50 Years Ago: Neil Does Neil

A low key debut sets the stage for Neil Young’s prolific progression

Neil Young at Balboa Stadium, 1969

The break-up–and breakdown–of the Buffalo Springfield was a tattered affair.

After two superb albums that effectively shifted the entire template of American rock and roll, the group disintegrated via a slow, painful process, leaving one final album that was patched together by each members’ individual offerings. It was a contentious affair, fueled mainly by Neil Young’s repeated decision to quit the band, ultimately and dramatically when he became a no-show during the Springfield’s set at Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967, leaving a combative David Crosby to take his place onstage.

Fortunately, Young had other ideas in mind for himself, and his songwriting contributions to the Springfield proved to be stepping stones in a long and prolific career. His debut album, an eponymous effort, had its front cover adorned with artist Roland Diehl’s fanciful painting of Young looming large over a Picasso-like background. But in contrast, it was a generally downcast affair, filled primarily with mournful melodies well-suited to Young’s plaintive posturing. Ironically, the album’s original release in November 1968 had to be recalled due to the fact that the mix was so muffled, it practically buried Young’s vocals. When it resurfaced the following January, the tweaking did little to assert its standing; critics gave it mixed reviews and the album failed to sell enough copies to allow it to even come close to the outer fringes of the album charrts.

Neil Young Neil Young, Reprise 1968/1969

Young himself generally panned the record, although it turned out that several of its songs still rank among his classics. It was the more emotive tracks that resonate to the greatest degree — “The Old Laughing Lady,” “Here We Are In The Years,” and “I’ve Loved Her So Long,” affecting ballads which find Young immersed in tender reflection. “I’ve Been Waiting For You” finds him taking a slightly more assertive stance, though his desperation is apparent. On the other hand, there’s the nine and a half minute ramble of “The Last Trip To Tulsa,” an allegory of sorts that finds Young doing his best to emulate Bob Dylan’s nuanced narratives.

Neil Young is a mixed bag at best, but at least one of its tracks, “The Loner” would later find its way into his set lists through the years. A resolute rocker in the style Young would later nurture with Crazy Horse in tow, the songs title seemed to reflect the attitude Young asserted early on.

Not surprisingly then, Neil Young found its namesake tackling nearly all the instrumentation on his own, save some guitar by Ry Cooder, the electric piano played by Jack Nitzsche, the bass contributed by Jim Messina (a member of the Springfield’s final line-up) and Carol Kaye (courtesy of L.A.’s superior session band The Wrecking Crew), the drums of Poco’s George Grantham and studio regular Earl Palmer, and the backing vocals supplied by Merry Clayton, Brenda Holloway, Patrice Holloway, Gloria Jones, Sherlie Matthews and Gracia Nitzsche. Hints of brass and a string session also informed a few of the tracks.

Likewise, David Briggs was brought in to co-produce Neil Young, making the album first of several efforts that he and Young would work on together.

Ultimately, Young’s debut was considerably less auspicious than it should have been, but it was a good stepping stone towards his ongoing efforts. As such, it’s still well worth celebrating.

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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