Saturday, December 28, 2013

Harvest (1972)

For better and for worse, one album looms large in Neil Young’s back catalogue. Harvest is not only Young’s best-known album (and contains his only true hit single) but also one that Young has a seeming love/hate relationship with. There is always an expectation from audiences for Young to play songs from it but there is no guarantee he will acquiesce. Recorded in short bursts of activity in Nashville, London and at Broken Arrow Ranch, the stop/start approach to recording leading to a mixed bag in terms of style and quality. Despite its flaws, it seems to be cemented into the canon of rock’n’roll classics because, let’s face it, when it’s good, it’s unbelievably good.

“Doesn’t mean that much to me
To mean that much to you”

If ever a couple of lines summed up an artist’s view of one of their works, this example from “Old Man” is probably one of the most apt. Harvest reached number one in the charts, has gone platinum multiple times and has even had a book written about it but the chances are not always good that Young will included its songs in a set list (and even if he does, it might not be the one the audience wants). The fact that the album was such a success is something of a miracle given the upheaval in Young’s life at the time. A lot happened in between his previous album, After theGold Rush, and the release of Harvest with Young gaining a new love in the form of Carrie Snodgress and yet another new band (and probably a few new cars too). There was fallout too from Crazy Horse as Danny Whitten got more and more dependent on heroin. This emotional pain was accompanied by a physical pain as Young’s back was injured during a bit of DIY at his new ranch. Each of these events would contribute in different ways to Harvest’s varying moods and sounds, some more significantly than others.

The first thing that strikes me as I listen to Harvest (for about the billionth time) is how stripped and bare it sounds for the most part. This was largely due to Young’s back pain which prevented him from using his treasured (but heavy) electric guitars. The move to acoustic guitar was hardly new or difficult for him but it did force his hand. While on tour, he left the band behind and instead played his sets on piano and acoustic guitar (as documented on the masterful Live at Massey Hall 1971 album), working new songs into the set each night. All the while, his exposure via Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the increasing success of After the Gold Rush meant that the public was waiting for the next big album. In Nashville, following an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show (see video embedded below), Young ended up at Elliot Mazer’s dinner table. Mazer was a hard-working engineer and producer in the city who had previously worked with Linda Ronstadt, Janis Joplin and Lightnin’ Hopkins and was interested in Young’s music. Ever the spontaneous artist, Young wondered about getting a band together and recording immediately. Mazer was up to the challenge, especially given Nashville’s reputation for extremely quick turnarounds on recording sessions.

The band utilised by Young on Harvest would be dubbed The Stray Gators and would be formed in a way that is typical to a working community of musicians (i.e. who’s free to play and can they be here within the hour?) but probably the antithesis of your usual band recruitment drive. All the main players were session guys who were used to coming into a studio, playing what was needed and going home which suited Young fine. Young had asked Mazer to find the session group Area Code 615 (Nashville’s actual area code) who, along with making a couple of LPs themselves, had previously recorded on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline albums. Across the water, their “Stone Fox Chase” was used as the theme tune for the influential BBC music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test (on which Young would perform solo around this time). However, it being a Saturday night in Nashville, most of Area Code 615 were busy gigging. Only their drummer, Kenny Buttrey was free. Buttrey was old school Nashville and had been a professional musician since he was only 11 years old. As well as Dylan, he had worked with Chet Atkins, Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, Joan Baez and Jerry Lee Lewis amongst many, many others. Buttrey had once been a member of James Brown’s live band and was responsible for The Stray Gators’ name (allegedly a term used to describe the behaviour of Brown’s band following the imbibing of certain illegal compounds on tour).

As the other members of Area Code 615 were unavailable, Mazer started looking around for replacements. Ben Keith was quickly found to play pedal steel in lieu of 615’s Weldon Myrick. Keith had worked with country royalty, having recorded with Patsy Cline (on her single “I Fall to Pieces”) and Faron Young in the 60s and remained legendary in Nashville for his playing. At first, Troy Seals was recruited via Keith for bass but only lasted one song (which was not included on Harvest in the end). Mazer did not need to look far for another bassist as Tim Drummond was walking down the street outside the studio at the time. Drummond had previously worked with James Brown, J.J. Cale, Ella Washington and Lonnie Mack. His mix of R’n’B and blues makes him stick out amidst the country gentlemen but like the others, Young would harness Drummond’s style for his own needs.

