Slaying the Sacred Cows, Pt. 1: Neil Young’s “Harvest”

OK, Boomers: Ever wondered why Saint Neil’s biggest-selling album is also his sloppiest, least engaging one? Screw the music biz-approved “Heart of Gold” narrative, let’s dig a bit deeper. From the editor’s deep archives, originally published in the 2004 rock-writing anthology Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics (edited by Jim DeRogatis and Carmel Carrillo, published by Barricade Books). First installment of our new series, “Slaying the Sacred Cows” – step back, it might get bloody.

BY FRED MILLS

Let’s start with a selected time-line:

10 Bazillion B.C. – 1969: God creates the cosmos; Jesus dies for Mankind’s sins; McDonald’s serves its first cheeseburger; Charles Manson kills off the hippie dream; and Neil Young is inducted into the superstar club by Crosby, Stills & Nash.

1970:  The perennially-waffling Young can’t decide which he prefers, being a hippie poet laureate or the “Y” at the ass-end of “CSN&Y.” He does decide that LA sucks, however, and he moves up north to a ranch.

1971: Thanks to a nasty back and spinal injury Young spends much of the year in bed and popping pain pills but still manages to assemble his fourth solo album.

February 1972: Harvest is issued by Reprise Records. Both the album and the single “Heart of Gold” shoot to the top of the charts.

1973 – 2003: The music world is overrun by simpering singer-songwriters obsessed with the D chord and first-person pronouns

2004: Charles Manson is denied parole once again.

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Calling Harvest a lesser Neil Young effort isn’t that much of a stretch. Hell, a preliminary warning to that effect appeared shortly after the album’s release when critic John Mendelssohn, in the March 30, 1972, Rolling Stone, submitted a dryly hilarious but pointed assessment of its dubious charms.

Among Mendelssohn’s chief complaints: nearly every song on Harvest bears a “discomfortingly unmistakable resemblance” to earlier Young compositions; the stiff musical performances themselves are “restrained for restraint’s sake, and ultimately monotonous”; the lyrics are oftentimes “flatulent and portentous nonsense” routinely plagued by “rhyme-scheme forced silliness” and offer “few rewards to the ponderer.”

Mendelssohn also concluded that Young’s superstar status ensured his audience “will eagerly gobble up whatever half-assed baloney he pleases to record.” I’m here to tell you his prediction came true, and that – o, the shame! — back in the day I, too, did gobble my share of Youngian half-assedness.

My 17th birthday occurred right after Harvest appeared in stores. Do the math and you’ll quickly realize that, as a baby-boomer, I was primo demographic material for a record such as Harvest. Along with my boomer peers, I kept it in the Top 40 for 25 weeks and made it the best-selling album of 1972. Blame me for its ensuing cultural ubiquity if you wish. But understand that in 1972, for a liberal-minded teenager with inclinations towards hirsute grooming, sucking down doobs and pursuing those elusive young fillies in their peasant dresses, denim jackets and cowgirl (in the sand) boots, falling under the spell of a cultural totem like Harvest was a forgone conclusion.

As Johnny Rogan, in his 2000 critical bio Neil Young: Zero To Sixty, put it, “Young’s name was synonymous with the sound of the moment and he was increasingly perceived by the record-buying public as the hippie troubadour, blessed with a songbook of catchy, carefully crafted compositions and pleasing bittersweet melodies.”

My initial encounter with the album actually left me a tad underwhelmed; in retrospect I should have listened with my head and not my headphones. “Heart of Gold” sounded okay, but it didn’t “rock”; and even the “righteous jam” of “Alabama” paled compared to the similarly-themed and -arranged “Southern Man” from an earlier Young album. I also recall being sorta creeped out by the textured, chalky-grainy feel of the sleeve; give me the faux –leatherette sleeve of Déjà Vu any day. Still – it was Neil, and like most of all the other it-was-Neils who bought Harvest, I accepted it as my duty to embrace the album and proselytize in the name of you-know-who.

Blind faith, of course, always extracts a price.

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Several decades’ worth of hindsight and a couple hundred Neil Young bootlegs later, I see Harvest as an unexpected but not altogether unexplainable artistic low sandwiched in between a pair of notable, three-album highs.

The first, which I’ll call the Laurel/Topanga Canyons trilogy (1969’s Neil Young and Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere plus 1970’s After the Gold Rush), has long been acknowledged as one of rock’s most impressive early-career sunbursts. The second, assuming we omit the 1972 film soundtrack Journey Through The Past, is an equally brilliant, but different kind of supernova, a booze- and chemical-fueled one, comprising rolling drunk revue live album Time Fades Away, from 1973; 1974’s moody but epochal On The Beach; and the black hole of nihilism that is Tonight’s The Night, recorded in ’73 but held back for two years. You get rock, you get revolution, you get sex, you get drugs — sometimes all at once, a six-album rollercoaster ride across the counterculture that, listened to now, conjures key moods of the era while still sounding fresh and provocative. Somebody should do a box set.

