Neil Young first notified the world that he had left a whole body of work on the cutting room floor not long after his decision to do so. In an interview with Cameron Crowe in the summer of 1975 to promote his newly-released album Tonight’s The Night, Young let slip that he had a different record ready to go, before pulling it at the last second. “They’ll never hear that one!… It was just a very down album. A lot of the songs had to do with me breaking up with my old lady…I don’t want to get down to the point where I can’t even get up.”
While the word “never” didn’t turn out to be fully accurate, Young did manage to keep it out of sight quite successfully for 45 years. Only the takes of “Love Is A Rose” and “Star of Bethlehem” showed up on other albums. And rare for an unreleased work by a major star, not one of the studio recordings has ever been bootlegged. Fans have had to piece together their own vision of what the album might have been based on sketchy information. A primary source is the Young biography “Shakey,” whose author got to listen to and make detailed notes on the songs that might have been on the album. There are a few live recordings from nights when these songs leaked onto his set lists. Even without knowing exactly what it was, it was always obvious that Homegrown was something special.
The given reason for its rejection at the time, was that Young shelved it and chose the previously-canned Tonight’s The Night – an album length meditation on the closely-timed dope deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, recorded in 1973 – to be his feel-good summer release for ’75 instead. And while we’re about to get into what a great album Young managed to produce out of his relationship trauma, on a human level, I immediately understand his choice to keep Homegrown under wraps. If it had become a hit, he would have to play those songs every night on tour and feel those feelings all over again.
Tonight’s The Night is a heavy album, and Neil toured that, but you can pour some out and dedicate a number to your dead friends every night without turning the whole mood of the show maudlin. It is ultimately the more uplifting album of the two, by far. The overall feeling that comes off Homegrown is sad and melancholy, with the occasional rowdy roadhouse dope smokin’ song (“We Don’t Smoke It No More” and the title track) or surreal experiment (“Florida’) to break things up and take your mind off all the suffering.
If you want to take the familiar “Star Of Bethlehem” as a starting point for the vibe – surely one the bleakest assessments of lost love in the canon with its observation that one-time friends and lovers will only “leave you stripped of all that they can get to” – you’re in the ballpark. “Try” laments heartbreak from the barrelhouse saloon. “Separate Ways,” previously heard as a Memphis soul burner when Young was backed by Booker T and the MGs, here is Young at his Nashville finest, colored by Ben Keith’s fog-drenched pedal steel.
“Mexico” plays like a series of haiku, brief to the point of making you wonder, “is that it?” while still leaving a strong impression of the person having that series of disconnected thoughts. In “Kansas,” he sings an ode to the girl laying next to him in the morning whose name he can’t remember, that sounds like it’s really addressed to that old lady he broke up with. He’s really taking you through the stages – acceptance, reconciliation, despair, then got so wasted all the feelings went away for a minute. Then wistful, then angry, more despair, then fucked somebody else and got wasted again. Neil’s not afraid to take you on a journey here.
Then there’s the feverish “Florida”, a rambling story that sounds like it’s being told in a hotel room in which no one will be sleeping any time soon, over the screeching of a finger tracing the rim of a glass. It’s like a field recording from Hunter S. Thompson, lucid but out there. There’s nothing like this in Young’s catalog, it is his Ummagumma moment.
The band performances are stellar, the kind of character-filled, trippy, imperfect moments that make up Young’s best records. The tapes capture a band that’s confident enough in its ability to tighten up, that they can go loose. The drumming, by Levon Helm and Nashville session legend Karl Himmel, is busier and funkier than usual, another element that gives this album a flow that’s all its own.
I don’t know what his reasoning is, but whatever kept Young from wanting this to get to the public for so long, I’m glad he’s now over it. To have a new Neil Young album, from his prime, that is truly unheard by even his ardent fans, in 2020, is a thrill and a joy. I recommend it like I recommend food to a hungry person.