NEIL YOUNG’S instinct has always been to do whatever he sees fit at any given moment and damn the consequences. As if to underline this, the musician has just released—45 years after it was recorded—a remarkably strong album from his most fertile creative period. “Homegrown” is a heartsore, often downbeat, record. Many of the songs appear to allude to his failing relationship with the late Carrie Snodgress, an actor, with whom he has a son, Zeke. Five of them have appeared on later albums or in other versions. Aside from the honky-tonk Southern rock of the title track, the blues jam “We Don’t Smoke It No More”, the hallucinatory spoken-word “Florida” and the embittered rocker “Vacancy”, both the familiar and the previously unheard numbers veer towards the gentle, plaintive folk- and country-rock sound that brought him huge popularity.
By the time “Homegrown” was recorded in 1975, Mr Young was a star. He was propelled to international prominence in the early 1970s after he joined the line-up of Crosby, Stills & Nash. But it was his fourth solo LP, “Harvest”, the biggest-selling album in America in 1972, which was his breakout record. Three turbulent, traumatic years followed “Harvest”. It “put me in the middle of the road,” he once said, “travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” Perhaps “Homegrown” would have put his career back on track, but at the last minute he withdrew it and issued in its place “Tonight’s The Night”, one of the most harrowing albums ever produced.
“Homegrown” may thus be heard as an overdue fourth instalment in what Mr Young’s fans have described as “The Ditch Trilogy”: the series of records he made between the success of “Harvest” and his reconvening in 1975 of Crazy Horse, the backing band with whom he had made his second solo album, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” (1969). Crazy Horse, with whom he continues to work, has ever since acted as an anchor for Mr Young, something he sorely lacked in those three years, which were at once dark, tormented and fearsomely prolific.
The Ditch Trilogy began with the release in 1973 of “Time Fades Away”. It was recorded on the tour that directly followed his sweet-sounding hit album, yet it featured almost entirely new and often abrasive material that baffled Mr Young’s recently acquired audience. He was backed by a band—The Stray Gators—with whom he was at odds over money and music. Many of those involved were intoxicated, angry and sloppy. On the eve of the tour, he had reluctantly dismissed Danny Whitten, the guitarist from Crazy Horse, from the line-up, because Whitten’s drug addiction left him unable to function. Whitten died of an overdose the same night. For years afterwards, Mr Young blamed himself.
The best live albums capture a time and place as well as a sense of who their creators were at that moment. “Time Fades Away” is no exception. Like much of Mr Young’s greatest music, it is raw, ragged and teetering on the brink of collapse—as indeed was the whole tour. The following year he released “On The Beach”, which many fans regard as his finest studio album. Like its predecessor, it was strung-out, paranoid and desolate. Both “Time Fades Away” and “On The Beach” were officially unavailable for decades, deleted from vinyl within a few years of being issued, with neither gaining a CD or digital release until the 21st century. They now stand as pinnacles in Mr Young’s catalogue.
It was in between those two records that Mr Young had made the even bleaker “Tonight’s The Night”, whose theme was the drug-induced deaths of Whitten and another friend and colleague, Bruce Berry, a roadie. When the album eventually came out in 1975, it was not well received. Yet within a few years it came to be understood as a masterpiece, one of the most heartfelt explorations of grief set down in any form.
So what does it say about “Homegrown” that Mr Young chose to release “Tonight’s The Night” in its place, later explaining that he found “Homegrown” “too personal..it scared me…[it] was just a very down album”? While it’s no hayride, “Homegrown” is not as depressing as this suggests. Rather, it is a bittersweet record, alternating between heartbreak and hope, and it would surely have appealed to the millions who bought “Harvest”. Perhaps, by 1975, enough time had passed for Mr Young to face the emotions that fuelled “Tonight’s The Night”, while the more conventional wounds recounted on “Homegrown” were still fresh. Either way, “Homegrown” is powerful enough to merit enlarging The Ditch Trilogy to a tetralogy. It reminds many listeners why the years Mr Young remembers least fondly are the ones they admire the most.