There he was, 41 years ago, the “lonely visitor”, campaigning a few more songs…he took breaks for weed, booze and blow, apart from that there was just him, Neil Young, and his best producer, David Briggs. Hitchhiker was recorded over one night in 1976 and then – like quite a few Neil Young albums – it was buried. Gone, but not forgotten. He plundered it, returned to it as a source – re-recorded, re-rewrote, released, and/or performed live many of the tracks from the album. First up Campaigner was on the following year’s Decade triple; an intriguing rarity. Powerderfinger was strengthened as a proto-punk band number – we know Pochahontas and Ride My Llama and Hunan Highway and a few others from some of Young’s other mid/late-70s albums.
It was a purple patch.
There weren’t many better.
Young was an electric wizard and an acoustic folkie; these songs on Hitchhiker, in their original form and order, feel like some of the old, weird Americana of Dylan’s Basement Tapes; well, not quite, they feel like Neil Young’s version/s…
A new Neil Young album appears every nine-to-fifteen months. There are archival releases in and around those. There are bootlegs galore if you look. And almost all of it is worth a listen.
But just recently Young – who has never cared what people think, or at least is good at giving that impression – has struggled to hit anything resembling a home-run. You could look back to five years ago (if you’re kind) or 10 (if you’re a little more honest), you could go back 20 years, some take it back to 40, or so…
But 41 years ago he recorded one of his best albums – and though we know a lot of the material from other records and live outings to hear it all here is truly something special. To hear it as intended.
Hearing songs like Hawaii and Give Me Strength – the lesser known/unknown tracks on this set – only helps to serve the narrative that in the seventies, and in particularly between 73 and 76, Neil Young was just tossing off gems; any song from his pen around then (almost) was worth hearing. They were malleable too, electric and acoustic versions, open for covering, and yet there’s something in his forlorn country-folk croon, his percussive acoustic guitar style – that’s the ‘something’ that is and was and always will be all his own.
In that sense Hitchhiker is both intriguing archival dig – and one of the best Neil Young albums you could ever hear, no long just one we all hoped to hear.