Thursday, April 25, 2013

After the Gold Rush (1970)

After the scorching heat of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, it is perhaps surprising that Neil Young did not stick with the winning formula of jamming with Crazy Horse on his next album. However, with the benefit of hindsight, this was just another of Young’s shifts in gear as he forever chases his creative fancies as they come to him (Google “muse” if you are in any doubt about this!). Bearing in mind his recent stint in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had borne fruit in the form of Déja Vu, it becomes even less of a shock that Young would tone down his songs and become more introspective and delicate.

What is surprising is that After the Gold Rush was not recognised as the classic it was at the time:
“Neil Young devotees will probably spend the next few weeks trying desperately to convince themselves that After The Gold Rush is good music. But they'll be kidding themselves. For despite the fact that the album contains some potentially first rate material, none of the songs here rise above the uniformly dull surface.”
Langdon Winner, Rolling Stone 15th October 1970.

It boggles the mind as to how anyone could listen through the album and come away with the phrase “uniformly dull surface”. If anything, After the Gold Rush presented a varied selection of masterclasses in songwriting. From the ethereal surrealism of the title track to the heartfelt message of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” through to the ferocity of “Southern Man”, it is hard to see the uniformity or dullness. Throughout the album, it feels like Young is doing his best to show that he is not only capable of creating distinctive and powerful songs but that he can do it better than any of his contemporaries. It almost acts as a peacock’s tail, showing his buddies that he is more comfortable and more capable than any of them at any aspect of rock and roll. I doubt Young actually expressed these sort of boastful desires at the time but listening back, it really does feel like a lesson in writing a perfect album.

As perfect as the music is, it reflected a less than perfect time for Young in his personal life. Danny Whitten’s drug use was making Crazy Horse less reliable (hence his move away from the band as the sole vehicle for his music) and, at home, his marriage to Susan Acevedo was coming undone (the final straw being the unexpected success that After the Gold Rush would bring). This would be the first and last album he would record in the lead-lined basement of his home in Topanga Canyon, an area that had become less groovy since the end of the summer of love. Drug busts and the Manson Family killings had killed the good vibes and along with Young’s need to pay for his largely amicable divorce, selling the property and relocating was the logical step. Buying an area of land and christening it as Broken Arrow Ranch, Young had created his own space where he could work when he needed to for as long as he needed to.

After the Goldrush was the spirit of Topanga Canyon. It seemed like I realized that I'd gotten somewhere… Right after that album, I left the house. It was a good coda.”

Listening to the lyrics, it is easy to imagine Young writing them in response to the events happening to and around him. A song like “Birds” begs to be shoehorned onto the end of his relationship with Acevedo:
“When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It's over, it's over.”

Yet, as good a fit as it is, this was not the case. “Birds” had been floating around for a couple of years, including the good times of Young’s marriage. An early version of the song is included in the first volume of the Archives featuring Buffalo Springfield’s Jim Messina on bass and George Grantham on drums. This version is most likely from the sessions for NeilYoung and was shelved for whatever reasons. Another version, this time with Crazy Horse from their 1969 sessions at Sunset Sound Studios was released as a B-side to the “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” single (and also included in the Archives). It is unfortunately a brief version of the song but it packs a punch.

On the subject of Crazy Horse, it was around this time that Young decided to make a break from the group and fired all of them barring Ralph Molina who he retained to play drums on what would become After the Gold Rush. Young and Crazy Horse had played their last tour together in the summer of 1970 as Whitten’s heroin addiction took its toll on the group. Plans for another album with Crazy Horse based on the aforementioned Sunset Sound sessions went on the back burner as Young went off to record Déja Vu with Crosby, Stills and Nash. The seeds of After the Gold Rush were also planted around this time as Dean Stockwell (who would find fame in TV’s Quantum Leap and would work with Young on his film The Human Highway) handed him a script for his unmade film about a cataclysmic flood of California going by the title After the Gold Rush. Young was impressed with the screenplay and wanted to score the film (the album’s title track and its closer, “Cripple Creek Ferry”): 

“I read the screenplay and kept it around for a while. I was writing a lot of songs at the time, and some of them seemed like they would fit right in with this story. The song “After the Gold Rush” was written to go along with the story’s main character as he carried the tree of life through Topanga Canyon to the ocean.”

The film would never be made (and from the snippets of information available about it, it sounds like it could have rivaled Alejandro Jodorowsky’s classic The Holy Mountain in terms of hippie weirdo symbolism) but, along with other new songs, the putative soundtrack would be recorded with a new group of musicians instead of Crazy Horse or even CSNY. To go with Molina on drums, Young also took CSNY’s bassist Greg Reeves who had proved himself more than capable of backing Young on CSNY’s Déja Vu and on their 1970 tour where Young worked through then-unreleased songs like “Southern Man” and “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” (examples of these early versions are documented on the 4 Way Street live album). Jack Nitzsche also returns to play a bit of piano though he would take a back seat when it came to production as David Briggs again manned the console.

The final addition to the group was an unknown teenager by the name of Nils Lofgren who, despite being a hugely talented guitarist, was dragged out of his comfort zone to play the piano (an instrument that was largely alien to him). Lofgren would later forge his own solo career and played in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band as well as being an on again, off again member of Young’s various bands. Lofgren’s adventures on the keyboard bore fruit in the form of the distinctive piano pulse of “Southern Man” which Lofgren put down to his earlier experience in playing the accordion. While “Southern Man” would not be one of my favourite Neil Young tracks (the younger me used to love it though), it is an impressive first attempt at being a pianist!