Leave Harvest out, however. Young biographer Jimmy McDonough, in his 2002 book Shakey, pointed out how much of the album now sounds “heavy – as in turgid,” and that’s as good a description as any. What should have been an engaging, back-to-roots project turned out instead to be a meandering, unfocused affair characterized by plodding-to-the-point-of-anesthetized rhythms, slight (if, on the surface, pleasant) melodies, and a lyrical outlook that could be charitably described as relentlessly narcissistic.

Young himself candidly admitted, speaking to writer Cameron Crowe for a 1979 Rolling Stone profile, how “being laid up in bed [following his back injury] … I became really reclusive. There was a long time when I felt connected with the outer world ‘cause I was still looking. Then you get everything the way you want it. You stop looking out so much and start looking in. And that’s why in my head I felt something change… I was lying on my back a long time. It affected my music. My whole spirit was prone.”

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The Cliffs Notes version of the making Harvest goes roughly like this:

In the fall of 1970, following a massively successful CSN&Y tour and a breakup with his first wife, Neil bought a ranch so he could get back to the country, get his head together and whatnot. A subsequent back injury incurred while working on the farm, coupled with an aggravated spinal disc problem, forced him to spend a fair amount of time in bed and on heavy pain medication. Wearing an uncomfortable back brace, he went out on a solo tour in late ’70 and early ’71 during which time he premiered a number of new tunes, several of them hinting at Neil’s blossoming romance with actress Carrie Snodgrass.

Shortly after the tour Neil went to Nashville to appear on the Johnny Cash On Campus TV show. While in Nashville he hooked up with local producer and studio operator Elliot Mazer, who rounded up drummer Kenny Buttrey, bassist Tim Drummond and pedal steel player Ben Keith – Neil dubbed ‘em The Stray Gators – and commenced recording sessions for Harvest. Neil returned to Nashville later in the year to cut some more material, holding additional sessions back at his ranch when his ongoing back ailments precluded travel. Also in the Gators: Neil’s old friend and producer Jack Nitzsche, on piano and slide guitar, who’d previously overseen a February recording session in London featuring Neil on piano and backed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Reprise Records initially wanted to release Harvest in time for Christmas. Those plans were scotched while Neil dithered over matters involving the track listing (at the last minute he decided he wanted to include an acoustic song, “The Needle And The Damage Done,” recorded during the earlier solo tour) and sleeve design (a gatefold affair, it featured a fragile and strangely-textured oatmeal paper for both the sleeve and the lyric insert). The album was finally issued the following February.

Harvest, then, represents a mish-mash of material culled from multiple recording sources: Four songs hailed from the Nashville sessions; three were cut at Neil’s ranch; two in London with the orchestra; and the live solo number. Therein lies one of the album’s chief flaws: its maddening lack of consistency.

Now, it should go without saying that Neil Young is among a select few artists – Dylan, in particular – who’s frequently revered for his very inconsistency. Fans have come to accept, for example, that the cost of getting a Freedom or a Ragged Glory is having to sit through a Landing On Water or a Life first. Critics, for their part, cite Neil’s damn-the-marketplace approach to record-making as evidence of a fearless, uncompromising muse constantly shifting gears in a quest for new artistic strategies.

I’m not so sure any of that applies to Harvest. Bloody-mindedness is one thing, but Percodan-fueled indecision is another matter entirely. Not even counting some of the problems (plodding tempos, overly reined-in performances, etc.) ticked off above, Harvest’s internal inconsistency makes for a bumpy, at times downright jarring, ride. One minute we’re in mellow-yellow lalaland (“Heart Of Gold”) then the next we’re tossing back shots and getting rowdy with the crew out in Neil’s barn (“Are You Ready For The Country?”); the reflective mood of “Old Man” is abruptly shattered by the orchestral bombast of “There’s A World”; and so forth.

Need I add that the actual sound quality of Harvest, is equally schizophrenic? One challenge for Neil, Mazer and Nitzsche was to make the Nashville, London and ranch material all synch up sonically, but if it crossed their minds at all they were still too lazy to put forth much effort. A striking example of this is when the audience claps at the conclusion of “Needle And The Damage”: instead of a fade-out, or the applause being cut entirely, a sudden edit boots the listener headfirst into the opening chords of “Words.” While I have no doubt the effect was intentional, it just comes across as sloppy.

