You can buy 'Here We Are In The Years - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Neil Young' in e-book form by clicking here
If you don't happen to own this comparatively rare Neil Young album - the first of 42 solo albums and counting - you probably think you already know what it will sound like. A bit of grungy guitar, a couple of piano ballads, some Harvest-type imagery and a shade of 'The Doom Trilogy' darkness. Even if you've come to this album from the couple of superlative tracks included on Neil's 1977 best-of 'Decade' or the 21st century version 'Greatest Hits' you're probably convinced that 'Neil Young' is an album that sounds much like a lot of the others. But you'd be wrong. 'Neil Young' is the only complete album in Neil's discography that was built up layer by layer, with intricate arrangements by Neil's friend Jack Nitzsche and probably more overdubs per square inch than whole Neil Young albums from later on in his career. Even the first track - often the most crucial song in defining the way an artist will be viewed in years to come (think The Beatles' 'I Saw Her Standing There' or CSN's 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes') is a country-rock instrumental, quite unlike anything else Neil will ever try again - and this from a man who changes his genres as often as he changes his socks, with very few styles he hasn't spent whole albums exploring. 'Neil Young' is not the sort of album most artists launch their careers with, then, and in comparison with all the other Young albums to come it was a poor seller on it's first release, not quite matching the sales of the last Springfield record (which was hardly a great seller either). But quite a few fans have a soft spot for this album, which has several songs as good as anything Neil will go on to write and a turbulent, elaborate atmosphere that none of his other albums match.
That's arguably because, in 1968, Neil was only half a star, only really achieving household name success with 'After The Goldrush' and CSNY in about 18 months' time or so. This album only really sold to the few faithful Buffalo Springfield fans who didn't blame Neil for the demise of their favourite group and a cult following who realised that Neil was much more than a guitarist who wrote a few songs. Stephen Stills was the natural leader of the Springfield, coming up with the 'hit' songs (or song anyway) and barking orders from stage-left, Richie Furay the singer in the middle of the stage who loved the spotlight - for many people Neil was the guy who played blinding solos and wrote the occasional song but lurked in the shadows, the last person who'd go out and launch a solo career (the tired-of-fame lyrics of Neil's song 'Mr Soul' are more imagination than life at this point and its only after their members' big achievements in CSNY and solo that the Springfield becomes a 'retrospective'-ly big band - full marks if you worked out that pun by the way). It's worth remembering that up to this point Neil has only ever sung five lead vocals in his life and has never had more than three on an album before - the question on many people's lips at the time was whether Neil had enough of a 'voice' to sustain a whole album, not that this album would go on to launch one of the greatest solo careers of them all.
In actual fact, Neil's singing is one of the highest points of this record. No one sounded like this in 1968: haunted, paranoid, seemingly on the verge of tears throughout. Even when Neil is apparently singing a 'happy' song (as per the first half of 'Here We Are In The Years') Neil sounds like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. That really suits this record, where every song more or less paints the world as a scary place, full of hidden surprises and nasty events the characters can't do anything about. Together with his even-then trademark crunch of a guitar sound (which has never sounded better than here) it makes for a winning combination: the sound of a fighter whose on the floor but simply refuses to give up the battle and will probably win on points when the bell goes out of sheer stubborness. Many fans feel that Neil's singing only really comes into its own on 'Goldrush' and 'Harvest', after a fairly uncomfortable period singing for the Springfield (where as great as Neil's voice is it doesn't always fit alongside Stills and Furay's more mainstream vocals) - I reckon it starts here, from the very first album. No wonder Neil went to such expense to recall so many copies of this album's first pressing and have them replaced with a new mix where his vocals are higher (even if they ought to be higher still) (One thing Reprise did get 'wrong' was putting their faith in a mastering process known in the trade as the Heico-HSG system that was actually designed to allow mono records to still sound like stereo when played back on mono equipment, with Neil's one of the few records ever released in this format before it was abandoned; few people were using mono in November 1968 which made its use quite frankly daft and that said the stereo mix of this album is as equally dodgy as the mono - so perhaps the problems are more due to the mix than the mastering, as has been assumed all these years?)
