Neil Young lost his Californian home in the wildfires of 2018. At 73 years of age, he had to sit and watch as his life’s memories burnt to ashes. Imagine that…. His life’s photos, his belongings, his musical instruments, even his demos could have gone up in flames. The loss…
For other human beings this would have been debilitating. But loss is not new to Young. Loss has been his muse for decades. His seminal 1975 album Tonight’s the Night mourned the loss of his bandmate Danny Whitten and group roadie Bruce Berry. Young felt directly responsible for the death of Whitten. Young has spoken openly about his friendship with Whitten and how his heroin addiction affected his ability to perform during rehearsals… Young fired his friend, gave him $50 and a ticket to LA. Whitten OD’d and passed away the next day.
His songs have always been highly autobiographical; poignant stories that point to his life’s many challenges. “Man Needs a Maid”, from Harvest, was written as a tribute to his carer while he was bedridden with back pain. “Don’t be Denied” from Time Fades Away, tells the story about his parents’ divorce. Two of his sons have cerebral palsy. He suffered from polio at a young age.
Neil Young didn’t address love and heartbreak very often during his extended creative peak from ’69 to ’79. It seemed almost too personal at the time. He touched on it in certain songs (“Motion Pictures” from On The Beach), but it felt like a step too far.
His “new” album, is not new at all. Homegrown was written in 1974, but he chose not to publish it. Instead, he finished off one of rock music’s most famous album trilogies. His Ditch Trilogy comprised of Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night and On The Beach and took its name from the liner notes of his 1977 collection Decade: “”Heart of Gold” put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch”.
The songs and pathos of the trilogy are comparable to Bowie’s Berlin Years and Tom Waits’ Frank Trilogy. But in 2020, amidst a global pandemic, Neil Young decided to break up his mythical trilogy and add a lost, forgotten album about his failing relationship with the mother of his first child, Carrie Snodgress.
It is interesting to listen to this album for the first time, knowing what happens in the end. “Separate Ways” is so personal. He talks directly to Snodgress, acknowledges that their relationship is falling by the wayside and that they will need to share their son going forward. For Young, it was clearly easier to write and publish songs about dead friends, pain and sorrow, than to come face to face with love.
Some of the songs have made to other albums over the years. “Love is a Rose”, makes much more sense as part of this collection of love songs rather than as an outtake from his Best Of, Decade. “Kansas” is drenched in melancholy. “In my bungalow of stucco, that the glory and success spawned, hold on, hold on, it doesn’t matter if you’re the one, we’ll know before we’re done”. He is bitter about his success, sarcastic about what it’s bought him, yet desperate to find and hold on to love. “Vacancy” touches on Young’s rockier sound and could have easily found its way in Zuma. It’s my personal highlight from an album that has no filler. Very few artists have managed to sustain a creative peak for that long. Homegrown’s retrospective addition to Neil Young’s canon does not disrupt that. For us listeners, it makes much more sense as an album of the 70s than an album coming out in 2020. For us… but not for the great man himself.
Words by Constantine Courtis