The run of material produced by Neil Young between 1973 and 76 represents one of the most eccentric, but deeply authentic creative periods ever captured in rock history. The music of Young’s that sits on either side of it chronologically is considerably better known to the public, whether the hippie troubadour years of After The Gold Rush and Harvest, or his monster albums of the late 70s, Comes A Time and Rust Never Sleeps. But the stuff that makes up Archives Volume II, encompassing the “Doom Trilogy” of Time Fades Away, Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach, as well as its unreleased sister album Homegrown and the finally-gonna-screw-my-head-on-right statement Zuma that announced his emergence from the murk- is, to many fans, the ultimate distillation of Young’s gift as not just singer/ songwriter/ guitarist but Vibe Commander.
This part of Young’s life gets a lot of attention in the biography Shakey, detailed reminiscences of extreme times that will surely be a useful accompaniment to this volume. The year 1973 kicks off with the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, one of Young’s most brilliant collaborators, on the eve of his biggest tour to date. Unnerved by the reality of professional rock, he goes the other way and does a fall tour in small theaters with what’s left of the Horse, performing a new, unreleased album in its entirety, and taking on a woozy, tequila-soaked persona closer to a used car salesman than a hippie troubadour. He’d promise a fussy audience “Okay, folks we’re going to do one you’ve heard before!” to great applause, before breaking into the same new song they’d opened the show with. Groan!
It makes for a good story but, listening to the bootlegs of those shows, you’re scared for him. Not for his career, for him getting beaten up on the way out of the venue! I don’t think James Taylor’s audience ever got that angry at him. Young was one of the first major stars to demonstrate just what “no fucks to give” really means, walking away from comfortable entertainment and repetition again and again. But he’s on such a roll, it doesn’t matter. You want him to have free reign, hell, have more.
A tendency that shows itself in this period is the evident desire to get out of studios. Time Fades Away is recorded on the road, Tonight’s The Night in a rehearsal room with a hole knocked out of the wall to run cables out to a recording truck. Zuma‘s recording apparently rattled producer David Briggs’ neighbors’ windows in the middle of the night, with the band set up in one bedroom, recording console in the other. This kind of attention to method still serves Young. He sometimes uses studios, but certain projects require working in a less artificial setting. Nearly all of the most immaculate recordings of this period, made in Nashville with producer Elliot Mazer, have remained unreleased until this year.
And that’s how much we knew up until today. Archives Volume 2 solves a number of mysteries, allows the airing of numerous songs which have been written about but never publicly aired, and lays the material out in chronological order. Given how scattered the releases have been over time, this is akin to seeing the movie Memento with the scenes in actual time sequence for the first time. Perspectives shift, scales get lifted from the eyeballs, we remember things we didn’t realize we had forgotten. Gradually, a fuller picture forms.
Talking about musical moments that paint a picture… there is a performance of the song “Speakin’ Out” from those sessions in the practice room with the hole in it, where you’re hearing these brilliant musicians play really laid back and liquid, sounding so cool. They’re just farting around, not really even doing a take, just vibing on each other and enjoying the feeling. They may not even know the tape is rolling. You can see them, how liquid they are. And then Young’s voice comes over the mic, “I went to the movieeeee the other night”, and now you can see him hunched over the mic, barely able to sit up, and you realize, I wasn’t seeing quite how liquid they are, before. It’s evocative of a human moment while tape is rolling, a real feeling, that no Eagles record could ever approximate. And if it wasn’t evident why they had to get out of studios completely for this session, and knock a hole in the wall of SIR with a sledgehammer instead, well, it is now.
Once again, the Archives set doesn’t give you every single recording from the period. Neil’s kind of perverse this way, a pruned-down set of only the unreleased tracks would surely be more economical. But the mastering is superb, befitting Young’s audiophile rep. Its hefty price tag certainly puts it in a category of its own, not everyone that likes Neil Young needs this hearty a concentration of his stuff. But there is a certain kind of fan for whom this box is made, the one that wants to go beneath the surface and hear what there is to hear. That is the person that is going to get a lot out of this, and if you are one, I can’t recommend it enough.
Here are some other “oh wow” moments from the set that Young aficionados will surely geek out over when they roll along on disc.
- Joni Mitchell joining the Tonight’s The Night band for a raucous “Raised On Robbery” that has to be the loosest, most carefree Joni performance ever heard.
- The definitive version of “Pushed It Over The End” with CSNY from Chicago 1974, one of Young’s finest obscure tunes, finally heard in high fidelity.
- Zuma session outtakes including band versions of “Ride My Llama”, “Pocahontas”, “Kansas” and “Hawaii” as well as the unreleased songs “Born To Run” and “No One Seems To Know” which multiple verses not heard in its rare live performances, plus an early take on “Powderfinger.”
- A whole album’s worth of unreleased songs and versions titled The Old Homestead, essentially the period companion to Homegrown with all the songs recorded in that period not picked for it. “Frozen Man” and “Daughters” are instant new/ old classics.
- A studio version of “The Bridge” that gives this lovely song the gossamer light touch it always deserved.
- “Human Highway” from the aborted 1973 CSNY sessions. Good as it is, it has to be considered in the context of Young’s eventual decision to turn right instead of left and start making Tonight’s The Night rather than continue these sessions. I think he did the right thing.
- “Goodbye Christians On The Shore”, a lilting waltz with a distinct Gold Rush feel to it.
- The story behind the song “LA,” leading up to a killer acoustic live version of it. “I never really told anybody why I never really sang it before, and that’s the part I’m not gonna tell you tonight.”
- A live album from 1976 with Crazy Horse at its most simultaneously laid back and flaming hot.