Neil Young
   
Neil Young
   
   

Release Date: July 14, 2009 (1969)
Produced by: Neil Young, David Briggs, Jack Nitzche, Ry Cooder
Format: CD

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08/03/2009
Mark Squirek


 

Neil Young’s first solo album has always been one of my personal hidden gems. I know that others don’t pay it much heed, but in the early seventies the album spent a good number of hours on my turntable. There was a bit of everything I loved about the Springfield on this release and something more. From the jaunty opening instrumental to the strange story that closed it, everything on this album is worth investigating.  Overall it is a wonderful connection between the 45rpm dominated mindset of the sixties and album-oriented order of seventies.

We can easily look back with over 40 years of knowing Young and see his first solo release as a foreshadow of his eclecticism , but at the time of it’s release it wasn’t what people expected (Buffalo Springfield) and it may not have been exactly what Neil wanted. But it is as fine a first release as you can ask for. The album is often written off by those “in the know” as a “nice try but no cigar” for Neil. This is too bad. Any fan of Neil can listen to this and hear that this album is the bridge he had to cross out of The Buffalo Springfield.

And it is the Springfield who hang over this album. It is impossible to discount the group from this release. They gave us Expecting to Fly and Broken Arrow and while those songs were, for all intents and purposes, Neil solo cuts, they still were part of the Springfield sound. For his first release he brought along the producer/arranger of those two classics, Jack Nitzsche and his touch is all over the album.

Nitzsche may a bit too prominent a presence for those who want their Neil pure, but the “Hollywood version of a covered wagon journey” feel of the instrumental The Emperor of Wyoming leads beautifully into The Loner. (And what kind of crazy singer-songwriter opens his first solo album with an instrumental anyway?) This powerful song has aged well and even today it still shows up in concert. Stills thought so much of it he did a solid cover of it in the late seventies. As an introduction to Neil, it is a an almost perfect encapsulation of the man we have come to know over the past forty years.

“He’s a perfect stranger, like a cross of himself and a fox. He’s a feeling arranger and a changer of the way he talks”. To have that much honest insight into who you actually are at age 20 is a gift. Most of the people I knew at 20 were drunk and playing softball, not writing perfectly melodic descriptions of who they were.  

For most of the album Young handled much of the background music and harmonies himself but he had some instrumental help from Jim Messina on bass and George Grantham on drums. Their presence is part of the bridge back to Springfield.  Both have an important connection to Neil’s past. Messina, by virtue of his production and bass on the last Springfield album, and Grantham (a fine harmonizer on his own) as an integral part of the Springfield off-shoot Poco (as was Messina). On a strange note they are also completely removed from Springfield. Their presence doesn’t carry the same weight that an appearance by Stills or Furay may have, but their tenuous connection is more of an echo of the past.

They might provide a bit too much of a straightforward background for Young, but the songs on the album are well served by their steadiness and dependability. As a writer Young may have been working to break away from the expectations put in place by his memebership in the Springfield, but he needed a platform from which to jump and Messina and Grantham ably provide it.

The album holds some of Young’s most pop-like songwriting. However, what Neil believes is pop seems to differ from what a lot of what other people think is pop.  I’ve Been Waiting for You is an early example of the pop 45 with a stalker theme. The Police would later explore the same lyrical terrain on Every Breath You Take. They may sound like love songs, but you had better think twice when you here them. The song also holds a hint of the guitar sound Young would find so completely on his next release, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.

Here We Are in the Years wouldn’t have been out of place on Bowie’s Hunky Dory album and like the Bowie album, it has an oddly comforting warmth to it. I’ve Loved Her So Long is about as straight a country song as can be written. It wouldn’t have been out of place if George Jones had sung it on Hee Haw. At the time pop music and country had yet to inter-breed the way they have today, but a good song is a good song and George would have done it right!

The Springfield experimentation of Learning to Fly and Mr. Soul is slowed down but still on display in The Laughing Old Lady. The closing choral arrangement holds slight hints of Crosby’s wailing at the end of Ohio a few years down the road.  Among the background vocalists are Merry Clayton, Patricia Holloway, Brenda Holloway and Gracia Nitzsche.

There are a couple of ways to look at the album’s closer, the nine minute plus  long The Last Trip to Tulsa. You can listen to it once and dismiss it as a waste. Or you could say that Neil had to write it in order to eventually write Don’t Let it Bring You Down, Pocahontas or Rockin’ in the Free World. However you look at it, it is an important part of the Neil Young cannon.

Maybe you could consider it a laid back, Laurel Canyon refer-fueled equivalent of Dylan’s Memphis City amphetamine-fueled stories. What Dylan could do in four minutes Young (at the time), needed nine. If you really want to stretch this out, he could have added a recognizable chorus with a nice hook and put it on his next album as a screeching guitar work out. Still, the song is interesting for the same reason that Revolution #9 is on the Beatles White Album is interesting. They are both long and, for different reasons, somewhat taxing. Still, you should never forget to consider the times each was created in and you need listen to it each song in order to understand the artist better.

One reason I love this song is the closing section. It quietly encapsulates a quality that seldom gets discussed when dealing with real creativity, which is something Young has been gifted with. And I don’t mean the type of creativity that writes three goods songs across six albums and than goes on a heritage tour for thirty years. I mean the type of creativity that keeps us interested in what you have to say forty years later. In order to get to that creativity you have to be driven and you have to be somewhat ruthless in order to get it out properly. Young thought so much of the last few lines that he isolated them on the back of the album’s cover.

“I was chopping down a palm tree when a friend dropped by to ask if I would feel less lonely if he helped me swing the axe. I said “No, it’s not a case of being lonely we have hear. I have been working on this palm tree for eighty-seven years” He said “Go get lost”. And walked towards his Cadillac. I chopped down the palm tree and it landed on his back.”.

Young opens the album with an innocuous instrumental and followed it with a declaration of who he was (The Loner). After some pretty decent songs Young than closed the album with a promise of what he was going to do for the rest of his life. He was going to outwork and out perform everyone who ever knew him and if you weren’t with him he would leave you in the dirt and walk away.

Especially if you owned a Cadillac.

To know yourself so well at such a young age is an incredible gift. And he never lost that knowledge of who he is. He just kept finding rooms and building on them. Forty years later what he says and does is still just as interesting as the day we first heard Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing or The Loner.  This album  is a really important part of who Neil Young is and should not be missed by anyone who loves his music and work.

In 2009 the big question is “what does the re-release sound like?”. The answer is near perfect. Working in the HDCD format, the editing and mastering was done by Tim Mulligan. The tape restoration and analog transfer was handled by John Nowland. Each man has come through with flying colors. After it’s original release the album was pulled by Young and remixed. The new mastering seems to be based on the second mix from 1969.

This is the best this release could possibly sound. Even the traditional coldness of the digital age can’t contain the warmth in Young’s work and Mulligan and Nowland have found a way to showcase that warmth and humanity.

Also welcome is the restoration of the original graphics. Young spent the time to hand write his lyrics for the original sleeve and this is the first time that work has appeared on CD.  

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 



 
     
     
     

 

 

   
 
     

 

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"Even though most of the people I knew in my youth are gone, I still reach out to them..." Norman Maclean - Paraphrase

"...we should enjoy every sandwich." -- Warren Zevon
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