Gleaning Gold: Neil Young’s _Harvest_ Turns 40

Jaan Uhelszki on January 18, 2012

I have always had dark heroes.

Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Brian Jones all captured my imagination. Their deep mysteries, their devotion to otherworldly muses, their wrecked cool and even their idiosyncratic clothing kept me enthralled as I pored over the exoticism of their guitar excursions like they were consecrated texts concealing some code that would reveal the profundity of a great unseen world.

And in some ways, they did. This unholy trinity opened up whole vistas of thought and sensations, allowing me to develop what Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to when describing transcendentalism: “an original relation to the universe.” It was both music and extra-musical – but at the heart of it, what they were imparting obscured more than it revealed.

I liked the idea that rock stars were not like the rest of us. That they existed in some alternative universe breathing in saffron-scented air, wearing tight velvet stovepipe pants, riding in chauffeur-driven Aston Martins – all while thinking great thoughts of profundity and consequence and consorting with woman who resembled The Beatles wives and girlfriends, or winsome fashion models.

But if I am entirely honest with myself, my greatest mystery has always been Neil Young. And unlike the aforementioned guitar gods, his mystery wasn’t as occult or obvious – but rather more homegrown and inexplicable because it occupied that unsettling juncture between the familiar and the unknown, like a human manifestation of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.”

Neil Young may look like the rest of us – may even appear to act like the rest of us – but at the core, you know he really isn’t. That’s even before we get to the Pontiac hearse that he drove from Toronto to Los Angeles in 1966, or how the Buffalo Springfield came into being because all the members just happened to be stuck in the same LA traffic jam – in a moment that seemed to momentarily subvert the law of physics and geography to make musical history.

At the center of my devotion to Young is his emotional austerity and loneliness that has always mirrored my own. I have a theory that the artists that you most revere are the ones that reflect something of yourself back to you, to show some wound or strength in a more exaggerated form, allowing you to understand yourself better. For me, that has always been Young and never so much as on his fourth album, 1972’s Harvest – with its trajectory of wanting love but not quite knowing how to give into it wholly; looking for a heart of gold, but finding a heart of darkness.

There are few places as uncomfortable as the full surrender of your affections – for me, anyway.

And for Young, I suspect.

At least back in 1972.

Beyond Neil Young’s ability to manipulate events, traffic conditions, overcome health concerns or be my own personal mirror, I think his greatest gift is his unfathomable, often wary imagination.

Do words descend on him like Jeanne d’Arc’s visions, fueled by his (and her suspected) epilepsy? How can one explain where a song like Buffalo Springfield’s “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” comes from, with images that feel pulled from Greek tragedy with an economy of language that brings Ernest Hemmingway to mind?

Part poetry, part obfuscation, Young has always created a culture of unease, first witnessed here, oddly asking, “Who’s putting a sponge in the bells I once rung?” then demanding, “Whose seeing eyes through the crack in the floor?” – an early reveal of his incipient paranoia and ability to sense some threat that the rest of us are only dimly aware of.

Whether paranoia is heightened awareness or just acute self-awareness, it’s something that Young has honed to high art, allowing him to pull things out of the ethers – seemingly ordinary images – and put a slight counter-clockwise twist on them, transforming the commonplace into something unruly and unexpected.

That and his dedication to never do the expected, even in small ways. From changing band members and configurations at will to making a rather straightforward record after four albums which showed him to be the inscrutable loner, often injured by love and loss. From the bewildered recriminations of “What Did You Do To My Life” to the wistful longing of “I’ve Loved Her So Long,” to asking for a woman to save his life in “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” all on his eponymous debut in 1968, to the elusive females of “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Cinnamon Girl” – dream girls from his second record, 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the lyrics and images are intangible and anticipatory.

By the time that Young released his third record After The Gold Rush in 1970, he appears to have had a deep experience of love, loss and romantic redemption. But the best song from that disc, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” is about his Crosby Stills Nash &Young bandmate Graham Nash’s break-up with Joni Mitchell. Though Young had married Susan Acevedo in 1968 (and divorced her by 1970), the song’s lyrics suggest that Young had yet to allow himself to become totally lost in a relationship.

It’s not until he became smitten with actress Carrie Snodgress after seeing her in the film Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) that he let himself be more forthcoming, autobiographical and less oblique than he had been on record – chronicling the beginnings of his romance-cum-conquest of Snodgress in the third verse of “A Man Needs a Maid,” which was slated for the forthcoming Harvest.

A while ago somewhere I don’t know when
I was watching a movie with a friend.
I fell in love with the actress.
She was playing a part that I could understand

That is, of course, after expounding in the first lines that all he really needed was “someone to keep his house clean, fix my meals and go away” – lines much more indicative of the character of the relationship than anyone would have suspected in those early days of 1971 when the couple met.

