Written by Alan Kiddings
Part one of a three part series that relays a story about a writer and his journeys with Neil Young, with this part covering Journey Through the Past and Harvest.
There’s a Neil Young record he released together with a movie he made of the same name, Journey Through the Past, 1973 or whenever it was. It was to be the record he released after Harvest, which, as he would tell it later that same decade, “put me in the middle of the road.” Once he was there in that middle he must’ve thought it’d be a good idea to go on a journey. So that past record looks like this. Sounds like this. Moves like this, that is in its movie, which isn’t near as long as it feels. That is if you’ve got an extra eighty or ninety minutes to go on this journey here, and his journey, Neil’s Journey Through the Past, then go on it. You can hear now your uncle or your grandmother advising you, “It’ll be worth it in the end.” And then later, “You’re too young to know how it’ll end up.” And that’s fine, and I believe that and I know you believe it too; we’re too Young, isn’t that right? But we go on this journey through the Past with Neil and it’s gonna age us. You see, what I’ve heard is that when you’ve got two people the same age and everything journeying through the Past and they pass each other—and this is if they’re passing each other fast like at the speed of sound or the speed of a movie when it’s moving—then both their times are gonna slow down for each other and fade away from each other. That really happens; it’s relativity. The times’ll go more slowly and the journey through our pasts’ll be prolonged. And we’ll age. And that’s what I mean when I say the journey isn’t near as long as it feels. When you finally take heed and go on it, you’ll be floating around in a void thicker than anything and it’ll be not-far. And all the while you’re floating you’ll be learning universal, inalienable truths about how you relate to people. How time slows down when you do it, when you go; that’s the Past for you.
There’s a song, too, “Journey Through the Past.” Strange as it may be, it’s missing from the record and the movie both. To hear it recorded on a Neil Young record you’ve got to get to that point after the Journey through the Past at which time fades away; seeing as how the song is on a live record called Time Fades Away, 1973. On that live record is a version of “Journey Through the Past” recorded at a concert in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s hometown of Cleveland, Ohio where it was February and blustery, and where before the concert Neil would inaugurate Jose Cuervo as his new tour manager. Then he’d amble out and sing this song we’ve all been waiting an eternity for, watched a long-feeling movie about, journeyed through relative space because of. Finally, we’d see and hear how plain beautiful the song is. Saying,
When the winter rains come pouring down on that new home of mine,
Will you think of me and wonder if I’m fine?
Will your restless heart come back to mine on a journey through the past?
Will I still be in your eyes and on your mind?
you start to see and hear what I mean when I say “universal, inalienable truths,” don’t you? And what I’m really asking here, if I’m being honest, is whether you’re with me in considering Neil a guy by whom it comes to pass that people like us reconcile where we’ve been with who we’ve met along the way. It’s all relative, which is a past-is-prologue way of saying that that’s what the following is all about.
I was at my mom’s house for the Christmas holiday, and I was loading a bowl listening to Harvest. I had gone out to my car and retrieved the weed I’d hid in an empty California Scents tin. And coming in to my old bedroom the only human being in the house, the only other living thing being the family dog snoozing, there I was putting Harvest on and with the record sleeve on my lap I began grinding buds between my fingers.
I’d come to my mom’s house from what my friends and fellow housemates had called the Friend House. I’d moved into the Friend House hoping that the moving would begin a kind of rest of my life, having just gotten a degree and what have you. Wanting to settle in with some help from my friends so that when I hurt for money or attention I could seek them out, was what motivated it. I wanted to be out on my own yet in the presence of a bunch of friends, is what I wanted. And anyway I didn’t live there very long, at the Friend House, mostly because it turned out to be too hard to ask the friends for what help I needed-- namely the money help. Since I hadn’t found a solid job in months I sold some of my old college apartment furniture, and selling that furniture was enough to put me back on my feet, so to speak, because I didn’t anymore have anywhere to sit. So the time passed and I worked by the grace of Craigslist as a temporary hand which paid enough to cover food and cheap weekend tequila. But that plan could only pan out for so long, lasting only about as long as the tequila bottles did. By the end of November, around Thanksgiving time, I was struggling to figure out what I was still doing there at the Friend House and I guess I decided to look for some other friend to take my place for December. Finding that person, thankfully, I retreated back to my mom’s house, that rest of my life’s being abandoned, its beginning’s short tail between my legs, to see what could be made to happen, and how I could make do, hanging out with no living thing but the family dog as I’d been doing.
