Neil Young: Taking Group Art On A Solo Trip / Archives Volume I [1945-1972]
by Jon Kanis
Feature article [on page 171-172] for issue #30 [Summer/Fall 2010] of Ugly Things magazine [filed on April 8, 2010]
“Cinéma vérité? I got into audio vérité. The concept of capturing the moment on the camera? I just translated that right into the recording studio. And when I started doin’ it, I found all these other reasons why I was doin’ the right thing. But the original thought was audio vérité. Why not make records like that? Capture the moment.”
Q: “Is rock and roll the devil’s music?”
A: “Rock and roll is everybody’s fuckin’ music…I would certainly hope that it’s the devil’s music, but not just the devil’s music. I think that’s where God and the devil shake hands – right there, heh heh heh.”
– Neil Young to biographer Jimmy McDonough in Shakey
We live in a dynamically strange time in our relationship to information. Marshall McLuhan coined the maxim: The medium is the message and at the moment there is seemingly no limit to the amount of information that can be accessed at the touch of a button so what does that say about the so-called medium? For music enthusiasts who came of age prior to the digital revolution tracking down a recording or connecting with other musicians and fans could prove a huge logistical challenge that was both time-consuming and expensive in the effort to exchange information and create grass roots connections with the world-at-large. And those dynamics continue to change in this future-shock acceleration of technology that we are currently in the midst of here in good ‘ole two thousand and ten A.D. [after-digital]…BUT, as the distinction between the old way of doing things and the present-day world that we live in keeps morphing…
There is a beautiful example of how recording technology [and indeed, Life itself] has changed and evolved over the last half-century and it is an eleven-disc behemoth of a box set that came out in the summer of 2009 entitled the Neil Young Archives Vol. I [1945-1972]. In the foundry of rock archeology I believe that this package is unprecedented in its breadth, design and imaginative use of technology. Perhaps most important is that no recording artist’s back catalog has ever sounded this sonically superior before, and to that end I have to say that this first installment of the Neil Young Archives series is about as cool a multi-media music project as I have yet to lay my eyes and ears upon.
In fact, this is Art with a capital A as well as the minutiae of one man’s life taken to a whole new level of artistic commerce. Why should we care this much about Neil Young and his process? Is the guy really that great a musician or songwriter? Producer David Briggs certainly thought so, proclaiming “that when it’s all written down, he will unquestionably stand in the top five that ever made rock and roll…the only guy other than John Lennon who can actually go from folk to country to full orchestra. The only guy.”
Young has certainly led a colorful existence these past 65 years, and for anyone seeking evidence as to just how colorful then one’s first educational foray should be to investigate Shakey, the superb above-mentioned biography of Neil Young by writer Jimmy McDonough. McDonough’s telling of Neil’s life flies by with one chillingly hilarious anecdote after another [with comedy and tragedy frequently dancing together in the same sentence], and it provides a fairly exhaustive context in which to enjoy the Archives box set. Believe me, when you are presented with this much information in one wallop context is crucial in being able to fully appreciate and dig what is being put down here.
And it’s not just about the information to be found in this box set, it’s also in the novelty of how the information can be accessed and what kind of experience can be drawn from the Archives once you get your hands on the right kind of hardware. Much as Young may document and love the by-gone era of putting a scratchy piece of vinyl on a portable record player back in the 1960s, we now live in an age where Young has his post-modern audience [ironically?] watching a video screen with a replication of a record player spinning a piece of plastic, while state-of-the-art audio pours out of the speakers. We have taken virtual reality and the illusion of sound reproduction to a whole other level. Then there are the Easter eggs and hidden tracks that are sprinkled throughout the entire box set [with at least 85 audio & video elements not to be found in the main programs]. Should you be itching to learn more about the technical aspect of things, you are encouraged to check out the official public relations hype online at www.neilyoungarchives.com…and no matter how impressive the Neil Young Archives is from a technological point of view, none of this would matter if the music being featured on these discs wasn’t so fucking brilliant the majority of the time. And while we’re on the subject I would suggest as well that you don’t even consider buying the compact disc version of the Archives, because you are cheating yourself out of what really makes so much of this collection unique: primarily the various multi-media surprises that come from navigating through the menus (the video clip from American Bandstand with Dick Clark interviewing Buffalo Springfield managers Charlie Greene and Brian Stone is one such gem to be found on Disc 1).
