Homegrown: Alright With Me

Ballyhooed as a classic but not entirely what it claims to be, Neil Young’s latest archival release is good on its own terms

Aaron Fritschner
14 min readJun 21, 2020

In the spring of 1975, Neil Young was ready to stop running away from the commercial success of his 1972 international smash hit Harvest. After a series of sessions held at the same studios and featuring key musicians who played on Harvest, he had a finished album mixed, sequenced, titled, and with artwork prepared. He considered it a sequel of sorts, called Homegrown.

Neil Young in Malibu, 1975

With release approaching, Young held a listening party to play Homegrown for close friends at his Malibu home. And then a funny thing happened.

Homegrown played in full, and when it ended, whether because the party-goers were too wrecked to stop the playback or because Young’s famous imp of the perverse was acting up, another album came on. By fate or intention, the tape containing Homegrown also had Young’s home copy of his then-unreleased album Tonight’s The Night on the back side, and the audience heard it in full — and acclaimed it the better album of the two.

Young made a snap decision to release his dark 1973 recording of 45 minutes of anguish rather than the sonic successor to Harvest. And that’s what he did.

Homegrown would remain in Neil Young’s vault for almost half a century, a rumor and a legend — until June of 2020, when it became his latest archival release.

But despite what you may read in the glowing reviews which greeted it, the album titled Homegrown released this month, though a fine record and a fascinating timepiece, is not the album he nearly released in 1975.

Neil Young is a master. In this author’s opinion he is the archetypal rock artist, combining lyric skills approaching Bob Dylan’s, the melodic craft of Elton John (John Lennon compared them), a lead guitar style that has influenced generations of players on a level comparable to B.B. King, Scotty Moore, or Jimmy Page, the prolific output of the Rolling Stones in their prime, and the rapid artistic evolution of David Bowie. He is a living god of rock ’n’ roll.

But his longtime friends and fans know that Neil Young is also a deeply frustrating artist, a tinkerer, a revisionist.

He cuts incredible songs and even whole albums and then hides them away from the ears of all except his closest friends.

This pattern began early in his career but ramped up in the wake of the massive fame Young achieved as an A-list solo artist with the success of the album Harvest and its lead single “Heart of Gold,” which hit #1 in 1972. At this point in his career Neil Young was writing incredible songs so quickly that part of assembling an album was deciding which standout tracks to include.

If you listen to his 1971 Massey Hall show, the material that would ultimately form the backbone of Harvest, you hear an early in-process version of “Heart of Gold,” a song called “Dance, Dance, Dance” he later rewrote as “Love Is A Rose” (included on Homegrown), songs he recorded for but did not include on Harvest like the beautiful “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” which lay unreleased in his vault until 2009, and stone-cold classics like “Journey Through The Past” and “See The Sky About To Rain” that he held for later albums.

By the mid-1970’s Neil Young wasn’t just giving individual songs this treatment, he was recording and then withholding whole albums as his mood shifted. This is where Homegrown comes in.

In 1977 Young released a decade-spanning retrospective compilation called Decade containing hits, strong album tracks, and unreleased material (another trend he started). As I write, I have the liner notes to the collection open, and in his nearly illegible script introducing each track Neil Young writes “from the unreleased album ‘Homegrown,’ sort of a sequel to Harvest” beneath the entry for “Star of Bethlehem.”

The Decade liner notes are quite difficult to decipher

Homegrown is not the only unreleased classic album from the post-Harvest period, it is one of several we know of. One of these, a solo acoustic set recorded in a single stoned 1976 night called Hitchhiker, was released in 2017. Several songs on Hitchhiker appeared on 1977’s Chrome Dreams (long bootlegged but still unreleased, and reportedly to follow soon), which has a legendary status rivaling Homegrown. Another, Oceanside/Countryside, dating from 1978 with themed front/back sides similar to his 1979 classic Rust Never Sleeps, is also said to be on the way. An earlier recording of the Tonight’s The Night material deemed vastly superior by the handful who have heard (including Young himself) exists and may someday emerge.

