Posts Tagged ‘Little Wing’

On December 11, 1974, Neil Young entered a Nashville studio with new songs in mind. Fellow travelers Ben Keith (pedal steel) and Tim Drummond (bass) were on hand, as was the Band’s Levon Helm (drums) and, presumably, kindred spirit Emmylou Harris (though she may have overdubbed her harmonies later). After a few days, the sessions – with drummer Karl T. Himmel taking over for Helm after three songs – relocated to Neil’s Broken Arrow Ranch and then to L.A. Soon enough, after resurrecting two songs recorded over the summer, a new album was born…but, until now, never released.

It’s a story most older fans know, of course, as Neil told it in a 1975 interview with Cameron Crowe: At the last minute, he shelved the ready-to-roll Homegrown and released instead “the most liquid album” he ever made, Tonight’s the Night: “I had a playback party for Homegrown for me and about 10 friends. We were out of our minds. We all listened to the album and Tonight’s the Night happened to be on the same reel. So we listened to that too, just for laughs. No comparison.”

“A lot of people would probably say that [Homegrown] is better,” he went on to explain. “I know the first time I listened back on Tonight’s the Night it was the most out-of-tune thing I’d ever heard. Everyone’s off-key. I couldn’t hack it. But by listening to those two albums back to back at the party, I started to see the weaknesses in Homegrown. I took Tonight’s the Night because of its overall strength in performance and feeling. The theme may be a little depressing, but the general feeling is much more elevating than Homegrown.” 

He also says, “I’m sure parts of Homegrown will surface on other albums of mine. There’s some beautiful stuff that Emmylou Harris sings harmony on. I don’t know. That record might be more what people would rather hear from me now, but it was just a very down album. It was the darker side to Harvest. A lot of the songs had to do with me breaking up with my old lady. It was a little too personal…it scared me.”

Forty-five years later, on the Neil Young Archives, he expanded on why he left the album locked away: “It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind…but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean.”

“Separate Ways” leads off the album and finds him ruminating on his relationship with Carrie Snodgress. He’s sad it’s over, but doesn’t wish away what they had: “We go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharing our little boy/Who grew from joy back then…”

“Vacancy,” recorded a month later at the Broken Arrow Ranch, finds him in a less forgiving mood – he casts his lover as a pod person, just about: “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there/You poison me with that long vacant stare/You dress like her and she walks in your words/You frown at me and then you smile at her…”

“Star of Bethlehem,” which was eventually released on American Stars & Bars, circles round to the top, thematically speaking: “Ain’t it hard when you wake up in the morning/And you find out that those other days are gone/All you have is memories of happiness lingering on…”

In between, surprisingly, not all songs excavate love gone wrong. The title track – known to many via American Stars ’n Bars, celebrates homegrown dope; “Florida” does too, in that it’s stoned patter that hopes for profundity but comes across as pablum; “We Don’t Smoke It No More,” recorded on New Year’s Eve, is a bluesy jam; and the delicate “Little Wing” is absolutely gorgeous.

Through the years, some tracks – some re-cut, others not – surfaced on other albums – “Homegrown” and “Star of Bethlehem” on American Stars ’n Bars, “Love Is a Rose” on Decade, “Little Wing” on Hawks & Doves, and “White Line” on Ragged Glory. Recorded during the same sessions, “The Old Homestead” wound up on Hawks & Doves while “Deep Forbidden Lake” landed on Decade; and, recorded the same day as “Love Is a Rose,” the CSN-laden “Through My Sails” closed Zuma.

Listening to Homegrown, one thing is obvious: It’s no match for the ache and gravitas that is Tonight’s the Night. That’s not a knock, mind you; few albums are. But it’s also not as great as some critics – who’ve obviously gone mad after months of lockdown – seem to think. Rolling Stone calls it an “unearthed masterpiece” in a track-by-track analysis while Variety dubs it “one of the best albums from his 1970s golden era.” It’s neither. Rolling Stone’s main review by Angie Martoccio gets a little closer to the truth, though the four-and-a-half stars it’s awarded is one star too many. To my ears, it’s a solid set that – aside from “Florida” – is quite a treat, though it is sometimes bleak due to the heartache that fuels the songs.  

If it had been released in place of Tonight’s the Night, would much have changed? TTN was more of an artistic than commercial success, after all, peaking at only No. 25 on the Billboard charts. While Homegrown – which features a friendlier, Harvest-like sound – isn’t an artistic equal to TTN, my hunch is it would have done better when it comes to sales, as some tracks are more radio-friendly, but doubt it would have done much to change the arc of Neil’s career.