What really bugs me about the album is what it could have been. “Country-rock Neil,” maybe, comprising an entire set of the Nashville material, and there are a number of viable contenders in circulation as bootlegged outtakes, notably the woozy “Bad Fog of Loneliness” and the sweet “Dance Dance Dance.” Perhaps by keeping the overall vibe consistent with what Young presumably intended as a laid-back, autumnal theme, some of Harvest’s performance flaws wouldn’t have been as glaring. (In effect Neil attempted to right his own wrong some 20 years later by reconvening the Stray Gators and creating Harvest Moon, a vastly superior and more aesthetically pleasing effort than its namesake.)

I’d personally vote for “Jamming-in-the-barn-Neil”:  Take slide-guit rocker “Are You Ready For The Country?”, gospel-blooze “Alabama” and the complete 16-minute version of “Words” (which would later surface on Journey Through The Past) then throw in a couple more tight-but-loose honky-tonkers and you’d have a – umm, well, you’d probably have a studio variation on what Time Fades Away, recorded on tour in early ’73 with the Stray Gators, sounds like. But you get the point.

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In one sense, lyric analysis is a sucker’s game. One can take words and lines out of context to back up or illustrate practically any claim, pro or con. But some of the sitting ducks that Neil floats out onto the Harvest pond are too irresistible not to take a pull or two at ‘em.

As right-on as the sentiments expressed in “Alabama” are (yes, slavery and racism are bad!), the metaphor “your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch/ and a wheel on the track” seems slightly askew; shouldn’t that second wheel be on the road, since ditches are usually found beside roads and not tracks? (Is that a railroad track?) Of course, “road” doesn’t rhyme with the word “back” in the couplet that precedes it, so… The famous titular metaphor in “Heart of Gold” fares somewhat better; it’s kinda romantic-sounding, and it’s also gussied all nice and purty in burnished acoustic guitar chords, sweetly humming pedal steel and a subtly yearning bassline. But try popping the line on a gal at a bar sometime: “Hi. Looking at you makes me realize I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold for a long time.” Don’t forget to duck; she’s either gonna take a swing at you or beer will squirt from her nose from the laughter.

What about that nifty little simile bobbing politely there in the middle of “Old Man”? It goes, “love lost, such a cost/ give me things that don’t get lost/ like a coin that won’t get tossed/ rolling home to you.” I think I catch part of Neil’s drift; he’s talking about needing stability in life and love, right? But the whole coin thing eludes me. Does he mean the untossed coin is desirable because it’s safe in your pocket and won’t get lost, or is he saying an untossed coin is cool because the coin (representing Neil, who presumably doesn’t like making his decisions based on a coin toss) is free to roll on home? Oy. My head is hurting. Maybe he should have used “stone” in place of “coin” – then he could rhyme it with “home.” But I digress… I must admit I am attached to the simile in “The Needle and The Damage Done,” the tagline “every junkie’s like a setting sun.” Far from being a lazy rhyme (“sun” with “done”) or uneven imagery (one critic huffed that setting suns are beautiful whereas junkies most assuredly are not), it seems pretty dead-on, as anyone who has ever observed a junkie nodding out with his eyelids gradually shutting – or, in the large sense, watched a junkie’s spirit slowly close down — knows.

While I’m giving Neil some due here, let me also say that my favorite song on the album also seems to have the strongest, or “least flawed,” lyrics. For Harvest to be considered such a classic singer-songwriter album it’s remarkably devoid of epiphanies or universal truths. I’m sorry, but “Heart of Gold”’s tagline “and I’m getting old” won’t cut it, and I defy anyone to make sense – literal, poetic, cosmic or otherwise — of “words between the lines of age,” from “Words.” (Jack Nitzsche famously pilloried that song’s lyrics as “dumb.”) But Neil partly redeems himself in “Are You Ready For The Country?” It’s worth pointing out that to this day the song gets routinely misconstrued as Neil’s announcing his “new” country-rock direction. Blame lazy reviewers, who just looked at the song title, or country king Waylon Jennings, who covered the song, or Neil himself, who frequently whips it out at the annual Farm Aid concert. In fact, it’s so clearly a song about war (Vietnam was still raging in ’72), with direct references to the Left, the Right, the domino theory of Southeast Asia, dying for God and Country, etc., that it’s hard to fathom how anyone could get it wrong. While not as potent as “Ohio,” it’s still a compact, uncluttered anti-war number, a tale about a kid, about to ship out, talking first to a preacher (who lets him know that God will be on his side) and then to the hangman (who tells him unequivocably, “It’s time to die”).

Some have cited “A Man Needs A Maid” as an example of Neil being on top of his game. Admittedly it does carry a certain emotional heft, particularly at the end when Neil sings in a tiny, plaintive voice, “When will I see you again?” It’s a wonderful, nakedly vulnerable moment. But the whole housekeeper imagery, even as a metaphor for Neil’s insecurity and neediness, strikes me as slightly banal. I’m no poet, but maybe he could have considered some other lyrical options: “Hmm, lessee… ‘a man needs a – a- a- a- mechanic and, uh… someone to keep my gears turning and my motor running…’ Naw, naw…. howzabout – ‘a beekeeper, someone to keep my hive warm, bring me sweet nectar and buzz around all day…’ Yeah, that works.” Hey, it could have happened!

