At top, another terrific concert video from BBC 4, bless ’em. Somebody should put together a collection. I’d buy it!
The songs for Young’s Harvest, his 1972 breakthrough album, were written when Neil was in a downbeat and contemplative frame of mind, recovering from a back injury that made it hard for him to do anything much except sit still and play his acoustic guitar. He literally was unable to stand bearing the weight of his favoured Les Paul electric. So, very well, sitting quietly was the order of the day, and songs that reflected his unusually subdued circumstances flowed naturally. “I didn’t know what else to do”, he said, as if his sort of creative process was simply an inevitable product of boredom. In the result he wound up with the raw material for what became the highest-selling album of 1972 (beating out stiff competition from, among others, the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and Simon and Garfunkle’s Greatest Hits ), and his first and thus far only Number 1 single, today’s selection.
Harvest also included the classics Old Man and Needle and the Damage Done, which, along with Heart of Gold, were premiered for a wildly enthusiastic audience at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1971, in a concert that lives on in rock music legend. A little while later, Young found himself in Nashville, recording a segment for the Johnny Cash Show, on which, as luck would have it, a couple of up-and-comers named Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor were also scheduled to appear. Hey, that’s Nashville for you; you’re bound to run into legendary performers, and those destined to be legends.
Local producer Elliot Mazur got wind of Young’s presence and invited him to record at his newly opened Quadrafonic Sound Studios, which despite its grand, high-tech sounding name was really just a rustic old house rigged up for recording, with the drums set up in the kitchen and the control room on the porch, a venue that suited Young right down to the ground. Asked to assemble his own band out of whoever was available, Neil corralled a local session group billed as the Stray Gators, and snagged both Ronstadt and Taylor, still in town, to sing back-up. Both were in the studio for Heart of Gold, and while I can’t claim to discern much from Taylor in the mix, Ronstadt’s unmistakable voice rings out clear as a bell, as usual, especially at the end. This is Mazur on how the session went, taken from Guitar magazine:
Mazer later told TapeOp.com, “Neil was very specific about what he wanted. When Neil Young plays a song, his body language dictates everything about the arrangement. Neil sat in the control room of Quadrafonic and played Heart Of Gold. Kenny [Buttrey, drums] and I looked at each other, and we both knew it was a number one record. We heard the song and all we had to do was move Neil into the studio and get the band out there, start the machine and make it sound good. It was incredible!
“At one point [on Out On The Weekend], Neil said to Kenny that his hi-hat was too busy, so Kenny said, ‘Fine. I’ll sit on my right hand.’ He played the whole take sitting on his right hand.” By only three days in, Young had already cut the versions of Old Man and Heart Of Gold to be released. “Neil and the band played live,” said Mazer, “same as every song on Harvest.”
At the time, anybody playing thoughtful acoustic ballads while accompanying himself on harmonica was apt to be compared to Bob Dylan, and Dylan himself thought Heart of Gold sounded eerily like something he should have performed:
The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was “Heart of Gold”. I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to “Heart of Gold.” I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, “Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.
Sour grapes, perhaps, but I doubt very much Dylan viewed Young as a rank imitator, and I’d bet he was more angry at himself for not being the one to have written the big hit.
The final mixing of the studio release occurred at Young’s Broken Arrow ranch in Northern California, a process out of which arose one of the best stories you’re ever going to hear about the recording business. This is Graham Nash, excerpted in this case from the same article in Guitar Magazine, recounting an oft-repeated tale that’s become central to Young’s enduring mystique:
So it was that Graham Nash visited Broken Arrow, expecting to hear the album from the comfort of Young’s makeshift home studio. “That’s not what Neil had in mind. He said get into the rowboat,” recounted Nash to NPR. “I said, ‘get into the rowboat?’ He said, ‘yeah, we’re going to go out into the middle of the lake’. Now, I think he’s got a little cassette player with him or a little, you know, early digital format player. So I’m thinking I’m going to wear headphones and listen in the relative peace in the middle of Neil’s lake.
“Oh, no. He has his entire house as the left speaker and his entire barn as the right speaker. And I heard Harvest coming out of these two incredibly large loudspeakers, louder than hell. It was unbelievable. Elliot Mazer came down to the shore of the lake and he shouted out to Neil: ‘How was that, Neil?’ And I swear to God, Neil Young shouted back: ‘More barn!’”
According to the article, a fansite was selling More Barn!! T-shirts back in the nineties. I might just check on Amazon, see if anybody’s selling one.