The new film from the rock legend’s archives presents a fuller look at his landmark LP
In 1972, Neil Young released an album that would land him somewhat unexpectedly at the top of the charts.
Harvest has long been viewed by his loyal fan base as a kind of tipping point in Young’s career, an intentional grab for mainstream popularity and radio airplay that would fairly quickly give way to a series of gnarly, dark records that were a truer reflection of the troubled artist.
As is often the case, this kind of critical shorthand is not completely accurate. Harvest is many things, but lightweight isn’t one. Harvest Time, a new film from the Neil Young Archives documenting its making, is a golden opportunity to view the evidence and understand the record in a fuller context. Does it show a folk-pop tunesmith crafting radio-ready fluff, or reveal the tortured artist, already in full flower? Well, it’s somewhat unexpectedly complicated.
Young himself got the “fluff” ball rolling early on. He put it this way in a song written a few years later called “Human Highway”: “I came down from the misty mountain. I went looking for the DJ’s daughter.” Writing about “Heart of Gold” in the liner notes of his career spanning collection Decade around the same time, he said, “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.”
Neil Young acolytes, notably loyal and reliably obsessive, took the Decade blurb and constructed a parable that is now part of the gospel according to Neil freaks. The three records that followed Harvest – Time Fades Away, Tonight’s The Night, and On the Beach – are now enshrined as “The Ditch Trilogy.”
The one slight problem here is that Harvest is every bit as ditchy as the records that followed, maybe ditchier.
It starts with what could be the bleakest, most depressive utterance of Neil Young’s career, which is saying something. “Out On the Weekend” surveys the inner life of its lonely protagonist, who is getting ready to abandon his present circumstances, and just “pack it in.” He “can’t relate to joy.” It is foreign to him. He’d explain it, but his depression has rendered him incapable of speech. “He can’t begin to say.”
Surely the middle of the road beckons as the record goes on, and the ride is uphill from here, right? Well, kind of. The two songs that give Harvest its mainstream reputation – “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” – are testaments to want, yearning, and more loneliness.
The former is about the search for love, by all accounts futile to date, and time is running out on our 24-year-old artiste. Inability to articulate persists. “It’s these expressions I never give, that keep me searching for a heart of gold – but I’m getting old.”
The picture painted in “Old Man” is not much rosier. Love has not been kind to our lonely boy, and he sorely needs someone to love him the whole day through. His lyric does not exude optimism. “Love lost, such a cost. Give me things that won’t get lost.”
These three numbers – can I propose we refer to them henceforth as The Loneliness Trilogy? – constitute less than a third of the album. The rest of the album surely must contain the soothing “Sweet Baby James”-ish folk pop that explain its mellow reputation and enduring popularity.
AUDIO: Neil Young Harvest (full album)
Actually, no, it doesn’t. There’s “Alabama” – on its surface, a scathing rebuke of racial hatred in the American South. It would famously engender Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response “Sweet Home Alabama,” in which Neil is called out by name.
There’s the carefree party-starter “The Needle and the Damage Done,” a song about Neil’s ill-fated bandmate Danny Whitten. If there is a less hopeful lyric in the Neil canon than “every junkie’s like a setting sun,” I don’t know it.
Then there’s “A Man Needs A Maid,” in which our perennially “helpless” hero happens upon a solution for his inability to navigate even the most basic household chores.
There is evidence that, at Harvest Time, Neil Young was not perceived by his contemporaries as some comfortable middle-of-the-road tunesmith. For their album Goodbye Pop (1975), the National Lampoon satirists whipped up a Neil Young pastiche called “Old Maid (Southern California Brings Me Down)” – “I need someone to live with me/To keep my bed warm/And keep my shorts clean/I need a maid to give for free/And sew patches on my jeans.” The accompanying “interview” with “a friend” touches on the struggle to verbalize anything coherently.
Fifty years on, the long-shelved Harvest Time making-of documentary promises to shed light on the inconsistencies, contradictions, and conventional wisdom surrounding the album. Was Neil blithely cranking out Top 40 fodder at will? Or were there heavier demons afoot?
On the whole, Harvest Time is a slow-moving, perhaps overly generous sharing of archival footage. It is a treasure trove for the serious fan accustomed to “Shaky” pacing – deliberate and averse to brevity – and likely a bit of a slog for the casual fan.
