Happy Wednesday and welcome to another installment of Song Musings, a weekly feature taking a closer look at tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or not written about at all to date. Today, I’m turning to Unknown Legend by Neil Young, one of my favorite artists.
Unknown Legend is the opener of Harvest Moon, which I think is one of the best albums by the Canadian-American singer-songwriter, released in November 1992. Young wrote this great country-flavored tune prior to the release of his 1978 album Comes a Time. Some critics saw a stylistic similarity to that record, pointing in particular to the song Motorcycle Mama – other than the motorcycle and a female singer supporting Young on vocals, it doesn’t seem to be very obvious to me!
The gorgeous backing vocals in the refrain of Unknown Legend were provided by Linda Ronstadt. The album’s co-producer Ben Keith played the great pedal steel guitar on the recording. It’s a simple yet beautiful song!
Even though Unknown Legend wasn’t released as a single, it proved to be popular, reaching no. 38 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. The album continued Young’s commercial resurgence that had started with his two previous releases Freedom (October 1989) and Ragged Glory (September 1990), eventually outselling both. In Canada, Harvest Moon also won the 1994 Juno Award for Album of the Year. Here’s a nice “electric” live version of the song.
Following are some additional insights about Unknown Legend from Songfacts:
The woman in “Unknown Legend” is Neil Young’s wife (at the time), Pegi Morton Young. The two met in 1974, while Morton was working as a waitress at a diner near Young’s ranch.
The song talks about a waitress, now mother of two, who had once lived a life of travel and restlessness. The chorus harks back to her years of riding a Harley Davidson through the desert, with its chrome and steel “Collidin’ with the very air she breathes.” The song sounds both triumphant and sad. It laments the woman’s situation (“Now she’s dressin’ two kids, lookin’ for a magic kiss”) while celebrating the wild rambling imagery of her past, all while sweetly observing her graceful movements across the diner floor.
A historically interesting note is that “Unknown Legend,” which is an ode to Pegi, appeared on an entire album Young had made about keeping marriage alive. “This album here [Harvest Moon], it’s about making things last, how to keep that interest, how to keep the fire burning,” Young told New Musical Express in 1992. “Never get bored with the fact that you’ve been with someone for a long time, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Relationships should enrichen with age, that kind of thing.”
The marriage did indeed enrichen for over a decade after the song’s release, but then collapsed. In that same New Musical Express piece, writer Gavin Martin prophetically wrote, “No marriages are easy, rock ‘n’ roll relationships are particularly fraught. Placid and healing on the surface, Harvest Moon doesn’t try to deny the troubles and heartbreak beneath.”
Pegi spoke a lot about her divorce from Young on her album Raw. It’s an interesting dynamic – the “Unknown Legend” herself singing candidly about the harsher aspects of being married to the man who once immortalized her in song.
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube