Neil Young: The Best of the Unofficial Canon


This is something I wrote for Da Boot! for its Nov.-Dec. 1999 edition. The fanzine, much like my CSN/Y-oriented Old Grey Cat website, primarily focused on bootleg CDs, which were all the rage at the time – and in my life. I collected them; wrote about them for the site; edited oft-incoherent reviews submitted by fellow fans; and even received freebies from a Scotland-based label, which was actually just an indie record-store owner who’d invested in a pricey CD-burner. I’ve edited it ever-so-slightly.

The irony is, these days, I never listen to bootlegs.


neilbootaI’m generally hesitant to offer “best-of” lists of “collector CDs.” Why? Fact is, the haphazard bootleg industry ensures of some oversights. Labels open, labels close, only to open again under another name or in another country, maybe one in the Pacific Rim or—thanks to the advent of CDRs—even in someone’s basement. And the distribution of product accounts for other “misses.” No two stores stock all of the same titles; once a title is gone, chances are it’s gone for good. Great Dane’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Cowboy is a good example. If you find it these days, it will be in the used-CD bin or as a knock-off—or as a reconfigured, fan-distributed CDR with a disc or two of additional material added on for good measure.

neiltop10bootThe way we relate to Neil’s music ensures of more differences. The man responsible for the folk-flavored Harvest also delivered the electric tour de force re*ac*tor. “You were born to rock, you’ll never be an opera star,” Neil whines in the opening volley, a symphonic swell of harsh metallic guitars wailing in the background. That album’s finale, “Shots,” is a masterpiece on a par with Neil’s best—rock critic Johnny Rogan has written that the acoustic take (from the 1978 “World Tour” at the San Francisco Boarding House) is superior, but I say otherwise. THIS is the definitive version. It blows through the soul, and that’s no lie. To the point: With such a large and varied body of work to choose from, fans are bound to prefer certain albums and tours to others. For example, of late I’ve been entrenched in Broken Arrow—those thud-thick chords in “Big Time” reverberate through the soul long after the CD has been plucked from the player. Of course, some fans think this last go-round with Crazy Horse was one go-round too many…they’d scoff at one of my favorites, Phoenix Arcade, and its 18-minute, feedback-strewn version of “Like a Hurricane.” What can I say but this: It gets me off. (Chances are, they will you, too.)

Suffice it to say, this isn’t an “objective” best-of. Rather, these are 10 entertaining snapshots and/or overviews of Neil’s career, discs that I’ve turned to time and again. In my opinion, they’d make for excellent additions to any fan’s collection.

neilcow1) Rock ‘n’ Roll Cowboy – Until Neil releases the much-anticipated Archives set, this four-CD compilation of live rarities from the defunct Great Dane label will have to do. Spanning the years from 1967 to 1993, it collects a bevy of treats, including “Sweet Joni,” a delicate piano-based paean to Joni Mitchell performed in Bakersfield, CA, during 1973’s Time Fades Away tour. Other highlights include the unreleased “Traces” and “Love Art Blues,” both buttressed by CSN’s harmonies, as well as the song Mojo magazine named as Neil’s best unreleased song, the Blue Notes-backed “Ordinary People.” Add in the fierce SNL debut of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Stringman” from ’76 and…you name it, chances are a version of it is here.

neillegend2) Legend of a Loner – Also available (with a few alterations) as Jewel Box 6, this cop of the legitimate rarities promo CD Hard to Find is a perfect complement to Rock ‘n’ Roll Cowboy. From its first cut, an alternate take of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul,” to its last, the funny “Don’t Spook the Horse,” there’s nary a low. Among the highlights: a Stray Gator-backed “Last Trip to Tulsa” that rips the original acoustic take to shreds. Yeah, it sounds somewhat like a Dylan song—but, then, it always did. Another cool find is “War Song,” the Young-Nash collaboration celebrating the 1972 presidential bid of George McGovern. Also included is “Pushed It Over the End,” recorded live with CSNY in 1974 and, buttressed with studio overdubs, released in the early ’80s as part of an Italian box set. Suffice it to say, CSN’s harmonies are heavenly, a perfect addition to one of Neil’s best songs. The pre-truncated studio version of “Campaigner” is included, as well.

