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Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ and the Bittersweet Release of Lost Classics

The singer-songwriter once called the project “the missing link between ‘Harvest,’ ‘Comes a Time,’ ‘Old Ways,’ and ‘Harvest Moon,’” but how does it register 45 years after it was recorded?

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Among the many hazards of the heyday of dial-up peer-to-peer file-sharing—downloading viruses, missing phone calls while waiting for files to finish, getting banned because Metallica sued—was the way it messed with one’s musical education. Napster, Kazaa, LimeWire, and other popular P2P networks of the late 1990s and early 2000s were minefields of mislabeled songs. On some of those services, “Stuck in the Middle With You” was by Bob Dylan, “A Horse With No Name” was by Neil Young, and “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” was by Ben E. King. I avoided those particular pitfalls, but for years, I thought “Kiss Me” was by Jewel, not Sixpence None the Richer. I thought the Guster song “Parachute” was on the Coldplay album Parachutes. And I thought one of my most-cherished albums was a minute and a half shorter than it actually is.

I don’t remember when I pirated the Kinks’ classic 1969 album Arthur, but I know that the version of “Mr. Churchill Says” that I downloaded and listened to over and over was a little longer than three minutes, not nearly five. (It started with the sirens that kick in close to 1:40 in the full song.) “Mr. Churchill Says” is a B-side that doesn’t get played on classic rock radio, so I never knew I was missing out. I carried that copy with me for years, transferring the stolen, slightly edited album from hard drive to hard drive and device to device. Not until sometime last decade, when I bought or streamed Arthur from a more reliable source, did I discover the song’s languorous intro, with its reedy harmonies, historically literate lyrics, and abrupt tempo change. It’s not the most amazing minute and a half on Arthur, but it blew my mind that an album I’d heard dozens (hundreds?) of times, by an artist whose work I knew well, was different, and a little bit better, than I’d always believed.

Whenever never-heard music by a famous musician is exhumed from the archives, I think of my Arthur epiphany. Few archival releases rise to the level of an unsuspected studio recording from a favorite album. Demos, alternate takes, and previously unreleased stereo or mono mixes all sweeten the remastered re-releases that keep boomers buying old albums they already own, but those gray-bearded bonus tracks are typically curiosities or so far from finished that they didn’t demand to be heard. But last week marked the long-awaited arrival of the rare unreleased record that promised to be truly revelatory.

On Friday, Neil Young finally freed the hostage named Homegrown, an album he’d recorded across several sessions in multiple locations between mid-1974 and early 1975. Although it took 45 years for Homegrown to surface, it’s still somewhat ahead of schedule, considering Young long insisted that he’d permanently mothballed the record. “I already had another new album called Homegrown in the can,” Young told Cameron Crowe in August of ’75. “The cover was finished and everything. Ah, but they’ll never hear that one.” Now that the world has heard Homegrown, hope and hype have given way to the mixed emotions that surround the release of any record that’s famous for being unattainable.

At 74, Young remains prolific, churning out new albums almost every year. Not counting combined efforts with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Homegrown is his 40th studio album—or his eighth, if you go by when it was recorded. During his restless and relentless recording history, Young has also accumulated a less prolific career’s worth of unreleased studio or live albums. To this point, the Neil Young Archives collection has mostly documented concerts spanning the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, but Young has recently set his sights on releasing some of his studio leftovers. In 2017, he released Hitchhiker, an all-acoustic set from a 1976 studio session. Eight of its 10 tracks had already been released in some form, and the lack of new material and stripped-down production made Hitchhiker more of a treat for Young completists than an object of historical significance. Homegrown, however, was the most coveted treasure in Young’s voluminous vault, a tantalizing, long-lost gem that stood near the top of many a musical geologist’s most-wanted list. When Rolling Stone published a list last August of “15 Legendary Unreleased Albums,” Homegrown had a prominent place.

Homegrown’s not-nearly-unknown legend stems from the productive, tumultuous time in which it was made, as well as the story of why it wasn’t released sooner. In the seven years beginning with 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere—his first team-up with longtime backing band Crazy Horse—Young made eight revered records (including CSNY’s Déjà Vu), all while completing multiple major tours solo or with CSNY, dealing with drug use (his own and his friends’), getting divorced, starting another long-term relationship (and having a son) with actress Carrie Snodgress, breaking up with Snodgress, and meeting his future wife Pegi. Somehow, he had time to record and shelve Homegrown during that same frantic, fruitful stretch.

As Young’s 20s were winding down, he was tapping straight into the source of his most memorable melodies. In Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s 2002 biography of Young, David Briggs, Young’s friend and frequent producer, reminisced about Young’s almost mystical mid-’70s songwriting powers. “He’d turn to me and go, ‘Guess I’ll turn on the tap’—and then out came ‘Powderfinger,’ ‘Pocahontas,’ ‘Out of the Blue,’ ‘Ride My Llama.’ Two days, a day. I’m not talkin’ about sittin’ down with a pen and paper, I’m talkin’ about pickin’ up a guitar, sittin’ there and lookin’ me in the face and in 20 minutes—‘Pocahontas.’ No lyric sheet, no pen, no paper, none of that bullshit. Just ‘I picks up the guitar and the demon takes control.’”