All of which is to say Neil Young is famous for abrupt changes in direction. He is the man who signed with the record label established by his longtime friend David Geffen, and then recorded albums over which Geffen filed suit against him for being “unrepresentative.” He is the man who found international fame by recording with Crosby, Stills, and Nash and then kept them waiting 14 years for a promised reunion. He bailed on Stephen Stills partway through a fully-booked national tour of the Stills-Young Band and broke the news in a telegram that ended with him telling Stills to “eat a peach.”

In 1975, when Neil Young recorded an album he titled Homegrown, he was wearing the incredible insanity and tumult of the preceding five years on his sleeve and singing it in his songs. His sudden superstar status as a member of CSNY in 1969-70 and then as a solo artist — and the love he found in the arms of actress Carrie Snodgress — rapidly gave way to disillusionment, sadness, isolation, and heartbreak. His relationship with Snodgress, the mother of his son, fell apart. CSNY dissolved, reformed, and dissolved again amid clashing egos. Young’s close friends died from overdoses for which he felt personal guilt. Young was in constant pain from slipped discs in his back (he told Cameron Crowe that he was basically unable to walk for two years until he got surgery). He was so inundated with freeloaders at his Bay-area ranch that he simply left his home and moved for into a beach house in Malibu.

He followed the smash success of Harvest with two albums that intentionally and perversely went in an opposite direction. As he wrote in the Decade liner notes recalling how the popularity of “Heart of Gold” changed him: “This song 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.”

Young went out with his recording band (he’d christened them the “Stray Gators”) on an ambitious stadium tour to promote Harvest in 1973, but it did not go well. Rhythm guitarist Danny Whitten (founder and leader of Crazy Horse) was too strung out on heroin to play, and Neil Young dismissed him from rehearsals. Young received a call that night telling him that Whitten, a close friend and creative collaborator, had overdosed and died. Drummer Kenny Buttrey demanded an exorbitant salary for lost session work and then proved unable to play to Young’s standards in the tour’s cavernous venues and was replaced. Young balanced the Harvest material with new, darker, less radio-friendly material which audiences did not warm to (to understand their reaction listen to “Old Man” and then “Yonder Stands The Sinner”). Recordings from this tour became Harvest’s followup, the 1973 album Time Fades Away (Young intentionally kept it out of print for decades).

Shortly after the Times Fades Away tour, Young’s friend and roadie Bruce Berry died of an overdose of heroin, a drug to which he had been introduced by Danny Whitten. Grief and despair welled up, combined with depression and the feeling that the unfulfilled promise of the 1960’s (ala the wave passage in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas) had given way to loss and drug-fueled misery; the song set that became Tonight’s the Night was born in mid-1973. The album cover is perfect for the content: Neil in black and white hiding behind long hair, a beard, and shades (at night) on a black background. The album (my favorite of his), was recorded in a series of all-night Irish wakes with a band he dubbed “the Santa Monica Flyers.” It is raw, the performances plainly drunken, and he shelved it without release.

After a late-1973 tour of the unreleased Tonight material, Neil Young bottomed out. His next record, On The Beach, though also dark and introspective, is more disillusionment than despair. It was savaged by critics and sold poorly, but it is a masterpiece, and though he held it out of print for years because of poor sound fidelity, Neil knew it. Having spent two years in the ditch (together these three albums would come to be called his “ditch trilogy”) he was ready to return to the road with Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

The CSNY reunion tour lasted through much of the second half of 1974 (my father saw them in New Jersey on August 9; an ecstatic Crosby broke the news of Nixon’s resignation to the audience over the loudspeaker). Though the quartet planned to record a sequel to their 1970 debut Deja Vu, to be titled Human Highway, the project failed to advance beyond a few sessions (their label ultimately released a compilation, So Far, in its place). Instead, Young wrote and recorded new material on the road and in his home studio.

