Harvest Rising

Storied Tucson songwriter weighs in on Neil Young, especially Harvest, and the superstar’s influence on his pre-teen heart

In the latter part of my sixth grade I wore horn-rim glasses with an aluminum strip inside advertised not to break at the remedial bend. After all, Space Food Sticks were a snack the astronauts ate on their NASA space missions and down here we wanted that same kind of purpose by emulating our heroes wherever they came from or were going to. My glasses could take the punch, the yank or grab during one of one-off football games where all rules were scrapped except one: the victor kept the ball close to his chest in a turbulent run where he could only fall prey to the gang of kids on all sides yelling "smear the queer!"

At this time, I had grown up on the AM radio from the bottom to the top. KIKX, KFIF, KHOS, KTKT, and KHYT, and an oldies station I could not grab onto yet. At that age, you're looking forward, not back, that only happens when you're past the point of no return, tracing the music back to its first explosions.

Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" single was topping the charts, playing on heavy rotation. You could hear it every hour softly pushing a kick-drum heavy tempo with guitars, light brushes of pedal steel and a voice that was imperfect but gentle, real words that echoed ("Keep me searching for a heart of gold/Keep me searching and I'm growing old"). Each pair of ears distilling this perfect piece of California pop from a Canadian who knew how to pen a song and come full circle–this, a number one hit, recorded in music city Nashville, of all places. 

It's a long way from Toronto, from Buffalo Springfield and artistic battles, CSN&Y, and further still from Southeast Asia, the still-smoldering inner-American cities and Watergate.

The album Harvest was as close to organic as I could imagine. It felt to me then like I do now about recycling: It don't do much for the planet but it sure makes one feel like one is doing their part to make this world a better place. Its understated cover had earth tones, hardly noticeable on record-store racks, except for the artist's name. It was as far away from the busy covers of the day as it could get.

The funny thing is, I would come home to my house with a few of my friends and we would sit outside in the backyard looking up at the Catalina Mountains, learning how to sing, to find time in measures, and memorize words. And to all of us, we sounded good as anyone, copying the reluctant sorrow that hid just behind the words. It made us feel like we were older than our years, each of us having some kind of false idea of what the future held.

Some months later they released "Old Man," the second single from Harvest, and the audience sucked it up with the same fervor they did "Heart of Gold." Both songs found James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt lending their considerable talents, while fledgling FM radio was playing more introspective pieces from the album, such as "A Man Needs a Maid," "Out On The Weekend" and "Alabama." The latter continued to push against the southern zeitgeist, which landed old Neil's name in a Lynyrd Skynyrd radio hit, jiving that a "southern man don't need him round anyhow."

"Alabama" also found Neil further encapsulating a Confederacy sure of its past and unclear about its future, oddly a thread from his previous After the Goldrush LP–the bookend to "Southern Man"–and wholly out of place as a protest song on such a personal album. ("Alabama, you got the weight on your shoulders/That's breaking your back/Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch/And a wheel on the track.")

Harvest stayed on top of the Billboard 200 chart for weeks. The wheels of the machine turning on what few figured to be a chart-topping record. The album itself begins on the spare "Out on the Weekend" where the line between writer and protagonist is blurred in a four-chord story, which ultimately is profound little treatise on loneliness.

The album was produced by Young and Elliot Mazer. Now Mazer had been in the business a long time, worked with Chubby Checker, folk duo Ian and Sylvia, Dylan and even oversaw television staples such as ABC's Wide World of Sports.

The band was mostly Nashville studio cats, guys Neil had christened the Stray Gators, with the addition of song-arranger Jack Nitzsche on piano and lap steel. Nitzsche had also engineered for Phil Spector and was a fixture on the music scene, a creative force who worked hands-on with his artists. He arranged the orchestrations on the haunting "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World," each cut with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Both songs are deeply personal but oddly out of step with the album's lean toward country-pop, and serve a telling glimpse into Young as an artist who wouldn't be pegged as one-dimensional. In a way, those songs announced that Neil was an absolute original who was just getting started.

Repeated listenings of Harvest gave me a lesson that in the structure of a record, the more space the better. So much was being crammed into our lives, into the world, that this love of music brought the listener and the artist closer. 

In my first garage band we played Neil Young songs because they let a group come to it with noise and wild self-expression.

Neil's struggle with wild self-expression ended with Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Witten's addiction to heroin and subsequent overdose after being fired from that band. The death must've found its way into an already full ledger of Neil's dead peers on the "The Needle and the Damage Done." If the listener can get through this now without attaching it to their own experience, or to someone they know, metaphorical or otherwise, they must not be breathing. "I've seen the needle and the damage done/A little part of it in everyone/ But every junkie's like the settin' sun."

While the title tune's a shuffle that's slow enough to keep its feel passive–and willing to give the audience their own sense of sorrow-the 4/4-time country-rock of "Are You Ready for the Country" offers little fanfare, dwarfed by the other songs here.

This monolith of an album ends on "Words (Between the Lines of Age)." The song plays against a natural blues feel and works like a first or second studio take with its fresh-but-dirty guitar-driven groove and great wordplay that only comes in the first chord, that place a song finds its feet and trades perfection for authenticity in some kind of transcendence of rock 'n' roll in its truest form. "If I was a junkman/Selling your cars/ Washing your windows/And shining your stars."

The muscular vocals and lead guitar are awash in the power of the Stray Gators, brought to the final run, the one where I ran and ran until there was no one left to take that pigskin away.