Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Neil Young Homegrown

There’s not a corner of Neil Young’s long career that hasn’t had a bright light shone on it. The subject of several books (two of which he wrote himself), numerous concert films, and documentaries, Young has also launched a reissues campaign nearly as aggressive as Bob Dylan’s, with at least one archival release each year. That makes Homegrown all the more intriguing and potentially more revelatory than last year’s live Tuscaloosa or 2018’s live-in-the-studio Hitchhiker.

Homegrown is an album of songs recorded during his early ’70s heyday, when he was still acclimating himself to his new celebrity, but he withdrew it from the release schedule on the grounds that it was “too personal.” Since then, rumors of the album’s existence have swirled among Young’s diehard fans, giving it the sheen of legend. It has become mythic, like El Dorado or Forest Fenn’s buried treasure in the Rockies. Homegrown has never existed in bootleg form. It was never sold under the counter at record stores, like Dylan’s Great White Wonder or the Stones’ Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be. Nor was it passed around among tape traders like every Dead or Panic show. In fact, so little is known about this lost record that even the reliably thorough Jimmy McDonough, author of the 2002 biography Shakey, could only speculate about its content. There was no official tracklist until April 2020, when Young announced that he was finally releasing it, nearly 50 years late.

Restored and remastered using analog equipment, this version of Homegrown is, Young has said, “the missing link between Harvest, Comes A Time, Old Ways, and Harvest Moon.” The most prominent instruments are his grainy voice, his acoustic guitar, and his keening harmonica; he plays piano on “Mexico,” a fragile, fleeting daydream of a song. When he’s accompanied, it’s by a small band of sympathetic players, among them Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, and Robbie Robertson. The mood is restrained and reflective, revealing an artist enduring loss and confusion. Even the handful of electrified songs — like “Vacancy,” with its stuttering shuffle and abraded guitar licks — still sound gentle, more ruminative than rowdy.

The album is “personal” in a way that is still pretty new for Young, who has been notoriously guarded about his private life. That may be the biggest selling point for fans looking to fill in gaps in one of his most tumultuous periods. But what makes Homegrown personal also makes it powerful and intimate, which means it should appeal more, not less, to casual fans who might not know where it fits into his catalog.

Like Dylan in the 1960s, Neil Young went missing in the early to mid 1970s, right at the height of his popularity. Instead of a motorcycle accident, though, he had a cataclysmic reaction to the success of 1972’s Harvest, which transformed him from a cult artist into a star on par with his heroes. As he told Bud Scoppa in a 1975 Creem feature: “I just didn’t think I was the lonely figure with a guitar or whatever the trip is that people see me as sometimes. I didn’t feel that laid-back — I just didn’t feel that way. So I thought I’d just forget about all that and… wipe it out.” So, in 1973, he followed up Harvest with an emotionally corroded record called On The Beach and devoted too much time to Journey Through The Past, his directorial debut (under the name Bernard Shakey) that blurred the line between documentary and fantasy. It was a colossal flop at the box office.

Young’s life at the time seemed to be just beyond his control, not just creatively but romantically. His relationship with Carrie Snodgress was fraying. The two started dating in 1970, after he saw her in the film Diary Of A Mad Housewife and was immediately smitten. They were quickly inseparable, and she gave up a promising acting career — she earned an Oscar nomination for Diary — to care for their son Zeke, who was born with cerebral palsy. But the demands of his new family gnawed at Young and pulled him away from a career he was not willing to relinquish. They would officially split in 1975, but he was already emotionally estranged from Snodgress and their child.

To give you an idea of just how personal Homegrown was to Young, consider this: When he pulled it from the release calendar, he replaced it with Tonight’s The Night, a rough and ragged album full of first-take vocals that pay no mind to pitch and grooves that sound like they’re falling apart. Young himself referred to it as a “horror record.” It was inspired by the deaths of two close friends and collaborators, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie/jamming buddy Bruce Barry, both from heroin overdoses. It was created in the throes of deep pain, before Young had processed the loss and moved through his grief. If none of the songs can offer any kind of catharsis or hope, it’s because he hasn’t gotten to that point yet.

But there are many different kinds of personal. Tonight remains grounded in the world of rock and roll and addresses tragedies among fellow musicians and travelers. Homegrown confronts realities far from that realm, with Young portraying himself as a failed partner and father: a hurting man instead of a hurting rock star. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to remove that scrim between him and his audience, or perhaps he simply didn’t want to live with these songs every night for the next year. Unless you’re Fleetwood Mac, breakup albums are usually one-sided affairs, allowing the artist to tell a story but usually giving no voice to the spouse or lover. Undertaken without responsibility, they can be incredibly self-serving projects, especially when the significant other is not as prominent a figure. Snodgress may have been a promising actress, but she didn’t have the same platform to tell her story or an audience to hear it.

