Neil Young Neil Young (1968), Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), After The Goldrush (1970), Harvest (1972)
It’s getting hard to keep up with Neil Young. In addition to a new studio LP, 2009 has seen the release of the green-car concept album Fork in the Road, a new live set (Dreamin’ Man Live ’92), and of course the 10-disc Blu-Ray/DVD/CD extravaganza Archives Vol. 1, which documents the first 10 years of his musical life. Not to mention that just over a year ago Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968 came out, so that even seems relatively new. We’re drowning in Neil Young this year, which for hardcore fans (and it seems like the percentage of his fanbase that meets this criteria increases every year) isn’t such a bad thing.
Add to the above the “Neil Young Archives Official Release Series,” which is the umbrella term for the wholesale reissue of Young’s catalog in remastered form. The first four albums, from 1968’s Neil Young to 1972’s Harvest, were released on CD under the banner a few months back, which made the Archives set even more confusing than it seemed initially. Since much of Archives turned out to be previously issued material, with some albums appearing almost in their entirety, it stood to reason that it would serve as the best way to hear these songs for a while. Anyone ponying up between $100 and $300 for Archives surely already had all those albums, and they’ll probably want the better-sounding versions in their original form, too. Young, like Bob Dylan, is almost impossible to read as far as stuff like this goes. It’s easy to say that he’s ripping people off by getting them to buy the same music over and over. But so many of his puzzling moves over the years, such as refusing to put out On the Beach on CD even though fans were clamoring for it, would seem to be to his financial detriment.
Here’s one more for the shelf: the first four albums have been packaged in two limited edition box sets. The CD version is pressed on 24-karat gold discs, and the packaging is new; the vinyl is pressed on 180-gram records (as opposed to 140-gram for the standard issue of the LPs). The vinyl set, which is what I listened to for this review, is going for $150, which certainly isn’t cheap. It packages the records in extra-heavy gatefold sleeves that will probably outlive me, and includes full-size reproductions of the original inserts, but there’s no extra documentation otherwise. For me, there’s an irony in listening to these deluxe versions, because I’ve long regarded used vinyl copies of Harvest as a litmus test for record stores. If they’re selling a used copy in excellent shape for $4 or $5, it’s my kind of shop; if they’re selling it for $8 or $9, I’m probably somewhere in the New York Metropolitan Area. Fact is, Harvest was the #1 selling album of 1972, and it continued to sell all through the 1970s. Literally millions of copies were pressed, and used copies are very easy to find. It’s a record that shouldn’t cost a lot of money.
Which is not to say it’s not a great record. All four of these albums, in fact, are excellent– records that everyone should have in their collection eventually, in whatever format. I say “eventually” because Neil Young is an artist you shouldn’t force yourself to get into; his most devoted fans are so convinced of his genius, and so bent on tracking down every last bootleg, that it’s easy to hear a few songs and decide that Young isn’t such a big deal. Sometimes it can just take a little while to come around to his music, and you need to be in the right frame of mind.
Harvest, whatever your copy ends up costing you, closed out one of the stronger four-album career-opening runs in pop history. Of course, Young had some practice before he went solo, so he had a head start. After gigging around Canada as a teenager in the garage-rock outfit the Squires, he headed out to L.A. and hooked up with the newly forming Buffalo Springfield in 1966. They were a band with a few songwriters, each of whom had their own personality, and Young’s songs (“For What It’s Worth”, the group’s biggest hit, wasn’t one of them) revealed an emerging and distinctive voice. In 1968, he left the band and started his solo career, releasing Neil Young at the end of the year.
The album bearing only Neil Young’s name is the one that sounds least like him. It’s a fine psych-tinged folk-rock set with colorful arrangements and top-shelf instrumental contributors like guitarist Ry Cooder and visionary keyboardist and arranger Jack Nitzsche, who would continue to work with Young periodically through the 70s. But Young himself sounds oddly tentative throughout, as if he weren’t quite sure what he wanted his music to sound like, and this is his most restrained singing on record. There are echoes of the great music to come, like the ballad “The Old Laughing Lady”, and the arrangements are lush and inviting, but Neil Young in a sense represents a road not taken, and it’s most interesting now in comparison to what was to come.