It was one day in early December I made another decision: that I’d apply to graduate school. During the working hours I’d browse embittered information about joblessness and hiring crises and how another degree would be a waste; and thereafter I’d eat up the bad advice ubiquitous on the Internet about how not to go, how to avoid going, and by the end of the afternoon I’d decide in spite of myself I’d go anyway. I started writing letters to professors I’d had, drummed up a winsome correspondence with the old future-counselors and shared my apprehensions. I had a Creative Writing teacher who told me I had all the time in the world to figure it out; “Take your time, but make that time matter,” is similar to the thing he told me, and I convinced myself I would. Meanwhile my mom and my brother both worked real jobs and they both traveled for work. So for much of that month, December, I was what I thought I had wanted to be at the Friend House--that is, out on my own, except because I was back at my mom’s it was more like I was in, out in my own, in my old bedroom. The graduate school-search day done, I’d load a bowl and listen to records. Well, one record I’d bought at a Goodwill down the road from the Friend House as a matter of fact was Neil Young’s Harvest. I had just been introduced to Neil Young, like he was a friend, so that’s sort of like how I knew that that was a good album. The friends of mine had recommended it, you know, had just put me on to it. “This is Neil Young,” they said. “He’s friendly.”
So after all that I was at my mom’s house, there in my own old bedroom, right around the Christmas holiday, with the family gone, narcotized by the Neil record I’d put on, melting into it, seeing myself as like sitting down in a comfy cushioned diner booth to drink black coffee alone, but with Neil. So it suffices to say I was sitting myself in with him. Warming up with him. Harvest has the kind of sound that warms you up. When the heater shuts off you only notice because you can hear Neil and the band that much better. It’s a friendly record; I’ll reiterate it for whatever reason, it’s friendly and warm.
The story of how Harvest came to be is a popular one. “Very innaresting,” Neil might remark about it. He was in Nashville for an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, and it seems what happened was soon after he’d played his piece he strolled around Broadway and bumped into the producer Elliot Mazer. Mazer ran Quadrofonic Sounds nearby and happened to have his best session musicians who were also the best in the city tagging along behind him. Neil struck a deal and for the next few days he embellished a few already-written already-performed tunes with bassist Tim Drummond, who many hated, drummer Kenny Buttrey, who hated many, and pedal-steel guitar player Ben Keith, who everybody loved. Neil would later remember; “I liked [Harvest] because it happened fast, kind of an accidental thing--I wasn’t looking for the Nashville Sound, they were the musicians that were there. They got my stuff down and we did it. Just come in, go out--that’s the way they do it in Nashville.” Among the feasting Harvest guests that came in and went out of these first sessions were Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, both of them beckoned by Mazer from their own appearances on The Johnny Cash Show to lay down some layers of back-up vocals. It was these fortuitous first sessions that yielded up Neil’s first number-one single, “Heart of Gold.” He had written the song during a stint in a hospital bed, scribbling the expressions between fawning visits from his new sweetheart, actress Carrie Snodgress. She was somebody who’d made him want to keep searching for a heart of gold I guess. “It’s these expressions,” the song observes, “I never give / That keep me searching for a heart of gold.” And there you go. Aside from giving and not giving, the song is also tellingly concerned with living and growing old; to use an older Young phrase, there “comes a time” when living will demand a few backbones of you, and you’ll let those few slip out from whatever weight in order for what remains to go on living and giving. And that’s what Neil had to do, had to give up a couple shoddy backbones. Snodgress would later confess that she “fell in love with Neil’s pain.” Well me too, out in my old bedroom. What warmth I felt must’ve been the pain of living, giving, growing old, mining for gold, coming up with a few new paltry expressions with which to try and express yourself. As for the song’s success, producer Elliot Mazer was “excited.” According to Young’s biography, Mazer “was certain ‘Heart of Gold’ was a smash hit. ‘We all knew there was something very special going on,’ he said of the session. But then again he also said, ‘Looking back, I don’t really think I felt at ease with [Young], even though we spent hours and hours in the studio. The serious amount of pain he was in and his mood shifts. . . kept everybody at a distance.’” It was this help-me-make-it but don’t-get-close kind of phenomenon that I could recall from my own personal past. Inasmuch as my friends had let me into their house which became our house, I had left them long before I really left, the lack of money making me aloof, letting it be that my friends’ letting me in was where all friendly openness ended. So Neil in Nashville in 1971 gelled with a band of strangers dubbed the Stray Gators, saying later “Harvest was just easy,” and nevertheless remained never really felt-at-ease-with. While I, aloof at the Friend House about ten driving minutes far from Quadrofonic Sounds, was living alone with my friends. Now I understood, as I flipped the record and listened to Neil trying to understand an old man who was, as he understood it, a lot like himself. And somehow I understood that, too--it being pretty much what I was doing myself there at my mom’s house, wishing I’d been around when Neil released this record so that I could’ve really shared in the old friendliness it radiated.