In it, we get long, loving shots of Neil’s then newly-acquired ranch in Northern California. By all appearances, Neil is very happy in his new environs, among his jeep, his barn and his cows. At one point, he turns to a visitor and says, “It’s nice up here, right?” – and the gleam in his eye does not belie an ounce of doubt.
We hear the story of the accidental genesis of Harvest, where local engineer Elliot Mazer sees Neil’s appearance on Johnny Cash’s TV show in Nashville and, over drinks later, suggests that everybody decamp to his studio to record these new songs Neil has just debuted on Cash. He ropes in a few studio musician friends – Tim Drummond, Kenny Buttrey, Ben Keith – names that will become very familiar to Neil fans in due time.
VIDEO: Harvest Time official film trailer
As we watch the recording unfold, the documentary starts to unravel the established folklore around Harvest. It’s hard not to infer new meaning as Young sings (many times), “Your Cadillac has a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track.”
The immediate chemistry between these strangers is a joy to watch, as is the knowledge that they will remain in and out of Neil’s orbit for decades. Neil openly adores them, they reciprocate. As for the dark, moody, lost-for-words, lonely boy, he is nowhere to be found.
Musically, the film tests the viewer with long Neil-style (i.e. shall we say, somewhat repetitive) jams, multiple takes of songs followed by multiple trips into the mobile unit for tape playback of the song you just heard so you can watch the faces of the musicians as they barely react.
But amid all this, you see Jack Nitzsche’s stunning contributions on piano and slide guitar, Drummond’s patient and deeply simpatico bass, Buttrey’s unfussy, appropriately servile drums, Keith’s affective pedal steel – all aligned with the emotionally fraught tenor of the material, none of it spilling over into band dynamics. From our novice rancher, chief songwriter and famously idiosyncratic and irritable band leader, never is heard a discouraging word.
When “Alabama” lurches toward completion, the discussion eventually turns to lyrics, and Neil reveals the following (paraphrasing here): “I just wanted to use the name of a state in the American South. Because that’s where the guy is coming from in that song. It’s not necessarily about Alabama.” So wait, this is a relationship song? And that “you have the rest of the union to help you along” line is about one’s other half? “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” Neil says helpfully. But we have learned that there’s a chance that it’s not what we thought he was talking about for the past 50 years.
Later, there is a travelogue documenting the group’s trip to London to record the orchestral accompaniment to “A Man Needs A Maid,” and Neil’s concentrated effort to turn the London Symphony Orchestra into a pulsing, punchy, rock band. His success in doing so unfolds before our eyes, his stubbornness and ability to explain his goals on full display. He is kind and gracious with the musicians, demanding but patient with the conductor, and fully aware when the work is complete. The hobbling lost boy of the lyrics is not in evidence. The orchestra fixes his song, and goes away.
The most startling scene of all comes near the end, in which Neil Young appears to spontaneously compose the saddest song in his vast catalogue of sad songs. He is lying on his back in bed, with friends gathered near, and his new banjo on his belly. He starts strumming and sings, “Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pickup.” An enormous, joyful grin spreads across his face. He starts laughing.
He proceeds to write about two thirds of “Out on the Weekend” in one uninterrupted, miraculous flow. The enormous, joyful grin never leaves his face. “Can’t relate to joy” – huge smile, merry eyes – “he tries to speak and” – looking over at his friends in bewildered delight – “can’t begin to say.” He stops, laughs, and says “Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pickup” – and laughs again. He is far from the middle of the road in this moment, and nowhere near any ditch.
The songwriting annals are full of lore about “receiving” songs, “channeling” songs, “writing down” songs, origin unknown, and Neil reflects on it at length here. It is possible that the Neil Young documentary captures such a moment on film. And it forces the consideration that the music on Harvest is barely a reflection on the artist’s life at all, middle of the road or ditch.
In the end, Harvest Time manages to confound multiple opposing takes on this particular moment in Neil Young’s career. It is possible that Neil Young fans leave the film knowing even less about him than we knew walking in. It somehow manages to heighten an already formidable mystique – and calls into question, even given all the acclaim, if Neil Young gets enough credit for his profound talent. At Harvest Time, he is just 24 – “and there’s so much more” – burned out basements and big brass beds will soon enough give way to galleons dancing across the water, Aurora Borealis, Safeway carts, razor love and dozens of other of compelling dreamscapes.
His talent, perhaps even taken somewhat for granted, is shown in full flower here, and reminds us that the Neil Young landscape will stretch many miles beyond the Harvest horizon.
VIDEO: Neil Young – Harvest Time official film clip
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