The opening riff to “Cinnamon Girl”, the song that kicks off Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, erases the memory of Neil Young completely in about five seconds. In the months following the release of his debut, Young hooked up with a ragtag trio of musicians from a band called the Rockets, renamed them Crazy Horse, and found his raison d’être. Where the performances on Neil Young were eminently professional, the sophisticated and exacting parts executed with polished precision, Crazy Horse were loose and sloppy, privileging groove and feeling above all. Many of Young’s seasoned contemporaries considered them an embarrassment, but for him they represented a new way of thinking about music, one that favored intuition and stayed true to the moment. A year later he would hook up with the hugely successful Crosby, Stills and Nash; Young would eventually call CSNY his Beatles, while Crazy Horse was his Stones. By this logic, they were making music on the level of Sticky Fingers from the jump.
Discussion of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere usually gravitates toward the two extended guitar workouts, “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”. Both are masterpieces of rock minimalism, demonstrating the power of repetition as the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot cycle through the chords and Young solos endlessly in his grimy, deeply-felt tone, playing off the subtle, prodding rhythm work of guitarist Danny Whitten. But the more compressed and accessible moments on the record are just as powerful. The title track is a brash, rollicking country-rocker in the vein of the Band, while “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)” is a gorgeous acoustic ballad that finds Young, Whitten, and violinist Robin Lane engaged in three-part harmony on the achingly slow chorus. Best of all on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young sounds comfortable and confident, singing with the versatile (and hugely influential) voice that has changed remarkably little in the 40 years since.
Everybody Knows was a sort of big bang for Young, a dense moment of creative explosion that saw possibilities expanding in every direction. So its follow-up was anything but a retread. With his newfound confidence, Young was poised to stretch, and After the Gold Rush sounds a bit like an overview of the Great American Songbook but with one guy writing almost all the songs. Members of Crazy Horse appear in various combinations on a few of tracks, and songs like “Southern Man” and “When You Dance I Can Really Love” have the hypnotically stoned but sneakily intense groove of the previous record. But more precisely crafted songs like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, “Birds”, and especially the astonishing title track, which has become a rock standard, show Young’s gift as a writer of original melodies of extraordinary beauty in full flower. It’s an aspect of Young’s work that can be overlooked: the guy can write a simple tune over a chord change that hollows you out completely. Sure, the record has a phrase or two that might sound a little dippy to those with an aversion to hippies (Young was one of those, though of a very individualistic sort), but After the Gold Rush is basically unassailable. There’s a reason why it’s the favorite Neil Young album for so many.
Which brings us back to Harvest, Young’s mainstream breakthrough. Stepping away from Crazy Horse and hooking up with Nashville session musicians he dubbed the Stray Gators, Harvest finds Young experimenting again with a richer, more painstaking studio sound, but one informed by the spontaneity he’d found so inspiring. It’s probably his best sounding album, and the ear tends to gravitate to the rhythm section in particular, as bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Kenny Buttrey are almost absurdly in the pocket throughout. (Here I should note that, while they certainly cost a lot of money, the vinyl pressings of these four albums live up to the hype: whisper quiet and clear but full and punchy– these records have never sounded better).
But Young’s songs, though not up to the level of Gold Rush, continue his winning streak. “Out on the Weekend” and the title track set the table for a mellow, rootsy, and breezily melodic album, which later songs like “Heart of Gold” and “Are You Ready for the Country” continue, but Harvest has a more tormented side as well. “A Man Needs a Maid”, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, is one of his stranger creations, an affecting portrait of loneliness undercut with a clumsy, lunkheaded chorus refrain, the sincerity of which has never been quite clear. “Old Man” is something of a signature song, laying out the wizened, long-view outlook that didn’t fit with his chronological age (by the time of the record’s release, Young was 26). And then there’s harrowing and radiant “The Needle and the Damage Done”: at just over two minutes, it’s far too short, almost painfully so, just like the lives of the junkies it was written about. Soon enough, two people close to Young, Crazy Horse’s Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, would die from drugs.
The unexpected success of Harvest, combined with the grief and guilt Young felt after Whitten and Berry died, would send Young into a dark and raw place with his next few records as he famously “headed for the ditch” to escape the middle of the road. Hereafter, an always-fascinating mix of success and failure would define Young’s career, and along the way he’d make some pretty lousy records along with the great ones. To embrace Young as an artist after Harvest would mean accepting his many flaws (including the questionable business decisions, like the many confusing releases of this year), which have made his career unusually rich and varied as well as maddeningly inconsistent. But all that would come later. Enjoying this brilliant four-album run requires no special commitment.
