Neil Young’s archive boasts many hidden gems and over the last decade or so he’s been sharing more from that cellar door. There are whole albums, live gigs, alternate versions – and though there have been one or two slightly unnecessary live sets there is still so much more magic to come. There’s also several fully complete unreleased albums. But in Young lore Homegrown has always been one of the grails; one of the ones that’s talked about – despite (or maybe because of) the fact that a good half of it has turned up on official releases, been re-recorded or performed live.
Still, Homegrown is one of the important ones, available only as a bootleg to a curious few until just now. Now it’s here for all to hear in the form that Neil had it – cover was designed, tracklisting sorted, it was booked and ready. And then, because he felt sad about the death of the relationship as documented on this album and the downbeat tone of his releases at the time he shelved it. It’s really that simple. He put it on the shelf and then released Tonight’s The Night – both far more depressing and an absolute classic. On The Beach which preceded these albums is also far more depressing I reckon – but also beautifully so.
There’s always been talk of Young’s famous “Doom Trilogy” and it could have been a Doom Quadrology – or more…
Young’s line about it all is that Homegrown is the bridge between Harvest and Comes A Time. And it’s a good line and a useful way to contextualise this – but you could also say that this is that same middle-ground with visiting rights to both On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night; the other crucial reference point is the recently unearthed Hitchhiker – yet another lost classic, buried but occasionally exhumed for a song or two.
So basically this is all must-have alarm-bells for any Neil Young fan. And rightly so.
Homegrown is fantastic. It is a trim album – 35 minutes – that is almost perfect, save for the annoying, hippie-dreck of a spoken-word stoned-nonsense (Florida). But even that is a perfect evocation of the time (1975) and it sits correctly in the middle of the album.
Either side of that it’s with wide-eyed wonder that we hear the songs in the right order of an album Young didn’t want us to know about for a time Opener Separate Ways has some of Harvest’s creaking country to it, and the weepy-eyed majesty of Ben Keith’s pedal steel. It’s still a hell of a scene-setter, 45 years on from when it was first meant to be.
Second track, Try, is the sort of Neil Young Fantasy Dream-Sequence Song you might invent if it didn’t already exist. Levon Helm on drums, Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals, Uncle Neil rocking gently back and forth on a couple of chords – time suspended.
Mexico, at less than two minutes long, has Young at the piano in a lament – “Ooh, the feeling’s gone/Why is it so hard to hang on/To your love” – that is like a trial-run of bits and pieces from Motion Pictures, Borrowed Tune and Look Out For My Love. Utterly gorgeous. A snippet, mere snapshot that is gloriously, imperfectly complete.
Love Is A Rose is perhaps the best-known track from Homegrown – it was first recorded by Linda Ronstadt in the year it was planned for Homegrown, then a couple of years on it appeared as one of the rarities on Young’s Decade compilation. It’s been reasonably regular in his live set over the years too. It’s, again, a deceptively imperfect wee sliver of a song. Unfinished, arguably. But perfectly so.
The title track was re-recorded with Crazy Horse for yet-another-as-yet-officially-unreleased-but-brilliant-Neil-Young-album-of the-seventies (1977’s Chrome Dreams) but that version was also slipped out on American Stars ‘N Bars. This Horse-less original is better, it’s still a big, dumb, sloppy ode to getting high – but the gnarled-up punch-drunk guitars here give this an early Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers vibe.
After Florida, and we’ve already had Mexico, it’s time for another place-name song, Kansas. Young toured a lot in the 1970s and he had kids that weren’t always seeing their father, and relationships that fell victim to his life on the road. Kansas is one of those stories; it’s one of the main themes – within the heartbreak theme – of Homegrown. The hushed harmonica sets up a classic Neil Young feel. This song alone could definitely stand as the bridge between Harvest and Comes A Time. You’d spot it in any line-up.
We Don’t Smoke It No More is fighting with the title track for goofiest goof-off; this is lazy bar-room blues shenanigans that works as a brief pause – even if, ironically, it’s the longest track on the album.
The revelation of the record for me is the original version of White Line. This gem was eventually trashed-up with Crazy Horse for 1990’s Ragged Glory after being tried a few times over the years. But here it is – just Neil Young and Robbie Robertson noodling away in campfire-mode. Sublime.
Vacancy has some of Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach’s grit to it – but not as much to say as the songs on either of those records. It’s a vibe though. One to ride along with; arguably one of the placeholder moments on this record but not at all a dud.
And then we close with two of the other well-known tunes, fantastic pieces both. Little Wing is the saviour of the mediocre Hawks & Doves – another of those Neil Young-Styled Songs that might just be dreamed up by a committee trying to do their best to touch on the key Neil Young points within a type of song he makes. That’s of course if he hadn’t already done it himself. As here. The version on Hawks was just this rendition – lifted up and off the then-shelved Homegrown and placed at the start of the 1980 record that really doesn’t have anything else great going for it.
And the closer here is the lovely Star of Bethlehem. It too was just lifted up and placed on Stars N Bars (and Decade).
“All you have is memories of happiness, lingering on”.
There was no happiness for Neil Young in this record. Nothing for him to want to remember at the time. So he put it in a cupboard. It’s our luck and joy as devotees that he felt it was time to open that cupboard door. His already remarkable run across the 1970s sounds even richer for us now having and hearing this.
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