Neil Young: Gold Rush
GW In that respect, the show documented on the Live at Massey Hall 1971 disc features what is in effect an embryonic version of what would become your biggest hit, “Heart of Gold.” Here, however, it’s merely a small piece of the song “A Man Needs a Maid.”
YOUNG Right. That’s the way it originally came out. It was just a little piano thing in the middle of a larger song.
GW How did it become its own composition?
YOUNG It just morphed. It grew. It’s interesting, because there’s another version of that song on Archives where I’m playing it live on acoustic. I put that version on there because that was the first time I ever used the harmonica onstage in front of people. But I have to think: did that version precede the recorded one?
GW Well, it appears in the track listing before the studio version.
YOUNG So then it happened before. That’s good to know, because I wasn’t playing the harmonica very good on that live take! It’s much better on the recorded version. And that’s probably why—it was later on. And you’re able to establish which came first because of the Archives. Things like that, as simple as they may be, they’re difficult to perceive without all the information laid out in front of you.
GW To bring up another instance of the Archives affording deeper insight into a song: On the Live at Massey Hall disc there’s a great video interview of you and your ranch hand, Louie Avila, shot at your Broken Arrow ranch in 1971. Even casual Neil Young fans tend to know that you wrote the song “Old Man” about Avila, but few have ever seen him or heard him speak before.
YOUNG And now you have. It’s like, “I believed that. But now I believe it.” It’s good to have evidence.
GW At one point in that video, the interviewer asks about the song “Old Man,” and Avila says something to the effect that it’s “really nice.” You sit there silently, and eventually say, “That’s really an amazing tape recorder you have there.”
YOUNG [laughs] That’s good.
GW Which reveals a greater truth about you that, in my opinion, has been displayed in countless interviews over the years: You don’t like to talk about specific songs, or the act of songwriting.
YOUNG It’s not really worth talking about, as far as I’m concerned. It’s so hard to nail down. It’s something that happens. It’s like breathing. It’s like a wind change or something.
GW But people do wonder about your process.
YOUNG Well, I can’t say what it is! Because it’s different for all the songs, and I can’t remember half of them anyway. They all have their own little story of how they came along, but I don’t know… I will say that the best ones come really fast. And they’re complete. There’s no editing or anything. You just get it.
GW In your introduction to “Mr. Soul” on the Sugar Mountain—Live at Canterbury House 1968 disc, you identify that song as one of the “fast” ones. You say it took five minutes to write.
YOUNG Yeah, that was one like that. And that’s how long it should take, about as long as it takes to write it down. So, I mean, what’s the process? The bottom line is there is no process. The process is, there it is.
GW How about your process as a guitar player? In particular, around the time of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, were there other guitarists who influenced you as far as your pursuit of the louder, noisier side of the music? Jimi Hendrix would be an obvious point of reference, but anyone else?
YOUNG Not really. I mean, Jimi certainly. I liked him. He was on my radar. But not too many others. [Producer and occasional Young collaborator] Jack Nitzsche and I used to listen to the early Jimi Hendrix Experience 45s that came out of London before we did my first solo album. He was the latest, greatest thing from over there, and we were checking it out. Wanted to see what was going on.
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