Earlier I called Harvest “relentlessly narcissistic.” Writing from one’s own point of view certainly isn’t a crime; part of any good songwriter’s appeal is how he translates his interior life to the lyric sheet. That said, methinks the man’s ego doth runneth over on Harvest. I ran the lyrics though my trusty old Schlock-O-Meter and arrived at some telling stats: “I” and “my” are the first words of three songs; “I,” “my” and “I’m” appear in the first line of three other songs; and in still three others, “I” is prominently positioned as a line’s first word. That’s nine out of ten songs. Even after giving byes to “Alabama” and “Are You Ready for The Country” for being political and not personal screeds we’re still left with a whopping 70% of Harvest being an exercise in solipsism, not storytelling.

The last thing I want to touch on might best be addressed in a court of law, but here goes anyway: Can Neil Young be sued for what he spawned with Harvest? Seriously. That album gave every half-assed folkie on the planet license to whine. All these years later we’re still knee-deep in legions of groveling, simpering, me-fixated singer-songwriters whose sole stock in trade basically boils down to this: “I got up today/ I fixed a cup of coffee/ Looked around/ And saw you were gone/ My heart was heavy/ So I wrote this song about you/ It kinda made me feel better….” Your honor, we’re willing to stipulate lifetime probation for Mr. Young, but absolutely no charity concerts in lieu of his community service.

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It’s interesting to note that Harvest was recently the sole focus of an entire book, published in 2003 as part of part of Continuum’s “33 1/3” series in which classic records are dissected but otherwise praised by virtue of inclusion in the series. Author Sam Inglis does a fine job and he claims to love the album, although one wonders how loyal to Harvest he truly is given that he voices many reservations similar to those expressed above yet rarely offers any evidence to the contrary. (A probing of Tonight’s The Night would have made for far better reading.) If the best defense one can mount of a record comes across that conflicted, why bother in the first place?

So if Harvest’s faults are so glaring, if critics routinely savage the album — or, in the case of Inglis, damn it with faint praise — and if its creator even tries to atone for his lapse by redoing it years later, what accounts for the fact that it continues to sell bucketloads? (Fun Fact #1: Harvest was the first album in Young’s back catalog to be reissued on CD, while last year it also became the first Young title to be sonically overhauled – by Young and producer Mazer, no less — for the DVD-A format.) As recently as last year Aimee Mann, a gifted songwriter who’s hardly your garden variety mainstream Best Buy-shopping schmuck, was talking to Entertainment Weekly about essential records to own. Gushed Mann, of Harvest, “My babysitter brought this over one night when I was a kid and I was fascinated. It had such a haunting and mournful quality.” Mann should know better, but I’m not going to launch an ad hominem argument this late in the essay. I’m also somewhat tempted to take the easy way out and play the baby-boomer ’72 nostalgia card and be done with the matter. (Fun Fact #2: In August of 2003, a second-stringer named Josh Rouse issued an album of half-baked lite-rock entitled 1972.) But maybe the noble approach is to simply call Harvest’s enduring appeal a mystery, throw up my arms and say, beats the hell out of me.

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Besides, I have a story to finish.

Back in the summer of ‘72 I’d become deeply smitten by a hippie-chick type who I privately referred to as my “Cinnamon Girl.” After finally screwing up the courage to ask her if she wanted to go out some night and smoke some dope, I rushed out and bought a second copy of Harvest, this one on 8-track tape (for the car, natch). I mean, how could these sensitive, tuneful songs about maids and men, about weekends and words – about hearts of gold! – fail to get me to first… second…. third base… oh wow…

Somewhere in between the mellow notion of Harvest as an album and the theoretically sure-fire “Heart of Gold,” however, my Cinnamon Girl turned into the Cynical Girl. I sensed I might be losing ground when she mocked my air-piano playing during “Maid.” Thirty seconds into “HOG” she complained, “Gawd, he is soo whiny sounding… you don’t have Deep Purple In Rock do ya,” and summarily ejected the 8-track. That’s when I deduced that tonight was not gonna be the, uh, night. With no Purp on hand, I shoved in Wheels Of Fire instead and fired up another joint. I think we both passed out during the drum solo in “Toad.”

For a long time afterwards, I held a grudge against Neil for delaying the loss of my virginity by at least six months. (That’s an eternity in teenage time.) I eventually got over it, though, and Neil is still my favorite all-time artist. Picks to click: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Sleeps With Angels, and the 1991 tour with Sonic Youth as the opening act.

To this day, however, I can’t pick up a copy of a Harvest and touch that textured sleeve without cringing.

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