In context with what went before rather than what was to come, 'Neil Young' was a bit of a surprise success. The album gained good reviews, shut people up who thought Neil wouldn't be able to write a whole LP never mind sing it and surprised quite a few people who only knew Neil from his fiery solos and reputation for being grumpy within the band with its subtlety and touches of beauty. While a lot of people talked about the Springfield, sadly few people actually bought their records and it was actually quite a brave chance that Reprise took by hiring not the lead singer or lead writer of an only semi-successful band but their guitarist instead - and one with a reputation for leaving his group in the lurch when things got too much (everyone seems to disagree on the figures but Neil left the Springfield at least three times between 1966 and 1968 which must be some sort of a record - some sources reckon the number is more like eight!) Many reviewers compared this album favourably to Dylan and 'Neil Young' is indeed Neil's most Dylanesque album - full of elusive imagery, metaphors and characters, quite unlike the 'half-autobiography' style lyrics Neil is most famous for writing (again, there's arguably less 'Neil Young' on this record than any of his others). Compared to what's to come, though, 'Neil Young' is a curious record: 'The Loner' is the only real template here for what Neil will go on to write and only that and the gorgeous 'Old Laughing Lady' would sit happily amongst his best work. The rest of the record includes no less than two instrumentals (one of which Neil has nothing to do with whatsoever) and a rambling nine minute acoustic epic that's part Dylan spoof, part heartfelt stream-of-consciousness lyric that's amongst the weirdest things Neil will ever do. Anyone else attempting to launch a solo career - from former colleague Stephen Stills on down - wouldn't dare to be this adventurous and that's the album's biggest strength and weakness: you don't know what's coming next, which is hugely exciting the first time you hear this record, but it's also frustrating when what comes next is so far out of field it sounds like it belongs on a Mantovani record ('String Quartet From Whisky Boot Hill') or on a 'Frank Zappa Spoofs Dylan' record ('The Last Trip To Tulsa') - actually I'd pay to hear that last one had it actually existed. It's no surprise this record didn't sell all that well, because you have arguably less idea of what 'Neil Young' is all about after hearing it than before it - the wonder is that 'Reprise' ever allowed Neil to record a follow-up, never mind allow him to change his style so comprehensively with his next record (joining the largely non-interfering Reprise from the more hands-on Atlantic - where boss Ahmet Ertegun struck up as many personal relationships with his artists as he could - is the single most important break for Neil's career; few other labels would ever have let their big star get away with sinking their career with the 'doom trilogy' so soon after 'Harvest' made them multi-millionaires, arguably the thing that made Neil's records seem relevant long after his contemporaries had faded away).
That said, 'Neil Young' isn't the way anyone else would launch a solo career: most artists would go out of their way to make the album all about 'themselves', but 'Neil Young' has more opportunities than most to hide the real Neil, despite being his only album to date to actually use his name. The first pressing of the album didn't contain Neil's moniker at all - either as artist or album title; the original mix of the album contains Neil's voice ducked so low in the mix that it's a strain to hear (even if this was by record company shenanigans rather than Neil's choice) and the cover artwork by artist Roland Diehl, while striking for those who know Neil well nowadays, could really have been of anyone with dark hair and a scary stare if you were only a casual Springfield fan and not as great a likeness as, say, Joni Mitchell's sketchy portrait of Neil from the CSNY 'So Far' compilation has it Neil heard that first wife Susan had an artist friend and hired him to do the cover sight unseen; having commissioned it he was embarrassed into using it, although it's nothing like as bad as some fans have made out over the years (it does look like Neil, after all - but it also looks like quite a few other people too (add a beard and this could be Charles Manson, which was not someone you wanted to look like in 1968). The album's second mix - as used for all re-issues of the album since, including CDs - is only marginally better than the first too, in the sense that Neil can at least be heard more clearly but he still often sounds like an outsider on his own LP, his voice more of a ghostly presence than the choirs or strings that are on most of the tracks. In short, 'Neil Young' couldn't be less like the back-to-basics Neil Young everyone comes to see as the 'real Neil' and Young is often an extra on his own record, adding touches of shadowy colour to the backing tracks meticulously concocted by Messina and Nitzsche; by contrast, the first record by Neil's old partner ('Stephen Stills') is the way most fans define him even now: part rock, part pop, part blues, part soul and equally at home leading a full band and playing solo. How very Neil to start his solo career by defining what he isn't, rather than what he is.
As a whole, 'Neil Young' couldn't be further away from Neil's 'less is more' policy that's come to dominate his work in the years since (starting with the very next Crazy Horse-filled record 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere'). Sensibly Neil didn't cut his ties altogether and enlisted the help of two important allies: producer, arranger and keyboard player Jack Nitzsche and late-period Buffalo Springfield bassist and engineer Jim Messina (who might have becomes one of Neil's closest allies had he not thrown his lot in with Richie Furay's new group Poco and later Blood, Sweat and Tears). Both men excel themselves here, alongside drummer George Grantham who was soon to be Poco's ever under-rated drummer alongside Furay and Messina, backing Neil up considerably and occasionally bringing out his better, more patient side (it's hard to believe that a track as dense and technical as 'The Old Laughing Lady' is by the same person who'll go on to record barebones albums like 'Ragged Glory', with their five minutes of squealing feedback every other song). Indeed, few Neil Young albums will ever 'sound' this good again, especially the crunch of Neil's guitar which has rarely sounded as brittle or as piercing, adding just the right amount of 'earth' to these songs which might otherwise have got swamped with strings and overdubs. However, close as Neil was to both men (and much as he owed Nitzsche, especially, who believed in Neil when no one else would), they really weren't his 'type' to work with: both were hard task masters who demanded the very best and would work through the night to get things as 'perfect' as possible (More than once Messina was shocked to find that Neil and manager David Briggs had taped his rehearsals and refused to let him re-record the parts - not the sort of thing anybody was doing in 1968, never mind a little known guitarist trying to launch his first album!)
