Neil Young: Gold Rush
Originally published in Guitar World, October 2009
Neil Young mines a treasure trove of his early songs, demos, videos and memorabilia for his new multimedia project, Archives Volume 1, 1963-1972. In this world-exclusive interview, the iconic guitarist tells the complete story behind the making of the most ambitious music anthology
"How're you all doing?”
It’s June 2009, and Neil Young is standing center stage at the O2 in Dublin, an ultra-modern, orb-like arena that seems as much a food court and concession stand as it does a music venue. He’s wearing baggy blue jeans, sneakers and a corduroy button-down over a faded black T-shirt. His hair is grey, and wild as ever, with bushy mutton-chop sideburns framing either side of his face. Young is nearing the end of a European tour in support of Fork in the Road, which is, roughly speaking, the 34th or so album of his solo career. Taking into account live discs, soundtracks, projects with other bands, and the nebulous nature of what exactly constitutes an “official” album in Young’s catalog, it’s probably closer to being his 50th. Last year Young turned 63, but tonight he’s been stomping the stage and flailing his body with abandon, all the while coaxing some incredibly gnarly, earsplitting tones—even for him—from “Old Black,” the heavily modified 1953 Les Paul goldtop that in its own way looms as large in music history as Young does.
“We got one for you,” he continues from the stage. “May not be the one you wanted.” Young moves away from the microphone to cue the next song. Then he changes his mind and steps back up. “Or,” he adds, “it might be.”
With that, Young and his band launch into the jangly, upbeat “Burned,” a not-quite-unfamiliar, but certainly not well-known, tune he first cut with Buffalo Springfield back in 1966, and which he once identified as his “first vocal ever done in a studio.” Since that day more than 40 years ago, the song has rarely, if ever, been played live. But Young’s been in a different kind of mood lately.
Last year, for instance, Young took to performing “The Sultan,” a twangy, Hank Marvin–inspired instrumental that he recorded in 1963 while a teenager in Canada, with his first real band, the Squires. The reference was probably lost on all but the most devoted fans in attendance, and Young added an extra layer of absurdity to his performance by having a man dressed as a sultan bang on a gong to introduce the song.
Discussing this episode today, Young finds it all rather amusing. “We had one lying around backstage,” he says, referring to either a sultan’s outfit, or perhaps an actual sultan. “So we wanted to get him out there.”
But beyond an easy laugh, there’s another reason Young has been unearthing songs like “The Sultan” and “Burned” on recent tours. He’s been knee-deep in a journey through his past, and now, with the release of the long-delayed, nearly 20-years-in-the-making Neil Young Archives Volume 1, 1963-1972, so are his fans.
The first of what Young envisions will ultimately be four or five installments (each spanning roughly a 10-year period of his career), Archives Volume 1 is, to put it lightly, massive. Issued in three formats—as a 10-disc Blu-ray or DVD collection, each with a 236-page book, and as an eight-CD set—the retrospective boasts more than 120 songs from Young’s first decade as a musician, beginning with the Squires and continuing through Buffalo Springfield, his early solo work, Crazy Horse, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The tracks are grouped by era: for example, the Buffalo Springfield period resides on a disc titled Early Years (1966-1968), while the Harvest record is chronicled on North Country (1971-1972). The Archives set features many of Young’s biggest and most enduring songs, from acoustic standards like “Sugar Mountain,” “Tell Me Why” and “Heart of Gold,” to Buffalo Springfield and CSNY classics like “Mr. Soul,” “Ohio” and “Helpless,” to Crazy Horse barnburners like “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By the River” and “When You Dance, I Can Really Love.”
Practically half of these performances are unreleased recordings, live cuts, outtakes and alternate mixes. In addition, the Blu-ray and DVD sets house an excess of visual ephemera, including concert performances, TV appearances, photos, letters, newspaper articles, original manuscripts, audio and video interview clips, and the full version of Journey Through the Past, Young’s 1972 feature film directorial debut. These materials are organized around two primary tools: a virtual filing cabinet in which each song and its relevant audio and visual documents are gathered in their own individual folder, and an interactive timeline that runs through all the discs and places Young’s music within the appropriate personal and historical context.