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Forget the ‘After’ in the title, this one really is the ‘goldrush’ as far as Neil’s career is concerned and the point at which most fans joined in the fascinating 60-plus list of Young cul-de-sacs that have scattered their way across the musical landscape like crazy paving. At the time ‘Goldrush’ was greeted with high sales and a growing respect and even today ‘Goldrush’ still crops up regularly on greatest album lists and several of the tracks within still regularly make their way to Neil’s notoriously ever-changing set lists. That’s quite a change for an artist who, just one year and two albums earlier had barely dented the bottom of the top 200 album charts and had faced the ignominy of record company Reprise printing a sticker on the front that read ‘formerly of Buffalo Springfield’ because they feared no one would know who he was. A much discussed and frequently publicised few months with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had put him on the map, however, and a poor selling but well respected first album with Crazy Horse had the music business primed for something big. Against all the odds the famously mercurial Neil – who’ll spend the gleeful 70s spitting angst and the money-grabbing 80s being woefully un-commercial – released exactly the right album for exactly the right time.
If the world had elected to build a time capsule somewhere in 1970 then ‘Goldrush’ would surely be in it somewhere: poignant, simple and full of commercial pop songs rubbing shoulders with very real and surprisingly honest angst, this album is the pinnacle of the short-lived singer-songwriter era when massive rock bands with egos were briefly out and simple, bare confessional acoustic albums were in. Neil never ever manages to hit such a spot-on mark with any of his genre hopping ever again (up to 2012 anyway) and you sense that even this time it was only a co-incidence that Neil didn’t think about too hard; whatever the design behind it ‘Goldrush’ is an album that fitted the world like a glove. It’s also, effectively, the last time any CSN fan would get away with asking ‘whose that scrawny guitarist on the right and why has he just joined the band?’ – after this Young will eclipse the other three in terms of super-stardom, for better or worse. At the time everyone assumed every Neil Young album would be like this, that the orchestrated eponymous debut album and the hard-rocking extended jam session second were just ‘mistakes’ paved along the way to fame and fortune. But as we’ve seen across our other Neil Young reviews no one can ever second guess what the guitarist is up to and he will go on to shun the sensitive singer-songwriter skin so successfully conveyed on this album as nonchalantly as all the others. In fact its a hybrid of the first two albums that’s going to keep most Young fans happy over the course of the next 40 years and Neil has never really captured the sound he created on this album again. The trouble is, practically everyone who doesn’t know Neil’s massive oeuvre inside out think all his albums are like this – the truth is, they’re not, which might be why ‘Goldrush’ still has such a special place in fans’ hearts, even though at just 33 minutes long and with oodles of filler it might not strike a modern fan as his best work.
Indeed, critics at the time were almost universal of their hatred of this album. Rolling Stone began their contemporary review with the lines ‘Neil Young devotees will probably spend the next few weeks trying desperately to convince themselves that After The Goldrush’ is good music – but they’d be kidding themselves’, adding that the songs ‘needed time to mature’ and attacking Neil’s vocal for being ‘pre-adolescent whining’. In 99% of eras the magazine would have been right – this album was recorded in a fortnight and sounds like they had a few days spare – but in 1970 this sort of sophisticated primitivism was what the public wanted, a return to roots without all that empty rocking and posing or sacrificing words that actually meant something. As for Neil’s unique vocal, it’s probably the sound of 1970 – as tough as James Taylor but as fragile and emotional as Carole King, the two other pin-ups of that year. For starved CSNY fans, desperate for more material in the wake of the band’s first (of many) disintegrations, the fact that ‘Goldrush’ was the first album post-‘Deja Vu’ (if that term makes sense!) alone made fans pay close attention to it, marvelling at Neil’s fragile thoughtful persona with just enough spare rocking and fizzing anger to keep them happy.
Like so many ultra-successful records ‘Goldrush’ hasn’t dated as well as it must have sounded at the time. We’ve heard so many variations on the tracks on this album since (not just by Neil) that it doesn’t sound as ground-breaking and edgy as it once did. In fact, I’d go further: once you’ve made the ‘jump’ to Neil’s more philosophical, deeper albums like ‘Tonight’s The Night’ ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and ‘Sleeps With Angels’ there are certain passages on this album that come across as a little bit, well, twee. You have to remember that Neil wasn’t a rock God back then and in fact barely plays any electric guitar across the whole album (he saves his bile for the moody ‘Southern Man’ and the brilliantly simple ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’). We simply don’t live in an era when records can sound this basic and still get away with it. The album is full of chugging tempos, often clumsy performances and an air of distraction throughout – as if Neil had started with the ideas for making a great record, but got distracted somewhere along the way. That’s not to say ‘Goldrush’ is a bad LP – on the contrary three songs are among his best, the clever ‘I Believe In You’, the moody ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ and the lovely ‘Birds – but if you’re a collector who adores the lesser known gems in the great man’s catalogue (albums as great but comparatively unknown as ‘Tonight’s The Night’ ‘Trans’ ‘Freedom’ and ‘Sleeps With Angels’) and you come to this album last expecting a big treat then you might be in for a nasty surprise. Much of this album is slapdash, even by Neil’s later standards, and the charm in the songs and occasionally the performances can only fill in so many holes in the record.