Neil's never been one for perfection (his tendency for adding at least one deliberately awful song to every record - in order to ensure they're 'perfect' by being 'imperfect' if you will - is evidence of that; think 'Bite The Bullet' on 'American Stars 'n' Bars', 'Motorcyle Mama' on 'Comes A Time' or 'Piece Of Crap' on 'Sleeps With Angels'), he's much more of a 'feel' person who hated re-recording things to get them technically right if the 'feel' was there and it's no surprise that he vowed never again to make a record like this one again (or work with poor Jack or Jim again, despite their sterling work on this album). The surprise, really, is that Neil agreed to make an album like this at all: perhaps he was swayed by the comparatively painless recording of 'Expecting To Fly', the truly exceptional Buffalo Springfield song he'd actually recorded with Jack during a sojourn from the group (but offered to them on his return), although sadly there's nothing quite as magnificent as that song here. He certainly seems to have had mixed reactions about this album over the years (the excellent biography of Neil, 'Shakey', has Neil admitting 'My first album was a really lonely experience' and 'We had a lot of fun making that record...it was beautiful' a mere sentence apart) and it speaks volumes that he's never made an album like it again, or worked with Nitzsche or Messina after this.
There is, however, much to enjoy. 'The Old Laughing Lady' is currently slugging it out with 'Dangerbird' 'Borrowed Tune' and 'A Man Needs A Maid' as my favourite Neil Young song of all time and it certainly features Neil's greatest lyric in my eyes. Like 'Eleanor Rigby' the song says everything about emptiness and isolation in a stark few lines, the very lack of emotion in Neil's third person narrator pulling at the listener's reactions far more than pure unadulterated anger or sadness ever could. The song's haunting melody is also achingly beautiful and other-worldly, as if the ghost of the old lady who dies in the first verse of the song is still hanging on to life, aghast at the realisation that all her promise will go unfulfilled. 'The Loner' is pretty special too, an angry turbulent song that does an 'I Am A Rock' on us by hinting that the troubled soul who sits alone staring at passengers on the subway didn't want his life to be like this. Few Neil Young songs are as haunting as 'I've Loved Her So Long' or 'If I Could Have Her Tonight' either, songs about unfulfilled love that seems to be dying out before it really got going.
Like the idea that 'Neil Young' isn't really an album about 'Neil Young', so there's a feeling across this record of ending up somewhere you didn't want to go and of life pulling you some dustance away from where you set out to be. 'The Loner' - sung in the third person, as if he's a stranger even to himself - isn't a loner by choice but was wounded by love, the song's last verse making it clear that 'the day' that the love of his life left him 'he died - but it did not show'; 'If I Could Have Her Tonight' is the sound of a man whose done everything to get his woman to fall in love with him short of actually asking her or talking to her, as if expecting fate to intervene and being cross when it doesn't; 'I've Been Waiting For You' picks up on the same theme although it's slightly more proactive in actually getting her to take notice of him; 'The Old Laughing Lady' isn't just about the lost hopes of the title character but a whole village full of characters stumbling through their lives with no real purpose or outside force to save them; 'Here We Are In The Years' is a mini-history of the industrial revolution, opening with all the great things that technological progress brought us - before ending with a haunting refrain that tearfully laments for all that was lost because of it and all the unforeseen side effects that came of it; 'What Did You Do To My Life?' is the breakdown of a lover who thought his marriage would last forever and is shocked to find his wife has disappeared in the night; 'I've Loved Her So long' appears at first glance to be about a relationship that was built to last and has gone on forever, but the verses tell a different story to the chorus, full of references to the pair being together as anachronistic and doomed to failure ('A veteran of a race that should be over'); finally the rambling 'Last Trip To Tulsa' could be about anything but it's notable how many of the song's strange characters turn out to be something they pretended not to be, from the reluctant wife who cries out 'let's get on with this thing' at her own wedding to the narrator's revelation halfway through that all this time he thought he was 'dreaming' this song, but 'it turned out I was dead'. All of these songs have hidden nasty surprises in them, like a joke jack-in-the-box and the rug is pulled out from under out feet many many times during the course of the album.
So why was Neil having such a hard time? Surely he'd finally got what he wanted - a record company who believed in him, a final end to the will-he-won't-he? see-saw of joining and quitting the Buffalo Springfield (which became academic when they called it a day in 1968) and a growing reputation among his followers thanks to a winning series of acoustic gigs (his first was released on CD as 'Sugar Mountain' in 2009 and is so far easily the best of his five-part 'archive' release series). As ever with early Neil Young, the answer lies with his love life. First wife Susan (maiden name Acevedo) is another figure who gets a hard press from Neil Young fans who remember the pained interviews their hero gives circa 1970, when her 'followers' invade his house and make him feel like an outsider in his own home or whose stormy rows caused some of Neil's unhappiest songs. To be fair to her, though, Susan was the best thing that ever happened to Neil for the end of his Springfield days - she kept the faith when few other people did, kept Neil on the straight and narrow, helped him deal with his epilepsy as best she could and kept all the 'vultures' away from the door to leave Neil to get on with his small circle of friends and co-workers. The problem for Neil in 1968 is that he's tired of being part of a 'band' who all have to make the decisions - he's after making decisions for himself, not the least of which is buying the ranch he's always wanted (and still lives in to this day) a million miles away from anywhere. Neil hardly ever comes out sand says what's really on his mind, so there are no 'split' songs here in the way that, say, his old colleague Stephen Stills will open his heart in the mid-70s but you can tell from several of this album's lyrics that Neil is growing increasingly uncomfortable with his ;larger-than-life wife. 'The Loner' isn't on his own - he's in a world full of people and noise and activity he doesn't want to join in with surely a portrait of his life with Susan who was always surrounded by people; 'Here We Are In The Years' has long been treated as a simple country versus town parable but in this context sounds like Neil's arguments for getting his modern inner city girl to come and play farmers with him; 'If I Could Have Her Tonight' is the closest Neil ever comes to writing a love song for Susan - and yet its a very odd sort of a love song, a tale of unrequited love for a girl he never seems to be able to be alone with; finally 'What Did You Do To My Life?' is the ultimate it's-not-fair song addressed to an absent lover whose never there - it even uses the words 'it isn't fair' in the chorus. However - and here's the twist - Neil and Susan actually married on December 1st 1968, about a fortnight after this album was relelased (on Neil's 23 rd birthday, rather sweetly). Does this set of lyrics sound like a match made in heaven to you? Why on earth did the pair choose now to tie the knot, after living together for several years before this? Like many things in this period the whole thing seems a puzzle, as if Neil is casting around for a direction in life, love and work that won't hit the jackpot until he meets Crazy Horse later in the year.
