Sunday, January 28, 2007


35 years ago: Feb. 1972

Harvest was a milestone for Neil Young because it marked his entry into mainstream radio play, which was what brought him to the attention of my Top-40-listening ears at that time. In 1972 I was 13 and as yet knew only AM radio. Harvest boasted two Top 40 hits: "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man," both of which marked a confluence of two strains of pop music then prevalent. One was rock's turn toward a country sound that had begun under the influence of Gram Parsons (reaching its apogee in two songs on The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers of the year before); the other was the sensitive singer-songwriter sensibility that hit its Grammy-winning stride the previous year as well with James Taylor's Sweet Baby James. Young joined those trends after time spent with Crosby, Stills and Nash -- a supergroup that had played its part in both of those trends already. Indeed, Young's contribution to CSNY's Déjà Vu, "Helpless," was one of my favorite songs in 1970, and his topical "Ohio" (written immediately after the Kent State killings) had cemented my admiration for the moody dude of the foursome.

Harvest was later complained of by Young for its mainstream accessibility, but that's hindsight speaking. At the time, the album simply fulfilled expectations that albums like Déjà Vu and Young's solo LP After the Gold Rush had raised: that someone could make mature, grown-up countryfied rock without becoming sappy or hokey. What kept the latter two epithets from rearing their head on this venture were songs like "Alabama," a revisit of the scathing "Southern Man" that registered again -- in the year when Wallace, pre-assassination attempt, was making noises that would again worry the ailing Democrats -- how backward was the South (in other words this was "country" without the reactionary conservative BS), and "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" in which Young gives his guitar an elegant and tasty workout while the lyrics provide a sense of creative ups and downs that is more positive than despairing (Young had already demonstrated his penchant for darkly neurotic narratives in "Last Trip to Tulsa" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down").

The hits on the album still deliver after all these years as eminently hummable ditties about facing the aging (Young was 26 when the album was released) that signals a hiatus in the rock troubadour lifestyle. Dylan's retreat for country's gentler rhythms had also occurred in his late '20s, so the precedent had been set. Young, unlike Dylan, didn't go for the settled family man version of things in his songs: "A Man Needs a Maid" and "Out on the Weekend" both signal, with bittersweet lyricism, a resolute singleness in search of some way of maintaining solitary allegiances without simply becoming an old child. Tales of lost innocence can be found in the title track -- which seems to promise a lover "a man," not only as a promise of sex but also in the sense of mature companion -- and in "The Needle and the Damage Done" which states emphatically that, in Dylan's words, "too many people have died" due to the depredations of the demon poppy. It's time to grow up on many fronts -- and as "Are You Ready for the Country" (which was a country hit for Waylon Jennings, one of the original Nashville rebels) proclaims: "you've got to tell your story, boy, before it's time to go."

The centrality of this album in the Young canon was signaled by his very successful revisiting of its terrain twenty years later with Harvest Moon in 1992. Telling his story is what Young does best -- that and play the guitar. Neither "harvest" album is predominatly guitar-driven (those occasions were left to outings with Crazy Horse), but both are warm, homey, comfortable albums easy to live with and in. Easy listening? Yes, and in 1972 that easiness had not a little to do with rock's ascension to major market with its heroes all getting along quite comfortably, posing no threat whatsoever to the Silent Majority's man of the hour -- Tricky Dick Nixon whose landslide re-election was only nine months away. There are worse places to sit out the shitstorm than a ranch in Topanga Canyon. As Keats says, "the squirrel's granary is full, and the harvest's done."

Will I see you give more than I can take?/ Will I only harvest some?
As the days fly past, will we lose our grasp/ or fuse it in the sun?

--Neil Young, "Harvest" (1972)


Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for the little tidbit that Waylon did a version of Neil.

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