Neil Young's Harvest turns forty
It would be here that part two of the Harvest recordings would take place. After setting up the musicians in the loft of a barn, Mazer recorded the songs remotely from below. Instead of wearing headphones, the musicians used PA speakers as monitors, which allowed a lot of leakage of various instruments into the microphones -- a sound that would drive most engineers batshit but that Young really loved.
He was constantly trying to catch the wave of improvisational inspiration -- not over-thinking anything, yet pushing his craft to the ultimate limit. The ranch sessions delivered organic style recordings of "Are You Ready for the Country," "Alabama" (a song that would get him in further trouble with Ronnie Van Zant) and "Words."
In contrast to the dusty, leaky sound of the ranch recordings, the songs "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World" were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. The grand scale of the symphony provided an epic weight to the songs -- which some critics would go on to call "bloated" and "overdone."
Former bandmates Crosby, Stills and Nash were employed to provide their transcendent harmonies as backing vocals to "Needle & the Damage Done," which was plucked from a live recording of Young performing at UCLA.
Whenever an album withstands the elements of time and is written about years later, the typical storyline of its release goes: The critics loved it but fans hated it. This is not the case with Harvest. Rock writers like Lester Bangs despised the down-home folk stylings that populated the radio waves of the early 1970s -- he once went so far as declare a personal death threat to James Taylor. Both Bangs and Young were lamenting a period of lost youth and failed dreams. The futures they longed for actually looked quite similar; they just sounded very different.
(Thankfully, it was long after Bangs's death that Neil Young admitted to a Rolling Stone interviewer that he originally wanted the Harvest LP to be 100 percent biodegradable -- a fact that would have caused Lester Bangs to drink a gallon of cough syrup and set himself on fire.)
Record buyers of the time loved Harvest. On the strength of the radio hit "Heart of Gold," the album quickly reached #1 in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, and it would go on to be the best-selling album of 1972.
The sudden and unexpected surge of fame didn't bode well for the media-shy Neil Young, who was notoriously anti-celebrity. When CSNY headlined the legendary Woodstock festival, Young intentionally skipped the band's acoustic set, and when he joined them for the electric set, he angrily warned the cameramen filming the documentary: "One of you fuckin' guys comes near me, and I'm gonna fuckin' hit you with my guitar!"
Having quit two bands just as they were becoming top-billing acts (Buffalo Springfield, CSNY), the idea that he would become a rock god as a solo performer was daunting to Young. In the liner notes for the compilation Decade, he described his fame as having "put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there."
While Young was taking control of his fame, his personal life was beginning to split apart. After learning of his newborn son being diagnosed with cerebral palsy, tragedy struck again with the deaths of two key members of Young's regular backing band, Crazy Horse: guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Whitten had been the inspiration of the song "Needle and the Damage Done" while he was still alive (he was kicked out of the band for being too fucked up to play), and Berry's death would be documented in the song "Tonight's the Night." During shows that followed, Young would preface these songs with a subtle anti-drug tone; in Decade, he writes "I'm no preacher, but drugs killed a lot of men." An interesting take on substances from a man who once cost Martin Scorsese a small fortune digitally editing a coke booger out of Young's nose for his film The Last Waltz.
With delayed albums, poor sales and a failing voice, the ride through the ditch that Young desired was indeed rougher. Whether he intentionally imploded or the record-buying public simply lost interest is debatable -- though the kind of fame that embodied Young in 1972 was never repeated.
If not his sound, Young's aesthetic certainly was repeated. Throughout the first half of the '90s, ripped jeans and flannel shirts were the uniforms of constructed rebellion. Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder mirrored Young's anti-camera line in the live video for the song "Even Flow" -- "This is not a TV studio!" he yells at the director before beginning the song. Young eventually invited the band to play with him on his album, Mirror Ball.
Kurt Cobain's association with Young is most famously known for the grunge king plucking a line from the song "Hey Hey, My My" in his suicide note. But on closer inspection, the lyrics found in Harvest's "Heart of Gold" -- "It's these expressions I never give/That keep me searching for a heart of gold/And I'm getting old" -- express an existential frustration with fame and self-loathing, a theme that can easily be heard in the post-meteoric rise of Cobain when he sings "teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old," in the opening lines of the song "Serve the Servant." Both artists had a difficult time dealing with the pressures of becoming a generational touchstone -- Young decided to reject celebrity and challenge his audience (such as with his rockabilly or electro-rock phases in the 1980s), while Cobain ultimately took a more permanently self-destructive path.
Whether anyone was paying attention or not, Neil Young has continued to push himself and his craft, staying in the ditch and keeping his head down. The quietly sad and romantically pastoral songs of Harvest not only mark the end of a counter-culture, but continue to speak to generations of idealistic music fans, slowly outgrowing their own time.