That makes the breakup songs on Homegrown sound all the more careful and unexpectedly generous. The first words Young utters on the album are “I want to apologize,” and he acknowledges the love they shared as well as the forces that drove them apart. There’s no blame, only something like gratitude for the beauty of it and something like grief for the loss of it. On “Try,” whose loping rhythm belies its dark subject matter, he even peppers his lyrics with phrases quoted from Snodgress: “I’d like to take a chance, but shit, Mary, I can’t dance.” It’s as if he’s trying to give her a voice in these songs, to let her hold him accountable. As on Tonight’s The Night, he sounds like he’s writing to find closure and perhaps redemption, but neither lives in any of these songs. So the music sounds raw and immediate — still potent with heartache.

That split is only one of several subjects Young addresses on Homegrown. Or, to put it another way: This album places that breakup in the context of Young’s larger life as musician, as nomad, as pot enthusiast. “White Line,” a shambling acoustic number with Young accompanying himself on harmonica, may be addressed to a lover, ostensibly Snodgress, but it’s more about the road that takes him away from home and reluctantly brings him back. “That old road is a friend of mine, and it’s good times that we’ve been making,” he sings, as though confessing to an affair. “Right now I’m thinking about those things that I know, but the daylight will soon be breaking.” He takes solace in travel, in touring, in the near-constant transience that has become his life, but wonders if it might be too much.

This is an album full of things that offer perhaps too much solace, whether it’s a woman or the road or weed. “We Don’t Smoke It No More” is a mostly instrumental vamp featuring some bluesy lap slide guitar licks from Ben “Longgrain” Keith and barrelhouse piano from Stan Szelest, while the title track is more like a psychedelic hoedown nudged along by the busybody rhythm section of Karl T. Himmel and Tim Drummond — both longtime Young collaborators. By themselves those songs might sound facetious on such a heavy record, but they betray a suspicion that a joint and a bottle of tequila offer only the illusion of escape. Such conflict isn’t in the words of the songs, which are largely innocuous, but in the quality of Young’s vocals. He sounds more defensive than exuberant, more melancholy than euphoric — as though another toke might be a burden.

An eccentric songwriter, he finds poetry in plainspoken language and wrings fresh insights from familiar metaphors. “Love Is A Rose,” based on an earlier song of his called “Dance Dance Dance,” ought to sound as saccharine as its title suggests. But it catches you off guard, makes you listen a little closer as Young muses on a lover’s possessiveness: “Love is a rose but you better not pick it/ It only grows when it’s on the vine,” he sings. “Handful of thorns and you know you’ve missed it/ Lose your love when you say the word ‘mine.'” Rather than somber and serious (like, for example, Bette Midler’s “The Rose”), the arrangement is loose and spry, even light-hearted, as Young’s guitar picking joshes with Tim Drummond’s upright bass. The song is disarming in its un-self-serious sweetness, as though they’re making it up as they go along.

Even so, Young sounds adrift on these songs, forever stranded in an inescapable moment of heartbreak, seeking comfort but never finding it. He’s in the middle of his story with no resolution in sight, which makes the one outlier on Homegrown sound conceptually intriguing at the very least. “Florida” is a spoken-word ramble, a bit of stoned studio chatter: Young recounts either a dream or a memory of an incident involving a hang glider crashing into a building and a woman confronting him about a stolen baby, his only accompaniment the sound of someone running their wet finger along the rim of a glass. The track cuts off abruptly, leaving you to wonder what the point is or why it’s even on here. But the point of the track may be its own pointlessness, its own withholding of any conclusion. You’re left scratching your head, trying to make sense of it — which seems like Young’s constant state on this album.

Many of these songs found their way to fans in some form or another. “Love Is A Rose” was covered by Linda Ronstadt on her own 1975 album, Prisoner In Disguise, and Young included this version on his 1977 triple-album career retrospective Decade. “Star Of Bethlehem” wound up on American Stars ‘N’ Bars that same year, and strangely enough the words to “Florida” were even printed in the liner notes to Tonight’s The Night.

Aspects of this album may already be somewhat familiar to listeners, but these songs sound reborn in this context, where they convey a particular sadness that is unique to this album. Homegrown is distinctive in Young’s catalog. It actually lives up to the legend that has long surrounded it. While not as warm as Harvest, nor as wounded as Tonight’s The Night, nor as conceptual as Zuma, it has its own vibe, its own set of concerns, its own collection of sorrows to nurse. And perhaps most importantly, Homegrown is good enough to make you wonder what might have happened if Young had released it as planned. We would be mentioning it in the same breath as those classic albums, and songs like “White Line” and “Separate Ways” would take their place on greatest hits comps and live albums.

Overall, however, the shape of Young’s long career probably would not have changed, likely because he quickly moved through this phase of mourning and came to something like peace with his estrangement from Snodgress. And that may be why he made the decision to hold Homegrown back: The act of writing and recording these personal songs had helped him make sense of that crisis, which means they didn’t represent him the way they once had, at least not in this configuration. In other words, there’s still some mystery to this well-chronicled figure.

Homegrown is out 6/19.

Tags: Neil Young