The story of how Neil Young came to write one of his best-loved songs begins with a severe case of writer’s block. In 1969, the singer-songwriter was hauled up in a house in Topanga, California, where he had been trying to write material for his upcoming third album. Ideas were coming in dribs and drabs, but there was nothing solid for Young to grasp on to, no central concept or theme that might hold everything together.
A few thousand miles south of Topanga, in Peru, Dennis Hopper was directing The Last Movie, his follow-up to Easy Rider. He was joined on set by his friend Dean Stockwell, who had been a child star in the 1940s and ’50s and would go on to reclaim his stardom with the ’90s TV show Quantum Leap. But in the late ’60s, Stockwell was experimenting with other creative outlets besides acting. As he once recalled: “In Peru, Dennis very strongly urged me to write a screenplay, and he would get it produced.”
Stockwell took Hopper’s advice and started work on what he later described as an “end-of-the-world movie”, before elaborating further: “I came back home to Topanga Canyon [in the mountains outside LA] and wrote After The Gold Rush,” he continued.
“Neil was living in Topanga then too, and a copy of it somehow got to him. He had had writer’s block for months, and his record company was after him. And after he read this screenplay, he wrote the After The Gold Rush album in three weeks.”
Unfortunately, Stockwell’s screenplay was never made into a film, and the original copy has subsequently disappeared. According to Neil Young’s biographer Jimmy McDonough, however, the film was supposed to be something of a proto-disaster move, in which a great tidal wave consumes the Corral, a Topanga hippie hangout where Niel Young, Joni Mitchell and other countercultural icons once spent much of their time.
“It’s not a linear, regular storytelling kind of film,” Stockwell said. “Really what was in my mind was that the gold rush in effect created California. And the film took place on the day California was supposed to go into the ocean. So that’s what happened after the gold rush.”
Once they had finished filming in Peru, Stockwell bought the production team who had been working with Hopper to Topanga, where he attempted to introduce the increasingly unstable director to would-be cast members such as Janis Joplin and Neil Young. Young approached Hopper and asked if he could write the soundtrack for Stockwell’s film, but, unfortunately, Hopper, being in something of an erratic state, ran a mile. But Young was never one to be disheartened, so he set to work regardless and ended up writing what would become one of his most beloved tracks.
In the album’s title track, ‘After The Gold Rush’, Young takes Stockwell’s warped vision of countercultural California and twists it into something utterly unique, using key scenes from the screenplay as a source of imagery. “The song was written to go along with the story,” Young said, “And the main character, as he carried the Tree of Life through Topanga Canyon to the ocean.”
“It relates to the screenplay in an artistic way, not directly, in dialogue or anything,” added Stockwell, who was invited to watch Young record the track in the studio. Indeed Young himself said that he latched on to the time-travelling element in Stockwell’s script especially strongly: “After The Gold Rush is an environmental song,” he said. “I recognise in it now this thread that goes through a lotta my songs that’s this time-travel thing… When I look out the window, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way this place looked a hundred years ago.”
While Young’s After The Gold Rush went on to become one of the most revered albums of the 1970s, Stockwell’s script never did make it to production, something that was clearly still a source of frustration for him when he said, “And even then, though I had the album, I still couldn’t get that screenplay produced.” Nevertheless, we have Stockwell to thank for one of the finest Neil Young albums ever recorded. That’s quite the accomplishment in itself.