“Opening up and finding what’s inside me to write.”
By Michael Goldberg.
Neil Young bangs away at the chords. And there’s such sadness in his voice. He’s playing an acoustic guitar. He’s nearly finished his third song of the night. Banging away too hard. Or maybe the way he’s banging at those chords is perfect. And oh, the sadness.
In that quavering voice he sings:
Yes only love can break your heart, What if your world should fall apart?
Love broke my heart, and my world fell apart. I was 17. When you’re 17 you don’t know you’ll recover. When you’re 17 everything about love is the first time, even if it’s not the first time.
When you were young and on your own, How did it feel to be alone?
She had long brown hair, almost down to her waist. She wore white peasant blouses and worn denim overalls. It was 1970 and the world was so different. There are a lot of clichés about the ‘60s, which actually didn’t end until the early ‘70s (countercultural movements don’t conveniently end as a new decade begins), a lot of misunderstanding about what it was like back then.
There was a day in 1970 when we sat together, her and I, in the swing that hung from a huge tree in her family’s very private, very large front yard, and the wind was making the leaves in the trees shimmer, and the future seemed wide open, full of possibility, I mean anything was possible. Her body warm against mine as we swung back and forth. The whole world about to be remade, I just knew it.
I am lonely but you can free me, All in the way that you smile.
Yes, that was exactly it. Exactly.
Neil’s music was part of my soundtrack during the ‘60s and the ‘70s. He sang the sad songs and as a teenager I didn’t want to know the pain I heard in his voice. But I did know it. Every time her and I were apart, I knew it. Still I loved to hear Neil’s voice.
And later, after it was over, when we just couldn’t make it together — that girl and I — I knew for real how true Neil’s words were, and today they’re still true.
Neil’s new album, Live at the Cellar Door, was recorded in 1970, 43 years ago, at the Cellar Door, a club in Washington, DC. Listening to it I see, hear, feel, smell those days, a rush of moving images, as if my life was captured on film and these old recordings are the key to starting up the projector. All the ways I blew it, and how crazy it got. And she wouldn’t take my calls, wouldn’t see me when I came to her door, and I thought I’d explode.
Yes, love can break your heart — a cliché and so what, ‘cause it’s the truth.
Hearing Neil sing those old songs in that tenor voice, the tenor voice of a young man, it breaks my heart all over again. Neil was 25 when he played those songs at the Cellar Door.
Listening now, this album could be a greatest hits collection.
For a while that’s how it was for Neil — one great sad song after another. One hit after another, even if they weren’t all hits. What’s funny is that now they might as well all be hits. The songs that were brand new or nearly brand new back than have stood the test of time, and here I am, listening to them again. And again.
Dig what’s on this album: “Tell Me Why,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “After The Gold Rush,” Bad Fog Of Loneliness,” “Old Man,” ‘Birds,” “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” “See The Sky About to Rain,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River.” Plus a few from Young’s days in the Buffalo Springfield: “Expecting To Fly,” “I Am A Child” and “Flying On The Ground is Wrong.”
One great song after another.
Imagine what it was like to sit in the audience at the Cellar Door, you and 170 or so people, and at some point Neil plays a new song, a song you’ve never heard before, and for the first time you hear “Old Man.”
Can you imagine?!
Old man look at my life, Twenty-four, And there’s so much more, Live alone in a paradise, That makes me think of two.
When those shows took place, Neil had a cult following, but it wouldn’t be for another two years and the release of Harvest (with the hit “Heart of Gold”) that he’d become a superstar.
Still, Young was already a star. He was a rock ‘n’ roll veteran. He’d been playing in bands for eight years. He’d recorded three albums with Buffalo Springfield, written such classics as “Mr. Soul,” “Expecting To Fly” and “Broken Arrow” and experienced what it was to be in a band with a hit single when Steven Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” charted in the Top Ten. He’d recorded three solo albums, all critically acclaimed—Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After the Gold Rush – and the one he made with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Déjà Vu, released in March of 1970, spent a week at #1 on Billboard’s “Top LPs” chart (so far it’s sold seven million copies in the U.S.). Before the Cellar Door gigs, Young had come off a sell-out Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tour playing to four or five thousand fans a night.
You can hear Neil’s confidence in these recordings. He was at the top of his game, and performing solo was still a new and fresh experience.
The heartbreak isn’t limited to the personal. In “After the Gold Rush” Young sings:
Look at Mother Nature on the run in the nineteen seventies
Hearing that line busts me up. We’ve done so much more damage to Mother Earth since Young wrote that one. And it’s so sad.
The songs Young wrote in the ‘60s and early ‘70s are so pure and true. He’s been criticized for being lax with his lyrics, letting lines stand that should be excised. I don’t know about that. Some might suggest that “bad fog of loneliness” is an awkward phrase. I don’t agree. The ‘awkward’ lines are perfect. They’re human. They’re Neil.
Songwriting is mysterious, and for Neil Young it’s never been about sitting down and trying to write.