Perhaps the easiest musicians to find were the ones having dinner that night with Young at Mazer’s place. Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor were also guests and were roped into recording with the group on two of the tracks. By far and away their most famous moment is on “Heart of Gold” which is easily ranked as Young’s most popular song. It is indeed a perfectly crafted piece of pop music, the right balance of melody and emotion. Recorded during a weekend, “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” were the rewards for the group’s enthusiasm and inspiration. For “Old Man”, Taylor was handed a six-string banjo, an instrument largely alien to him, and just allowed to get on with it. This act is reminiscent of Nils Lofgren’s piano playing on After the Gold Rush. Both Ronstadt and Taylor provide the soaring backing vocals on each of these tracks, shadowing Young’s own voice with an eerie, supernatural vibe about them.

Speaking of supernatural, it is on these two songs where The Stray Gators first stretch their muscles. Buttrey and Drummond both play (under Young’s strict directions) with a restraint that is unlike the usual approaches that they would be used to: no fills and no frills. Having to keep their playing so minimal, it would have been easy for the music to sound flat and boring. However, the rhythm instead has a gentle grace that allows the guitars and vocals to soar. Young’s bright strumming on “Heart of Gold” is simple but incredibly effective but it is Keith’s pedal steel guitar that really makes the song sing.

Throughout the rest of Harvest (and indeed on later Neil Young projects), Keith’s pedal steel is what lingers in my mind’s ear after the needle has been lifted (or the laser or the hard drive have been turned off). His subtle touches on “Out on the Weekend” push what could be a dreary and empty song into something else altogether, something magical and barely contained within its plodding silences. On the album’s title track, Keith’s playing goes from being a common or garden Nashville pedal steel accompaniment to sounding like a mournful animal in the night. The sense of loss and loneliness present in Young’s lyrics are consistently underpinned and reinforced by Keith to the point where it is easy to understand why Young vowed never to play these songs with another pedal steel player following Keith’s death in 2010. 

Harvest’s strange eclecticism first rears its head during “A Man Needs a Maid”, a song about falling in love with an actress that features a suitably melodramatic and over the top backing. Beginning with a dead sounding piano and voice, Young is suddenly joined by the might of the London Symphony Orchestra to create what sounds like a lost show tune. Depending on my mood, the effect is either fantastic or cloying, bringing to mind the over-orchestrated recordings of his debut album (the arrangements for both those recordings and these LSO sessions being the work of Jack Nitzsche). The LSO also appear on “There’s a World”, a dirge-like song that perhaps should not be on an album so acclaimed by the general public. That is not to say it is bad but considering audiences seem to have a problem with some of Young’s more easy compositions, this is surprisingly not brought up often as one of his tougher moments (maybe contemporary listeners were less alienated by these two songs given that artists like Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks both had success with similarly ornate works not long before Harvest). Both these pieces were played at the piano during Young’s 1971 tour, the former as a medley with “Heart of Gold” during early performances. The stripped back performances would have fit better than the orchestral versions that, for me at least, are an oddity on Harvest.  I can only assume that Young had similar feelings, as such self-indulgent recording sessions were rare for him subsequently.

A few songs recorded at the same time as these were left on the shelf despite the fact that, to me anyway, they would have been a better for fit for Harvest than the LSO pieces. These have eventually surfaced on the Archives Vol. 1 box set (along with a few alternative mixes and performances), allowing us faithful listeners to put together an alternative Harvest. “Bad Fog of Loneliness” and “Journey Through the Past” (where this blog got its name) were recorded with The Stray Gators in Nashville and definitely have a better feel than “A Man Needs a Maid” or “There’s a World”. Versions of “Dance Dance Dance” were recorded with The Stray Gators and again with Graham Nash in London around the time of the LSO sessions but the song would only see an official release without Young on Crazy Horse’s debut album. Unfortunately, The Stray Gators version of “Dance Dance Dance” is  listed in the Archives book but not included in the box set (as is a solo studio version of “The Bridge”).