neilcarn3) Carnegie Hall – Recorded in December 1970 by Reprise for a live album that never materialized, this acoustic set features a wealth of golden-hued nuggets. Take “Southern Man”: Yes, it’s minus the driving electric guitars. And, yes, it’s excellent. Dedicated to George Wallace, the anger and bitterness are supplanted with sadness and near-resignation. “Southern change is gonna come at last …” Unlike London ’71, “new” songs are few and far between—”Wondering,” “Old Man,” “Bad Fog on Loneliness” and “See the Sky About to Rain” are it. Don’t let that sway you, however. One truly stupendous highlight: the very first “dope/acid rock song” he ever wrote—”Flying on the Ground Is Wrong.” Accompanying himself at the piano, he launches into the audio equivalent of a honey-slide. It may be wrong, but you’ll be flying in your living room…

neillon4) London ’71 – Although recorded just two months after his Carnegie Hall concert, this February 1971 affair is as different from it as dusk is from dawn. Yeah, there are similarities, but this set is marked by the debuts of the songs that formed the heart of Harvest: “Old Man,” “Out on the Weekend,” “Heart of Gold,” “A Man Needs a Maid” and the title track, which Neil informs the audience was written the night before. Other highlights include a drop-dead, beautiful “Love in Mind.” Compare this set to, say, later solo Neil, and what comes across most is the slow dissolve of innocence and the dwelling on the down and dour; but, of course, that “dissolve” is the domain (primarily) of the young. Here, it’s captured by one of the best chroniclers of such stuff in the arts. The sound quality is stellar throughout, with a minimum of hiss and audience noise. Even a novice fan would/should enjoy it.

neilrrcd5) Rock ‘n’ Roll Can Never Die – Backed by the rag-tag Santa Monica Flyers, in the fall of ’73 Neil kicked off the Tonight’s the Night tour, confounding audiences and critics alike. Dressed like a sleazy barker, he’d step to the fore and greet the audience with a rousing, “Welcome to Miami Beach, ladies and gentlemen.” As represented by this Manchester gig from November, the shows were strange, incoherent affairs, with weird stage patter filling the gaps between songs. Oh, the songs. Check out this set: “Tonight’s the Night,” “Mellow My Mind,” “World on a String,” “Speakin’ Out,” “Albuquerque,” “New Mama,” “Roll Another Number,” “Tired Eyes,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong,” “Human Highway,” “Helpless” and “Don’t Be Denied.” The first eight songs were new; and the audience had heard the ninth (the second “Tonight’s the Night”) only once before—at the beginning of the set! Of the remaining songs, “Human Highway” was also unreleased and “Don’t Be Denied,” a key track on the ragged glory that is the Time Fades Away LP, wasn’t well known. Only “Helpless” rated as familiar. Why, then, is this a necessity? In front of a faithful, if frustrated, audience, Neil eulogizes and exorcises fallen comrades Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. Maybe that’s why “Don’t Be Denied” is so heart-palpitating—or is that chilling? Against a backdrop of death and broken dreams, Neil’s exhorting folks—and himself—to stay true to their dreams regardless of the consequences.

neilblue6) Blue Notes – “Live music is better.” It’s a refrain heard often on the Neil Young discussion group known as the Rust List. Why? Live, music makes an even greater visceral impact than a CD, LP or cassette—it’s an immediate connection. You feed off the performer, he feeds off you, and you’re there, wherever there is, not stoned but STONED, and not from drink or drugs but from the music itself. And guess what? In a live setting, few artists achieve what Neil achieves. The two-CD Blue Notes is proof. Consisting of a fairly typical set from his summer ’88 tour with the Blue Notes, Neil is in terrific form both vocally and on guitar, ripping out patented, emotion-filled solos seemingly without effort. Highlights abound, but due to space concerns I’ll only single out a few. At a sprawling 12 minutes, “Ordinary People” catalogues evil done in the name of, for and to everyday folk, and includes several pyrotechnic guitar solos. “Crime in the City” and its 17-minute parent, the acoustic “Sixty to Zero”—one of three bonus songs—are also striking. Like a Picasso painting, the images presented aren’t necessarily connected save for the fact that they share the same canvas. The end result, however, is one of pure artistry.