Some time in 1974, Young’s relationship with Carrie Snodgress ended, and she left with their son Zeke. Snodgress had been a muse for Young even before they met in person: the Harvest cut “A Man Needs A Maid” is plainly about how he fell in love with her. The penultimate track on On the Beach, titled “Motion Pictures (For Carrie),” ends with Young delivering the lines “I’m deep inside myself, but I’ll get out somehow, and I’ll stand before you, and I’ll bring a smile to your face.”

Snodgress in Diary of a Mad Housewife. Neil Young, in “A Man Needs A Maid,” sang: “I fell in love with the actress, she was playing a part that I could understand”

The loss of his family put Young into a new, albeit different, period of unhappiness that drove a creative burst of especially raw and personal songs. By mid-1975 he had recorded a mostly-acoustic set of these songs in Nashville, London, and his Broken Arrow ranch (the same locations that yielded Harvest), and the completed Homegrown was speeding towards a release it would never see. We may never hear that album.

In his 1975 interview with Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe (whence these details originate), Young, speaking of Joni Mitchell, said:

“ I’ve written a few songs that were as stark as hers. Songs like “Pardon My Heart,” “Home Fires,” “Love Art Blues” . . . almost all of Homegrown. I’ve never released any of those. And I probably never will. I think I’d be too embarrassed to put them out. They’re a little too real.

When it emerged this month 45 years after it was passed over for Tonight’s the Night, something about Homegrown was different. “Pardon My Heart,” “Home Fires,” and “Love/Art Blues,” weren’t on it. Neither was a song he had specifically identified as a Homegrown track in the Decade liner notes, “Deep Forbidden Lake.” Neither were other odes to heartbreak from the sessions, including “Through My Sails,” released later in 1975 on Zuma, or tracks he buried for years: “Bad News Has Come to Town,” “Give Me Strength,” and (still unreleased) “Barefoot Floors.”

Give Me Strength,” which finally surfaced on the aforementioned Hitchhiker release, contains the line “Give me strength to move along/give me strength to realize she’s gone.” It’s a great song and I just don’t believe this album, which he didn’t release because it was too personal, did not include it.

With respect to Neil Young, I just don’t believe this is the album he completed and prepared for release in 1975.

But Homegrown as released does contain new songs and fine recordings, remains something of a classic, and is at times quite revelatory.

“Separate Ways,” a staple of past tours, opens the record and the staccato bass notes immediately recall the feel of Harvest (played by the same bassist, Stray Gator Tim Drummond). Though I have a sentimental fondness for later live versions which pack more power, this acoustic breakup song fits.

“Try” is another strong song, featuring contributions from Stray Gator Ben Keith (whose presence is essential throughout the album), Emmylou Harris, and The Band drummer Levon Helm, who also appears on Separate Ways, though his work here is much less dynamic than his playing on On the Beach.

Again mirroring Harvest, the third track is a slower, contemplative piano tune, “Mexico.” I really like this song, though I doubt this product was finished and have a hard time believing the track here would have been included in a final release. It has the feel of a “Love In Mind” or a “Journey Through The Past,” songs he was never satisfied enough with to release studio recordings.

“Love Is A Rose” is clean and straightforward, the same version released on Decade, which became a top-10 hit for Linda Ronstadt a few weeks after Homegrown would have been released.

With the title track we get into really interesting territory. Having grown up with the distortion-washed version on Young’s 1977 release American Stars ‘n Bars, it was hard to see how the song could carry an album. Now I get it. The earlier version released here is inarguably better, carried by Karl Himmel’s solid backbeat (Himmel, in this Band-lover’s opinion, consistently outshines Levon Helm’s playing on the album) and Ben Keith’s remarkable lap slide.