When Young started talking about the Archives project he apparently had a clear vision of how he wanted to organize and present his musical & personal history – and he refused to release the Archives until technology conformed to that vision. The concept behind organizing the material was fairly simple: create a virtual filing cabinet with folders housing every song from his career in chronological order, potentially containing music, song lyrics, relevant period photographs, film & video footage, newspaper & magazine clippings. Another important function was allowing the listener to page through the visuals simultaneously as the music played. Finally, Young wanted a format that allowed the filing cabinet to incorporate new data into the system, and to insert that information into the proper place of chronology. And now, via the internet, whilst interfacing with the Blu-Ray system, it is possible to do all of the above.
Lord knows how many more volumes of the Archives series will come out in Neil’s or our lifetime, (and after hearing him talk about it for thirty years I thought that it might never come out) but this premiere set covering the first decade of Mister Young’s recorded output is pretty staggering in its quality. Although much of this material is previously unreleased, three of the eleven discs in the set were actually available months before the box set came out. Young’s website suggests buying the titles separately if you already bought the first three Neil Young Archives Performance Series discs, but if you did that then you wouldn’t get the poster of the virtual filing cabinet, the leather-bound scrapbook (which is an awesome document in its own right) or the seven-inch Squires single. The scrapbook covers Neil’s life from the time of his birth (November 12, 1945) all the way through 1972, providing visual clues to Young’s existence to accompany the sonics. Here’s how it all lays out:
Disc 0, Early Years (1963-1965) sets the stage for what was to come, with Young learning licks from local Winnipeg legend Randy Bachman and finding inspiration from Hank Marvin of The Shadows & Jimmy Reed [to name but two] as he cut his teeth playing guitar in instrumental groups such as The Stardusters, The Classics and, ultimately, The Squires who recorded a single in the summer of 1963 entitled “The Sultan” b/w “Aurora.” The single flopped and it would be another three years before a record label released any new Neil Young compositions and Young would have to leave his native Canada for that to happen.
Disc 1, Early Years (1966-1968) has Young setting off for California in a black hearse named Mort Two fortified with musical gear, raw talent, a modest supply of marijuana, a head full of dreams and a handful of friends including bassist Bruce Palmer, and within a couple days of hitting Los Angeles the hearse crossed paths with Stephen Stills & Richie Furay. With the quick addition of drummer Dewey Martin the Buffalo Springfield were born. During 1966 & ‘67 they produced two classic LPs (Buffalo Springfield and Buffalo Springfield Again) with Young coming into his own as a writer, contributing some of the finest tunes of the era including “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong,” “Mr. Soul,” “Expecting To Fly” and “On The Way Home.” If you dig the tunes on this particular disc I would say that it’s mandatory to seek out the four-disc Buffalo Springfield Box Set from 2001. That collection tells the entire story regarding BS. As breathtaking as it may be, this is merely a snapshot.
But still, what a tantalizing snapshot it is with several unique, period surprises to be found including a previously unreleased Buffalo Springfield song entitled “Sell Out,” a newly discovered superior acetate of the original “Mr. Soul,” a historically important (read: distorted sounding) live montage of songs from the very last Springfield concert in Long Beach, CA on May 5, 1968 and “Slowly Burning,” a plaintive, twangy instrumental that Young began but never finished with Jack Nitzsche on the same day that they recorded “Expecting To Fly” in 1967. And much insight can be found relating to Young’s tenure with Buffalo Springfield from the interview that DJ Tony Pig conducted with him at KSAN-FM in San Francisco, CA on his 24th birthday (11.12.69). It is great to hear Young this unguarded, but it requires a little effort to find the stuff. In that sense the Archives is a bit of a treasure hunt and in typical Neil Young fashion he is happy to give you all kinds of cool information but he’ll frequently make you work for it.