“It’s just a matter of stream of consciousness,” Young told me during a 1996 interview. “It’s not linear, organized. It just keeps coming out in a rhythm. The thoughts keep coming out. Then when you’re done it’s as much news to me as it is to you. All I’m doing is writing it down and putting it in a cadence. Once I get into a cadence, then why should I even stop and wonder what it is? You can do that for the rest of your life, but when it’s coming out, you don’t want to stop it.”
I asked him how he’d learned to tap into his subconscious.
“I didn’t always know that it was happening,” he said. “When I started living out here [at Broken Arrow Ranch in the Woodside hills, along the Northern California coast]I started to realize it. I stayed out of the mainstream for a long time, and kind of hid down here in my house back in 1970.
“When I hid out here in the trees, all I wrote about were the trees and what was happening in the country. Then I realized, well, that must be because I’m here. And that’s all I write about here. So I should go to New York for a couple of days and come back. So I could see, well, wait a minute, this seems to be directly linked. If I’m going to write, I’m going to be writing about all these things [happening around me at the time].
“I just need a jolt of this or that,” Young said. “I’m not looking for anything [in particular], just what you pick up along the way. You don’t have to get anything in particular, just be there. Besides being in a relationship, it’s also location. It has a lot to do with what you write down. Where you are. I use those things to keep going. So [it’s] just a matter of opening up and finding what’s inside me to write. I’m open all the time.”
Some of the songs on Live at the Cellar Door are performed with Neil accompanying himself on steel string acoustic guitar. For the rest he’s playing a Steinway grand piano – “I been playing piano for about, seriously for almost a year,” he tells the audience. “I had it put in my contract that I’d only play on a nine foot Steinway grand piano. Just for a little eccentricity.”
Some notes on some of the songs:
“Tell Me Why”: The guitar has a full, rich tone. Neil combines chords with fluid fingerpicking. And 43 years later I’m still wondering what these lines men: Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself, When you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell?
“After the Gold Rush”: Young’s piano playing is as distinctive as his guitar work, as distinctive as his voice. Such a ‘60s couplet: There was a band playing in my head/ I was thinking about getting high. Makes me think of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris.”
“Expecting To Fly”: Great to hear this so minimal. Piano and voice. More heartbreak: All the years we’d spent with feeling, Ended with a cry.
“Bad Fog Of Loneliness”: We’ve heard a studio recording of this one as part of Neil’s Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1: 1963-1972, but here we get just Neil and his guitar. Why did he wait decades to let us hear this?
“Old Man”: The opening guitar riff is classic, and so natural. Hearing it now it sounds like the beginning of the unique sound Neil found on Harvest.
“Birds”: Another song of heartbreak performed on piano. When you see me, Fly away without you, Shadow on the things you know, Feathers fall around you, And show you the way to go, It’s over, it’s over. Such a beautiful expression of loss.
“See The Sky About To Rain”: Piano. Neil’s already slogging through a heavy rain when he sings this one. A downer, like life sometimes. Some are bound for happiness, Some are bound for glory, Some are bound to live with less, Who can tell your story?
“Cinnamon Girl”: Is it great to hear Neil play this grungy rocker on that Steinway grand? Absolutely. Neil’s voice is high and fragile, a wire of voice singing the opening line, I wanna live with a cinnamon girl, I could be happy, The rest of my life, With a cinnamon girl. But dig the dead-on line that anyone who tried to make it on their own can likely relate to: Ma send me money now, I’m gonna make it some how, I need another chance, You see your baby loves to dance, Yeah, yeah, yeah.
“I Am A Child”: Guitar. Great first and final verses: I am a child, I’ll last a while, You can’t conceive, Of the pleasure in my smile.
“Down By The River”: I know this song from Crazy Horse rocking behind Neil. So different to hear it solo acoustic. So chilling when he sings at the end, Dead, Shot her dead, Shot her dead, Shot her dead, Be on my side, I’ll be on your side, There is no reason, For you to hide, It’s so hard for me, Staying here all alone, When you could be, taking me for a ride.
“Flying On The Ground Is Wrong”: Piano. The album ends with one of Young’s Buffalo Springfield songs. Young introduces this one by explaining that it’s about what happens when one person in a relationship is smoking dope and the other isn’t. But if crying and holding on, And flying on the ground is wrong, Then I’m sorry to let you down, But you’re from my side of town, And I miss you.
I guess what I hear in Neil’s voice as he sings these songs is an innocence, and at times a lost innocence. Neil was the voice of Hippie innocence, even when he sang of heartbreak. When you listen to these recordings you can hear the innocence, you can hear the heartbreak and what it’s like when one loses innocence. You can hear an artist tapping into the unconscious, letting the real deal emerge and singing it – even when the truth really hurts.
You take my hand, I’ll take your hand, Together we may get away, This much madness, Is too much sorrow, It’s impossible, To make it today.
*Please note you may not be able to listen to the above audio clips if you are in the USA.