streamlined – as you can see in the picture, I wound up excising much of the first paragraph. And, despite the editor’s best efforts, parts still came off rather clunky. (My other essays, I think, were smoother reads.)

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Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next you’re scanning family pictures for a digital photo album. In one respect, it’s a tedious task. In another, however, it’s an exercise guaranteed to affect all but the hard-hearted. Memories come rushing in—and not just of the holidays, birthdays and other life events. Perhaps a shot of a gray-haired grandfather, his shoulders thrust back and squared to the camera—in uniform despite his casual attire—conjures a duck-feeding expedition you and your brother, just three and five at the time, accompanied him on. And maybe, then, you come across a picture of the expedition itself. You don’t remember much due to your age, of course, yet you recall the kindness of his touch, and the way his giant hand grazed your hair while stewarding you towards the friendly—and hungry—ducks.

More than any series (or movie, for that matter), The Wonder Years conveys that very wistfulness—it’s as likely to leave you smiling as it is tearing up. Through six seasons, it charted the path of “everyboy” Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) as he navigated the rocky terrain of adolescence; and added perspective to the stories via the narration of the adult Kevin (Daniel Stern).

When it first debuted, in 1988, the series was hailed as a baby-boomer confection due to the era in which it was set—the 1960s—and its soundtrack, which made generous use of pop, rock and soul songs from those years. It also was, importantly, placed in the suburbs, a land of tract houses and shopping malls that many middle-class families called home. The cookie-cutter communities seemed safe, a perfect place to both raise kids and to be a kid; to paraphrase the adult Kevin, back then, a kid could walk the streets at dusk without ending up on a milk carton.

The story begins in 1968, a tumultuous year by anyone’s standards: growing unrest over America’s involvement in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, riots at the Democratic National Convention and a contentious general election that saw Richard Nixon win the presidency by less than 500,000 votes. Yet, for 12-year-old Kevin, the biggest issue on his mind that fall was…junior high. In the pilot, he and best friend Paul (Josh Saviano), and the newly pigtail- and glasses-free Winnie (Danica McKellar)—or “Gwendolyn,” as she informs the boys she now wants to be called—see the step up as an opportunity to break free of old perceptions and reinvent themselves. Unfortunately for Kevin, nothing goes as planned. For one, he’s following in the footsteps of his obnoxious older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey), whose boorishness has earmarked his sibling for extra scrutiny at school. For two, well, have I mentioned Wayne? The lunkhead teases him at lunch about liking Winnie—in front of the pretty brunette, no less—and, with a toss of an apple, Kevin winds up in the vice-principal’s office with his Doris Day-like mom (Alley Mills) and monosyllabic dad (Dan Lauria).

If the episode ended there, with the adult Kevin pontificating about lessons learned, or unlearned, it would have achieved the goals every premiere strives for—introducing the characters while telling a story that compels viewers to tune in again. Creators/writers Carol Black and Neal Marlens, however, push the debut into greatness: arriving home, Kevin and his parents are met by Wayne and sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) with awful news: Winnie’s brother Brian has been killed in Vietnam. Suddenly, the day’s events seem meaningless. At dusk, Kevin walks to an old haunt of his and Winnie’s, and finds her looking up at the stars. There’s so much he wants to say, to make go away, but he can’t manage much more than “I’m sorry,” and not just because he’s a kid. Words of those sorts don’t come easy, ever. He wraps his coat around her and, as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” swoops in, they kiss—their first. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, but it’s exactly such moments that make The Wonder Years, time and again throughout its run, hit home.

In fact, on the strength of that episode and the five that followed in its first, truncated tease of a season, the series garnered an Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series. It earned three more nominations in the years to come, including two once Bob Brush assumed creative control. True, sometimes the episodes missed the mark—the obligatory pimple episode, for example, or when Kevin joined the soccer team—but when they did? They were powerful, funny and dramatic, and resonated long after the credits rolled.

Two episodes from the fifth year, when Kevin sprouts into a headstrong young adult, rate among the series’ best. In “The Lake,” the season opener, Kevin’s and Paul’s families are on a summer vacation beside a nondescript lake; and the boys are, in a word, bored. Soon enough, however, Kevin finds excitement in the form of the sultriest 15 year old to ever grace the small screen: Cara (Lisa Gerber), a townie he encounters at a drive-in. On the final night of the vacation, Kevin defies his dad to spend it with her, expressing his wish to stay and vowing to write her; and she holds his hand on her heart. “Back to the Lake,” the second-to-last episode of the season, takes place the following summer, when everyone else and their brother—meaning Wayne—are gainfully employed. Not only is his dad insisting he get a job, but Winnie’s suggesting the same! Kevin remembers the fun he had with Cara, whom he never wrote, and in a rash moment heads back to the lake to recapture a little of the glory…but it’s not meant to be. In a wink of a young girl’s eye, that moment passed him by.

The series’ finale is as wonderful and wistful as the premiere. It’s the summer of 1973 and a 17-year-old Kevin is working for his father while Winnie’s a lifeguard at a far-away resort. After one run-in too many with his dad, he quits and seeks out the one person he thinks will make everything okay. But Winnie’s not thrilled to see him, and even less thrilled when he becomes a busboy at the resort. The situation turns worse when he sees her kissing another boy (in a deft touch, “When a Man Loves a Woman” again swells in the background). He hits the road as a hitchhiker, having lost his car in a poker game, and finds himself sharing a backseat with none other than his erstwhile girlfriend. They argue; and are quickly deposited by the roadside as a result. When a rainstorm hits, they seek shelter in a barn—and, before the night’s out, in each other’s arms.

As they return home—on Independence Day, no less—the adult Kevin informs us, much as a friend might while showing us a photo album, of the fates of his family and friends. Then, in poetic fashion, he sums up the series and its appeal: “Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place…a town…a house like a lot of houses…a yard like a lot of other yards…on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back with wonder.”

The memories stay with us, indeed. As our eyes open to the world, we question our parents about their seemingly arbitrary rules, and bicker with friends, pushing them away one day only to hold them close the next. Expectations rarely play out as envisioned, not because we reach for the sky—though sometimes we do—but because life is not connect-the-dots, where A leads to B leads to C. Even in this age of cell-phones and the Internet, somewhere a gray-haired man takes his grandkids to a park; a 12-year-old boy comforts a friend over a brother’s senseless death; and teenagers defy their parents, often without understanding why. In artful fashion, The Wonder Years articulates all of that, plus this: the day will come when those kids, too, will look back with wonder.