Neil Young has never followed anyone’s agenda, but his own. He started off as a sideman in Buffalo Springfield, before putting his talents into Crosby, Stills & Nash, first as a keyboardist, then as an equal partner. Given the opportunity to record a solo album, Young distanced himself from the more rock-oriented material that was piling on his plate, for a work that was more sombre and intellectual.
Not that the Canadian songwriter went out of his way to plan it, but that it stemmed from his immediate surroundings. “I recorded most of Harvest in the brace,” he recalled. “That’s a lot of the reason it’s such a mellow album. I couldn’t physically play an electric guitar.”
Bandmate Graham Nash heard the album from the sanctity of a barnyard. “He said, ‘Get into the rowboat. I said, ‘Get into the rowboat?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to go out into the middle of the lake.’” Nash expected to hear a tape of the recording. “Oh, no,” continued Nash. “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 loud speakers—louder than hell. It was unbelievable.”
And then came the technical support: “Elliot Mazer, who produced Neil, produced Harvest, came down to the shore of the lake and he shouted out to Neil, ‘How was that, Neil?’ I swear to God, Neil Young shouted back, ‘More barn!’”
The oddity that fuels the backstory veers into the record, and although the finished work is undoubtedly commercial, it’s also deeply unconventional in its worldview. Even the jaunty ‘Heart of Gold’ ends on the bitter, “And I’m getting old.”
The album is soaked in weariness, much of it aimed at himself, but most of it at the world around him. ‘The Needle and The Damage Done’, cut at a live concert, cautions listeners to the seductive nature of heroin, and how badly she treats people. The softly spoken songwriter opined, “Ever since I left Canada about five years ago or so and moved down south, I found out a lot of things that I didn’t know when I left. Some of them are good, and some of ’em are bad. Got to see a lot of great musicians before they happened, before they became famous, you know, when they were just gigging, five and six sets a night, things like that. And I got to see a lot of great musicians who nobody ever got to see for one reason or another. But, strangely enough, the real good ones that you never got to see was because of heroin.”
It’s not entirely forlorn, as evidenced by the yearning of ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ (guitarist David Gilmour was wowed by the melody), a striking song that showed that the cerebral songwriter did indeed have a beating heart. If you can make it through the vocal take without bursting into tears, then there’s a tenner here with your name on it!
The album’s strongest moments are the most tender, which might explain why ‘Old Man’ helped his credentials in the field of radio-oriented rock. Better still, the album boasts ‘Out on the Weekend’ a soulful, searching melody that found an unlikely fan in Lady Gaga. Young was taking inspiration from his travels, and even dedicated some of the numbers to the people he met along the way. “And there was a couple living on it that were the caretakers, an old gentleman named Louis Avila and his wife Clara. And there was this old blue Jeep there, and Louis took me for a ride in this blue Jeep. He gets me up there on the top side of the place, and there’s this lake up there that fed all the pastures, and he says, ‘Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?’ And I said, ‘Well, just lucky, Louis, just real lucky.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s the darnedest thing I ever heard.’ And I wrote this song for him.”
Nash contributed harmony vocals, as did David Crosby, both suitably impressed with the material, and the direction it was taking. Crosby provided a scorching counter-melody to ‘Alabama’, a tidily named rocker that won him notoriety when it was called out on the feistily written ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. To his credit, Young later dismissed the sentiment of the tune, but it was in keeping with the wayward, dream-like milieu the album had captured. And, without intending to, Young had written a bonafide hit album, but rather than capitalise on the work, he went a different direction on the deeply introspective On the Beach. His rustic approach to recording made an impression on progressive rock group Genesis; Phil Collins likened The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway to a Young album.
Young had become bigger than either Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Stills & Nash, so he wisely journeyed on his own path. His musical journey was one of cross-roads, fade-outs, misnomers and cosmic brilliance. But he always needed to venture forward, even if meant skipping the easier, more lucrative route. “I was just offered millions of dollars for a tour to do Harvest,” the singer revealed to AARP. “Everyone who played on Harvest is dead. I don’t want to do that. How about planting instead of harvesting? If I decide to go on the road, I’d like to do a democracy tour next year with different people that keep changing. Not right or left. Democracy is not you on this side and me on that side just to see who wins.”