In the later months of the Harvest recording sessions, Young would undergo surgery on his back and it would heal enough for him to strap back on his electric guitars to let rip. With The Stray Gators, there was less of his soloing and heavy riffs compared to earlier sessions with Crazy Horse or even CSNY. Here the electric guitar is used for texture as much as volume. “Alabama”, a spiritual sequel to “Southern Man”, features some of Young’s most powerful lyrics from this time and feels much more grown up compared to the juvenile treatment of the subject on “Southern Man”. This is helped hugely by Young’s chunky and evocative playing. Here The Stray Gators show the muscle one would expect of the large reptilian predator that gave them their name. There is also a wonderful thrill in the co-opting of country music (albeit one mutated through Young’s creative process) to address the ingrained racism associated with the American south.

However, it is the final track on the album, “Words”, that strikes a particular chord as it reflects Young’s increasing disaffection at home with Snodgress. The electric guitar booms like thunder and The Stray Gators fill in the gaps in the storm in their own way; Nitzsche’s piano is the rain, Keith’s pedal steel is the wind and Buttrey and Drummond’s rhythm section punches through the dark like lightning. Young’s lyrics allude to alienation in his own home as Snodgress’s family and entourage began to populate Broken Arrow ranch, displacing Young and his own people: “There were so many people around all the time… It had never been like that before. I am a very quiet and private person. The peace was going away... Words – too many of them, it seemed to me.” While the period around the Harvest sessions were the high point of their relationship, “Words” points to the inevitable split that would come. Doubtlessly, Snodgress herself must have been finding it difficult to live at Broken Arrow away from her previous life. She had given up her career as an actress after winning an Academy Award and a couple of Golden Globes for her role in Diary of a Mad Housewife to stay at home and live with Young. It was her role in this particular film that seems to have inspired Young to write “A Man Needs a Maid”.

To discuss Harvest without discussing Snodgress would be a mistake. “I was in love when I first made Harvest. With Carrie. So that was it. I was an in-love and on-top-of-the-world-type guy,” Young related to Jimmy McDonough in Shakey. It is interesting to read the words “when I first made Harvest”; it seems there is a distinction in Young’s mind and this is supported by the fact that “Words” and its pessimism occurred at the very end of Harvest’s recording cycle: “This was how we did Harvest, in love in the beginning and with some doubts at the end.” Indeed, Snodgress’s presence is dotted through the album both as a muse and as a shadow. As well as “Words” and “A Man Needs a Maid”, Snodgress’s family history has been implicated in inspiring the song “Harvest”. The seemingly allegorical lyrics are, according to Shakey, in reference to the many suicide attempts of Carrie’s mother, Carolyn Snodgress. While the real break up would happen after the release of Harvest, it is hard to deny that Young knew (whether consciously or not) what way the wind was blowing.

The same can be said for the other great upheaval in his life. One of the reasons that Crazy Horse were not called on much since EverybodyKnows This Is Nowhere was Danny Whitten’s heroin addiction. Blanking out on and off stage, he was undependable and, worst of all, wasting his talents and his life. This had a demonstrable effect on Young and inspired one of Harvest’s most haunting and enduring songs: “The Needle and the Damage Done”. The song was not recorded at any of the album’s sessions but instead Young decided to include a live take from a 1971 performance in Royce Hall at UCLA. The slight bit of distortion that occurs at one point (around 1:40 into the song for the nerds) and the abrupt edit at the end are as jarring as any of the other sudden changes that occur during Harvest but the cool, calculated intensity of Young’s performance is what stands out most. The song is mistakenly thought of as being written after Whitten’s death but it is only in retrospect that the full tragedy of Whitten’s life can be put in the context of “The Needle and the Damage Done”.

The real aftermath of Whitten’s death and the mixed fruits of of Young’s relationship with Snodgress, the birth of their child Zeke and the dissolution of their partnership, would form the basis for the next period of Young’s career: the “ditch” trilogy. Darker roads and heavier themes, the global success and acclaim of Harvest would soon become a memory.

Neil Young “I was in love…” quote from Shakey by Jimmy McDonough (2003). “There were so many people…” and “This was how we did Harvest…” quotes from Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young (2012). Information about The Stray Gators name from Neil Young FAQ  by Glen Boyd (2012). Big respect to Sam Inglis and his book Harvest (2003) from the 33 1/3 series.


  1. You didn't mention my favorite song on the record, "out on the weekend."

    I think I'll pack it in and buy a pickup, drive it down to LA.

  2. Read again, third paragraph after the Patsy Cline video is my mention of "Out on the Weekend" :)