It seems the greatest artists of all time can have their careers divided into trilogies, or even have their best works sorted into groups of three. The Beatles had a great one-two-three punch of Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver, maturing rock and roll and readying it for psychedelia alongside Dylan’s own electric trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde.
Though I can bicker to no end about this (and I’m sure I’m not alone), The Kinks’ string of Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society, and Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall of The British Empire) is regarded by the heavily opinionated Kinks writer John Mendelssohn as a trilogy. On one hand, I see where he’s coming from – three distinctly British records, musically timeless, and each equally approachable and palatable without any overt anger or vitriol towards anything other than “the man.”
Dylan’s career can almost completely be broken down into a series of trilogies, with the occasional odd one out – his first album is almost all cover tunes, but then came The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, and Another Side Of Bob Dylan, these three being the albums that turned the world onto Dylan. Then came the electric trilogy. Then came the roots trilogy of John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and New Morning, allowing for the odd one out of the almost unanimously-panned crapfest of Self Portrait.
After a spell on the sidelines, his “divorce trilogy” came out – Planet Waves, the fantastic Blood On The Tracks, and Desire, though Glenn Gass suggested in his course on Bob that Street Legal is just as much part of this set, being the first album he did after his divorce from Sarah Lownes-Dylan. Then came the Jesus trilogy – Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love – love them or hate them. His last string of albums are considered part of a latter-day grouping of mature albums by one of rock’s most revered elder statesmen.
Aside from Dylan, Neil Young stands out to me as the one artist who can be defined by trilogies (even with the odd fourth record, making a tetralogy). He had gained acclaim as a member of Buffalo Springfield, which had also featured a young Stephen Stills and Richie Furay (later to form Poco along with Jim Messina…less said about that guy the better, unless of course “Your Mama Don’t Dance” is your kind of thing.) Unfortunately, Buffalo Springfield was marred by in-fighting and the fact that they were never able to capture their stage sound in the studio.
His first trilogy (throwing in his 1968 debut Neil Young to form a tetralogy) of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After The Gold Rush (1970), and Harvest (1972) forms a story arc of sorts. Neil makes a name for himself as a solo artist, with the greatest garage band in the world (Crazy Horse) backing him on the first two, able to promote himself further as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, before finally recording a fairly slick-sounding country/folk/singer-songwriter album in Nashville (Harvest) with a bunch of session players, which in turn becomes the greatest-selling album of 1972.
As he said, success “put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” (Neil Young, Decade liner notes, 1977.) The so-called “ditch trilogy” makes up what I consider his best work: the rough ‘n raucous live album Time Fades Away (1973), the schizophrenic On The Beach (1974), and the so-depressing-it-sat-for-two-years-before-it-got-released-but-it’s-a-fucking-masterpiece Tonight’s The Night (1975), the most haunting, harrowing, and desolate album of the 1970’s, the brutal murder, embalming, and burial of the spirit behind the 1960’s. It probably didn’t help that his friend/Crazy Horse collaborator Danny Whitten overdosed on heroin purchased with money Neil gave him to help him get clean.
Once he was back on his feet artistically, Zuma (1975) embodied this feeling that the dark times were over. He reunited Crazy Horse for a great, rocking album, additionally marked by Neil’s development as a guitar hero. After a stint with Stephen Stills as The Stills-Young Band, the 1977 hodge-podge American Stars & Bars featured a side of shit-kicking country music and another side’s worth of bitchin’ guitar rock, including the sublime “Like A Hurricane.” It’s as if that album was a collection of extra songs from Zuma and the country/folk Comes A Time (1978), the odd man out in what could have been a trilogy. This “trilogy” ends with Rust Never Sleeps, a eulogy for the classic rock era; one side of the LP was beautifully done acoustic folk/rock, representing the best of Comes A Time, while side B showed Crazy Horse playing in a previously-unheard balls to the wall style, taking their primitive style and making it leaner, with “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)” featuring the most distorted guitar sound you could possibly play on the radio without it being called noise rock.
