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After almost 50 years, Young sets free a painful musical memoir

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Perhaps it just came a time.

Perhaps the artist who had never said sorry for their work or where it led simply had had a change of heart. Or perhaps mortality’s creeping shadow played a part.

All their career the artist had been guided by the light of staying true to themselves, and thus staying true to the art. One who only “worked for the muse”. Some might have seen it this as arrogance, but really it was survival. If one did not then one was no more than a salesman.

Neil Young is no salesman. As he once said in his defence of himself: “I’m not here to sell things. That’s what other people do, I’m creating them. If it doesn’t work out, I’m sorry; I’m just doing what I do. You hired me to do what I do, not what you do. As long as people don’t tell me what to do, there will be no problem.”

Perhaps it just came a time.

For now something strange has happened. Young has apologised to his fans.

The subject of the apology is the release of an album that never saw the light of day when it was recorded almost half a century ago. Many artists have a lost album, the one rumoured to exist but never released, such as the Beatles, the Who, Jimi Hendrix.

Neil Young’s is Homegrown. It was recorded at the tail of 1974 and start of 1975. It never saw the light of day. Young mentioned it at the time, but then as with all things Young, he moved on so fast the album was left in the dust. After 45 years, Young has blown off the dust. The album is to be released on June 19.

On his website, Young offers this: “I apologise. This album Homegrown should have been there for you a couple of years after (1972 release) Harvest. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind, but I should have shared it.

“A record full of love lost and explorations. A record that has been hidden for decades. Too personal and revealing to expose in the freshness of those times.

“It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean. This is the one that got away.”

As a work of art in its entirety that’s true, but some pieces have made it out into the world. For instance, Love is a Rose appeared on Decade, Star of Bethlehem on American Stars and Bars, Little Wing on Hawks & Doves.

The love affair, the heartache blossomed then withered with actor Carrie Snodgress.

Young in the early years of the 1970s was like a meteor streaking across the sky. By the time you caught sight of the tail, he was a thousand kilometres further away. His creativity was on fire. 

Homegrown is quite probably the closest the artist has come to marrying the soul of a relationship to the music.

From a Canadian unknown to taking off to Los Angeles in the sixties,  joining Buffalo Springfield in Los Angeles, then Crazy Horse, then becoming the fourth pillar of supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the singer-songwriter was on a trajectory to success. He tasted a little stardom with Springfield, mega-stardom with CSNY, and then solo stardom. Harvest, released in 1972, went to No.1 and gave Young his only hit single Heart of Gold. (The B side was Sugar Mountain, so not a bad release at all).

Young was riding a wave, and yet fighting not drowning under the weight of people’s expectations. Young’s father Scott wrote in Neil and Me that his son had “a very wide streak of hating the idea that people think they have him figured out. He despises what has been slow death for many artists – achieving success and then repeating the formula ad infinitum.”

It’s better to burn out than to fade away indeed.

At the start of the seventies, Young had formed a relationship with Snodgress. The actor seemed destined for a long and illustrious career. In 1970, she was nominated for an Oscar for best actress for Diary of a Mad Housewife, and for which she won two Golden Globes, best actress in a comedy or musical and New Star of the Year.

She gave it away for their relationship and to raise their son Zeke.

Homegrown is Young’s reaction to the disintegration of their relationship.

Given the speed and jagged rhythms of his professional life it is easy to judge, from such a remove, that a connected family life must have been nigh impossible. In 1973, the nightmare vision and experience that was Tonight’s the Night was ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public, but instead Young returned to the studio and recorded On the Beach, then he was on the road with CSNY on a stadium tour through the northern summer. Tonight’s the Night would be released in 1975, followed three months later by Zuma, and hence an album every year into the 80s.

After the success of Harvest, the record company was waiting for the next big hit from their star, but Young as has been quoted many times headed for the ditch. It’s not for nothing these middle years of the 70s are known as the Ditch years, and acclaimed as some of his greatest work within.

There could be no greater example than the live album Time Fades Away. It was released in October 1973, from a concerts earlier that year. It was supposed to build on the success of Harvest, but fans were treated, if that’s the right word, to unknown, ragged and torn new songs. A few years later, Young said the album was “the worst record I ever made – but as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record. I felt like a product, and I had this band of all-star musicians that couldn’t even look at each other.”

Despite this, many critics hailed it. Young, however, disagreed. It remained unreleased on CD for decades.

It was among this turmoil of home and professional life that Homegrown was gestating.

Jimmy McDonough in Shakey, his biography of Young, recounts the shelving of Homegrown, and Young’s reluctance at the time:

“Young had pulled back from the emotional nakedness of Homegrown. ‘It was a little too personal . . . it scared me,’ Young told Cameron Crowe a short time later. ‘I’ve never released any of those, and I probably never will. I think I’d be too embarrassed to put them out. They’re a little too real.’ To his father he would describe the album as ‘great songs I can live without.’ ’’

Young also gives his reasons:

It’s an honest album. Never came out, hardly any of it. Homegrown is the missing link between Harvest, Comes a Time, Old Ways and Harvest Moon. I think I was on the edge making Homegrown. I was pretty out there. Kinda lost.

“Breaking up with Carrie and losing my family … It was my first family. It was my son. I thought I’d made a horrible mistake. That doing it was wrong. I hadn’t judged correctly. I’d done something without thinking about it, everything was working so why not this?

“I was really torn between what to do and what was the right thing to do, but I knew I didn’t want to do that. I just went purely on my feelings at the time – there were some beautiful moments at the beginning of the relationship but there was this uneasiness that something was wrong . . .  this is a painful period.”

Snodgress died of heart failure in 2004 while waiting for a liver transplant. She was 58.

Young, of course, turning 75 in November, is still ploughing the fields of artistic opportunity.

He reunited with Crazy Horse last year for the album Colorado. And after Homegrown, it is another rummage in the attic, much like Bob Dylan has been doing, with a live recording from 2003 called Return To Greendale, a trove of songs The Neil Young Archives Volume 2, and albums of a live show with Crazy Horse from 30 years ago, and a solo acoustic concert from 1971.

But for Young’s legion of fans Homegrown is the one. It quite probably is the closest the artist has come to marrying the soul of a relationship to the music. Perhaps it came a time to pardon the heart its scars.  

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