Saturday, December 19, 2020

am@random - AM 10s - Neil Young's After the Gold Rush

I was in my teens and caught a ride to the record shop to buy Harvest, the new release by Neil Young. In the parking lot, Pamela D. and I sat waiting as "Heart of Gold" played on the radio. The record shop was out of it, and I bought After the Gold Rush, instead. Harvest, of course is classic, mainstream America's introduction to Neil Young, but good fortune and brisk sales had me plop down $3.77 for Gold Rush. It was the best $3.77 I ever spent. By the release of the LP in 1970, Young had already shined in the rosters of two legendary bands (Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), embarked on a premature 1969 self-entitled solo debut and collaborated with the garage rock band, Crazy Horse on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

Ripe for a flourishing solo career, the finely crafted After the Gold Rush defined the musical persona that would make Young a legend. Young's primary role was always that of a sweet, sentimental folky, and on After the Gold Rush, Young dishes out downbeat reflection ("Tell Me Why," "Don't Let It Bring You Down"), rainy, country rock ("Oh, Lonesome Me," "Cripple Creek Ferry") and gorgeous odes of encouragement ("I Believe In You," "Birds"), all encased in golden acoustic guitar and painted in Young's masterful use of imagery ("Old man lying by the side of the road/ With the lorries rolling by/ Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load/ And the buildings scrape the sky/ Cold wind ripping down the allay at dawn/ And the morning paper flies/ Dead man lying by the side of the road/ With the daylight in his eyes"). But After the Gold Rush revealed another quintessential truth about Young's psyche: this gentle singer/songwriter had a streak of embittered social conscious (the title track, the dead-on "Southern Man") and a flair for lumbering guitar rock ("When You Dance You Can Really Love," "Southern Man"). After the Gold Rush is the sound of inspiration arriving, doors cracking open and an artist being baptized.
And it was all dumb luck. In January 1969, 23-year-old Neil Young released his self-titled solo debut album, its layers of guitars reminiscent of his work with the Buffalo Springfield. But when Young failed to crack the album charts, he immediately went back to work, recording Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere at Wally Heider's in less than two weeks with new backing band Crazy Horse.
His association with Crosby, Stills and Nash left Young poised for stardom as he made plans to cut a third solo album in early 1970. Anyone else would've played it safe, but Young followed his instincts. "At that point, I didn’t like seeing other musicians in the hallways," Young told writer Jimmy McDonough. "I didn't like hearing other music. I just wanted to be by myself."
Young set up shop in the basement of his Topanga Canyon home. He paneled the walls with pine milled from the trees in his backyard. Neil's modest gear collection included a Scully 8-track, a small mixer, and a handful of mics. Because there was no room for echo plates or other processors, the sound would be unusually arid with all the vocals cut live and dry. "There was a shitload of room on those recordings," recalled Young, " because there wasn’t anything else goin' on. Just rhythm guitar, bass and drums - that's all there was. The song was it, and everything else was supporting it."
Young got even more minimalism out of Jack Nitzsche, who'd worked with Young during his days with the Buffalo Springfield. Nitzsche and Crazy Horse convened in the basement and cut "When You Dance I Can Really Love" totally live, with Young flailing away on his Gretsch White Falcon.
It's this raw emotion and the straightforward approach that sets apart After the Gold Rush, which was released in late summer to unanimous acclaim; by Christmas, it had become Young’s first Top 10 album, and remained on the charts for over a year on its way to selling two million copies. Though a stunning success, Young's decision to bring it all back home would take its toll on his personal life. "I was writing ‘Southern Man’ in the studio," and [wife] Susan was angry at me for some reason, throwing things; they were crashing against the door." The same month the album was released, Young's already fractured first marriage officially came to a close; you can hear it in the vocals and in each riff. Like Joni on Ladies, or like Leonard Cohen, Neil Young had become the consummate singer-songwriter.

Long time readers of the column will note the move up from an AM9 to an AM10. The LP was certainly perfect for its time, and now, in a time of musical mediocrity, the LP remains at the forefront of an Americana renaissance.

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