This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #28: Heart of Gold by Neil Young.
It amazes me that we are so deep into the countdown and yet, there are still facts that I discover during the research process that I was unaware of and find hard to believe. In the case of Neil Young, the fact that I discovered during the research for this post is that, despite a Hall of Fame career that has spanned over half a century, he has only had one #1 hit song…..that hit song was “Heart of Gold”.
“Heart of Gold” was from one of his best albums, “Harvest”. The song, and much of the album for that matter, was primarily powered by an acoustic guitar. In addition to “Heart of Gold”, “Harvest” also yielded classic songs such as “Old Man” and “The Needle and the Damage Done”. One of the main reasons that the “Harvest” album was done with an acoustic guitar is that, at that point in time, Neil Young had hurt his back and was finding it hard to stand erect for more than a few minutes at a time. By using an acoustic guitar, Young could sit upon a chair or a stool and that seemed to make a difference.
The song “Heart of Gold” was written during a time in Young’s life when he was dating actress Carrie Snodgrass and was, by all accounts, very happy in that relationship. This blissful state of mind is reflected in lyrics that speak to the value he placed upon people who possessed character and forth-rightness. The ironic thing about “Heart of Gold” is that one of the people Neil Young was most inspired by, when it came to writing this song, was Bob Dylan. *(Note the prominent use of his harmonica). And yet, Bob Dylan didn’t like listening to this song because he felt it was too similar in structure and sound to the type of songs he was singing and releasing then.
As for Neil Young, the success of this song unnerved him. As it went to #1, he was immediately asked by fans to play it for them everywhere he performed, to the exclusion of his prior work. As well, he was hounded by record executives who strongly encouraged him to write “Heart of Gold”-Part II. So, being ever the contrarian that he is, Neil Young decided, right then and there, that mainstream success was abhorrent to him and therefore, that he would never willingly aim for, what he called, “the middle of the road”. Young stated that he preferred the ditch, to the middle of the road, and, as a result, his next three albums (“Journey Through the Past”, “Time Fades Away” and “On The Beach”) veered far away from the spotlight and have become known as his “Ditch Trilogy”.
Curmudgeonly or not, we are all better off for Young having taken an introspective look into his own life and heart with “Harvest” which, as it turned out, was the biggest selling album in America in 1972. As a bit of trivia before we go, Neil Young had some famous help on “Heart of Gold”. Singing back-up on the song were up and coming singers named Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. As the story goes, Ronstadt and Taylor were in Nashville in order to appear on a TV special with Johnny Cash. Nashville was where Neil Young recorded, “Harvest”. As Young worked his way through “Heart of Gold”, he and his producer felt the song needed some harmony. It so happened that the Johnny Cash special was being taped not far from where Young was recording “Heart of Gold” and so, Taylor and Ronstadt were asked to pop over if time allowed. Well, time must have allowed because both singers can be heard in the background of this song if you listen carefully.
So, there you have it. A #1 hit song about finding blissful happiness turned out to not be the blessing that Neil Young desired. But, it did confirm for him that he valued his independence fiercely and would be willing to make certain career decisions with integrity and independence in mind. I am sure if you were to ask any Spotify executive right about now, they would agree that Mr. Young still commands respect for being the type of person who puts principles above profits. So, without further delay, let’s all listen to the only song ever to reach #1 for Neil Young, “Heart of Gold” from the Album of the Year for 1072, “Harvest”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Heart of Gold”, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Neil Young, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.