Most of what remained to be recorded of Harvest got recorded out at Neil’s Broken Arrow ranch in northern California, a 140-acre lot awash in hippies, with one lone old man caretaker named Louie. You can see Neil recording with the Nashville band in the ranch’s barn in the photo on the back of the record sleeve. A glimpse into the barn of the past--where, as a matter of fact, Ben Keith can be seen seated at a hay bale in front of his slide guitar, and Jack Nitzsche looks bewildered perched on a riser like what am I doing here? Young’s pals from the CSN days also rode up to the ranch to get away, to add vocal tracks to some of the more political tunes and then get away and relax. Graham Nash, after he recorded his contributions, went out on the lake with Neil like they were going to fish. “‘I’m down at the ranch and Neil goes, ‘Hey Willie, wanna hear something?’ So we go down to the lake and row out to the middle in this rowboat and I think, ‘Jesus Christ, this guy’s been a fuckin’ mystery to me all my life--if he wants to talk to me privately, surely there’s more places to do it than the middle of a fucking lake in a rowboat.’” So now Graham suspects it’s about something other than sport, see. “What he’d done,” Graham continues, “is he’d wired his house as the left speaker, and his entire barn as the right speaker, and they played Harvest. And at the end of it Elliot Mazer comes down to the shore of the lake and goes, ‘Neil, how is it?’ Neil turns around and shouts, ‘More barn!’” That’s what I’d judge to be another intimate moment avoided; another anecdote of Neil’s music being the thing that bubbles one in from having to be friendly. Graham thought they were gonna get deep out there in the middle of the lake, and after all what happens is Neil rows the boat out the better to listen to Harvest. He must’ve hoped the music would fill in for what closeness friendship sought, surrounding it with sound. A buffer-boat, so to speak, and Neil set it between his bud and the product they’d made together. Like how we cozy up to songs in ways we hold out on for people; how music is the friend we make for whatever time has come. Like how sometimes we distance ourselves from the moorings of our friendships because we’ve got to listen to what records we’ve made for ourselves by ourselves. And that’s we, now--Neil and me, in my mom’s house getting high together like we’ve known each other for forever, even though I’d never been nearly as close to him as Graham was out in that boat.
Rest assured it’s not by any means ideal to fashion for yourself a Friend House inhabited only by a record and a dog. When you decide your only friends can be your records, your record player, and your pet then you are also deciding to let linger what Neil would call a “Bad Fog of Loneliness.” But I think once you’ve settled into it and recognized it’s temporary, and once you’ve signed up to make the temporary time matter, you can hear more simply what it is you want. You can hear the subtleties in the songs and that attunes you to your wanting, to whether you really want to be out on your own, or in on your own, or wherever. So there in my old bedroom at my mom’s house “for the Christmas holiday” I heard Neil say “twenty-four and there’s so much more,” and I was attuned to how opportune, really, temporary can be. I heard “There’s a world you’re living in,” and I was reminded to seek it out, you know. Even subtler, I heard Ben Keith’s haybale-borne slide guitar swoons and I helped myself to my retreat’s domestic somberness. While so somber I heard Jack Nitzsche’s clanging piano-playing and readied myself for the awkward melodies of voyaging out. And then finally when I listened to the album over again and heard the flabby drum lick that opens the album, I gut-checked my past’s old plans. I heard Neil’s jangling guitar strums and I thought to myself “I think I’ll pack it in and buy a pick-up, take it down to L.A. Find a place to call my own and try to fix up, start a brand new day,” and it was like the greatest friendliest advice. And so what I did was, I went to L.A. in January and at the consulates and offices there I got the documents ready to go to another country. Those documents took the place of what I’d gathered for graduate school applications and the new plan was to wait a while. I wrote my Creative Writing professor--and this is a history that’ll become important later: “Yeah I will be old when and if I finally go to graduate school, but I probably wouldn’t have been happy with going this time around anyway.” He told me, “Trust me when I say that in the course of your life, what you're going to be doing abroad is much more valuable and a hell of a lot more innaresting than attending graduate school. This is especially true for your writing.”
As attached to friends as we sometimes end up, those friendships always anyways end. Harvest ends appropriately with “Words.” Let me quote you some, since I’ve had such a block at jotting down these past some of my own:
If I was a junkman selling you cars,
Washing your windows and shining your stars,
Thinking your mind was my own in a dream
What would you wonder and how would it seem?
Living in castles a bit at a time,
The kings started laughing and talking in rhyme.
Singing Words--Words between the lines of age.
I would get older and I would write more. I would write about Harvest before I jetted off on another journey. For all my effort at trying to make my Harvest days last, scribbling notes about it then or trying to draft something now, the record was over. What I’d heard in it gave way to time, like the Journey Through the Past gave way to this. It’s a tough task to capture in writing the present moment from a past time. Willingly or not I was wormholed by the words of “Words” I’d heard at my mom’s house that Christmas holiday into what was next, where I’d be: On the Beach.
Read part two here and part three here.