It was not entirely doom and gloom on the Crazy Horse front. Two of the Sunset Studio tracks made the cut including their cover of “Oh Lonesome Me”, a country song by Don Gibson which he had originally released in 1958 with Chet Atkins (Nashville legend and the man who helped define the Gretsch guitar company’s sound). The song had been covered by many greats before Young including Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers and Ray Charles but most covers kept to the blueprint set out by Gibson in his original recordings. Young and the Horse slowed it down and pulled out every single bit of melancholy that haunts the lyrics. It sounded so perfectly suited to Young that it was years before I found out it was a cover; he completely claims it for himself. From his plaintive vocals to the mournful harmonica and finally that restrained power of Crazy Horse’s backing that transplants the song from a tongue-in-cheek country classic to something that cuts right to the bone. The song must have had an impact on Young as it became the title track of an unreleased album that featured a lot of material in common with After the Gold Rush.

The other Sunset Studio recording to make the album was “I Believe in You”, another down tempo and contemplative song. Again, here is a song about falling out of love recorded months before his divorce but there is hope lurking in the wings:

“Coming to you at night I see my questions
I feel my doubts

Wishing that maybe in a year or two
We could laugh and let it all out”

It is easy to think of Young as being rather down in the dumps during the recording sessions for this album but glimmer of light in the lyrics to this song and another more upbeat song recorded at the same time but not included on After the Gold Rush called “Everybody’s Alone” show a different perspective to Young’s moods at the time. It is easy to see why “Everybody’s Alone” did not really fit with the other songs finally chosen for the album:

Towards the end of the After the Gold Rush sessions, a newly clean Whitten returned to the fold and Crazy Horse were allowed one last ride. “When You Dance You Can Really Love” also featured Nitzsche on piano and became the group’s swansong as Whitten would pass away before Young could ever record with them again. Unfortunately, it was not a straight recording of Crazy Horse in full flight but instead Whitten overdubbed his parts onto the recording that the others had previously done. Still, it was a case of better late than never. Whitten appears on other tracks on After the Gold Rush but “When You Dance…” is particularly poignant due to its relevance to the Crazy Horse story.

Upon its release, the album sold remarkably well thanks to the combined power of Young’s strong songwriting and his newfound role in CSNY; in particular the steamroller momentum they had built up initially with Déja Vu and then with their protest single, “Ohio”, which had been released a couple of months previously to After the Gold Rush in response to the Kent State shootings in May. While it would not chart quite as highly as Déja Vu, it would still be Young’s biggest hit of his solo career at that point. Young had become a renowned artist in his own right; Buffalo Springfield and CSNY would begin to be sidelined by fans and critics to the point where Young would eventually eclipse them all. Certainly by the time I got into Neil Young as a teenager in the late 90s, Buffalo Springfield and CSNY were some sort of distant unknown history which would only become known to me with a bit of research. I still find it hard to believe that Buffalo Springfield were as big as the press clippings from the time suggests they were!

This success would open doors for Young, allowing him not only to buy his own ranch but also gave him the kind of exposure that would see him working with artists from outside the cosy Laurel Canyon scene. After exploring the psychedelic sounds of California, Young would next set his sights on a more country-inflected style on Harvest. As big as After the Gold Rush had been, Harvest would blow it out of the water…

Neil Young  “….spirit of Topanga…” quote from an interview with Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone, 14th August 1975. Neil Young  “I read the screenplay…” quote from Waging Heavy Peace (2012). 

Postscript, 4th July 2013:
I am in the process of reading Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (2011) and came across this passage (pp. 23-4):

"The gold may now be gone, but evidence of the rush remains in the towns that sprang up when a major deposit was found. Years ago, I visited Cripple Creek, in the high valleys of Colorado, once the site of the world's biggest gold mine. The story of the town began when a rancher, Robert Womack, found ore there in 1890. The ore was a rare mineral that contained silver and gold in the form of salts rather than as native metals. One version has it that the discovery was made when the heat from a furnace hearth caused the ground to sweat with molten gold. The prospectors came, and a year later, on the Fourth of July, a carpenter, Winfield Stratton, laid claim to Independence lode, one fo the largest gold deposits ever found. In 1900, stratton sold his mine for $10 million, while Womack drank away what little money he made. Cripple Creek eventually yielded some $300 million in gold.
I walked the length of the broad main street, a gently curving dip like the track of a pendulum. At each end, vistas opened towards snow-covered mountains with the geology naked above the tree line. The buildings that lined the street - an ice cream parlour, a general store, a few craft shops, the boarded-up Phenix Block yet to rise again - sported a rich variety of Victorian ornamentation in brick and plaster and were overhung by elaborate wooden cornices. Many of them bore the date, the same in every case: 1896. A town that had grown from nothing in a year and where nothing had happened since. It was easy to picture the mad excitement of the rush that made these places overnight and then almost as quickly left them to rot. I noticed the offer of 'free gold ore samples' at Frego's Emporium. It seemed to confirm that the great days were over."


  1. Postscript added concerning Cripple Creek and gold rushes.

  2. And I've just noticed the serendipity of posting this new info on Independence Day :)

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