1976 was a weird year to be Neil Young. From February to June, he and Stephen Stills were hunkered down at Criteria Studios in Miami recording their lone duo project, Long May You Run, that didn’t turn out as hoped. And in June, Neil embarked on a much-anticipated tour with Stills – only to quit after nine dates for reasons that may or may not have had to do with a throat ailment. The now-infamous telegram he sent his compadre read “Dear Stephen, Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.”
About three weeks after sending that telegram, on the evening of Aug. 11, 1976, Neil entered a Malibu recording studio and, with fellow traveler David Briggs mixing live in the control room, laid down a set of songs while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and, in one case, piano. The only breaks, he recalled in his Special Deluxe memoir, were for weed, booze and coke – and, perhaps, conversation and jokes with pal Dean Stockwell, who sat in the studio’s quietest chair. Neil has said that he envisioned the session as his take on one of Bob Dylan’s early albums, when the bard spun magic with just his tunes, guitar and harmonica.
- Captain Kennedy
- Give Me Strength
- Ride My Llama
- Hitchhiker (Like an Inca # 1)
- Human Highway
- The Old Country Waltz
At the time of the session, it should be noted, not all the songs were new – “Human Highway” dates to (at least) 1973, and that year’s ill-fated studio reunion of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and Neil said on Facebook that he recorded “Pocahontas,” “Powderfinger” and “Ride My Llama” for Zuma in 1975, but left them behind. The difference between those (and future) recordings and these: Hitchhiker presents the songs in their purest essence.
In short, it’s a true great lost album. While it does harken back to the early ‘60s LPs recorded in a matter of hours by Dylan (and others), it possesses a cynical post-Watergate/post-Vietnam sensibility due to its tales of disillusionment, self-doubt, drugs and death. The title track, which chronicles Neil’s drug history, is a good example:
If it had been released at the time, it may well have been embraced by the Harvest-era fans who turned away once Neil veered from the middle of the road to the ditch with Time Fades Away, On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night. The melodies, in other words, are pure Harvest.
The executives at Reprise, his record company, supposedly heard the songs as demos for a new album, and not a finished product. They suggested he flesh them out with a band.
Instead, as Neil’s apt to do, he moved on. Eight of the 10 songs surfaced on later albums, sometimes fleshed out, sometimes not: “Pocahontas,” “Powderfinger” and “Ride My Llama” anchored Rust Never Sleeps (1979); “Captain Kennedy” sailed on Hawks & Doves (1980); “Hitchhiker” hitched rides on, in part, Trans (1982) and, in whole (but with an added verse), on Le Noise (2010); “Campaigner” pressed the flesh on Decade (1977); “Human Highway” opened Side 2 of Comes a Time (1978); and “The Old Country Waltz” danced within the grooves of American Stars & Bars.
The two previously unreleased songs, “Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength,” date to Neil’s breakup in 1975 with the actress from “A Man Needs a Maid,” Carrie Snodgress. “Hawaii” is a pleasant parable about “vitamins” and moving on, and – to my ears, at least – is the weakest of the songs; “Give Me Strength,” on the other hand, is a gem.
In retrospect, it’s easy to question the judgment of those Reprise executives. But, to quote from one of my favorite songs, there’s more to the picture that meets the eye. For the context, see my first paragraph: Neil basically sabotaged the sales of Long May You Run before its September release the moment he bailed on the Stills-Young tour. And, even if they weren’t pissed at him for doing so, the earliest Hitchhiker could’ve been released – without stepping on the other album’s sales – was early 1977. What’s the easiest way to say no to an artist? Tell him his project needs work.
And, in some respects, let’s be glad they did. Rust Never Sleeps would not be the album we know and cherish without “Pocahontas,” “Powderfinger” and “Ride My Llama”; and what would be Comes a Time without one of its best tracks?
If you’re a diehard Neil fan, picking up Hitchhiker is a no-brainer. If you’re a casual fan, pull it up on Apple Music or Spotify and enjoy. It’s a magical, mystical set.