It’s exhilarating for the listener to be able to crack open the backstage door into the personal life of this brooding, dashed romantic – even approaching rock soap opera. But if it was intoxicating for fans to find him documenting the history of his relationship, then it was more intoxicating for the actress who didn’t have any idea who Neil Young was at the time of Harvest’s release. “I wasn’t a rock and roll girl,” she told the New York Times in 1990. “I said, ‘Neil Young. Neil Young. Where do I know that name from?’”

Nevertheless, she said, she fell “madly and immediately” in love with Young and abandoned Hollywood, walking out on her contract in order to travel with the rocker and share his Northern California ranch. In 1972, she gave birth to their son Zeke. As for her career, “I decided that I was going to be in love, I was going to give it everything I had.”

Unfortunately, Young wouldn’t or couldn’t do the same. It was as if he had one eye fixed on the exit door – or as he so poetically put it in “Alabama,” as he was speaking about the intersection of the then-new South and the old South and the problems that it posed: “Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track.” He could have just as easily been speaking about himself in this relationship, which ended in 1977.

What I find most unnerving is that after the ambiguity of “A Man Needs a Maid” and his rather offhanded declaration love for Snodgress, Young follows the song with “Heart of Gold,” signifying – like Bono a decade after him – that he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

Neil Young scholar Thrasher, founder of the preeminent Neil Young fan site,, contends that, “It is the search for love that drove his songwriting.” But I’m not certain that’s correct; the greater quest might be for something altogether different and more elemental.

There aren’t any accidents in an album’s sequencing and Young had to have thought hard about where he wanted to place “Heart of Gold” in respect to the rest of the songs. Was its placement a message to Snodgress or to himself? Perhaps the “heart of gold” that he’s searching for is his own, given the use of the personal pronoun: “I’ve been in my mind and it’s such a fine line that keeps me searching for a heart of gold.” This particular journey is the search for self.

Young first met (the then) Nashville, Tenn.-based Harvest producer Elliot Mazer at a party that Mazer had thrown for Johnny Cash. It would be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.

“I love albums that take you to different places song by song.” Mazer says today from England of Harvest. “I mixed the entire album but really mixed each song as a song.” The stark collection, recorded at various locations – ranging from Jan. 30, 1971 at UCLA’s Royce Hall ( “The Needle and The Damage Done” ) to the February and April sessions at Mazer’s Quadrafonic studio to the two songs recorded with keyboardist and arranger Jack Nitzche and the London Symphony in March 1971 to the September sessions at a barn-turned studio at Broken Arrow ranch in Woodside, Calif. – presented Mazer with a challenge.
“The fewer instruments and voices that are in a mix, the harder it is to make a complete and cohesive sound,” he says. “There is no compression or limiting on Harvest. We wanted the full sonic and dynamic ranges of those instruments and voices.”

Those voices include Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor providing back up vocals for “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man.” Young also convinced his CSN compatriots to appear on the record in different configurations, prompting David Crosby to comment, “Neil needs us about as much as a stag needs a coat rack.” However, their appearances imbue “Are You Ready for the County,” “Alabama” and “Words” with a richness and depth, and at times, a lightness that the songs wouldn’t otherwise possess.

“His songs imply those parts,” Mazer says of the various personnel’s contributions to the record. “Sometimes he would tell [drummer]Kenny [Buttrey] to not play a high-hat. On one song, Kenny sat on his right hand. Neil also met [guitarist] Ben Keith on these sessions. The two of them bonded, which turned out to be a continual working relationship between them until Ben passed away last year.” Other contributors included pianists John Harris and James McMahon and guitarist Teddy Irwin.

When asked if Young was going for a particular concept, Mazer says that they never discussed anything. “The songs are the album and they spoke loudly when he played them,” he says in a producer-like way. “He played us a song, which for the most part, spoke to what was to be played and how it would sound. Neil is an amazing and physical guitarist. His movements imply the rhythms.”

Simply put, says Mazer, “The music flowed and we all did what we did the best.”

Harvest quickly reached the top of the Billboard charts, giving Young his only No. 1 record in his long career, but also making him back away from his fame, all but disowning it, denigrating the song in the liner notes for his 1977 retrospective, Decades. “This song put me in the middle of the road,” he reflected. “Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there.”

The most revealing part of Harvest – in regard to where Young’s emotional compass was pointed to at the time – is in on the title track “Harvest,” where he sings, “Dream up, dream up/ Let me fill you with the promise of a man,” rather than the man himself.

While that signals an enormous amount of self-awareness about his limitations, it doesn’t absolve him of the responsibility of giving the relationship all he has, something made material when he sings, “Will I see you give more than I can take? Will I only harvest some?”

What did Carrie Snodgress think about when she heard that line? Was it a portent of a rocky future?

I don’t know about her, but I saw red flags.