Actually there’s a good reason for this basic approach, as even this early on in Neil’s career the backstory of this album is one of tragedy. Neil’s newfound soulmate Danny Whitten (the guitarist in the original Crazy Horse) is fading fast after a sudden and frightening freefall into drug dependency. This album was originally planned as a second collaboration with the ‘Horse’, but Neil becomes alarmed to find that without Danny at full throttle the glorious stallion he was working with just a few months earlier now sounds like an old nag with a bad back. In the end just two songs from that album makes it to the album: the grungy power rocker ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’, on which a powerful performance goes some way to rescuing one of Neil’s most primitive and neanderthalic songs and the achingly mournful cover of ‘Oh! Lonesome Me’. Neither song quite manages to capture the free-wheeling joy of ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and, sensibly, Neil starts again. He’s pushed for time, though, and has to come up with a new band more or less from scratch, calling in favours from friends old and anew and coming up with a unique permutation of musicians who never work with each other again. Horse drummer Ralph Molina was the only member of the band brought forward to the new recordings from the old band, in quite a state at the downhill state of his decade long buddy Danny Whitten and understandably upset at the way the band had been eased out of Neil’s life. Greg Reeves, bassist with CSNY, had just been sacked at the time, partly for plugging his own songs within the band but mainly for getting in touch with his ‘Indian heritage’ and scaring the beejesus out of the band by turning up one day painted gold (it was part of an Indian ceremony, not that Reeves told them that and rumours abounded that he was learning to be a witch-doctor with designs on their lives). Adding to the core backing trio was fellow AAA member Nils Lofgren, an 18 year old guitarist and accordion player who, at Neil’s prompting, became the pianist for the album – despite having never played piano before in his life (Neil figured that as an accordion player he already knew the basics and wanted the rough, learning-in-process sound for the album).
The fact that these three men – who’d never even met never mind played together before – are able to bond this fast and this well is either an extremely lucky break or proof that Neil really does know what he’s doing in getting his often strange hybrids of musicians from his past to work together. It’s amazing to think that the second-best selling and probably most discussed Neil Young album was put together in less than a fortnight, in a cramped cellar in the basement of Neil’s Topanga house by people who’d barely said hello to each other. And when we say cellar we really do mean cellar: the sound of this album, from this makeshift recording studio built in the basement of Neil’s Topanga house, is terrific – all moody echo and a squashed, flat sound that unusually made everything sound more interesting rather than more bland (especially the spooky afterglow this gives the vocals, which on recordings like ‘I Believe In You’ are among the best sonically ever made, especially on vinyl). Neil was in the process of selling his Topanga house in favour of the Broken Arrow ranch he still lives on today so never recorded any other project there, making the sound of ‘Goldrush’ unique, which is an awful shame; forget what the musicians are doing and simply listening to the sound makes ‘Goldrush’ the most aurally satisfying of all of Neil’s albums.
So why was Neil recording so fast? Well, record company Reprise – a label then built around Frank Sinatra but now built largely around Neil’s career and unbelievably supportive of their mercurial star down the decades – are unusually putting pressure on the star. Neil is under considerable pressure to come up with an airplay ‘hit’ to follow in the wake of ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and capitalise on the success with CSNY (releasing records on rival ‘Atlantic’).Without the horse Neil doesn’t want to know about his career and – uncharacteristically for such a prolific composer – found himself suffering from writer’s block. Frustrated, he turned to his neighbours in Topanga Canyon for support and got talking to screenwriter Dean Stockwell about a new movie he had planned named ‘After The Goldrush’. Figuring it would be pleasingly non-commercial, Neil promised that he’d write a score for the unfinished script and that it would give him a rest before embarking on a new project for the company. I’m amazed, given the high interest from passionate Neil Young fans that this script has never been published (or turned into a film by a low-budget company – Neil’s own ‘Shakey Pictures’ included) and, worse, Stockwell has admitted that the script has ‘gone missing’ from his collection somewhere down the years. That means that, sadly, we’ll probably never get to learn in detail what inspired Neil to suddenly overcome his writer’s block, although some details have been half-remembered by those who read it. The kabala has a lot to do with the script (which Stockwell later called ‘a Jungian piece of self-discovery’), it features an aging rockstar who lives high up in the mountains, one character gets to carry a ‘huge tree of life’ across Topanga Canyon in a big symbolic gesture and the film ends with nothing less than the end of the world when a tidal wave sweeps across the valley and wipes out all the houses (I’d be intrigued to compare it to Neil’s first two film ‘scripts’ – the term is used loosely – as the hazy impressionistic images sound like ‘Journey Thru The Past’ and the ending like the dance that takes place to a nuclear explosion at the conclusion of ‘Human Highway’, which is actually a lot stranger than even that sentence makes it sound). It probably wouldn’t have done very well at the box office but like AAA gems like ‘Head’ and ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ it might have become a much-discussed cult, a cinema revolution of the highest order (or it could have been like Neil’s ‘Journey’ film, unseen in 40 years and hated by those who’ve had the chance to view it).