I could keep going, but the album at hand is by this point waving and yelling, “Um, hello?! What about ME?” with perfect reason. Let me preface the rest of this discussion by saying that I love Neil Young. Aside from Link Wray and Dave Davies, he stands as my favorite guitarist – noisy minimalism does a lot more for me than seeing Eddie Van Halen or even Jimmy Page wanking their ways up and down a fretboard.
To put it simply, to get your point across, would you stand in the middle of a riot and deliver a well-written piece of rhetoric or light a molotov cocktail and lob it at a(n unoccupied) bus? It isn’t difficult to see where I stand on the issue. Neil also has a great sense of tone on guitar, right alongside Rick Nielsen with the sounds he’s capable of making, whether it’s that aching squeal on “Like A Hurricane” or the farting buzzsaw of “Hey, Hey, My, My,” I hear his playing and hear beauty.
Neil also has a flair for deeply personal lyrics. He’s got a brand of artistic honesty – see the ditch trilogy – that pulls at the heart, all his own, separate from the poetic approaches of Dylan and Ray Davies, just as intense as John Lennon’s debut album at his personal low points, and just as mystical as George Harrison with his sense of romance. I’ve met a few people who bitch about Neil’s singing voice…I fail to see the problem, much like Dylan as a singer. People, I listen to The Residents, Captain Beefheart, and Masonna. (Not a typo – Masonna is a noise artist from Japan. If you can listen to him, consider yourself my newest friend. Special thanks to Dan Crall for the introduction.) With that, I can listen to pretty much anything else.
Pretty much. That’s a pretty vague caveat. Some tones just strike my ears as offensive – for example, I HATE the sound of the clarinet in almost any setting – while the stuff we’re not supposed to like – feedback, the atonal shrieking of an out-of-tune (or burning) guitar – I think sounds great! Maybe now would also be a good opportunity to say I am a fairly weird guy.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere stands as a very solid album. It is musically entertaining, consistent (for the most part), and it set the standard for his career. Isn’t that what we look for in a good album? It’s hard to describe an album I rank fairly high without this turning into a handjob convention. I’ll just let the songs speak for themselves.
01. Cinnamon Girl 
This is essential Neil. Using a heavy guitar tuning of DADGBD, the song crunches from the get-go, contrasted by the beautiful two part harmony sung by Neil and Danny Whitten (Neil on the low part, Danny on high.) Ralph Molina is a great powerhouse of a drummer, with his hi-hat and ride cymbals sounding like instruments all their own. I don’t think this guy ever played a fill in his life, but that’s hardly the mark of a bad drummer. In fact, it arguably takes more talent to play like that than it does to play like a bat out of Hell sitting in a dynamite pond.
It also bears mentioning that the guitar solo at the end is just one note. Therein lies the power of minimalism.
02. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [9.5]
Too short! Again with a great Danny Whitten harmony, the lyrics tell a good story of escaping to “nowhere.” It’s just right where a guitar solo would come in had this song been on, say, Zuma, followed by a repeat of the chorus, it fades out. I’m sure this song is fantastic on stage.
03. Round And Round (It Won’t Be Long) [5.5]
The great fun of these first two songs is almost interrupted by this folk/country ballad. Neil would do a whole album of songs in the style of this one called Comes A Time, which seems like a bunch of Crazy Horse tunes minus Crazy Horse and the perpetual female backing vocals, sharing as much or even more airtime than the song’s composer’s own voice. Plug this song in, get Danny, Ralph, and Billy Talbot (the bassist from Crazy Horse) to do their thing, and you might have a great song. At the very least, a good song. Just not this.
To be fair, it’s a good melody. It’s just too repetitive. The chorus repeat of “Round and round…” doesn’t help to remedy this quality of the song.
04. Down By The River 
Oh, hell yes! This brooding rock song takes its time, and in the best way possible. Two electric guitars lead the song in. Billy and Ralph enter the fray without much fanfare before Neil starts the verse. The beautiful pre-chorus leads into the chorus at 1:10 with a muted drop of feedback (keep in mind, this was 1969, before Sonic Youth but after Jimi Hendrix – needless to say, that above linked clip of Pete Townshend making his guitar squeal at Woodstock was at the time not considered a sound one’s guitar should make), transitioning into the chorus with a touch of majestic irreverence. And that chorus! If I didn’t love “Cinnamon Girl” for reminding me of the girl I intend to marry, this would have easily been the 11 on this record.