That said, Homegrown’s all right with me… it’s Neil. It’s new (mostly). Some may be disappointed at first, due to the hype that preceded its release, but to those I’d say give it a few listens. The potency creeps up on you.

There, atop the dresser in the photo to the left, is a portion of my record collection circa early 1982, when I was 16; I stored my 45s in a stack beside the turntable as well as in a shoebox on the floor that was situated beside another shoebox filled with cassettes. I also stored some LPs in a small rack near my desk, which was across the room.

After five years of intense music fandom, in other words, my entire music library clocked in at a little less than 100 LPs, about 40 cassettes, and maybe – and I’m likely stretching it – 100 45s. I’d yet to complete my Beatles collection, though – as the posters demonstrate – I was a big Beatles/McCartney fan. I owned the red and blue best-of sets (Christmas gifts both), plus everything from Rubber Soul onward (sans the Hey Jude collection), but it wouldn’t be until late 1987, after graduating college and landing a full-time job, that I owned everything Fab.

Similar situations occurred with other favorite artists. I fell in Mad Love with Linda Ronstadt in 1980 due to “How Do I Make You,” for example, but never picked up her first few LPs until the early 1990s, when they were only available as Japanese import CDs; and in late 1981, I bought my first Neil Young album, re*ac*tor, and then the one that preceded it, Hawks & Doves, but it took me most of the ‘80s to work my way through his backlog. 

It wasn’t that I wanted to wait, but records and cassettes were expensive. By the early ‘80s, new releases generally set consumers back $5.99 (the equivalent to $16 today) – but some were discounted to $4.99 and others priced higher, at $6.99 or even $7.99. Factor in sales tax, which in Pennsylvania was six percent, and buying an album was a major expense for a kid on a budget.

And once you consider other typical teen expenses, such as movie tickets, magazines and fast food, prioritizing a catalog item over a new release was an extravagance (just as hardback books were to paperback editions). That said, as I noted in my piece on Jackson Browne’s Hold Out album, I had a hierarchy of fallbacks whenever I walked into a record store; if A was out of stock, I’d look for B, and then C, and then, often, something totally unrelated would catch my eye and I’d walk out with that, instead. Later that year, I discovered a used record store where $7.41 bought three, four or more LPs instead of one, but the same basic rules applied. Wants waited.

I think of those times often, these days. If the streaming services existed back then, how much money would I have saved through the years? But, hand in hand with that, would I treasure specific artists and their oeuvres the same way I do now? Would the years-long journey that, as I outlined here, took me from the Byrds to Emmylou Harris have ended the same if it had occurred within a few weeks? I doubt it.

Which is to say, I have a love-hate relationship with the streaming services. Artists don’t get their fair share from the proceeds, which is a big concern, but another issue is whether the services actually help or hinder music discovery. As I noted last summer, the algorithms used by Pandora barely scratched the surface when I created a “personalized” station around the Bangles. While the results were fine for background music, they were sad for active listening. This Paisley Underground geek was not impressed.

Apple Music, which I subscribe to for simplicity’s sake – when driving in my car, or even hanging out in my living room, it’s easier to say, “Hey, Siri, play All I Intended to Be by Emmylou Harris” than work my way through the iPhone app – often denigrates the album as an art form, as does Spotify with its emphasis on playlists. I’ve added albums to my library only to discover, at a later date, the songs have been split between various collections or even different editions of the same album or, in the case of Juliana Hatfield, 22 “unknown” albums. (On the flip side, I’ve added specific best-ofs only to find the songs then listed under their original album homes.) It doesn’t impact the listening experience when I ask Siri to play the albums in question, but it does if I select the album through the app – which, if we ever return to our workplaces, is what I do in the office.

Anyway, at its best, music is the currency of the soul, and that soul isn’t as well nourished as it should be. Since 2000 or thereabouts, music artists have seen their revenue streams upended, first through the illegal-downloading craze and now via the streaming services. Live shows and merchandise sales is all they have – and for the young ‘uns, it’s likely all they’ve known. If you watch a live-stream and see a tip jar, and can afford it, send money their way – doesn’t have to be a lot. If an artist you like has set up a Patreon thing, and you can afford it, sign up. 

Don’t, however, feel compelled to blow your budget; and don’t feel guilty if you can’t or don’t contribute. (I’ve been very judicious, myself.) This pandemic’s economic fallout has caused many folks to lose their jobs – and even those of us who aren’t unemployed may well be, at some point, if the global economy continues to deteriorate. In some respects, then, this new reality isn’t all that different than the one many fans experienced during the 1960s, ’70s, ‘80s and ’90s, when every visit to a record or CD store forced us to whittle our wants down from the many to the few or even just one. Me, I always felt guilty heading home with a single LP, but such was life – and is life, again.