Some books disagree and say everything on ‘Goldrush’ was written fdirectly or that screenplay but, actually, only two songs were for definite: the title track and the brief ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’. Even so, even without the other nine tracks to think about, Stockwell’s screenplay clearly played a big role in getting Neil to think about his life and his art in a way he’d never expressed himself before and opened the floodgates to this album and the many that follow, for which we’re grateful.
The rushed performance and writer’s block might also explain why this album is so slight. At 33 minutes ‘Goldrush’ is one of the shorter AAA albums around and certainly one of Neil’s shortest, with only one song (‘Southern Man’) lasting more than four minutes and two songs mere fragments lasting barely a minute each. Considering this is the same man who, just a year and an album before ,was giving us two 10 minute jams and all seven songs well over the five minute mark this must have come as quite a shock at the time. It’s not as if there weren’t any songs to fill up the space either (‘Everybody’s Alone’ ‘Dance Dance Dance’ ‘Sea Of Madness’ and the earliest versions of ‘Wonderin’ and ‘See The Sky About To Rain’ were all recorded at the sessions and are all fabulous, albeit to different degrees of depth and intellectualism). As a result my take on ‘Goldrush’ has always been that, yes, what we have here is indeed at least on its way to classic, with a good mixture of singalong pop and imaginatively stimulating art – but where is the rest of it? It’s no coincidence that my favourite Neil Young albums (the four listed on our original 101 ‘core’ reviews) are all long-players: ‘Tonight’s The Night’ (45 mins) ‘Trans’ (44 mins) ‘Freedom’ (61 mins) and ‘Weld’ (121 mins). The more Neil gives us in terms of content, the more his music makes sense bouncing ideas off one song to the next and the more space there is for cohesion between his songs. The inclusion of two pretty empty snippets that could - and should – have been turned into proper songs (‘Till The |Morning Comes’ ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’) and the inclusion of Neil’s sappiest, most pop like song (‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’) doesn’t help matters much either. ‘Goldrush’ simply sound lightweight by comparison to other Neil Young albums, a fascinating starter rather than the main dish he managed to build most of his solo career around.
If there’s a lyrical theme here its one of confusion and doubt. Neil’s divorce to first wife Susan came through just two months after this record was released and – for the umpteempth time on this site – an AAA star’s biggest professional success came at the same time as personal hardship, with lots of the material here caught somewhere between the two extremes. There’s a great deal of sadness and melancholia in the songs on this album, even for Neil, and although nothing on ‘Goldrush’ approaches the bottomless pit of despair you hear on the ‘Doom trilogy’ two to four albums later, there’s definitely something gnawing away at these various narrator’s souls. Interestingly there’s glimmers of hope throughout but they’re never taken up the mysterious characters within; ‘Tell Me Why’ says ‘I am lonely but you can free me’ though the unseen figure never does; ‘After The Goldrush’ is a wacked out science-fiction of the future that’s only part utopian, destroying the Earth with ‘children crying and colours flying all around the chosen ones’; the title of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ speaks volumes despite not actually telling us much in terms of lyrics; ‘Southern Man’, a raging vicious attack on prejudice sung in a tauntingly sarcastic voice is clearly pining for the way things could have been; ‘Oh! Lonesome Me’ is an old classic re-interpreted in woe-is-me mouthorgan-swallowing panic; ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ is fascinatingly cryptic but seems to right all of its wrongs when the narrator finds someone whose ‘turning’ and gets his life back on track; ‘Birds’, an old song from the year before, is a poignant goodbye song that ends with the line ‘It’s over’; ‘When You Dance’ is brainless enthusiasm that sounds like escapism in the arms of someone new; ‘I Believe In You’ is a shocking tale of disillusionment when a figure turns out not to be the deity they once seemed and finally even the sea captain of ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’, the second song written directly for a screenplay, has a major decision on his hands and anxiously waits for more information from ‘his deck hands’. The most telling song of all is the shortest however: we know from the biography ‘Shakey’ (and possibly from Neil’s autobiography out this month which I haven’t got hold of yet) that Neil was in two minds whether to move to his new ranch alone or give Susan one last chance in their often volatile relationship and agaonised over his decision fort months before making the split. ‘Till The Morning Comes’ might only be a single verse but it’s a very telling verse saying that the narrator is ‘only waiting till the morning comes’ for an answer, one that never comes. This record is like a long goodbye, but not a bitter who-needs-you-anyway? goodbye or even an I-can’t-wait-to-escape -from-this goodbye but simply a worried, cautious, am-I-doing-the-right-thing? goodbye.
