Neil Young’s legacy as a true rock legend has been confirmed for some time now but many would argue it was cemented with the deeply personal album from 1974, On The Beach. The album elevated Young from rock star to icon and saw his tender heart be put out on display forevermore. It was a change of pace that rock desperately needed and it came in the form of his seminal LP.
Unlike his iconic Harvest album, this LP wasn’t given its debut while out on a lake. Instead, Young decided to air the new tracks at a secret show at around 2.15am at New York City’s Bottom Line for a very lucky audience. While we can’t transport you back to that moment, luckily, after digging in the Far Out vault, we do have a bootleg of the show that will take you back for a few moments at least.
Ry Cooder and Leon Redbone had finished their set at NYC’s Bottom Line when they told the audience to stick around, hinting at an additional bonus for anyone who made the commitment. They had a special surprise in store and as Young with his guitar slung around his shoulder appeared on stage, it soon became clear that things were about to get very interesting. “This one is called, um… this one’s called, um … ‘Citizen Kane Junior Blues!’” said the singer as he began playing the intro for ‘Pushed It Over The End.’
However, it wasn’t just some of his old numbers that Young would treat the audience to that night and, in a surprise move, he added a preview of his new record On The Beach, playing four songs from the new LP on the night and providing the crowd with a taste of the seminal album to come. It was a litmus test of how the new sound would work for his regular audience as the album was unlike anything Young had written before, giving far more of himself than he had ever shared on a record before.
Recalling the period surrounding the writing of the album, Young commented: “Pretty dark. Not really that happy,” while speaking to Jimmy McDonough about the record in his 2002 biography Shakey. “I think it was a period of disillusionment about things turning out differently than I had anticipated.” It was a weird moment for Young, a time when he felt unbalanced and on loose ground. Trying to follow-up Harvest was always going to be difficult, but trying to do so while so intensely stoned must’ve felt like an unachievable feat.
It’s a revelation Young shares with the crowd at the Bottom Line. He and his bandmates, Ben Keith, Rust Kershaw, Tim Drummond, Rick Danko, Levon Helm Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, were stationed at Los Angeles’ Sunset Marquis Hotel while recording and were partial to a particular weed-based appetiser. Long before fancy restaurants made gourmet marijuana meals, Young and his crew were chowing down on ‘Honey Slides’.
“You know what a honey slide is?” Young asked the crowd. He then offers up a step-by-step guide for those looking to recreate the new starter, suggesting they use “poor grade marijuana” as well as the specifics on how to cook it. “That cheap grass is great,” he joked. “You know, in these times, you have to think about prices and things like that,” he jokes.
Aside from the culinary advice for stoners, Young also provided the audience with (unbeknownst to them) one of the very few occasions the On The Beach songs would be heard on stage. Young sang four tracks from the album including the gloomy title track, ‘Ambulance Blues’, ‘Revolution Blues’, the song inspired by Charles Manson, and ‘Motion Pictures (For Carrie)’. The latter he would never perform again.
The song was about his rapidly eroding relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, as he later confirmed to McDonough in Shakey: “I think I was starting to realise what a fucked-up life I had chosen for myself with Carrie. So I was outta there.” The only outing for the track is reason enough to listen to the show below but more pertinently, the searing bootleg offers a crystalline image of Young during his most vulnerable.
On The Beach is noted as one of the foremost records of the decade. It was such an accurate depiction of the turbulent times that surrounded it, a smorgasbord of anxious debauchery and open-wound living. It was raw and uncut, something which is beautifully picked up in this recording.
It remains a definitive moment of Young’s career and can be heard in full below. Listen back to Neil Young debuting some of his most treasured On The Beach songs live at a secret show in New York — simply fantastic.