A few minutes ago, I coincidentally saw that Neil Young turned 75 today. Young is one of my favorite artists, and perhaps somewhat selfishly, the first thing that came to mind was ‘Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World, Neil, so I can hopefully catch you again sometime!’
The above clip was captured during Young’s 1991 tour with Crazy Horse to support the Ragged Glory album. When I saw the footage, I simply couldn’t resist posting it, even though I covered the tune before, which is one of my favorite Neil Young rockers. Evidently, the audience loved it as well. I mean, how can you not!
Young first recorded Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World for his 17th studio album Freedom released in October 1989. In fact, the track bookends the album with an acoustic opener and an electric closer. The tune was inspired by political events at the time and a conversation between Young and his guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro while they were touring in the northwestern U.S.
Here’s an explanatory excerpt from Songfacts: “There was supposed to have been a cultural exchange between Russia and United States,” Sampedro recalled to Mojo in a 2018 interview. “Russia was getting Neil Young and Crazy Horse and we were getting the Russian ballet! All of a sudden, whoever was promoting the deal, a guy in Russia, took the money and split. We were all bummed, and I looked at him and said, ‘Man I guess we’re just gonna have to keep on rockin in the free world. He said, ‘Well, Poncho, that’s a good line. I’m gonna use that, if you don’t mind.'”
“So we checked into the hotel in Portland,” the guitarist continued. “And we needed a song. We needed a rocker. We’d written some songs and they were good but we didn’t have a real rocker. I said, ‘Look man, tonight, get in your room, think about all this stuff that’s going down – the Ayatollah, all the stuff in Afghanistan, all these wars breaking out, all the problems in America… “Keep On rockin in the free world,” you got that: put something together man, let’s have a song!’ And the next morning, we got on the bus to leave and he says, ‘OK, I did it!'”
It’s been a long time coming. Some 45 years. But it was worth the wait. Today, Neil Young officially released Homegrown, an album he initially had planned to put out in 1975. But written in the wake of the breakup of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, it felt too personal to him, so he decided to shelf it.
According to Apple Music, Young also had an entire second album written: Tonight’s the Night. In fact, he already had recorded it in August and September 1973, but had not released it. After deciding to stash away Homegrown in the drawer, he put out Tonight’s the Night.
Back to Homegrown. While these songs were written during what arguably was Young’s most creative period, I think it’s fair to say we’re not looking at another Harvest or Harvest Moon, to name two of my favorite Young albums. Still, this is a fine record, which takes Neil Young fans on what I think is a fascinating time travel journey back to the mid-’70s.
All of the 12 tracks on Homegrown were written by Young. Five of the tunes previously found their way on other Young records: Love Is a Rose (Decade, 1977), Homegrown (American Stars ‘n Bars, 1977), White Line (Ragged Glory, 1990), Little Wing (Hawks & Doves, 1980) and Star of Bethlehem (American Stars ‘n Bars). Additionally, Young had performed other songs like Separate Ways or Try live but not officially released on a record.
I’d like to start with the opener Separate Ways, a tune directly addressed at Snodgrass: …Though we go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharin’ our little boy/Who grew from joy back then…The little boy is Zeke, who was born in September 1972. According to this New York Times Magazine story from September 2012, Zeke has a very mild case of cerebral palsy and works at Home Depot. Young’s second son Ben who he had with his second wide Pegi Young (née Morton) is quadriplegic with cerebral palsy and non-verbal. Young also has a daughter, Amber Jean Young, his second child with Pegi, who is a visual artist. To me, Tim Drummond’s melodic bass line and the pedal steel fill-ins by Ben Keith are the song’s musical highlights. BTW, none other than Levon Helms manned the drums on this track.
As previously noted, Homegrown first appeared on Young’s eighth studio album American Stars ‘n Bars from May 1977. While the two versions are similar, the original take feels “less produced,” starting out with some studio banter. Karl Himmel played drums on this recording.
We Don’t Smoke It No More is a nice, largely instrumental blues tune. Unlike the title may suggest, it actually does smoke quite a bit. Ben Keith, who also provided backing vocals and produced the track, did a nice job on slide guitar. And Young proofed that when it come to the harmonica he also some blues chops.
White Line is one of the album’s gems. The original acoustic country-oriented version we hear here sounds significantly different from Young’s previously released grungy take on Ragged Glory. I also feel it’s superior. In addition to Young on vocals, guitar and harmonica, this recording featured Robbie Robertson on guitar. According to Wikipedia, Young also recorded White Line for Chrome Dreams, yet another album that wasn’t released at the time – gee, I don’t believe I’m aware of any other music artists who creates entire only to shelf them! In October 2007, Young released Chrome Dreams II, but other than being an obvious reference to the shelved record, I don’t believe the two have anything in common.
The last track I’d like to call out is Star Of Bethlehem. While this recording is pretty much identical to the version Young previously included on American Stars ‘n Bars, it’s another highlight and as such simply too good to skip. Undoubtedly, that’s largely because of the beautiful harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris. Ben Keith also provided backing vocals, as well as dobro, but it’s really Harris who makes the song shine.
Like most of Young’s records since 1989, Homegrown appears on Reprise. The album was co-produced by him, Elliot Mazer, Ben Keith and Tim Mulligan. Apart from the above mentioned, additional musicians include Stan Szelest (piano) and Sandy Mazzeo (backing vocals.)
The final word here shall belong to Young. If you’ve read my previous posts related to this record, these words probably sound familiar. “This album should have been there for you a couple of years after Harvest, Young wrote on his website. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind….but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean.
Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; New York Times Magazine; Neil Young website; YouTube
Evidently trying to build some buzz ahead of Homegrown, Neil Young on Friday released Vacancy, the second single from his long-awaited album that originally was supposed to come out in 1975. It’s a classic Young mid-tempo rocker he wrote and, as reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, one of seven tracks that were never issued on any other of his subsequent albums.
Homegrown was recorded at Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch Studio in 1974 and early 1975, and features Stan Szelest (organ), Ben Keith (lap steel), Tim Drummond (bass) and Karl T. Himmel (drums). Additionally, there are guest appearances by Levon Helm and Emmylou Harris. Originally, this album was scheduled to come out after Harvest and prior to Comes a Time.
I apologize, wrote Young on his website back in February. This album ‘Homegrown’ should have been there for you a couple of years after ‘Harvest.’ It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind…but I should have shared it. The love affair Young alluded to was his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress from late 1970 until 1975.
The album is actually beautiful, Young went on. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean. Anyway, it’s coming your way in 2020, the first release from our archive in the new decade.
Five of Homegrown’s 12 tracks were previously released on other Young albums: Love is a Rose (Decade, 1977), the title track (American Stars ‘n Bars, 1977), White Line (Ragged Glory, 1990), Little Wing (Hawks & Doves, 1980) and Star of Bethlehem (American Stars ‘n Bars).
Homegrownwas recorded in analog and mastered to vinyl from the original master tapes, restored with love by John Hanlon, Young further explained. This album, in vinyl, displays the beauty, feeling and depth of music recorded in the analog domain, before digital. It’s the perfect example of why I can’t forget how good music used to sound.
This is the one that got away…Well, while 45 years certainly is a long time, I have no doubt many Neil Young fans will be excited and think it was worth the wait! Homegrown is scheduled for June 19.
Sources: Wikipedia; Ultimate Classic Rock; Neil Young website; YouTube