As it happens, 'Neil Young' does do a god job of summing up what Neil Young is all about - but more because it's un-definable and un-catagorisable and completely unexpected than because 'Neil Young' offers up any clues as to how Neil's career is going to go on from this. Only the guitar sound really stays the same - and that had been created as early as the first Springfield album. As a record it's uneven and features at least three songs that rank as some of Neil's worst ever; but at the same time there's a kind of quiet dignity about this record that makes it one of Neil's very best. Songs like 'The Loner' and 'The Old Laughing Lady' are first-class and more than worth sitting through the album's lesser moments for, while other less well known songs like 'Here We Are In The Years' and 'If I Could Have Her Tonight' are pretty special too and desperately deserve a place back in Neil's live sets. Certainly the album was better than anyone, except possibly Neil, was expecting from him at the time and it's a shame that Neil hasn't gone back to making at least one album in this produced, elaborate style since (frankly after four records on the trot recorded 'as live' I'm getting a bit sick of his 'first thought, best thought' approach, exciting as that is on Neil's very best albums). 'Neil Young' might not be the greatest album Neil's ever made, it might not have the consistency of some of his later albums or the confidence of almost everything to follow, but it is a very special, very different record full of several wonderful moments - and in its own quiet, passive-aggressive, contradictory way might well be the most revealing Neil Young album after all, even if it does it's best to confuse any idea what being 'Neil Young' is really like.
'The Emperor Of Wyoming' must rank as one of the oddest starts to any album in history. The fact that it's the start of the recording career of a man who - Johnny Cash and Elvis aside - has made more studio albums than anybody else across his 45 year career makes it all the stranger. A laidback country-pop song, it sounds less like an instrumental than a backing track that never got finished or a song that was mixed so badly it had the vocals taken out of it. There's no reason why this song couldn't have become another Neil Young classic with some lyrics - Neil's guitar even follows the song's chord changes in the way a vocal would, rather than accompanying the song the way most guitar parts do - but Neil seems to have run out of patience with this project; goodness knows what made him put one of his laziest offerings as the first track on the album. The tune is quite lovely, you see, but played on strings and guitars it just doesn't have the same impact as if it had lyrics. What makes this sound like a 'backing track' as opposed to an 'instrumental' is also the sheer amount of times the main melody phrase is repeated - had this been a bona fide 'song', of course, the variation would have come from the vocals and/or lyrics; nice as this is it gets boring long before the 135 seconds are up. Just to confuse matters even more, Wyoming does not have nor has ever had an emperor: how could it, being an American state that from the first was ruled by a democratically elected body rather than a monarch? As far as I know, Neil has no connection to Wyoming, has never been or known anyone who was an Emperor and no NY scholar has ever found out why this song bears it's strange name. If anyone else had launched their career with a song like this one, they'd have been locked up.