Sugar Mountain Live At Canterbury House Ann Arbor, Michigan (November 9, 1968) is considered “disc 0” in the Neil Young Archives Performance Series and is included in the box set as a “bonus disc.” Sugar Mountain documents the brief pause between the break-up of Buffalo Springfield and the start of Young’s solo career in earnest.
Disc 2, Topanga 1 (1968-1969) is where Young landed after signing a solo deal with Mo Ostin and Reprise Records. His self-titled debut from January of 1969 was the first (and last) time that Young would adopt the approach of crafting a slick studio creation, forever after adopting producer David Briggs’ ethos that when it comes to capturing rock and roll on tape “the more you think, the more you stink.” After getting Neil Young out of his system he was prepped for a lifetime of audio vérité recording; yet in spite of Young’s later misgivings about excessive overdubbing in the studio I think that “The Loner” turned out pretty great, and I must say kudos as well to arranger and producer Jack Nitzsche (one of the more amusing hidden tracks in the box set is of Neil & Jack goofing around in the studio whilst recording strings for “The Emperor Of Wyoming”).
Disc 3, Live At The Riverboat Toronto (February 7-9, 1969) captures Young in acoustic troubadour mode a month after the release of his solo debut. Archivist Joel Bernstein: “The Riverboat series is very important, unquestionably…he’s retelling the Buffalo Springfield songs in a way that’s very poignant.”
Disc 4, Topanga 2 (1969-1970). For the next two years Young lived in the Topanga Canyon section of Los Angeles, where he encountered a rough and tumble six-piece rock and roll band by the name of The Rockets who made a name for themselves around town by playing at a local watering hole called The Coral. After recording their one and only self-titled LP in 1968 [The Rockets] Young “borrowed” three of it’s members: guitarist & vocalist Danny Whitten, bassist & vocalist Billy Talbot and drummer & vocalist Ralph Molina. Almost immediately the quartet went into the studio and within a week cut one of the classic LPs of the era: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Rockets’ guitarist George Whitsell: “My understanding was Neil was gonna use the guys for a record and a quick tour, bring ‘em back and help us produce the next Rockets album. It took me a year and a half to realize my band had been taken.” Young, however, must have understood that on some level the birth of Crazy Horse meant the death of The Rockets. Hell, he wrote a song on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere entitled “Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets)” so the writing must have been somewhere on the studio wall. Oh, and by-the-way, 1969 also marks Woodstock, Altamont, the recording of Déjà Vu and the musical antics of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. A “Sea Of Madness” indeed with CSNY a relative footnote in the grand scheme of things.
Disc 5, Neil Young & Crazy Horse Live At The Fillmore East (March 6-7, 1970) is proof positive that the original Crazy Horse is one of THE all-time great live bands in rock and roll history. “Winterlong” and “Wonderin’” are real treats and it is great to hear “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” in the context of its original performance. Jack Nitzsche joins the Horse on electric piano. It’s a damn shame that the magic wasn’t destined to last…
Disc 6, Topanga 3 (1970) is the beginning of the end as far as Neil’s tenure in Topanga goes and the archetypal Topanga Canyon document has to be After The Gold Rush, the 1970 LP that Young recorded in the basement of his house on Skyline Trail. Right about this time Washington, D.C. musician Nils Lofgren traveled west and joined the fold as Young performed a balancing act between the demands of performing with CSNY and dancing to the beat of his own drummer…which in Neil’s case happened to be Ralph Molina. CSNY and Neil’s solo career were both building steady momentum and it wasn’t long before something was going to give from the combined stress. Too bad it was destined to be Young’s first marriage. In May the Kent State shooting happened and Young responded with the song “Ohio,” perhaps the most vital track that CSNY ever cut. Some of Young’s most enduring tunes come from this period: “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “After The Gold Rush” and “I Believe In You.”
