In 1975, Neil Young had a choice of two ready-to-go albums to release as the follow up to the masterpiece that was On The Beach. Tonight’s The Night was a tequila-drenched wake in which Young mourned the drug deaths of Bruce Berry and Danny Whitten. In contrast, Homegrown recalled the country rock of his hugely successful Harvest for two years previously. But lyrically it was a deeply personal reflection on his break-up with the actress Carrie Snodgress, the mother of his first child Zeke.
After a listening party – ‘party’ perhaps in the loosest sense given the soundtrack – with close friends, Young settled on Tonight’s The Night. Given we now know that record to be a rambling, heartbreaking love letter to lost friends, consider what Homegrown must be if this is the one Young chose to lock away, deeming it too raw and painful to be released. By the end of the year, Young was suggesting it might never see the light of day. But now, 45 years on, he’s ready for us to hear a record that for so long he could not bear to listen to himself.
Well, at least some of it he couldn’t. Five of the 12 songs eventually made their way on to other records – ‘Love Is A Rose’ appearing on 1977’s retrospective Decade after Linda Ronstadt made it a country hit – while four others have crept into live performance in more recent years. But regardless, there is much more that is new about Homegrown than other similar Archive releases like 2017’s Hitchhiker.
The opening notes of ‘Separate Ways’ feel like they could have been plucked from On The Beach, but with Ben Keith’s pedal steel again to the fore musically this is much closer to Harvest. Despite the lyrical gloom, there’s a playful feel to the piano of ‘Try’, the barroom blues of the title track (an even looser version of which later appeared on American Stars ’n Bars) or the ready-made stoner anthem ‘We Don’t Smoke It No More’, which most certainly sounds as though they do.
But Young’s pain is evident at every turn. ‘Separate Ways’ – a song he returned to performing around the time his marriage with Pegi was breaking up – gets straight to the point, delving into personal detail of his relationship with Snodgress as Young sings “I won’t apologise/The light shone from in your eyes/It isn’t gone/And it will soon come back again.” On ‘Mexico’, he laments : “Oh, the feeling’s gone/Why is it so hard to hang on to your love?” The bizarre, rambling spoken word of ‘Florida’, accompanied by a metallic screeching, might have been best left in the vaults but could only have been recorded by an artist suffering some pretty dark moments.
‘Vacancy’, one of the few songs never to have appeared or been performed in any way, is perhaps the best illustration of why the record remained locked up for so long. A rocking tune led by Stan Szelest’s Wurlitzer organ carries angry, vicious lyrics. “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there,” Young sings. “You poison me with that long, vacant stare.”
‘White Line’, later re-imagined for 1990’s grunge-fuelled Ragged Glory, appears here as Young first recorded it with Robbie Robertson, a harmonic-led lament of the strains that life on the road puts on any home. “You were my raft and I let you slide” Young sings, “I’ve been down/but I’m coming back up again.” These are the moments that see Homegrown stand out as the greatest instalment yet as Young throws open his archives and brings us the lost treasures within. As one of the greatest songwriters and musicians of his or any generation, Young needs do nothing to embellish his reputation, and yet clearly has many more gifts to give. We still await the likes of Homefires, Chrome Dreams and – the one I personally cannot wait to hear – the original Trans amongst others, but Homegrown stands above what has come already as a record wrought from pure emotion.
The album’s closing tracks have both been heard before – ‘Little Wing’ was lifted from these sessions to serve as the opener to 1980’s Hawks and Doves, while Young used this take of ‘Star of Bethlehem’ on American Stars ‘n Bars. Heard here in its original setting, it provides the perfect ending to this exploration of heartache as Young offers some hope and – nearly five decades later – something approaching an explanation as to why this record did at long last need to be heard. “Ain’t it hard when you wake up in the morning/And you find out that those other days are gone,” Young sings. “All you have is memories of happiness lingering on.”