(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
There was a harvest moon last night. For those who don’t know what that is, the Oxford Dictionary definition describes it as thus: “the full moon that is nearest to the time of the autumnal equinox.” An equinox occurs when Earth’s equator aligns with the center of the sun, which happens twice a year. One marks the start of spring and the second marks the beginning of fall. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the autumnal equinox almost always occurs on September 22nd or 23rd; and this year it’s early morning of the 23rd.
The term “harvest moon” itself dates to the early 1700s, if not before, in England, and Oxford credits it to the “country people.” With days growing short, farmers made use of the moonlight while harvesting their summer crops.
Anyway, last night, by the time I left work, cascading clouds in the night sky blocked my view of the moon, yet I felt its power and heard its vibrations thanks to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon album, which he released on November 2, 1992. The lore behind it is well-known, at least among Neil fans: Recording Ragged Glory with Crazy Horse in 1990 and reaching for electric nirvana on their subsequent tour left him with tinnitus. Rather than risk permanent damage to his hearing, he downshifted to a softer sound – and delivered one of his best albums.
He saw it as a sequel in style, mood and personnel to Harvest, his much-loved 1972 album, although the same could also be said, to varying extents, of Comes a Time, Hawks & Doves and Old Ways, among other outings. It did well, too, peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard charts, going double-platinum, and winning plaudits from critics and fans alike.
Accented by acoustic guitars, harmonica, and backup vocals supplied by fellow travelers Nicolette Larson, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and (half-sister) Astrid Young, the 10-song set is a contemplative affair that mixes brushstrokes of reality with hues of the heart. “Unknown Legend,” the opener, was written for the Comes a Time album, and tells the story of a woman in a diner who once lived free but is now dealing with the responsibilities of adulthood.
“From Hank to Hendrix” tells the story of a couple’s relationship that may or may not last despite the years (“from Marilyn to Madonna”) they’ve put into it. (“The same thing that makes you live/can kill you in the end.”) Many folks like to read what inspired specific songs, but to me inspiration matters less than the result. And the result here is memorable.
The title track, on the other hand, is a celebration of a long-lasting, loving relationship – maybe even the same one. “But now it’s getting late/And the moon is climbin’ high/I want to celebrate/See it shinin’ in your eye/Because I’m still in love with you/I want to see you dance again/Because I’m still in love with you/On this harvest moon…”
“War of Man” is another stirring track:
Another favorite track of mine is “Dreamin’ Man,” which sports a lilting melody and lyrics that spin a disturbing tale about a stalker: “I park my Aerostar/Dreamin’ man/With a loaded gun/And sweet dreams of you/I’ll always be a dreamin’ man/I don’t have to understand/I know it’s alright…”
As Nicolette and Astrid sing behind Neil at the end, “He’s got a problem.”
One possible inspiration (though it’s just a hunch on my part): Robert John Bardo, the stalker who killed My Sister Sam actress Rebecca Schaeffer on July 18, 1989. Neil would have been exposed to stories in the newspapers and on TV, I’m sure. But, again, it matters not. The juxtaposition of the dreamy with the sordid is meant to jar, and make us think.
What else? Neil flipped the normal routine of albums for Harvest Moon, touring the songs first and then releasing them. We saw him in March of ’92 at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., from the back of the balcony. Everyone roared for the opener, “Long May You Run,” but murmurs began soon after he launched into the second of eight unfamiliar songs in a row (seven from the future Harvest Moon and “Silver and Gold”). It was a great night.
The track list: