The Heavy Soul of Neil Young’s Harvest
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By the time he made Harvest, Neil Young was already a “rich hippie.”
This is a distinction he gives to himself in Harvest Time, the documentary accompanying the 50th anniversary reissue of his landmark album, which offers an intimate look into its recording sessions and a particular moment in Young’s life. And, to be sure, it’s an accurate one: with all the success he had with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and fan-favourite, 1970’s After the Gold Rush, Young established himself as one of the greats; a distinct voice, the “Californian poet with a Canadian passport.” (I read that somewhere and it got stuck in my head.)
But underneath the accolades and groovy rock and roll lifestyle, there was a lot of tumultuousness in Young’s life when he started recording Harvest in 1971. Though Crosby, Stills & Nash would contribute to this very album, CSNY, as a band, had officially broken up. Young was witnessing the irrevocable damage heroin was doing to those closest to him, like to his Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten. (“I hit the city and I lost my band / I watched the needle take another man,” he sings on Harvest’s “The Needle and the Damage Done.”) He was also in immense physical pain as the result of a slipped disc, and, in a bright spot, enjoying the early flush of romance with actress Carrie Snodgrass, future mother to their son, Zeke.
With all this in mind, it was certain that Young was on the brink of something as he began those sessions spontaneously, recruiting a crew of session musicians called the Stray Gators, as well as James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and the London Symphony Orchestra to record his country rock album. That something was that Harvest would change everything.
Released in 1972, Harvest was the biggest selling album of the year in the U.S. “Heart of Gold,” with its quietly profound acoustic guitar and harmonica, hit No. 1 and became Young’s signature song. The album’s mainstream success, and massive cultural influence, would take him by surprise and send him reeling into his Dark Period as he grappled with the devastating loss of Whitten, who died of an overdose, in the wake of it all. In the liner notes for 1977’s Decade, Young wrote this about his tarnished feelings for “Heart of Gold”:
"This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."
A couple of years later, in Cameron Crowe’s 1979 Rolling Stone profile of Young, Crowe described Shakey’s mindset as he embarked on a big tour: “All those expectant faces waiting for “Heart of Gold” began to look, as he would later write, like an ocean of shaking hands that grab at the sky. They were his demons.”
But in the months between January and September 1971, when the footage featured in Harvest Time was filmed, Young, then only 25, was, as Variety describes, “impossibly young and earnest, yet still iconic and iconoclastic.” In the documentary, the audience is a fly-on-the-wall as the songs that make up Harvest are worked out in Young’s Northern California ranch—the former caretaker of which he wrote “Old Man” for—during those famous barn jam sessions where songs like “Alabama'' materialized, then in London, then in Nashville at Quadrafonic Studios. The untouched footage is grainy, loving, immediate, imperfect—kind of like the warmth of an analog record, which feels like an intentional stylistic choice given Young’s well-known disdain of all things digital.
“There’s 5,000 songs on this device, and they all sound like s—,” he recently told the LA Times. “Every one of them. Because you got maybe less than 5% of the data that’s required to hear it. In the analog generation, every part of the sound was there. That’s what analog is. It’s not divided up into little pieces. It’s ugly, what digital did. Ugly.”
And, you know, he’s not wrong. It’s impossible to hear all of the textural nuances, the full shape of the music, that the pristine filter of digitized production can often distill down. Analog keeps the edges rough, the very thing that can give songs like “Heart of Gold” an indescribable soulfulness.
Perhaps that’s why Harvest has endured in the way that it has—despite the fact that, even though it was a commercial smash, critics didn’t exactly love it when it was first released. Rolling Stone’s John Mendelsohn described it as “an attempt to obscure [Young’s] inability to do a good imitation of his earlier self” and even Young’s biggest fans certainly don’t seem to consider it among his best work, remaining polarized over its actual greatness.
But nobody can argue that Harvest is brimming with soul, and heart, even as it mines intense pain. Reassessments over the years have warmed up to it and it consistently appears on Greatest Ever Albums lists. There’s something about the passage of time that allows the weight of records like Harvest—ones that have been such mainstream successes (always a red flag to the culture snobs)—to fully absorb into the cynical depths of collective consciousness for a more considered understanding of it and what it means in terms of cultural significance.
Young, an avid archivist, has put out numerous reissues and unreleased music over the past few years. It seems that for him, too, hindsight allows for a look at himself through different eyes, a chance to fully absorb and understand his work outside of himself.
And maybe that’s what Harvest Time is about: it’s a snapshot of someplace soulful and spontaneous and real and rough. Someplace that offers a hopeful, if not wistful, look around before falling off the edge. A place that, to some, didn’t feel all that heavy, but, after a while, carries tremendous weight.
As for Young, he’s still a rich hippie. In that interview with the LA Times, the interviewer, Alex Pappademas, told Young that he sounds more like a hippie now than he did in his twenties.
“I take that as a compliment,” Young said.
The Rio Theatre shows Harvest Time on December 26, 2022. Tickets are available here.