Wife Susan even gets a credit on the record – although it’s for the unique album credit for the ‘patches’ on Neil’s jeans (seen in close-up on the rear sleeve) rather than ‘inspiration’ or ‘Thankyous’ or something of the sort. I’ve often wondered if this is a mischievous joke on Neil’s part (either a crude reference to the fact that his wife is represented on the album by a close-up of his bottom or a more philosophical one about how their marriage has been ‘patched up’ so many times down the years). Neil isn’t saying, however, then or now, so it could be just an innocent (though weird) reference from an album that looks innocent (but weird) throughout. Handwritten lyrics are de rigour now but in 1970 the sight of Neil’s really hard to read scrawls seemed like a daring and audacious move. It was only three years before this – in 1967 – that a pop album (‘Sgt Peppers’) had dared considering pop lyrics of sufficient interest to print them on the sleeve at all. Those few artist who’d followed had taken the idea seriously and infused their booklets with prim and proper typed up text, sometimes with a doodle or two (take a bow Jefferson Airplane spin-offs!) But the idea of making an album look hand-made and rough-hwen is devastatingly new (even the much discussed ‘Ram’ sleeve by Paul McCartney, complete with childish drawings and coloured in by hand, dates a few months after this).
Talking of weird, the back cover of this album is nothing on the front cover, which features a polarised and rather creepy looking shot of Neil walking around Topanga Canyon and being passed by a lady walking in the opposite direction. Fans have pooled ideas for years about the significance of the mysterious lady and the alien look on Neil’s face, but as it turns out it was just a mistake. Gary Burden, CSNY friend and blooming photographer, took the picture of Neil as one of many on a roll of film and thought Neil was joking when he looked in the next day and pointed to this picture and said it would be the front cover (Gary was so sure the shot – with a random passer by pushing past the photographer – wouldn’t be needed that he’d treated the photo to some chemicals to see if he could make up for it being slightly out of focus, hence the weird texture of Neil’s face). Even the lettering on this album is strange: seemingly printed in gold lettering both artist and album title have been fake-peeled, to hint that they’re ‘rusting’ (a key Neil theme that he’ll return to in 1979) and it may well be Neil’s mischievous answer to the fake gold lettering on the ‘Deja Vu’ album (which, complete with gatefold sleeve, was designed to be a big ‘event’, but the gold lettering began to peel remarkably quickly leaving the bland cardboard peeking through; Rolling Stone are merciless in comparing the packaging of this album to the music in one of the funniest AAA reviews around). In short, this album doesn’t look at all like your average ‘classic album’ – although that said neither The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ (the group feeding animals at the zoo) or Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers In Arms’ (a close up of a guitar) are all that dynamic either and both of these also make classic album polls regularly. Just think how Reprise must have felt: they’ve put in a lot of money, nobly leant Neil’s services to rivals Atlantic for CSNY in the vain hopes of getting exposure for their star-in-the-making and what does Neil do? He gives them his sloppiest work yet. And in true Neil Young fashion it becomes a huge success, with that accidentally shot picture turned into billboards and in-store displays around the globe. In retrospect its that audacity and the ability to get away with it that’s ‘After The Goldrush’s lasting achievement and it’s that, not the sound or the songs or the style that has the most lasting impact on the Neil Young albums to come.