'The Loner' is the song from this album that everybody knows - and with good reason. One of Neil's most enduring rockers, it somehow manages to sound like the tough and brittle suit of armour the loner character wears and the softer side underneath. Unlike the similar 'I AM A Rock' by Simon and Garfunkel, Neil sings in the third-person throughout but ironically this narrator seems to understand the character more than the loner himself, as if he's the loner's sub-consciousness talking to us ('Know when you see him, nothing can free him, step aside, open wide, it's the loner). Whilst the first two verses sound like the kind of intense, angry person most of us try to avoid in everyday life, the third verse finally lets down the mask and reveals that the loner has been let down in love, but was too 'tough' or vulnerable to display any feeling ('The day that she left he died, but it did not show'). Note again that this is a song about a love that's gone away unexpectedly - did Neil really tie the knot just weeks after recording this turbulent anti-love song? The song's clever poetic lyrics ('He's a feeling arranger and a changer of the way he talks' is one of Neil's better lines) are well matched by a catchy, desperate-sounding riff that manages to sound both stony-faced and deeply emotional. Neil's stinging guitar (apparently recorded through a leslie organ - the 'revolving' cabinet first invented by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick more usually used for 'ghostly' vocals than guitars) is terrific, hinting at all the pain not that far from the surface, prowling around the song like a hungry lion waiting to pounce. Sadly there's no escape for 'The Loner', the song ending with a pained 'know when you see him, nothing can free him!'; fittingly the production by this point has now hit the point where it's suffocating, with all that's left of the Loner his angry guitar stabs. Everyone involved in this song is at their best: Neil's vocal alternates between sneering detachment and fierce anger, Jack Nitzsche's string arrangement proves for once and for all that an orchestra can suit a rock song when both parties are in synch and the rhythm section of Jim Messina and especially George Grantham play with such fierce determination it's rather a shame to think that they never get the excuse to play this heavily again in Poco (Grantham's drum fills on this track are pretty much the template for what Neil will ask Ralph Molina to play in Crazy Horse the following year). All in all, one of the album's two clear success stories, wrapping all the confusion and disenchantment of this unsettling period into one killer three minute rock song everyone can either identify with or feel sympathy for. A regular on Neil's compilations down the years, this song should really have been released as a single (surprisingly, no songs were ever released from this album as singles - another rather odd thing to do when you're trying to establish yourself as a solo artist). Fans should listen out to a poppier interpretation of this song by none other than Stephen Stills, who added a riff stolen from 'Crossroads' to turn the song into a singalong for his album 'Illegal Stills' in 1976; sadly its not as successful as his interpretation of Neil's 'New Mama' from the year before (someone put two and two together in the 1970s and assumed this song had always been about Stills - especially in 1976, when Neil started performing the similar 'Stringman' for his colleague; however 'The Loner' sounds much more like Young's 'persona' of the time than the more outgoing Stills').
'If I Could Have Her Tonight' is apparently a rare example of a Neil Young love song, although the twist is that the object of the narrator's interest doesn't even seem to realise he's even interested in her. Like so many of Neil's narrators in this early period, the character singing this song is a mess of contradictions, confident that he's got lots to offer his girl but still so afraid of her rejection that he hasn't actually talked to her yet. 'Do you think that she'd like to do anything I would? Or would she leave me?' he sings to us, even though the only way he'll ever find out the answers to his questions is if he asks the girl himself. His main concern, though, seems to be the worry 'would she be kind?' The narrator seems to have learnt all he needs to know from staring at her eyes, which seem to tell him everything - but still he worries, pushing this song uncomfortably into a second verse and then a more urgent, torturous middle eight before the song simply fades away, the girl still unasked. It's tempting to see this song as a cry for help from someone who has just been coerced into marriage when he's not really sure what to do - like the narrator the Neil Young of this period as drawn by most biographers is of a one-step-forward, two-steps-back individual, obsessed by Susan but equally unsure whether they belong together (and, moreover, a couple who still don't feel they 'know' each other yet, however 'close' they feel). Musically this song is one of the cosiest on the album, though and arguably the only song here you can hear Richie Furay singing in the Springfield, almost a conservative pop song by Neil's eccentric standards, the tension only really coming from the lyrics and the middle eight. Neil even sings the song as a sort of keening crooner, double-tracking his voice to make it sound more 'normal' although its his higher-pitched harmony track that reveals just how much he's getting the hang of this recording lark. A very under-rated song, 'If I Could Have Her Tonight' might not be as deep as 'The Loner' or as pretty as 'The Old Laughing Lady' but is well worth seeking out by fans, a minor gem that sadly seems to have been shelved in terms of life appearances about the time Neil broke up with Susan (the 'Sugar Mountain' version from Canterbury House is particularly effecting and sounds like an even straighter love song without all this production's fuss and bluster).
'I've Been Waiting For You' isn't a fully developed song so much as a set of turbulent chord changes, a lengthy guitar solo and a short single verse that's so bare and to the point you sense that Neil felt he had nothing else to add. Like the last song, this narrator is in anguish waiting for his lover to react to him - but this time she knows that he's in love with her only too well and is toying with him. Neil is asking a lot after all: he doesn't just want love but a girl who can 'save my life' and someone who knows what it's like to be hurt ('...with the feeling of losing once or twice') This is clearly another 'Susan' song and about how the pair might finally be tying the knot after spending several years together - but musically this is less a romantic union between two lovers than a clash between two powerful Gods; just listen to the emotion that's wrung out of this simple slow-burning epic, with an organ part that's slowly brought down note by note until it's plumbing the depths of the keyboard, a bass part so restless it sounds as if it's playing at four times the speed of everyone else and one of Neil's finest guitar parts of his whole career, wildly soaring over the song's tricky structure on the borders of being in and out of control, the closest Neil ever came to playing with the wild abandon of Jimi Hendrix. The trouble with this song is that so much effort has clearly been put into a song that doesn't really exist: a verse, a one-line chorus and a guitar solo do not a song make; had Neil doubled the running time by adding another verse and perhaps one of our site's beloved middle eights this song might have been a cracker; as it is it's a marvellous recording of a so-so song - all the more incredible given that there are probably more overdubs going on on this track than any other solo Neil Young recording (only the drums were kept from the first 'live' take apparently).