The only force that could slow the stream of songs from reaching radios and record stores was Young’s somewhat fickle feelings about his own work. Homegrown was one of the musical casualties. After 1972’s Harvest catapulted Young into solo superstardom, a series of personal tragedies and dysfunctional tours darkened his tone and dampened his commercial appeal. The drug-induced death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten in 1972 led to the traumatic tour captured in the 1973 live album Time Fades Away, which Young later described as “my least favorite record” and “the worst record I ever made.” The subsequent death of roadie Bruce Berry, who’d picked up his heroin habit from Whitten, prompted the recording of Tonight’s the Night in the summer of ’73. Young and his label sat on and tinkered with the raw, anguished record for almost two years, during which Young recorded and released the mellow but bleak On the Beach, embarked on the 1974 “Doom Tour” with CSNY and abandoned attempts to complete the supergroup’s opus Human Highway, split with Snodgress, and made Homegrown, which superficially sounded more like the largely pastoral and accessible Harvest.

Homegrown was shaping up to be a major work,” McDonough wrote in Shakey, noting that producer Elliot Mazer believed he had another “five-million seller” on his hands. Despite his reluctance to release it, Young also holds Homegrown in high esteem. “Homegrown is the missing link between Harvest, Comes a Time, Old Ways, and Harvest Moon,” he told McDonough, listing the notable country-tinged records that represent the yin to the yang of his harder, Crazy Horse collabs. In a written post that appeared on his website last week, Young began by apologizing for depriving his fans of “the one that got away.”

When your songwriting synapses are firing so fast that you’re pumping out concert staples in 20 minutes, it probably doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice to put a whole album on ice. Young’s decision to do that was prompted by a bleary episode at the Chateau Marmont, where he was snorting and cavorting in early 1975. One night, Young gathered several friends—including members of Crazy Horse and Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of The Band—for a debauched listening party that began with Homegrown. Tonight’s the Night was on the same reel, so the assembled musicians (at least some of whom had taken meth) listened to the two albums back-to-back. “Danko freaked,” remembered Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina in Shakey. “He said, ‘If you guys don’t release this fuckin’ album, you’re crazy.’” Young took Danko’s advice and instructed Reprise to release Tonight’s the Night instead.

Young had his own reservations about Homegrown, so Danko’s snap judgment gave him another reason to keep the record under wraps. Homegrown was a breakup album about a hurt that hadn’t had time to fade away. “It was just a very down album,” Young told Crowe. “It was the darker side to Harvest. It was a little too personal … it scared me.” Later in the interview, Young again addressed Homegrown and other unreleased songs from that period, admitting, “I think I’d be too embarrassed to put them out. They’re a little too real.” Speaking to McDonough years later, Young said, “It’s an honest album,” adding, “I think I was on the edge makin’ Homegrown. I was pretty out there. Kinda lost.” And in the post published last week, Young wrote, “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. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts.”

Suffering has sometimes sent Young on alienating sonic journeys, but while it may have muffled his voice, it’s never silenced it for long. In the first half of the ’70s, he harnessed his hurt to produce some of his artistic triumphs. “Pain, it seems, brought out the best in him,” McDonough wrote. If anything, the knowledge that Homegrown was a product of pain made it more enticing to the fans who’ve worn out their Neil-approved analog copies of Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night. Those three critically acclaimed but commercially underwhelming records have come to be called the “Ditch Trilogy,” a reference to Young’s liner notes from his 1977 compilation Decade, wherein he wrote that “Heart of Gold” had “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.” Now that Homegrown is here, it’s clear that the trilogy was actually a quadrilogy.

Did the pain caused by the dissolution of his first family truly bring out the best in Young? Not quite, but Homegrown is good enough that Young fans could be forgiven for holding a grudge against Danko. Unlike a lot of unreleased albums that eventually escape storage, Homegrown isn’t an approximation of what might have been, a bootleg or replica cobbled together from demos and ideas. It’s a genuine, full-fledged relic transported intact from an almost unsurpassed peak period. As with all other “legendary” unreleased albums, though, the reality inevitably seems more mundane than the myth. You can go Homegrown again, but you can’t hear it in 2020 the way you would have in 1975.

Homegrown contains 12 tracks, five of which were released on subsequent records. (Several additional songs from the Homegrown sessions turned up on other LPs also, including “Pardon My Heart” and “Through My Sails” on Zuma.) The last two tracks, “Little Wing” and “Star of Bethlehem,” are identical to the versions that came out on Hawks and Doves and American Stars ’n Bars in 1980 and 1977, respectively. The album’s best-known song, “Love Is a Rose,” is the same as the recording included on Decade. That leaves alternate versions of the title track (a Farm Aid anthem originally released on American Stars ’n Bars) and “White Line,” which waited until 1990’s Ragged Glory for its first album appearance.