The song thumps along for 9 minutes and 15 seconds, ending side A with an epic rock song.
05. The Losing End (When You’re On) [7.5]
Hardly a filler tune, it just seems aloof among the rest of the titans of this album. An odd choice to start side B of this record. This song would have been welcome on Comes A Time, or even Harvest. I don’t know…this one is just kind of there, not unlike “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” on the next album.
06. Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets) 
Now I know just why “The Losing End” seems like a lost child of a song, sandwiched between “Down By The River” and this haunting, borderline lo-fi elegaic masterpiece of shame, regret, and sadness. The best songwriters can own up to their own failings as humans, and this song nails it. The violin weeps through the song, briefly double-tracked in the middle portion, which in tandem with Neil’s mournful melody makes this sound like something centuries old. This wouldn’t have been out of place, lyrically, in the ditch trilogy; its musical offspring is “Will To Love” off American Stars & Bars, a similarly moody acoustic ballad with an equally odd, off-center feel that makes it disturbing with little in the way of studio trickery.
07. Cowgirl In The Sand 
One could assume that two extended guitar exercises would be monotonous on the same album (I’m looking at Frank Zappa’s Zoot Allures as a fine example proving this theory), but other than the fact that they are long and have plenty of guitar work worth fawning over, they are quite different. It isn’t until we’re almost at the two-minute mark that Neil starts singing. If anyone finds his voice annoying, look towards his delivery on this. He is able to hit some high notes without cracking. Much goes to Billy for laying down a remarkable bassline, especially during Neil’s solos. Yet another classic Neil Young song -and on an album with only seven tracks, this is something quite noteworthy.
Subtotal: 90.7% A-
Replayability Factor: 2
A great album to have on in the car, plenty of “classic rock” essence to it, and for my money the heaviest of what I consider his first trilogy. A great introduction to a great artist, but it’s hard to sit and concentrate during the big guitar solos on every single listen. The 2 I’m awarding for this is hardly a sign of this record being a slouch, as it’s no crime to have music on to get lost in.
Consistency Factor: 2.5
This became the benchmark for later albums being considered a “return to form, in the style of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, though I personally don’t like that phrase all that much. Still, clichéd as it sounds, for a “return to form” to be an album driven by heavy, thumping rockers and the occasional beautifully arranged ballad, you could do far worse. It’s really hard to ponder what the “average” Neil Young record is. On one end of the spectrum is an album like this, and on the opposite end is Harvest, with plenty of head-scratching albums in the middle (including a techno album, rockabilly, the bipolar Rust Never Sleeps, and even lean R&B featuring Booker T. & The MG’s as his backing band) that makes him hard to peg down. But Neil’s refusal to be pegged down is one of his most endearing qualities.
This album gets its 2.5, first of all, for being a good album, but for being diverse enough in only seven songs for being a fine example of Neil flexing all of his songwriting muscles, from hard rock to country to folk. Little bits of the career to come is here on this album. I honestly don’t think he’d ever have such a broad palette on a single album ever again, hardly a criticism for the rest of his career, but a mighty comment for this album.
External Factors: 1
Just a year after leaving Buffalo Springfield, Neil’s second album overcame the threat of the “sophomore slump” – mainly because his first album wasn’t that popular, to the point that this writer thought this was his debut – and showed his flexibility as a folk balladeer and as one of the leading precursors to grunge, all on the same record. Different moments from his future were foreseen on this album. Unfortunately, Neil’s had a bit of an inconsistent career, so when it’s good it’s fucking on…but when it doesn’t succeed it stands out. On its weakest track, it’s overlong, and while it can’t always be back-to-back tens, this veering into extended and repetitive country-stuff is a predecessor to the weak spots on Harvest, American Stars ‘N Bars, Comes A Time, etc. However, this album marks the debut of Crazy Horse, a great backing band; no bullshit, no frills, just good playing. This album doesn’t sound dated – it isn’t too slick or too bleak – and it could just as easily have been recorded last week.