neilwarpath7) Warpath – Santa Cruz 11/13/90: It’s a show that’s been bootlegged to death, right? You’ve got Homegrown, Feedback Is Back and other two-disc sets battling for your bucks, all documenting the same “open rehearsal” for what became the Don’t Spook the Horse tour. Each possesses good to excellent sound. And all were worth the investment—until now. Unlike those abridged sets, Warpath presents the entire concert, from the opening “Country Home” to the closing “Cortez the Killer,” stretching three-songs deep onto a third CD. In between, you’ll find “Surfer Joe & Moe the Sleaze,” “Bite the Bullet,” “Dangerbird” and “Homegrown,” among other nuggets. It’s an electric, goofy set—what else can be said about a show that includes “T-Bone”? What pushes the four-CD Warpath into the “must” category, however, is what follows. Rather than fill the third disc with “bonus” cuts, the fine folks behind the Doberman label saw fit to include all of Minneapolis 1/22/91, the official kick-off to the tour proper. In the month between shows, the proverbial shit had hit the fan: the Persian Gulf War, to be exact. The bombs dropping on Baghdad are echoed in the music, November’s goofiness excised in favor of an intense, straight-ahead attack. A good barometer is “Fuckin’ Up.” In Santa Cruz, it comes across as almost joyous, the profane chorus a snickering declaration of purpose, as much as anything. By Minneapolis, however, it’s a menacing, sneering anthem. And while the Minneapolis set is similar to what’s found on the official Weld live set, there are a few minor variations, most notably the inclusion of “Campaigner.” In short, Warpath—which boasts great sound, as well—is more than a worthwhile addition to a fan’s collection. It’s a necessity.

neilfrisco8) Frisco – Clocking in at almost 50 minutes, this audience recording of Neil and Crazy Horse’s acoustic performance at the ’94 Bridge Benefit is a near-perfect extension to what is—arguably—Neil’s best album of the ’90s, Sleeps with Angels. Highlights include a near-19 minute version of “Change Your Mind.” If you don’t think it’s possible to wrench feedback from an acoustic guitar, think again; Neil does that and more. Other highlights include “Sleeps with Angels,” juxtaposed by “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” two songs forever linked thanks to Kurt Cobain. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” takes on new meaning in this context, with “fade away” translating into what Cobain did the moment he pulled the trigger. Death is a one-way ticket, don’t you know.

neilphoenix9) Phoenix Arcade – “Feel.” I refer to it below, so I shan’t dwell too much on it here. But this one-disc, seven-song offering on Moonraker is “feel” personified. The first four songs come from the 1996 Phoenix Festival in England via a radio broadcast. In short, they sum up Neil & the Horse circa ’96 as well as the official Year of the Horse, if not more so. The loping “Big Time” kicks things off, with each chord a concentric circle in which one can easily get lost. “Sedan Delivery” provides an adrenaline rush; yeah, the tempo’s slowed from the days of yore, but…it’s there, in the grooves. The man, the band, refuse to fade away. Then, after a suitably hushed “Music Arcade,” Crazy Horse ignites an incendiary “Like a Hurricane.” Close your eyes and you’ll see candles positioned around the darkened stage while Neil weaves in and out of the spotlight while making magic with his guitar. For 18 glorious, cacophonous minutes, that is. Then a half-assed audience recording from Stockholm kicks in. The magic there comes late, with the CD’s closing track, “Cinnamon Girl,” stretching into a spacey, six-minute “Loose Change”-like jam.

neildance10) Dancin’ in the Sunset Hues – Like its other Neil releases, this three-CD offering from the European-based Doberman label is a prime example of what bootlegs can—and should—be when care is taken with the product. The first thing you’ll notice is the very cool artwork gracing the cover. And the music? Those “thud-thick” chords I mentioned earlier? They’re here in spades. The entire Hamilton, Ontario, ’96 show, it’s noteworthy primarily because of an atypical set (for the Broken Arrow tour, that is). For example, “Cowgirl in the Sand” surfaces after a lengthy absence. Another high arrives when Neil and the Horse glide through an electric “Natural Beauty.” It’s grace personified. Of note, too, are the bonus songs from other stops along the ’96 tour, including an electric “Needle & the Damage Done” and a passionate “Campaigner.” Granted, Dancin’ is an audience recording and, at times, has a bit of a distant sound. But, for me, it comes down to this: “Feel” outweighs sonics. And this one feels damn good.

14 thoughts

  1. I know he has been releasing some live performances over the past decade or so. Live at the Fillmore with Crazy Horse in particular is amazing. Would love to hear some ‘Note’s for You’ era live Neil, and we’re all still waiting for an official Chrome Dreams and Time Fades Away. The guy’s never been an easy one for the cd collector… Thanks for this.


  2. Because of covid I’ve been going through all my cd’s which I have had in storage for about 8 years. I have a ton of bootlegs/cdr’s mostly of Neil’s music and its great to start listening to them again.
    Long live Neil!!


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