When weighing the relative merits of a newly unearthed recording and a more familiar performance of the same song, it’s hard to tell how much of one’s preference flows from the music and how much from the mere-exposure effect. Intriguing as it is to hear the more subdued ur-recordings of “Homegrown” and “White Line,” neither one would replace the rollicking Crazy Horse incarnations in my personal pantheon; maybe there’s not enough barn in the originals. Then there’s “Florida,” a spoken-word, stoned-out story accompanied by the unpleasant whine of a wet finger running around the rim of a glass. The track is effective as confirmation that Young did indeed do drugs, but as a listening experience, it’s as skippable as the skits on Late Registration. Even Young diehards will likely listen once or twice, then excise it from future listens like The Last Waltz’s special effects crew cut the coke rock from Neil’s nose.

That leaves half an album of fresh and exciting material, heard on occasion in concert but not in pristine studio conditions. Part of the pleasure of hearing Homegrown—which, on the whole, sounds like Harvest crossed with On the Beach—are the time-capsule sounds of the young Young’s plaintive voice and the contributions from fellow Last Waltz luminaries Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, and Emmylou Harris, as well as longtime road and studio sidekicks like Ben Keith and Tim Drummond, who helped give Harvest its distinctive sound. But the songs are strong too; on at least a few of the old/new numbers, the demon must have taken control.

The highlight here is the first track, “Separate Ways,” a philosophical song about the end of Young’s union with Snodgress. Thanks to a slow soundman, the song starts mid-chord. Young, sounding drained, sings, “Now we go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharin’ our little boy/Who grew from joy back then.” It’s not a nihilistic or sullen song; there’s a sense that the end can also be a beginning. (“Happiness is never through/It’s only a change of ways.”) The interplay of Helm’s light touch on the drums, Keith’s mournful pedal steel, and Drummond’s dirge-like bass yield a song so sweet and sad that it’s hard to imagine many other artists holding off on releasing it for 45 years.

The first half of Homegrown is heavy on breakup songs; after “Separate Ways” comes the semi-optimistic “Try,” a leisurely number enhanced by Harris’s backing vocals. The brief, semi-mystical “Mexico” and “Kansas” round out the trio of tracks that pertain to travel or a specific place, reflecting the album’s itinerant origin. “We Don’t Smoke it No More” is a bluesy jam that would have fit in on Tonight’s the Night, and “Vacancy” is a Buffalo Springfield–sounding song that features Young soloing simultaneously on guitar and harmonica and warbling bitterly about a lover he hardly recognizes: “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there/You poison me with that long, vacant stare.”

There are no searing, nine-minute guitar workouts hiding here. Nor are there any ballads, laments, or politically pointed message songs whose hooks can compete with Young’s iconic compositions. One suspects that Young may have been content to let Homegrown gather dust not only because it reminded him of difficult days, but also because he believed he’d cannibalized the best of it. If Homegrown hadn’t been raided, and tracks like “Love is a Rose” and “Little Wing” were falling on fresh ears, the record’s arrival would be a bigger deal. As it is, what remained was welcome but not essential, except as an artifact from a slice of Young’s life.

Like his friend Bob Dylan, who also released a record last Friday, Young keeps making new music and excavating finds from his back catalogue, but his considerable legacy is largely set. However closely it lived up to its billing, Homegrown couldn’t command attention or influence others in 2020 the way it once would have. On an April livestream, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard contended that the impact of his band’s albums depends on the cultural context that greets them more than the music itself. “A lot of it has to do with the time and the world and where you guys were, where we were, where music was,” he said. “If we put out a record in 2020 … it would be unreasonable for me to [expect] people to have the same reaction to it as they did to Transatlanticism or Plans or Narrow Stairs. Even if you could quantify that it was technically a better album than any of those records … it really wouldn’t matter that much.”

For music to make a mark, both the album and the audience have to meet at a particular time. There are plenty of semi-obscure Wings or Paul McCartney tracks that would loom a lot larger in the collective consciousness if they had happened to be on a Beatles album. Conversely, some legendary unreleased music is more fun to daydream about than to hear; we want it partly because we can’t have it. Much as some Beatles aficionados might wish they could queue up “Carnival of Light,” they’d listen to it even less than they do “Revolution 9.” (This may sound masochistic if you hateWonderful Christmastime,” but my musical white whale is McCartney’s private collection of self-recorded Christmas carols.) Even when it works out and we wind up with, say, Brian Wilson’s Smile almost 40 years after the first studio sessions, it’s almost impossible to say whether the latter-day pleasant pop symphony would have been legitimately transformative in an earlier era.

We could speculate about Homegrown hypotheticals, too. If Homegrown had come out as scheduled, would Tonight’s the Night have been buried instead? If Homegrown had been a big hit, would Young have made Zuma or gone in a different direction? Would wallowing in his breakup have made it more challenging for his muse to move on? “I don’t want to get down to the point where I can’t even get up,” Young said in ’75. “I mean, there’s something to going down there and looking around, but I don’t know about sticking around.”

“Well I’ve been down/But I’m comin’ back up again,” Young sings on “White Line.” Fans of his music have heard him come back up, but Homegrown gives us a more complete picture of what he did when he was down. Like all lost classics, it missed its moment. But no matter how belated a great record’s release, it’s better to come out than to fade away.