Gleaning Gold: Neil Young’s Harvest Turns 40
Young first met (the then) Nashville, Tenn.-based Harvest producer Elliot Mazer at a party that Mazer had thrown for Johnny Cash. It would be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.
“I love albums that take you to different places song by song.” Mazer says today from England of Harvest. “I mixed the entire album but really mixed each song as a song.” The stark collection, recorded at various locations—ranging from Jan. 30, 1971 at UCLA’s Royce Hall (“The Needle and The Damage Done”) to the February and April sessions at Mazer’s Quadrafonic studio to the two songs recorded with keyboardist and arranger Jack Nitzche and the London Symphony in March 1971 to the September sessions at a barn-turned studio at Broken Arrow ranch in Woodside, Calif.—presented Mazer with a challenge.
“The fewer instruments and voices that are in a mix, the harder it is to make a complete and cohesive sound,” he says. “There is no compression or limiting on Harvest. We wanted the full sonic and dynamic ranges of those instruments and voices.”
Those voices include Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor providing back up vocals for “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man.” Young also convinced his CSN compatriots to appear on the record in different configurations, prompting David Crosby to comment, “Neil needs us about as much as a stag needs a coat rack.” However, their appearances imbue “Are You Ready for the County,” “Alabama” and “Words” with a richness and depth, and at times, a lightness that the songs wouldn’t otherwise possess.
“His songs imply those parts,” Mazer says of the various personnel’s contributions to the record. “Sometimes he would tell [drummer]Kenny [Buttrey] to not play a high-hat. On one song, Kenny sat on his right hand. Neil also met [guitarist] Ben Keith on these sessions. The two of them bonded, which turned out to be a continual working relationship between them until Ben passed away last year.” Other contributors included pianists John Harris and James McMahon and guitarist Teddy Irwin.
When asked if Young was going for a particular concept, Mazer says that they never discussed anything. “The songs are the album and they spoke loudly when he played them,” he says in a producer-like way. “He played us a song, which for the most part, spoke to what was to be played and how it would sound. Neil is an amazing and physical guitarist. His movements imply the rhythms.”
Simply put, says Mazer, “The music flowed and we all did what we did the best.”
Harvest quickly reached the top of the Billboard charts, giving Young his only No. 1 record in his long career, but also making him back away from his fame, all but disowning it, denigrating the song in the liner notes for his 1977 retrospective, Decades. “This song put me in the middle of the road,” he reflected. “Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there.”
The most revealing part of Harvest —in regard to where Young’s emotional compass was pointed to at the time—is in on the title track “Harvest,” where he sings, “Dream up, dream up/ Let me fill you with the promise of a man,” rather than the man himself.
While that signals an enormous amount of self-awareness about his limitations, it doesn’t absolve him of the responsibility of giving the relationship all he has, something made material when he sings, “Will I see you give more than I can take? Will I only harvest some?”
What did Carrie Snodgress think about when she heard that line? Was it a portent of a rocky future?
I don’t know about her, but I saw red flags.
It wasn’t until 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps that Neil Young even got close to emotional surrender. The idea of harvest, however, would haunt him for years after, as he named his 1992 album Harvest Moon and his band (during his 1984-85 tour) the International Harvesters, silently begging the question of the one-time teenage egg farmer: What is it that he is harvesting or wants to harvest?
As for the actual song, “‘Harvest’ is one of my best songs,” Young admitted to his biographer Jimmy McDonough in 1993’s Shakey, seemingly reversing his original verdict of it. “That’s the best thing on Harvest. ”
“I was in love when I first made Harvest, ” he went on to tell McDonough. “With Carrie. So that was it. I was an in-love and on-top-of-the-world type guy.”
“All those relationships songs—it’s ‘I want to, but I can’t,’” suggested McDonough.
“Right. Good thing I got past that stage,” Young responded.
“How did you do it?” asked McDonough.
“Time, I guess,” Young initially surmised. “Getting the right woman. That was a good thing.”
Even so, there is still the taint of “The “Loner” about Young even today. The early song that first appeared on his 1968 self-titled solo album revealed an unapproachable heart, and an emotional stoicism, perhaps from the early wounds suffered by his parents’ divorce that never seemed to heal—and something that would fester in what is probably the second best song on Harvest, “Old Man.”
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