It’s a foggy Sunday morning in Costa Mesa in the fall of 2016. Overcast skies caress the Orange County suburbs in a gentle embrace. I’m riding in the front passenger seat of my girlfriend’s Nissan Versa headed northbound on I-73, listening to the sweet strums of “Harvest Moon” play over the car speakers while the headache from last night’s beer intake settles in.
At the time, I was not yet closely acquainted with Neil Young: iconic songwriter, bonafide rock and roller, maker of many classic records – at least not nearly in the way I am now. I’d always enjoyed hearing “Rockin’ in the Free World” on road trip playlists or at backyard barbecues and thought “Ohio” was a kick-ass song. I really dug “Down By the River,” along with a few other singles I knew, but I had yet to take the proper plunge into one of the richest and most acclaimed catalogs of any singer-songwriter to ever walk the earth. That would all soon change.
After “Harvest Moon” nursed away my hangover that morning, I took it upon myself to start digging. Transfixed by the dreaminess of his classic 1992 tune, I was determined to find out what made Neil Young so great. Over the previous few years, I had been spending large chunks of time rekindling myself with classic rock stalwarts from the ʼ60s, ʼ70s and beyond, so another deep dive into a lengthy discography was right up my alley.
In reading about Neil, I inevitably ended up at the beginning. First, a brief study of Buffalo Springfield, followed by his first solo recordings, and subsequently, his prolific golden age: starting with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and running through Tonight’s the Night and Rust Never Sleeps. Eager to consume, I was astonished at the sheer volume of great albums I had found to immerse myself in.
In time, I would come to adore much of Neil Young’s 1970s output, but on this initial go-around at absorbing his vast catalog, I was heavily drawn to two albums in particular – the two very projects from his early solo career that blew up his profile and helped make him a star: After the Gold Rush and Harvest, the former of which turned 50 years old this past weekend. In looking back at the five decades that separate the album’s release and now, I can only imagine what it would have been like to absorb the record in real time: a bleak but undeniably endearing manifesto that preluded post-hippie depression and gave a glimpse into the fractured mind of a young, peerless eccentric.
Released in September of 1970, on the heels of Young officially becoming the “Y” to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “CSN” and releasing Deja Vu, Neil’s third solo effort was the one that pushed him out of relative obscurity and into the spotlight. After the Gold Rush would prove to be a pivotal work not only in Young’s career but in the landscape of the California singer-songwriter movement, a symbol for the cultural becoming of the 1970s. But for all its symbolic connection with the times, the magic of Gold Rush goes well beyond the era in which it was released.
Not only does the album contain several of Young’s most famous and beloved songs, but it also represents the first incarnation of one of the two distinct styles most frequently associated with his sound, that being the gentle, lonesome, country-flavored folk-rock that favors fragile harmonies, piano tinkering and beds of acoustic instrumentation over wretched guitar solos and bone-crushing hard-rock.
In retrospect, I believe Gold Rush is still a perfect entry point into the Neil Young canon. It’s unbelievably pleasant to listen to and sing along with, yet simultaneously dark, gloomy and evocative. While Neil would go on to record dozens of other stellar albums in varying styles, nearly 60 years after launching his career, it’s not surprising that Gold Rush remains among his most popular works.
To encounter After the Gold Rush for the first time is to hear Neil Young at his most captivating. I can recall immediately being entranced with the folky rhythms of “Tell Me Why,” only to fall more in love with the hallucinogenic daydream of the title track. The incredible songwriting, which mostly comes through in the form of catchy hard-folk and sad piano ditties, is vulnerable enough to understand Young’s merit as a fundamental singer-songwriter and rugged enough to comprehend his early rock and roll credibility.
It doesn’t take too much digging to identify that Young’s imperfections end up being some of his greatest assets. His frail vocal timbre is capable of tapping into emotional dimensions that his peers, past or present, simply can’t reach. He conjures strange levels of sentimentality with deceptively surreal turns of phrase, his ailing cry causing plain language to feel stirringly intimate: “Tell me lies later / Come and see me / I’ll be around for a while / I am lonesome but you can free me / All in the way that you smile.” In Young’s case, his idiosyncrasy is his ultimate weapon.
Just as I fell for the somber serenades of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and “Birds,” the thumping garage grooves that lurk throughout the record proved to be equally irresistible. Thematically and lyrically, “Southern Man” hasn’t held up as one of Neil Young’s most timeless works, but even today, I find it hard to dismiss the energy in the song’s instrumental attack. “When You Dance I Can Really Love” is similarly enticing, led by one of Young’s signature reductive guitar riffs. I especially love this song as it reveals the goofiness within Young’s eccentricities; for what does “when you dance, I can really love” actually mean? I don’t entirely know, but when he sings it, I’m certain I feel it. Even the shorter tracks like “Till the Morning Comes” and “Cripple Creek Ferry,” songs that clock in at less than two minutes, possess an unshakable quality that sticks with you long after they are gone.
It’s been several years now since I first came across Gold Rush, but my feelings about it have only deepened with repeated listening. Its music and its melodies are as memorable on the one hundredth listen as they were on the first. Met with mixed reviews upon initial release, the album’s legacy as a stone-cold classic has only solidified over time. For me, it’s material and message have continued to evolve, revealing new colors and shapes and alluding to new ideas with each revisit. Musically, it’s telling of Neil’s abstract and otherworldly genius, as well as his stubborn and linear skillset. Figuratively, it’s a touching letter on behalf of the dying hippie dream, composed by an oddball who had a front seat to all the madness as it unraveled around him.
Even amidst the numerous great records that came out of L.A. and the rest of the California rock scene during its time, After the Gold Rush stands out as a crown jewel among a sea of diamonds, rubies and pearls. On many days, it’s my favorite record by my favorite artist from my favorite scene and era. It’s a touchstone, a timestamp, a whirlwind of bizarre imagery and naked dispatches on the human condition. It’s a remarkable achievement in simple songcraft and heartfelt expression. The evidence is in the songs and in their spirit.
Featured image adapted from a photo by Michael Putland (Getty Images). Second photo by Henry Diltz.