Neil is said to have fallen out with opening track ‘Tell Me Why’ down the years, booting it out of his set list after realising he no longer understood what the words mean. That’s a shame, because ‘Tell Me Why’ is still a song that makes a lot of sense in a cod-philosophical way. At it’s core this is a song about confusion and finding that the beliefs you once held are changing with time – a theme common with this album. Neil’s main bugbear was the chorus, with its line ‘is it hard to make arrangements with yourself, when you’re old enough to repay, but young enough to sell’ - but I know what it means; its about being young enough to change your mind but old enough to have felt another way for so long you don’t want to make the change. Understandably every Young critics has assumed this song is about the impending split with wife Susan, but I’d hazard a guess that this song is about musical/career confusion first. The opening verse of the song has a ‘searcher’ riding a ‘dark horse’ looking for answers – and if we assume the horse to be a crazy one then it makes for a good match for Neil’s doubts as to whether Danny Whitten is up to the job for this record. However, Neil is already in a fighting mood over his career, announcing in the last verse that, whatever happens in the present, ‘I’ll be around for a while’. Listen too to the way the song’s chorus steals whole-heartedly from the Beatles (notably the song ‘Tell Me Why’ from ‘ A Hard Day’s Night’ – songs from this album and predecessor ‘With The Beatles’ were the first things Neil ever sang on stage, with his first band The Squires, back when they were still mainly an instrumental Shadows cover band). The fact that the chorus seems to be asking for divine intervention (pleading ‘tell me why’ with some unknown power) makes it clear that the narrator is in a bad place, although musically this song couldn’t be more upbeat, especially with the lovely cod-CSNY harmonies (reportedly by Whitten, Stephen Stills, Nils Lofgren and Ralph Molina, although I’d swear I can hear David Crosby in there too). A sweet place to start the album, although it noticeably sounds more like the work of Nils Lofgren’s band Grin than any other song Neil ever came up with.
‘After The Goldrush’ is one of Neil’s better known songs, thanks to almost constant radio airplay and a #1 a capella cover by singers Prelude. The only song we know for sure was written for the screenplay of the same name, it’s a curious record, quite different to anything Neil’s ever recorded before or since, with its apocalyptic vision of the future, the piano-with-brass backing and Neil’s highest vocal on record. Almost everyone who heard this song at the time claimed that in it they heard ‘the future’, with its visions of ‘silver spaceships flying’ despite the fact that Jefferson Starship had already been doing this kind of thing better on ‘Blows Against The Empire’. What many fans miss is that this song starts off telling us about our past, too, with an opening verse imagining knights ‘saying something about a Queen’ and a second verse set seemingly in the present, with an outcast ‘looking for replacement’ and music playing in his head. The verses are linked by a feeling of doom, something that’s accelerated by Neil’s high pitched vocal on the verge of breaking and a beautiful but melancholy tune, and references in all three verses to mankind’s destruction of his world. I’m confused, though, as to why each verse should end with ‘mother nature on the run in the 1970s’ – surely the first verse should be circa the 1570s and the last verse perhaps the 2570s? Either way the song is a strangely haunting one, fragile but with an inner strength in typical Young style, and struck such a chord with the disenfranchised post-60s generation worried about the future that it became something of an anthem (the crowd-pleasing uncharacteristic reference to ‘getting high’ probably helped too). Reportedly this song came in the unfilmed ‘movie’ at the end when Topanga Canyon – and humanity - gets washed away by a huge tidal wave of their own making, but somehow the song is bigger and bolder than that, telling nothing less than the possible future of the human race, destroyed time after time but still surviving long enough to ‘fly mother nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun’.
It’s worth remembering too that the early 70s was the time of books by Van Danniken and the lesser-known but superior Richard Mooney, authors who put forward the theory that mankind was created either by aliens or by their own ancestors and that Earth was a colony planet not the sole resource of life (hence such factors as the sudden death of the dinosaurs – possibly erased in favour of us, the moon’s peculiar orbit which seems suspiciously like a parked spaceship, the sphinx and pyramids being hit by signs of water erosion, signs of life in underground caves going back a lot longer than our known history and the sheer volume of artefacts that date back millions of years that seem either as sophisticated as our present day or arguably more so). This was a new idea back then, a logical extension of the UFO boom of the 1940s and 50s and a new way of thinking, that Young had already partly addressed on the title track of CSNY’s ‘Deja Vu’ and this song wouldn’t have worked anything like as well as at any other time. People scoff at these books nowadays without actually giving any definitive proof against them (Von Danniken in particular comes in for lots of grief for being, at worst, slightly too enthusiastic in his claims and eager to claim everything as proof of his theory but the majority of his books stand up to scientific argument). As a disbeliever in both the creationist (too simple and too reliant on faith disproved by science) and evolution (too many holes as even Darwin admitted, with still no sign of several thousand years’ worth of missing link creatures) views of life, the idea that man has been sent across the galaxy in search of a new home (something we’re already preparing to do in the future ourselves) is the only argument that makes sense. I now return you to your regularly scheduled album review...
‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ is the ‘other’ song from this album that everybody knows, a rather ponderous and simple pop song that was reportedly written for Graham Nash after his difficult break-up with Joni Mitchell. Certainly CSNY took to this song more than the Horse ever did, despite the fact that their sweet-and-sour harmonies are up their with their best work backing Neil. The truth is, though, this song is an uncomfortable listen, a minor key song pretending to be a major key one, like a clown trying to be happy all the while (actually that’s a Graham Nash trick dating back to the early Hollies days of ‘Clown’ – perhaps Neil was listening closer than I thought...) It’s as if Neil is trying to urge Nash to be happy and, in a copy of The Beatles’ ‘Dear Prudence’, to stop moping alone and come out and play – only to realise that he, too, was deeply unhappy in his relationship and wanted pout too. The tempo is lopsided, something that sounds comical and awkward in turns and the melody over the top is structured to emphasis this, trying hard to sound like a triumphant singalong but never sounding in control or genuinely happy throughout. Until ‘Heart Of Gold’ the following year this was Neil Young’s biggest ever hit, outselling even ‘Cinnamon Girl’ – I can only think that record buyers in 1971 either bought anything with CSNY’s name on it in droves oblivious to quality or that everyone was easier to please back in the day – looked at now, in 2012, ‘Only Love’ is one of Neil’s weakest, sappiest, most pointless songs. This is probably sacrilege to most Neil Young fans but I actually prefer Stills’ very 80s cover of the song on his much maligned ‘Right By You’ album, a version that manages to right the uncomfortable tempo issues and sounds a lot more straightforward, although this version doesn’t quite hit the spot either.
‘Southern Man’ sounds at first more like it, the one song here that’s an obvious hark back to the electric noise of ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and finally has some real emotion and fury from Neil in its sarcastic lyrics. Telling the tale of a city on fire, with lynchings of local black men (presumably slaves) made at random out of all proportion for a crime they probably didn’t commit, it’s big on its sideswipes and inspires probably Neil’s greatest vocal on the record, crackling with passion and fury even though – thanks to his singing in the first person – he seems to be condemning himself. Unfortunately, the song hits too easy a target and doesn’t get at the real heart of the racism and primitive fear of other cultures rich white millionaires had and doesn’t come close to the thrilling bile of, say, Stephen Stills’ superior ‘Word Game’ from his ‘Stephen Stills II’ album that same year. For once on this album, too, the bravely primitive backing from players who don’t know each other or the songs that well comes undone – Nils Lofgren reportedly had an hour to come up with his rolling piano solo, despite having barely the instrument before; that sound is all well on good on the more confused and worried bare bones songs on the record but this subject matter deserves something more thought out and better played. Only Neil’s guitar really hits the mark here, a guttural wail of guilt, anger, fear and fight, leaping around all over the place in search of an answer. Listen out for the way the song closely mirrors CSNY’s superior ‘Ohio’ single from the previous year with its chorus full of rhetorical questions (‘How long? How long? How?!’) mirroring Crosby’s pained fade out from that record about four student protestors murdered by Nixon’s fear and paranoia (‘Why? How? How many more? What have we done?’) In fact CSNY did this song better in concert than Neil ever did on this record (such as on ‘Four Way Street’ released later this same year) and Neil actually dropped this from his set lists after a time, reportedly after a fight broke out in the crowd during one of his gigs (it came back by 1975 though). Lynyrd Skynrd, the Southern band who died in that awful plane crash, had their biggest hit ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ after answering Young’s lyrics in this song – I can’t help but feel that they misunderstood the idea in the lyrics (the title is a red herring – the divisions here are between race and colour and ideology, not geography). Neil can’t have been hurt too much though – he ended up playing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ himself in concert a few times, giggling at the line ‘I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow’. Even more worrying the Dave Clark Five, of all people, covered this song in their dying days in an attempt to sound ‘contemporary’ – needless to say they miss the central message too, although it’s fair to point out it’s not quite as awful as I feared it might be.
‘Till The Morning Comes’ rounds off the side on a much quieter, happier note. As explained above, its only short but if I’ve got my interpretation of it right then it’s the most revealing song on the record despite lasting barely 75 seconds. This sounds to me like Neil finally making up his mind after a period of doubt, offering one last olive branch to someone sure in the knowledge that they won’t take it but that, in their mind, they’ve done all they can. The song is almost feverish in excitement and almost the only song on ‘Goldrush’ that has a happy view of the future. Crazy Horse’s harmonies are excellent here, much smoother than usual but with a warm glow and the unexpected trumpet solo in the middle is a gem, perfectly cast to sum up the subdued energy and hope in the song. Ironically this song is far more deserving of being turned into a proper song than anything we’ve yet had on the record, but even at this short length sounds like one of the more inspired songs on the record.