'The Old Laughing Lady' is a magnificent piece of work. From the opening poignant single note held by the strings to the slow fade-out on a lamenting keyboard riff that lasts almost a full minute, it's one of Neil's saddest and most moving songs. The old laughing lady herself dies in the first verse with so many of her life dreams unfulfilled, and the rest of the song is about the ripples that lead from her death, from the 'drunkard of the village' whose revealed to be her husband or at least her lover (who 'can't tell his ankles from the rest of his feet' in one of Neil's cleverest lines) filling his pain with drink and eventually finding solace when there's a 'slipping down the stairway' and he presumably dies, ending the song with a vision of his 'old laughing lady' coming to greet him. Inconsolably sad, the only way out of this song's bleak picture is death, Neil excelling himself with his lines about the most inevitable fact of life (when the old laughing dies 'she leaves nothing, at all') and it's impact on loved ones. Many fans have wondered who the 'old laughing lady' could be: it's not Neil's mother Rassy (who died in 1990), nor is it his wife Peggy's mother as some have thought from the line 'Don't call her pretty Peggy' : the choice of name is just an eerie coincidence as the pair won't even meet for five years yet. Surely, though, this song was inspired by the death of somebody close to Neil: you can hear the regret and sorrow dripping from Neil's voice, which has never sounded more fragile or vulnerable (surprisingly, 'The Old Laughing Lady' has become one of Neil's most covered songs of his career, but none of the versions - from The Stereophonics down to Johnathon Rice, though by technically better singers, have come close to matching Neil's solemn vulnerability here). A marvellous string arrangement by Jack Nitzsche manages to stay just the right side of sentimental and - following on from the equally magical 'Expecting To Fly' it shows how sympathetic to each other these two very different men were. Dare I say it, the two feature probably the single best arrangement of strings on an AAA album outside the crashing chaos on The Beatles' 'A Day In The Life'. A moody instrumental in the middle heightens the tension tenfold, a choir emulate Pink Floyd's wordless 'Great Gig In The Sky' five years early and just as successfully and Jim Messina again excels himself on a bass part that should be too 'busy' to fit the mood but instead gives the song a sense of urgency and frustration. An absolute album highlight, 'The Old Laughing Lady' treads a fine line between tragedy and saccharine, but everything is so heartfelt and pitched so right that the song becomes a masterpiece of arrangement, moving without being cloying. Oddly, Neil barely played this very orchestrated song life until reviving it in upbeat acoustic form for his 'Unplugged' album in 1993, after which it became a live favourite. sadly many modern Neil Young fans only know this song from this rather peculiar happy-go-lucky version where death sounds like a fun event in life; I urge everyone who only knows the 'Unplugged' version of this amazing song to go back to the original as soon as possible!
Alas if Jack Niotzsche got things spot-on with 'The Old Laughing Lady', he mucked them up entirely for 'String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill', on which Neil doesn't even sing, fans won't have known it in 1968 but 'Whiskey Boot Hill' was one of the sections for Neil's 1970 epic 'Country Girl' (released on the 1970 CSNY album 'Deja Vu') and a demo of the song included on the 'Buffalo Springfield' box set of 2000 reveals that Neil had indeed written this part of the song seperately as early as the beginning of 1968. It could be that an early version of 'Whiskey Boot Hill' was intended for this album and that Jack had spent quite some time working on the string part before Neil decided he didn't want to use it;' however I can't get this short and rather bland instrumental piece to fit in with the structure of either version of 'Whiskey Boot Hill' for love or money. It's another very odd selection for a debut album - and sounds unlike anything else Neil will ever release again. It also sounds very unlike Nitzsche's other work, which at least has a rock and roll lilt to it even at it's most classical; this instead sounds like something written by Clementi on a very bad day - and as someone who had to suffer his piano pieces more frequently than any other composer, believe me he had an awful lot of those.
'Here We Are In The Years' is another under-rated song, an ecology piece about the dangers of leaving too much of the countryside and innocence behind as mankind lurches forward into so-called technological 'progress'. Ecology songs weren't common in 1968 - indeed, we spent some time explaining what a big step it was for Paul McCartney to title the first Wings album 'Wildlife' after that album's big environmental statement - and this song is more personal than universal, clearly inspired by Neil's beloved ranch. The characters in the song have such a great time in the country in the summer holidays that they ask why they have to go back to the city at all, before long turning their backs on everything industrial and looking down their noses at the people who were part of their 'old' life who haven't 'got' it yet ('What a pity that the people from the city can't relate to the slower things that the country brings'). Like Paul McCartney - who swapped the end of the Beatles for a simple life on his Mull of Kintyre farm and recorded albums like 'Ram' - Neil has obviously found the end of the Springfield claustrophobic and is after some peace and quiet. For the most part this song is gentle chastisement rather than full on passion, although there's a definite mood shift in the last verse when being 'here in the years' (Neil's metaphor for 'keeping up with the Joneses') leads to a relentless stream of mistakes: 'When the showman shifts the gears, lives become careers, children crying fears, get us out of here!') A sweet song, highlighted by a subtle piano part, and a synthesiser made to sound like a french horn, the subtleties of the country are cleverly pitted against Neil's guttural guitar presumably representing the 'town', it's sudden stinging harsh riff sounding terribly out of place in the rest of the 'country' backing. Another song from this album that deserves to be better known.