Neil Young does not have the kind of “good” voice that would bring praise from a high school music teacher. But you only have to listen to Judy Collins mangle “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” to realize that rock and roll does not flourish because of “good” voices. The best rock vocals (for example, those of Mick Jagger or Richard Manuel) are usually gritty or even harsh.
Negating a formula prettiness, they push forward the unique temperament of the singer (“It’s the singer, not the song” — Mick Jagger). Such vocals can never function as background music; they demand that you listen to them and feel them. Their essence is their intensityÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Â;and in light of that intensity the products of “good” voices usually sound pallid and dead.
While Neil Young is a fine songwriter and an excellent guitarist, his greatest strength is in his voice. Its arid tone is perpetually mournful, without being maudlin or pathetic. It hints at a world in which sorrow underlies everything; even a line like “you can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile” (from “I am a Child”) ultimately becomes painful to hear. And because that world is recognizable to most of us, Young’s singing is often strangely moving. In a natural and moving way, Neil Young is the Johnny Ray of rock and roll.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is Young’s second album since the demise of the Buffalo Springfield. In several repects it falls short of his previous effort. Young’s new material is a little disappointing; nothing on this album touches the aching beauty of “If I Could Have Her Tonight” and “I’ve Loved Her So Long” or the quiet terror of “The Old Laughing Lady.”
His guitar work also suffers by comparison; the lyricism of the first album can only be found in faint traces here. But despite its shortcomings, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere offers ample rewards. Young’s music partially makes up for its lack of grace by its energy and its assurance. And his singing is still superb. Listen, for example, to the conviction which he gives to the title cut, a song about the need for and the impossibility of escape from Los Angeles.
The most interesting tracks on the album are “Running Dry” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Building on a traditional folk melody, “Running Dry” interweaves electric guitar and violin into a disquieting blend. Its aura of strangeness is somewhat reminiscent of Young’s magnificent “Out of My Mind.” The lyrics are a bit over-dramatic, but the music and vocal manage to transcend them, creating the feeling of a dimly understood tragedy.
On “Cowgirl in the Sand” everything works. The lyrics are quietly accusative, while the lead guitar, alternately soaring, piercing, and driving, keeps the song surging forward. But it is Young’s singing which is the real key to the success of this track. “Cowgirl in the Sand” demonstrates quite clearly the peculiar depths of Young’s voice.
It indicates how rock manages, again and again, to triumph over high school music teachers and their legions.
Yep, Neil Young as I love him and as I seriously don’t just about totally arrives on this record. It’s also the first of his numerous collaborations with whippin’ boys Crazy Horse (oops, I meant “backing” boys, actually), and thus, quite heavy in its own way. In fact, while the debut did have a few hints at what was lying in store for us guitar-lovers, mainly in the shape of these poorly heard guitar assaults in the background, it’s this album that fully establishes the classic “Angry Neil Young” style.
Mean, distorted, crunchy guitars, played as unprofessionally as possible yet as emotionally as possible – which even leads to some people calling this the first ever grunge album. Maybe not quite, though; these guitars are nowhere near as aggressive and ass-kickin’ as your typical grunge assault. In fact, I’d go as far as to say they don’t really “kick ass” at all, but wait up on that.
The album is more or less equally divided here between “heavy” numbers and “light” countryish/folksy numbers, similar to the ones on the previous album (and even more similar to the ones on virtually every following Neil Young album he did in the Seventies).
And I hate to say it, but essentially it’s also what draws the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for me on this record. Okay, so I don’t have anything in particular against the mild country-rock of the title track; it’s short, it’s upbeat, it’s catchy in its own way, and the hickey ‘la-la-la’ backing vocals are actually hilarious. Besides, the guitar interplay between Neil and Danny Whitten on that song actually reminds of the better moments in the ‘heavy’ half.
But nothing in the world will ever make me like stuff like ‘Round And Round (It Won’t Be Long)’. Granted, it’s not so annoyingly self-pitying as Neil’s mid-Seventies acoustic material, but it’s equally melodyless, and no, I’m not dragging out the lyrics sheets to try and analyze the guy’s feelings on that one. I could just as well skip this material and listen to introspective Russian “bards” as well – you know, put three chords together, get a battered acoustic, and sing something really really “deep” and “philosophical”, looking as serious as possible, as if it’s God who’s singing through you. Don’t forget the cliches, of course. Blah.