The second side starts off with one of my favourite songs on the record, a slowed down half-speed heart-breaking cover of the usually sped up and bouncy country classic ‘Oh! Lonesome Me’ by Don Gibson. The song clearly struck a chord with Young, currently in the throes of despair over his first marriage, and his interpretation is special, completely renovating and dissecting the track, as well as adding a poignant harmonica riff, Being such a prolific writer (reportedly creating an average of four songs a week in the 1970s) means we don’t often get to hear Neil covering other material, but this song is so entirely different to the original that it sounds like a completely different song. Though many fans are scathing, I love Neil’s quivering take on this song which is far more in keeping with the bathos and depression of the lyrics than most takes on the song that seem to be laughing at the lovestruck narrator. As Neil himself once put it: ‘I loved it – because everyone else seems to hate it so much’. The song is at its best in the key change in the middle eight on ‘I bet she’s not like me...’, with Danny Whitten’s sweet harmony vocal his last hurrah on a Neil Young record. Neil also shows what a great harmonica player he can be when he plays it properly – after hearing so many loose and sloppy live performances (‘Unplugged’ for example) I’d forgotten what a beautiful player Neil could be at his heyday, really getting to grips with the heartbreak and sadness in the song. One of the best tracks on the record and one of two rescued from the aborted ‘Crazy Horse’ sessions that made the album.
‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ is better still, a thrilling stream of consciousness song with a lovely, compelling tune and possibly the best performance on the album, with Nils Lofgren’s bare piano chords kept in check by Greg Reeve’s busy bass frills. A portrait of poverty in some un-named city (reportedly London, as the song was written after a CSNY gig there), it somehow manages to be all things to all men – to some it’s a heartfelt reaction to suffering, to others its a sarcastic put-down of supposed progress and industrialisation. The song centres on its brilliant burst of sunshine chorus, with its lyrics urging the characters not to let it ‘bring you down’, that all life needs to get better is to find ‘someone whose turning’, whose own life can inspire or help you to your own destiny. The debate is – does Neil mean what he says or is he being sarcastic? The plight of the characters (out and outs, tramps, a blind man and at the end of the first verse a corpse) are too far gone to be helped – they need much more than someone to turn their life around and singing ‘don’t let it bring you down’ to people in such hardship seems, on paper, callous and unsympathetic. But somehow this song works: Neil’s vocal is pitched well, caught somewhere between disdain and empathy and the seriousness with which the backing band take this song compared to most of the album means the lyrics end up sounding like a helplessly futile gesture instead. Neil is at his storytelling best in these lines, telling what he sees before his eyes absurdly, surreally because the situation is itself absurd – why should such a ‘rich’ and prosperous city be filled with so much suffering and pain? The lines ‘dead man lying by the side of the road with the daylight in his eyes’ and the blind man ‘running through the light of the night’ are among Neil’s best works, real poetry that tells the full story without any explanation. A favourite in Neil’s set lists of the time, arguably ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ sounded even better in concert, where Neil usually introduced it by telling his audience ‘here’s a song guaranteed to bring you right down’. One of the undisputed highlights of the album and one of the few ‘Goldrush’ songs up to the album’s high reputation.
‘Birds’ is another one, although arguably that song sounded even better as an outtake from the 1969 ‘Neil Young’ LP, now released on the ‘Archives’ box set. Even this re-recording is delightful, however, hauntingly beautiful with Crazy Horse (plus Nils Lofgren’s delightful falsetto) as gorgeous as singing as ever gets and using just Neil’s stately piano playing for accompaniment. Neil’s narrator is singing goodbye to a loved one, wishing her well with a future lover in a similar way to John Lennon’s future goodbye to Yoko on ‘Bless You’ (‘Walls and Bridges’ 1974). The ‘birds’ imagery runs throughout and should be corny but instead sounds sweet – the narrator ‘flies’ away from her; ‘feathers fall’ around the girl as a sign of peace (a Neil Young image dating back to the Buffalo Springfield days) and the departing female ‘nestles’ into her new life like a bird. After the passive-aggressive taunting of the record’s first side, ‘Birds’ is a much more mature farewell song and although it seems rather early to have been about Susan in its first incarnation it fits the melancholic heart of this album really well. The song clearly means a lot to Neil, who again sings from the heart with another career best vocal and sounds close to tears throughout. Paul Weller later recorded his own lovely version of his song for his covers set ‘Studio 150’ which is well worth hearing, although not even close to this superb original version. Dramatic but subtle, ‘Birds’ is Neil at his best, filling his songs with easily understood images that really enhance the mood of the song. The song is also perfectly placed on the album, sequenced between the quiet anger of the last song and the noisy emptiness of the next track...
‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ is Crazy Horse back in full swing and the second song taken from the aborted sessions for the band’s second album with Neil. It’s noticeably primitive and raw, even for the Horse, and much more like their later ‘Zuma’ period recordings than Whitten’s more fluid and intelligent version of the band – perhaps Neil was simplifying his songs to make them easier to play? The song is noticeably ungrammatical compared to the #poetry’ of the rest of the album (the title line should be ‘...I can really love you’). Whatever the cause, there’s not much going on at the heart of the song which, like ‘Cinnamon Girl’, is a paean to dance and falling in love, but far less sophisticated and more about energy than excitement and passion. You sense the narrator isn’t that fussed who he’s dancing and falling in love with, that anyone would do the same job of giving him excitement. The song has a strong riff, however, a kind of plungy, angry move down the keys that would have been hailed as a grunge classic 20 years later. The Horse sound scratchy and ill rehearsed for most of the song, but really take off on the jamming fade, especially Jack Nitzsche whose eccentric piano playing is a world away from the orchestral ballads he had been recording with Neil (for the ‘Neil Young’ album) and doesn’t sound like the usual stories you get about how much he hated the Horse’s primitivism and all they stood for. A great performance of a so-so song, this piece reveals perhaps just how sad the loss of that second Crazy Horse album was to the world and how much telepathy Whitten and Young had with each other right up until the end.