'What Did You Do To My Life?' is arguably the weakest of the album's 'proper' songs (i.e. discounting 'Tulsa' 'Wyoming' and 'Whiskey Boot Hill'), if only because it's so close to the structure of 'I've Been Waiting For You' sung with less power and commitment the second time around. The lyrics sound rather childish for Neil (including both the lines 'it isn't fair' and 'I don't care', like a petulant teenager) but do include the first of Neil's trademark references to 'mountains' turning to dust which appear in several of his later songs. Again the tension in this song is built from two different parts, a laidback verse where the narrator 'knew' his girl would stay and a turbulent chorus that hints at the volcano of emotions going on under the surface. Clearly another song about Susan, this is a song that instead of worrying that his lover will leave is afraid she has already left, but annoyingly instead of the emotional commitment of most of the rest of the album Neil's narrator simply alternates between being sullen and worried- there's none of the pathos of 'The Loner' or 'If I Could Have Her Tonight' sadly. Still, on the plus side, Neil's guitar again sounds terrific and a clever use of echo on Neil's voice makes him fittingly sound as if he's singing to a ghost whose already walked out of his life forever.
'I've Loved Her So Long' is another oft-neglected Neil Young song, a moody ballad that's arguably the first Neil Young song to be based around a piano part rather than a guitar or orchestra. Like many tracks on this record it sounds like Neil talking to himself and trying to find out what he really wants, again possibly from marriage to his first wife Susan. The verses are a sea of angst and paranoia, with the narrator unsure whether he's doing the right thing at all. The first line tells us that the girl is a 'victim of her senses', her emotion scaring the normally inner Neil, the second finds her 'tumbling by' in the distance without him and the third admits that the pair's relationship is an anachronism that ended long ago for both of them - 'a veteran in a race that should be over'. So far, so not very romantic at all! Yet unusually for Neil a calmer chorus seems to come in from nowhere and right all of his troubles, this edgy song finally resolving from a minor to a major key and finding happiness as Neil repeats the title over and over like a prayer. If there was ever a single moment when Neil decided to finally commit to marrying Susan, it was probably here whilst writing this song, which sounds like a final resolution to a troubled time in his life. However, even if Neil can't see it, we can read oodles into this song in hindsight: look at the sheer list of arguments about why the marriage won't work, when all Neil can manage in defence is the fact that the pair have, err, known each other a long time. Quite unlike anything else in the Neil Young canon, this song is a masterpiece of smokescreen and game-playing, dominated by a moody keyboard part drenched in echo even though it's ducked so low in the mix it sounds like a ghostly phantom trying to make it's presence felt (Neil's subconsciousness maybe?) The girl chorus and the strings are a tad more obtrusive than they were on 'The Old Laughing Lady', though, and this is the one song on the album that might have benefitted from being played quietly and simply, more in line with Neil's later way of thinking. Still, even if the recording is one of the weakest on the album (and this is the one song on the album untrained singer Neil seems to be having problems with) 'I've Loved Her So Long' is a fascinating and unfairly overlooked song.
Not so 'Last Trip To Tulsa', which has over the years been dismissed as an experiment, a heartfelt song about a disturbing dream or epileptic fit or simply as a bad joke. Even Neil seems to have believed his share of all three scenarios over the years, claiming it to be one of his favourite songs at the time of release and yet dismissing it as 'an example of my humour' in conversation for the biography 'Shakey'. It's clearly the stepping stone for Neil's more surreal forms of writing that crop up down the years, starting with the Buffalo Springfield epic 'Broken Arrow', through 'On The Beach's poetic 'Ambulance Blues', the life-as-a-fish 'Will To Love' from 'Stars 'n' Bars' and even the poppier 'Pocahontas' from 'Rust Never Sleeps'. Alas 'Tulsa' is the most rambling and as a result most pointless sounding song of the lot. Neil gets so far into the people-reaching-for-peace, the-world-is-doomed, my-American-Indian-heritage and even look-at-me-I'm-a-fish! stories that it's easy to forget how 'weird' some of those songs are and get wrapped up in the story. However, 'Tulsa' seems to revel in its sheer weirdness and there doesn't seem to be much of a link between the verses in the song, which are all quite interesting in their own right but ought perhaps to have been turned into five or six separate songs. The one thing that links them all is a sort of gloomy paranoia and the idea that the narrator or narrators in these verses are trapped, lost within a world they don't understand and can't navigate their way out of. The song starts with the taxi driver narrator (who never again mentions being a taxi driver - it's that sort of a song!) pulling over in the road and taking a nap. He's met in the first verse with visions of men eating money because they have no food, 'rocks in the sky' out to destroy the world while a preacher loses his faith and joins in with the pandemonium. A scary second verse then has the narrator revealing how 'I used to be a woman...' (though whether through reincarnation or surgery or hallucination is unclear), attending a wedding and greeting the most special day of her life with the complaint 'let's get on with this thing'. The third verse finds the narrator as a 'folk singer, keeping managers alive', unlocking the listener's mind but promising to send them 'the key' via post so they can lock it again. The fourth verse finds the taxi driver realising that he's not asleep but dead, his spirit watching the 'friendly' coroner at work, showing more friendliness in death than he ever shared in life. The fifth verse finds the narrator alive again and in his car but, finding he needs petrol, he's too paranoid to get out the car and ask for help ('The servicemen were yellow, the gasoline was green, although I knew I couldn't felt like I was gonna scream!') The last verse - reprinted on the album's rear sleeve for added impact - is the most mysterious one of all, the narrator chopping down a palm tree and spurning the help of a friend before cutting down the tree and seeing it land on his friend's back, crushing him.