At least ‘The Losing End’ has some kind of rhythm to it, which doesn’t make it a particularly good country-rock song either, and ‘Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets)’ has that plaintive violin and all – for Heaven’s sake, they look gorgeous compared to ‘Round And Round’, because if you’re just picking up an acoustic to play your song, you’d better be goddamn good at that acoustic. Otherwise, just write a poetry book or something. (Not that anybody will ever buy that poetry book, which is why guys like Neil always take care to put their most boring creations right next to the most involving ones.)
But anyway, let’s just concentrate on the good side, like the crocodile said to the lichen-struck little lamb. For us, that’ll be one short song and two very long ones. ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is probably the best-known number from the record, and it packs the “proto-grunge tension” into a brief three minutes in a very special way indeed. Two hoarse roaring guitars, one in each speaker, each of them slowly playing the same simplistic “clumsy” riff – that’s the Neil Young guitar paradise for you. And then, after a couple verses, come the whacky solos that are so goshdarn “untrained” you can’t even call them adrenaline-raising. They’re something else. Garage rock as high art, if you wish. Just because nobody else thought of this before.
As for ‘Down By The River’ and ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, they’re pretty much interchangeable, except the second one is a little more “rough”, so I like it better. They have amazingly catchy melodies, no mean feat for Mr Young; but truth be told, it’s not the main melodies, it’s the instrumental passages that make them classics of the genre. Simply put, Young and Whitten invent a whole new type of jamming here; double-guitar interplay that’s not based on professional skill, but is all mired in “expressivity”. On ‘Down By The River’, it seems like the two guitars are holding a dialogue with each other; on ‘Cowgirl’, it looks like they’re punching each other in the fretboard.
One place where you’re sure to encounter that kind of playing is on the Who’s live records; essentially put, Pete Townshend was among the first rock players to pioneer that kind of soloing – isolated, ‘gargling’ phrases that don’t require that much technique but do require a hell of an artistic, emotional soul to be actually played.
But Townshend had just one guitar, and he never really dared to include these lengthy improvisational outbursts to be captured in the studio, saving them for live shows. Neil was probably the first guy to include that kind of guitar playing as an essential part of the composition itself.
Not that it’s a spectacular achievement in the pure musical sense, but the exact solos themselves certainly are. It’s a damn pleasure to follow Young and Whitten unwrap parts of their improvisations, so you never know where the hell they are going to turn next. Actually, the “meeker” guitar interplay on ‘Down By The River’ is probably unique… never to be met again. The guitar soloing on ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, though, establishes a firm base for all the subsequent Young guitar jams, from ‘Cortez The Killer’ to ‘Like A Hurricane’ to ‘Change Your Mind’.
It’s only too mysterious why this kind of song was pretty much abandoned by Neil for almost half a decade after this record, though.
This classic second album was Neil Young’s first outing featuring his legendary backup band Crazy Horse (Danny Whitten; guitar, Billy Talbot; bass, John Molina; drums), who would appear sporadically throughout his long career, generally (and not coincidentally) on his finest albums.
This great album was a big step up in class that featured raw, ragged playing, particularly on the extended showpieces “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl In The Sand,” two all-time great guitar epics that feature Young’s emotive voice and hypnotic, repetitively grinding guitars that have all the subtlety of a chainsaw. “Cinnamon Girl” is another instant classic (and perennial concert favorite) whose surreal, romantic lyrics are helped by fine harmony singing and more memorable riffs, while “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” (one of Neil’s most underrated songs) features unforgettable “sha la las” come chorus time and typically crude guitar thrusts. The rest of the album features slower but still fine country styled songs showcasing Young’s world-weary voice and sincere lyrics.
Neil is aided by ex-girlfriend Robin Lane’s backing vocals on the slow, sad “Round And Round” (which drags a bit) and Bobby Notkoff’s mournful violin on the spare “Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets),” while the loping country folk of “The Losing End (When You’re On)” provides a pessimistic sing along. These songs proved that, more than just one of the all-time great guitar albums (which this certainly is), Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere was a winner all the way around.