My favourite song on the album is ‘I Believe In You’ a slow and rather grumpy song that’s a very clever composition. The hook in the song that everyone remembers is the line ‘...I believe in you’, but that’s not what the song’s saying at all. Confused about a relationship Neil’s narrator is actually asking ‘am I lying to you when I say that I believe in you?’ There’s also the classic line ‘now that you’ve made yourself love me, do you think I can change it in a day?’ a line that says much about the idea of love as a two-way concept and how, really, love is another name for ‘trust’ because you can never be sure how the other side of a relationship feels. This difference between what we’re hearing in the music and lyrics is matched by the wonderfully downbeat melody, that hums and haws but honestly can’t find the space to be jolly, even on the slightly bouncier chorus. The ‘la la la’ backing, usually the sign of happiness, now sounds like a requiem, mourning quietly for something lost. The backing band are at their best here, Nils Lofgren’s bare piano chords and Ralph’s steady drumming giving Neil the space to indulge himself with the austerity and open-ness of the track, something more ‘sophisticated’ players would never have managed. Neil’s vocal is once again superb, made all the better by being drenched in echo and adding to the confusion and slight surreal air of the song. This is a very real situation, born from doubt and despair, with the opening lines about ‘losing your mind’ real and powerful rather than the half-hearted joke it at first appears. A first-class song, delivered with a powerful performance, what’s amazing about this song is how much atmosphere is built from so little, with just Neil’s voice, a piano, two guitars and a steady single drum beat throughout.
The album closes on ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’, a 90 second throwaway that undoes much of the good work of the record’s second half. If what we’ve been hearing to date is impressive honesty and poignant responses to emotions then this song is a jarring note, a story-song about a sea captain about to face disaster, but sketched in so briefly we don’t know what to make of it. The ‘hey hey cripple creek ferry’ is irritatingly basic, with the sing-song feel of a nursery rhyme, which is a shame because the melody line for the single verse (‘All alone the captain stands...’) is pretty impressive and might have made for a nice song. The best thing about this song, though, is the chorus harmonies, with Stephen Stills once more adding his blues holler to the Crazy Horse-plus-Nils Lofgren chorus and making the band sound like the CSNY of some parallel universe.
It’s a lacklustre place to say goodbye for an album that can be neatly divided into it’s two halves. Everything the first half gets wrong (overblown arrangements, simplified songs, chaotic performances) is largely put right for the second and yet I can’t help thinking that this album is only halfway to being the success story it’s always chalked up to be. In truth ‘Goldrush’ is simply one of several really strong album that Neil recorded at the beginning of his solo career and is actually arguably weaker than both the orchestral ‘Neil Young’ and the electric and electrifying ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’. Where this album succeeds is in reflecting the period it was released in so well, with just enough catchy commercial fare, philosophical reflection and angry protest to offer an eclectic range no other artist of the day was managing. Personally I prefer my Neil Young records to stay the same throughout, to stick to one genre and explore them thoroughly, but there’s a case to be made that ‘Goldrush’ is one of Neil’s more accessible records. You sense, though, that this record would have been even better had it been made throughout by Crazy Horse and featured the handful of unreleased tracks released on ‘Archives’ in place of this album’s weakest moments. However, for all my difficulty sitting through side one, I have to admit that the run of songs on side two may well be one of the strongest Neil has ever come up with, even now some 60 odd records later, and even diluted Neil’s vision comes over strong and powerfully, a unique description of confusion and loss relayed in poetic, symbolic terms that makes for a fascinating piece to unravel. Above all, ‘Goldrush’ is a charming record whose ragged glory spirit and revealing, honest, insightful lyrics makes it easy to overlook the mistakes, far more so than on other Neil Young records. Mistakes there are, however, and fans like me will always wonder why ‘Goldrush’ (a record that should have been named ‘The Start Of The Goldrush’ given what comes next) took that crown quite so comprehensively, especially when competing against stronger albums released that same year by Crosby, Stills and Nash separately. Fans like me wonder too why follow-up ‘Harvest’ is still hailed as a classic despite containing some of the worst mistakes Neil Young ever made, but that’s a story for another time...