Neil Young on his greatest hits: “The songs are on their own little trip, I go out and ride along with them”

Shakey recalls the creation of some of his classic songs

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Old Man
Album: Harvest
Released: March 1972
Recorded: Nashville, Feb 8, 1971

Never a great one for literal explanations of his songs, Young made an exception over “Old Man” when even his own father, Scott, a well-known Canadian sports writer/broadcaster, came to believe the song was about him. In fact, as Young took to making clear when introducing the song onstage, the inspiration was Louis Avila, a foreman who worked on his Broken Arrow ranch at La Honda.


“When I bought the place there was this old man who was working there for the people I bought it from. He was about 70 years old. He was a cattleman and that’s like something that’s never going to happen again, so I wrote a song about it,” he explained.

Recorded one weekend in Nashville in early February 1971, Young had in mind a sound similar to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, and asked producer Elliott Mazer to recruit similar personnel. In the end, he got Dylan’s drummer Kenny Buttrey, supported by Ben Keith on pedal-steel and Tim Drummond on bass. They became the nucleus of the band Young would call The Stray Gators. James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who were in Nashville as Young’s fellow guests on a Johnny Cash TV show the day before, added harmony vocals. Taylor also contributed the six-string banjo picking – the only time he has ever played the instrument on record.

Released as a follow-up to the US No 1 single “Heart Of Gold”, “Old Man” was to prove less successful, only reaching No 31 on the Billboard chart.


Heart Of Gold
Album: Harvest
Released: March 1972
Recorded: Nashville, Feb 8, 1971


“This song put me in the middle of the road,” Young remarked of “Heart Of Gold” – before he famously added that’s when he decided it was time to head for the ditch. A No 1 single in America and a Top 10 hit in Britain, the song has been dividing his fans ever since, with music writer Sylvie Simmons – otherwise one of Young’s most fervent supporters – claiming in her book on the man that she winces every time she hears it.

Critics point to a trite lyric and simplistic rhyming scheme. But those present in the studio knew instantly they had a hit on their hands. The first track tackled during the same Nashville session which spawned “Old Man” in February 1971, producer Elliott Mazer recalled: “We all knew there was something very special going on. When Neil played ‘Heart Of Gold’, Kenny [Buttrey] just looked at me and raised one finger in the air to say, ‘That’s a No 1.’”

The melody was allegedly inspired by “Love Is Blue”, once recorded by Jeff Beck. After the basic track had been laid down, Taylor and Ronstadt then added harmony vocals, just as they did to “Old Man”.

“I’d happened to be in the right place at the right time to do a really mellow record that was really open because that’s where my life was at the time,” Young later remarked. “I was in love when I made Harvest. So that was it. I was an in-love and on-top-of-the-world type of guy.”

That he then added, “Good thing I got past that stage,” is indicative of how swiftly he came to regard the success of “Heart Of Gold” as a mixed blessing. “I thought the record was good. But I knew something else was dying,” he observed.

There’s an interesting postscript in the decidedly odd reaction the song produced in Bob Dylan. “I used to hate it when it came on the radio,” he complained. “I always liked Neil Young but it bothered me every time I listened to ‘Heart Of Gold’. I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.’ I needed to lay back for a while, forget about things, myself included, and I’d get so far away and turn on the radio and there I am. But it’s not me. It seemed to me somebody else had taken my thing and had run away with it and, you know, I never got over it.”


Like A Hurricane
Album: American Stars ’n Bars
Released: June 1977
Recorded: Broken Arrow, La Honda, autumn 1975

One of Young’s most ferocious guitar epics, “Like A Hurricane” came together in typically unpredictable Young fashion. “We’d been trying to record it with two guitars, bass and drums and Neil was giving up on it,” recalls guitarist Frank Sampedro, who had replaced Danny Whitten in Crazy Horse. “We kept playing it two guitars and Neil didn’t have enough room to solo. When he started walking out of the studio I started diddling with this Stringman [keyboard] and he decided to pick up his guitar.

If you listen to the take on the record, there’s no beginning, no count-off, it just goes voom! They just turned on the machines when they heard us playing because we were done for the day. We played it once and at the end of the take he said, ‘I think that’s the way it goes.’ And that’s the take on the record. The only time we ever played it that way.”

Young later attempted to describe the song’s hypnotic power on a promotional interview disc. “If you listen to that, I never play anything fast,” he said. “All it is is four notes on the bass. Billy [Talbot] plays a few extra notes now and then, and the drumbeat’s the same all the way through… Sometimes it does sound as if we’re really playing fast, but we’re not. It’s just everything starts swimming around in circles.”

The song was written in July 1975 after Young had just undergone an operation for nodes on his vocal cords. He couldn’t sing, so he partied instead, and “Hurricane” was written after a cocaine-fuelled night with friend and La Honda neighbour Taylor Phelps in the back of his car, a Desoto Suburban.

“We were all really high, fucked up,” Young recalls. “Been out partying. Wrote it sitting up at Vista Point on Skyline. Supposed to be the highest point in San Mateo County, which was appropriate. I wrote it when I couldn’t sing. I was on voice rest. It was nuts – I was whistling it. I wrote a lot of songs when I couldn’t talk.”

It was premiered live with Crazy Horse in Britain in March 1976, a full 14 months before it appeared on record on the American Stars ’n Bars album.


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