That said, it is the two long songs that make this album so essential. “Down By The River” is a dark, violent song (“down by the river, I shot my baby!”), with evocative verses and an explosive sing along chorus that showcases the group’s underrated harmonies. I love the drum rolls in the chorus as well, but this song is all about its wild, distorted guitar. Neil uses repetition to build the intensity, and the band (who were not technically proficient musicians) play “by feel” rather than worrying about hitting all the right notes, as the album’s live, hard rocking ambiance was as far away from his debut as you could get.
Me, I’ll take raw, inspired primitivism over professional competence any day, and the legions of garage bands who later emulated this hugely influential album would likely agree. In fact, you could argue that Neil earned his “Godfather Of Grunge” nickname (not coined until after Nirvana broke in the early ’90s) right here, especially on “Cowgirl In The Sand,” whose brooding guitar magic and length (10:30) exceeded even “Down By The River” (9:13) (hmm, “Cinnamon Girl” and “Cowgirl In The Sand”…any wonder why Neil’s first marriage didn’t last long?). More evocative lyrics and a catchy chorus add to the experience, and you can almost feel Neil’s increasing confidence as a vocalist.
I can totally picture Neil and his mates losing themselves during this song’s incendiary instrumental breaks, which are awesome in their simple yet incredibly intense construction. Amazingly, legend has it that “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River,” and “Cowgirl In The Sand” were written in a single day during which Neil was bedridden with a 103 degree fever (!), and Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere was the breakthrough album (top 30 U.S.) that established Neil as a first class composer and guitar hero.
As strange as it may sound, I’ve always been curious as to how our generation will look back on the music of our time. I’d imagine this was a much more austere question for the previous generation; a simpler time when bands didn’t take three years to record new material and a period in which FM radio spun full-length LP’s. The 1960’s and 1970’s were obvious breakthrough epochs in music history, deeming the influx of influential artists such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and hordes of others.
Our parents’ generation has always made a big deal about the music they grew up with, describing how The Beatles changed their life, how Dark Side of the Moon was the most incredible thing they had ever heard, or how Led Zeppelin was an astonishing transition into hard rock. With much of that conceptualized among the general public, artists such as Neil Young were also thrown into the mix, developing a legacy that so adamantly defined the time.
Sparingly in the past have we come across a musician with such raw talent and innovation as Neil Young, which we saw him prove time and time again with both his guitar work and songwriting. Young has been so successful during his career because of his ability to channel the talent, and craft something completely unconventional. It would be hard to argue against the inference that in 1969, Neil Young was well ahead of his time. The year marks Young’s debut with Crazy Horse, a band which consisted of guitarist Danny Whitten, drummer Ralph Molina, and bassist Billy Talbot. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is the second record of Young’s illustrious career, and a colossal improvement on his self-titled debut.
Neil Young was a commercial disaster; failing to reach the charts, and faulted by terrible production. Everybody Know This is Nowhere offers a stark comparison to its predecessor, and is a testament to what Young is all about as a musician. This seven-track, forty-minute record is unlike anything that the music world had seen; country-tinged rock melding so intricately with Young’s falsetto vocals and eccentric guitar leads.
With the exception of misleading opener “Cinnamon Girl,” Everybody Knows This is Nowhere offers a disparate outlook to the rock and roll of the day; a mellow affair, drawing influences from folk and country music. The record’s chilled ambience is orchestrated by Young’s delicate tenor vocals, which is especially prevalent in the tranquil “Round and Round.” The album’s most notable characteristic however, is that of Young’s guitar playing, which is featured extensively on tracks such as “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” The soloing is almost as if Young had scrapped the written music and opted for improvisation, but still having the audacity to gradually increase the tension.
This is overly apparent on gem “Cowgirl in the Sand;” a ten-minute masterpiece that is glorified by Young’s mind-blowing guitar work. The verses are virtually replaced by extensive soloing in between the choruses, with the apprehension dramatically heightening. “Cowgirl in the Sand” is constantly evolving in such as way that the track’s long length appears irrelevant, ultimately developing into a spastic fireball of guitar mastery. The record’s final track is the perfect closer, and a definitive Neil Young song.
Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is the first notable release from a man that has become a rock and roll legend throughout the past forty-plus years. Ever since Young’s music has failed to be confined to conventional and standard rock restrictions, both verifying his status as an original artist, and proving his timeless work. Most importantly, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is an indication that Young is going to do things his own way, regardless of how others feel about him.