It wasn’t until 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps that Neil Young even got close to emotional surrender. The idea of harvest, however, would haunt him for years after, as he named his 1992 album Harvest Moon and his band (during his 1984-85 tour) the International Harvesters, silently begging the question of the one-time teenage egg farmer: What is it that he is harvesting or wants to harvest?

As for the actual song, “‘Harvest’ is one of my best songs,” Young admitted to his biographer Jimmy McDonough in 1993’s Shakey, seemingly reversing his original verdict of it. "That’s the best thing on Harvest. "

“I was in love when I first made Harvest, " he went on to tell McDonough. “With Carrie. So that was it. I was an in-love and on-top-of-the-world type guy.”
“All those relationships songs – it’s ‘I want to, but I can’t,’” suggested McDonough.
“Right. Good thing I got past that stage,” Young responded.
“How did you do it?” asked McDonough.
“Time, I guess,” Young initially surmised. “Getting the right woman. That was a good thing.”

Even so, there is still the taint of "The “Loner” about Young even today. The early song that first appeared on his 1968 self-titled solo album revealed an unapproachable heart, and an emotional stoicism, perhaps from the early wounds suffered by his parents’ divorce that never seemed to heal – and something that would fester in what is probably the second best song on Harvest, “Old Man.”

Shortly after becoming the owner of Broken Arrow, a 1,500-acre ranch located in the hills south of San Francisco, Young penned “Old Man,” inspired by the Louis Avila, the caretaker of the ranch.

In the first line, he sings, “Old man, look at my life. I’m a lot like you are.” Given Young’s age and his place in Toronto’s social stratum – his mother, Rassy, a TV presenter; his father, Scott, a celebrated sports journalist – the comparison seems forced.

In fact, for quite some time, Young’s father was under the assumption that the song was about him – something he addressed in his book Neil and Me (2009):

_[I]n March of 1972, I took my family for a month in Florida, and was there just after Neil’s new album, Harvest, was released and went straight to the top of the charts within two weeks. Every time I turned on my car radio in Florida, I heard “Heart of Gold,” the first single released from that album. Then, almost as often I would hear another from that album, “Old Man.” Well, sure, "Old Man pleased me a great deal. In Florida and back in Canada during the many months while “Old Man” was well up on the charts, people would mention it to me as if I were some sort of co-proprietor, at which I would just nod and smile like Mona Lisa. Never question a compliment is my motto. “Old Man” was also such a nice change from some of the songs whose accusatory gist I had applied to myself years earlier." _

A few months later, Neil was in Toronto and the father and son met up. After a walk, Neil said to the elder Young:

“[There’s] something I should clarify,” his father recalls his son telling him. “You know that song, ‘Old Man?’”
“Yeah, I love it.”
“It’s not about you,” Young told him. “I know a lot of people think it is. But it’s about Louis, the man who lives on the ranch and looks after things for me – the cattle and the buffalo and the food and all that. A wonderful guy.”

So at the end, what binds Neil Young with Louis Avila – his aging caretaker – and not to his father? The need for love – the underlying premise of this entire album that was released on Valentine’s Day in 1972.

In the second verse, he sings, “Old Man, take a look at my life. I’m a lot like you are/ I need someone to love me the whole day through/ Oh, one look in my eyes and you can tell that’s true.”

It was as if the 18 months that it took to record the album – a process hampered by Young injuring his back while trying to move a piece of wood at Broken Arrow – allowed him to be as contemplative and as transparent as he ever had. To use those hooded slate blue eyes as a portal into his psyche, instead of as dual weapons capable of pinning hapless listeners to the wall. Was it the pain pills that he was forced to take that caused him to drop his guard, or was it something else all together?

“I was in and out of hospitals for the two years between After The Gold Rush and Harvest, " he revealed in 1975. “I recorded most of Harvest in a brace. That’s a lot of reason it’s such a mellow album. I couldn’t physically play an electric guitar.”

Perhaps the confined, broken body set something free in him. Maybe that’s what allowed him to publicly declare his affection and issue a cautionary tale – more a naked plea – to Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, when he penned “Needle and the Damage Done.” True prophesy is embedded in the anxious words and sharp rhythmic breaks. Although Whitten would live for another nine months and four days after the release of the album, Young knew that he had already lost him.

It wasn’t only Whitten’s death that unsettled Young; Harvest represented a loss of much greater magnitude. Suddenly the success of the album – which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic – thrust him into superstardom, even eclipsing CSN’s fame. He claimed to reporters that having a chart-topping single made him feel “empty.”

“I tried to stay away from the success as much as possible,” Young told Cameron Crowe in 1979. “And being laid up in bed gave me a lot of time to think about what had happened. I thought the popularity was good, but I also knew that something else was dying.”

Dramatic? Perhaps. Dark? Certainly. But my heroes have always been dark, and Neil Young is probably the darkest of them all – even when back lit by a Harvest moon.