I wanna live
I wanna give
I've been a miner for a heart of gold
It's these expressions I never give
That keep me searching for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old
The only number one hit song Neil Young has had in his long and varied career, "Heart of Gold" epitomizes the country-folk style of several of his albums, particularly 1972's best-selling "Harvest, where this song first appeared. The original compositions on this album represent the best of Young's work in the style: simple acoustic three-chord songs with naively rhyming lyrics, featuring Young on vocals, guitar, piano, and harmonica, backed by the Stray Gators (Ben Keith on steel guitar, Kenny Buttrey on drums, Tim Drummond on bass, and Jack Nitzsche on piano and slide guitar). The song "Heart of Gold" also had backing vocals by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt.
For many of us, this album and its hit singles - "Heart of Gold", "Old Man", "The Needle and the Damage Done" - constituted our introduction to Neil Young. I was in my early teens when I first heard these songs, and this was the first Young albums I bought. Over the next few years I amassed many more, from the Buffalo Springfield days through his many early classics, and I played them incessantly. I loved Neil Young, for what was not to like for a young woman growing up in hippie-nostalgic BC? Not just the music - those poetically mysterious lyrics; the quavery, flat, falsetto; the rocking one-note guitar solos - but also his personal style: the flannel shirts and neanderthal brows, romantic Indian-loving ways and Big Sur buffalo ranch, unashamed pot-smoking and epilepsy. No one could wring more out of three-chord song so simple that my girlfriends and I could figure out how to play them in half an hour.
Of course, the other wonderful aspect of Young is that he didn't remain in the folk/country groove that was such a hit at the time. Over the decades he has constantly experimented with new styles, now a rocker, now a country and western troubador, now an industrial music guru, now a blues crooner, now a rockabilly duck-walker. This restless seeking has helped Neil Young remain cool, even now, as an old geezer. Compare him to his erstwhile contemporaries: Crosby and Stills have turned into fat blobs who have to heave their bloated bodies onto stools to play concerts; Nash got into sailing and photography and faded, largely, from music; but Young has stayed current. Long before those grunge kiddies ripped the knees of their jeans and wailed their angst, Neil Young had already done it, and a lot more besides. What a guy.
Young is a survivor, and it seems almost laughable, now, that he thought he wouldn't find a life mate and imagined himself old, all those years ago, in his early 20s. He married Pegi in 1977, and they are still together; in 2005 he turned 60. A good long life already, but his thoughts turned to mortality when his father, journalist Scott Young, died that year, and he himself was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Waiting for surgery, he began working on a new album, "Prairie Wind", a return to the country-folk style of earlier albums such as "Harvest" and "Harvest Moon", all the while aware that this might be his last offering.
Luckily, the surgery was a success, and he premiered the new album before its CD release at live concerts, as he likes to do, this time at the Ryman Auditorium (of Grand Ole Opry fame) in Nashville, Tennessee. The shows were filmed by Jonathon Demme, who released the resulting movie, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold", in 2006. I have long since moved on from my Neil Young-loving days - he has released literally dozens of albums since I stopped buying them in the late seventies - but still, I was eager to see this new offering, and wasn't disappointed. The concert was clearly carefully orchestrated and rehearsed, with the musicians dressed in beautiful country-and-western style costumes and moving about the stage between songs so that they were well placed for the cameras. Featured performers include Young's wife Pegi, Emmylou Harris, and Ben Keith. After covering a performance of songs from the new disc - not particularly strong, in my opinion, with uninspired lyrics and uninteresting tunes - the play list then moves to many old favourites that any erstwhile fan will love. The movie is beautifully filmed, and Young is charismatic, relaxed and happy as he trades fond looks with his wife and tells sly stories about his life, his family, and the songs. Great stuff, well worth seeing by even the most peripheral fan.
I have gleaned some details from www.thrasherwheat.org, an exhaustive fan site. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly mourn the purging of the Neil Young discography and lyric nodes lovingly posted by yossarian under the buffalospringfield account. Those write-ups are sorely missed.