What are we to make of these sea of images? Is there any link between them at all - or is this all nonsense? Well, yes, it probably is, but the key thing about all of these verses is that the characters within them aren't behaving the way you'd expect. The preacher isn't saving the world when judgement day seems to be coming, the coroner who works with dead bodies is the most sociable character in the song and, hidden away in the middle, is perhaps the key to the whole song - the lover who talks so strongly of marriage and yet seems to have treated the whole idea of a joke when her husband finally gets round to proposing (sample lines from Neil and Susan's own marriage: 'Neil: do you wish to be the solar light upon this lady's path? And Susan, do you wish to be the moonbeam o devotion to this man's light?') The couple getting married have been playing games together for so long that they're not sure if they both mean it, don't mean it or whether one of them is more committed than the other - in short, they're lost in a world that doesn't seem to work the way it should (surely talk of marriage should end all the problems, not begin them?) Moreover, Neil seems to be shunning help from the people he needs in his life (the other Springfield members aren't talking to him just now, either, after Neil quit the group the last time and effectively split them up a few months earlier) - and it's them that seem to be paying the price for it, not Neil (who probably thought the Springfield could carry on without him for eternity).Listen out too for Neil's line about an I ndian 'trying on my clothes', possibly a reference to feeling 'sraightjacketed' by his image in the Springfield (where Neil was the fringe-jacketed 'indian' and Stills the 'cowboy') and the way nearly every verse in this song starts 'Well I used to be' - this is a sound of a person who doesn't know who he is anymore. The references to Tulsa come just before the end, Neil promising 'if you ever need a ride there be sure to let me know', cackling as if Tulsa is located somewhere in the vicinity of the Twilight Zone, which seems to be exactly where Neil is for most of this album. A tour de force for Neil as a singer and guitarist - all he has to accompany him for nine whole minutes is the sound of his acoustic guitar - 'Tulsa' has a great nagging riff that does a good job of keeping the listener's interest for such a long time. Neil's scat singing before the last verse, where production echo makes him sound as if he's lost in the fog, is simply beautiful and one to play your Neil Young-hating relatives and friends who claim he can't sing. The trouble is, if this is a joke it's at our expense for sitting through it without a punch-line or resolution to bring it to an end - if this is a serious stream-of-consciousness rant, possibly inspired by a real epileptic seizure, then ultimately Neil knows less about what to make of this song than we do. Even for the sort of fans who revel in Neil's 'weirder' side like me (at least three of the above mentioned four similar songs are among my favourites of Neil's work) this is perhaps a touch too weird and unfathomable, an alien language that needs a rosetta stone to unlock it that even Neil might not possess.
'Tulsa' might be the most extreme form of it, but actually there's a lot of 'weird' material on 'Neil Young'. Artist, producer, engineer and arranger have done their best to disguise it, but however you look at it 'Neil Young' doesn't work the way debut records work. Far from outlining everything Neil stood for in the Springfield and where he's headed, 'Neil Young' sounds like an orchestrated cul-de-sac from a man whose just switched a restrictive rock and roll lifestyle for an equally restrictive orchestral one and already wants out. Moreover, 'Neil Young' is the sound of a man struggling to work out what he stands for in love, life and music and changing his mind all the time about where to head next in all three. The 'problem' with this record is that Neil gets it so right so many times ('The Loner' 'Old Laughing Lady' 'I've Loved Her So Long' 'Here We Are In The Years' 'If I Could Have Her Tonight') that it's hard to believe he rejected the whole of this record and it's painstaking meticulous overdubbing work because parts of it weren't quite as successful ('Emperor Of Wyoming' 'Last Trip TO Tulsa' 'Whiskey Boot Hill' 'What Did You Do To My Life?') Knowing Neil from his later records - and all the many aborted CSNY/Crazy Horse/International Harvester records out there - this could be an early case of sabotage from an artist who knew if he was too successful with this record he'd end up having to copy it for the rest of his life. But if that's true, then why did Neil go out of his way to remix a flop record and go to the drama of publicising it all again instead of letting it die? This is a highly contradictory record, full of highs and lows, some songs recorded over months and others in minutes, pulling the listener this way and that throughout the record, unable to work out if the narrator is in or out of love. We fans wouldn't have Neil any other way and it's that contradictory nature that makes 'Neil Young' the most Neil Young-like album after all, even if casual fans might only recognise the guitar sound from later recordings rather than the feel of the material, the size of the production or even the voice given all the echo and effects that are used on this album. Like many a record to come, too, 'Neil Young' is both a good and a bad record at different times, perfect through being imperfect.