Neil Young in 1977

Young in 2020 chose to follow this with a spoken-word rap accompanied by the jarring sound of a finger running along a wine glass. I feel fairly confident in the guess that “Florida” would never have been included in a Neil Young release in 1975; even in his craziest excesses or his most offbeat experiments of the 1980’s he didn’t do anything like that on a finished studio album. It throws off the flow of the album and just doesn’t need to be here.

“Kansas” is like “Mexico” in that I like it but wonder if it would really have made the cut at a time when he had knockouts like “Human Highway” and “Long May You Run” in his pocket. Looking at the standards to which he held his releases during the period, I just don’t think this one is finished yet.

“We Don’t Smoke It” is a joy and I would buy the whole album just to hear it. Neil Young grew up listening to bluesman Jimmy Reed (if you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing Young live, you likely heard Reed over the loudspeakers while you were waiting for him to come out), and his ditch period saw him discovering the blues (“Revolution Blues,” “Vampire Blues,” “For The Turnstiles” on On the Beach, and Tonight’s The Night’s “Lookout Joe” are prominent examples). Ben Keith’s lap slide playing crushes this one.

“White Line” is a long-bootlegged track that features a guitar duet with The Band’s Robbie Robertson. I love Robertson’s guitar work and have been heavily influenced by it, but his lead playing does not move me here. The song does work better to me as an acoustic track with harmonica (it was eventually released as a Crazy Horse electric beast on Ragged Glory 15 years later).

“Vacancy” is the standout on the set, in my opinion, though it sounds like it showed up late for Tonight’s the Night and missed the ride. A very “World On A String” vibe. This is a great song and a polished electric recording.

“Little Wing” and “Star of Bethlehem” are recordings we’ve had for a long time, the former from Young’s 1980 album Hawks and Doves, the latter from American Stars ‘n Bars. “Little Wing” fits well, it has never been my favorite Neil Young track but it is solid enough; “Bethlehem” is the centerpiece of the album and would likely have been the lead single. It is a tight song built around a harmony with Emmylou Harris, who was by then an emerging star and would guest on Young’s recordings numerous times thereafter.

Collectively these are good tracks, including some new versions of songs we already had and versions that plausibly would have been included on the 1975 release. But looking at what is missing and what is present, I think we are looking at another case of Neil Young as Lucy jerking away the football. I don’t think this song sequence is what he intended to release in 1975, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has observed the way his mood changes have been reflected in his creative output over the course of a storied career.

Frankly, I suspect the album he played at that listening party was better. On the Beach, which came before it, and Zuma, which came after, are simply two of the best albums by anyone at the time and though I love to hear it I can’t really say that about Homegrown.

It’s hard to guess how it might feel if the less-polished tracks were supplanted with stronger cuts like “Pardon My Heart” or “Love/Art Blues.” As it stands, this does not really feel like a Harvest sequel to me either, though it gets close at times. Partially this is because he released a full-blown sequel to Harvest in 1992 called Harvest Moon, not to mention a countrified successor in 1978 called Comes A Time which remains my favorite acoustic Neil Young album.

Why does he hold back his own creative achievements? I cannot fathom having an incredible classic song like “Ordinary People” in the can and choosing not to release it for TWENTY YEARS. But here he is, doing it again in 2020. Why is Neil Young like this? How do you solve a problem like Maria?

I suspect the answer gets at something he told the audience at the beginning of the the 1976 show released two years ago as Songs For Judy:

I love it when you ask me for those old songs and everything but, it’s funny ’cause what keeps you alive is what kills you you know, and you get — too much of the old shit you know, good night.

Like Picasso or Miles Davis, Neil Young has viewed change as a life-and-death imperative for an artist, and he still does. Sometimes the change is sudden, atonal, discordant, inexplicable. It is frustrating, and it is his genius.

And now for all his agony-inducing antics, Neil Young has once again given us a delight, the sound of an all-time great at his creative peak.

Homegrown’s alright with me.