Disc 7, Live At Massey Hall Toronto (January 19, 1971) was intended to be the follow up to After The Gold Rush (David Briggs was given that brief and he recorded & edited this show with that intention) but when Young went to Nashville to perform on The Johnny Cash Show and spontaneously wound up recording some new songs with producer Elliot Mazer, this fantastic performance was unfortunately shelved. This is one of the gems of the series and this performance displays quite clearly why Neil was poised for the multi-platinum success that followed with Harvest.
Disc 8, North Country (1971-1972). In September of 1970 Young moved near San Francisco, California and bought a 140-acre property that he christened Broken Arrow Ranch. This is where he has lived ever since and with the various people that he has surrounded himself with these past four decades Young has had the luxury of creating his art whenever he wants to. A lot of that is due to the financial success of the 1972 LP Harvest, which spawned the hit single “Heart Of Gold,” the only song in Young’s career to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100. As he wrote in the liner notes to his Decade anthology: “This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” Ever the perverse one, the moment that Young reached the top of the heap he made a wild left turn, leaving his audience in a lurch that is well documented by the LP Time Fades Away (one of the few albums in Young’s back catalog that enjoys the distinction of never being released on compact disc).
And then, of course, there were the self-destructive habits of Danny Whitten. After working on After The Gold Rush and the 1971 self-titled Crazy Horse LP Whitten’s depression and dalliance with heroin got the best of him and on November 18th, 1972 he died of an overdose, taking the spark of the original Crazy Horse with him. Young would remark to Sandy Mazzeo that “Every musician has one guy on the planet that he can play with better than anyone else. You only get one guy. My guy was Danny Whitten.”
The tragedy of Danny Whitten’s early demise is multiplied when you consider that there is ZERO film footage of the original Crazy Horse. There are, however, some incredible film segments to be found in the Archives from this period with footage of Neil and Jack Nitzsche recording “There’s A World” and “A Man Needs A Maid” with the London Symphony Orchestra. Other highlights include footage at Broken Arrow of the Stray Gators recording “Are You Ready For The Country?” and “Alabama” in Neil’s barn and an interview conducted by Wim Vander Linden for a Dutch documentary. There’s also Neil’s performance from The Johnny Cash Show.
Commercially unavailable since its theatrical release in April 1973, Disc 9, Journey Through The Past is an elaborate self-indulgent mess of a motion picture on a lot of levels, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t without it’s charms. You might even say that it’s charming because it is a bit of a mess. Young hijacked a pre-existing CSNY documentary and that provides much of the concert footage and behind the scenes action. It is certainly a great time-capsule piece and it captures some of the flavor of what it was like to be in Young’s orbit circa 1970-72. A couple of great outtakes include one sequence where Young banters with a record store clerk before walking out of the store without paying for a bootleg record of one of his performances.
By the end of 1972 Neil Young’s path had reached such a plateau that it left him with basically two career choices: pander to the audience who had fallen in love with the soft-spoken folkie and continue to crank out the same kind of material that brought him success as both a solo artist and as one-fourth of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, OR continue to follow his artistic whims and his musical muse wherever it took him…even in the face of commercial suicide, which is arguably what Young chose to pursue in 1973 when he insisted on playing a bunch of bleak & aggressive unreleased songs for an audience who had come to hear the Harvest LP reproduced live. Young famously loves to confound audience expectations. In fact, hidden on one of the video clips of the box set Young actually proclaims to Joel Bernstein and Gary Burden “Fuck the audience” in regards to their desires and expectations. “If I’m going to survive they’re going to have to fuckin’ eat it. That’s been the balance that I’ve had to play.” Sounds like a true Scorpio to me (a double Scorpio in fact)…
What the audience didn’t know was that they were at the start of a full-on Irish wake because a month-and-a-half before the Time Fades Away tour started, Danny Whitten died, casting a funereal pall that influenced the overall vibe of Young’s circle for the next two years. And it will be fascinating to see how Young chooses to tackle that period of his life when he gets around to the next installment of the Archives series. As an interested witness to Mister Young’s process I pray that it doesn’t take him another thirty years to get around to Volume II.
[Note: some of the material contained within this article began life as the narrative text to a four-part State Controlled Radio program. For more information on SCR click HERE.]