The Stories Behind Your Favourite Songs.
“Old Man” is Neil Young’s second biggest selling single of his career, trailing only “Heart of Gold” *(which you can read about here). Both of these classic songs, along with “Needle and the Damage Done” were all on the track list of his highly successful fourth solo album called, Harvest. Harvest was released fifty years ago and was the biggest selling album of the year in America in 1972. The funny thing about that bit of success is that it made Neil Young completely uncomfortable. In his mind, mainstream success was going to mean a career spent, as he put it, in the “middle of the road” whereas he always claims to feel more comfortable “in the ditch”. So, the Harvest album was Young’s last big radio-friendly album for quite a few years. But like it or not, history has smiled kindly upon Harvest and, in particular, the big three singles that emerged from it. Many music critics consider it to be one of the top 100 albums of all time. In Canada, it was ranked as the #1 Canadian album ever!
As much as Neil Young presents an image of being a contrarian and a curmudgeonly person, the fact of the matter is that he is a pro’s pro when it comes to his music. The story behind the songs that became Harvest is that while on tour in 1971, Young was workshopping many of those songs in with his roster of established songs. Many artists do this as a way of working out any kinks a song may have, seeing how audiences react to the lyrics or the musical structure and so on. So, as luck would have it, one day Neil Young was asked to appear in Nashville on the set of a television show hosted by Johnny Cash. The producer of that show was a man named Elliott Mazar. Mazar was about to open a new recording studio called Quadrafonic Studios. He asked Young if he would like to record something there someday. Young replied that he had an album’s worth of songs at the ready and would be willing to record them that very night if Mazar could arrange for some professional session players to show up and help out. Mazar found some musicians on very short notice. Meanwhile, Neil Young did his bit and performed on the Johnny Cash Show with fellow musical guests, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. When taping was over, Young mentioned to Taylor and Ronstadt that he was going into Elliott Mazar’s new studio that night and asked if they were interested in singing back-up for him. They agreed. Not only that, James Taylor even laid down some tracks on which he played a hybrid banjo-guitar that Neil Young had created. The recording sessions went on through the night. By sunrise, “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” were mostly complete. A few tweaks happened in later sessions with audio technician-types but, for the most part, the Harvest album’s biggest songs were all recorded in one night.
The song, “Old Man” was written by Young based upon a conversation he had with a man named Louis Avila. At the age of just 25 years, Neil Young had already had enough musical success to be able to afford to buy his own ranch in California called The Broken Arrow Ranch. Because the ranch was 100s of acres in size, Young inherited a maintenance staff that included a groundskeeper named Louis Avila. Avila was twice as old as Young when Neil Young first showed up at the ranch as the new owner. He and Avila toured the grounds and, as they did, they talked about life. Avila, who had worked with his hands his entire life, looked at Young and attempted to size him up by asking how it was that he had been able to afford such a large property at such a young age. Neil Young replied that it was probably just dumb luck. Louis Avila probably thought so at first as well but, after getting to know Neil Young better, Avila came to respect him as a hard working and principled man. In reply, Neil Young wrote “Old Man” about Avila.
“Old Man” by Neil Young was written fifty years ago but, to my mind, it still sounds just as good and just as fresh today. I guess that type of staying power is one of the hallmarks of a well-written song. I am happy that this song was nominated for inclusion in the Reader’s Choice series. Just a reminder to all who are reading these words, I do take requests. If you have a favourite song or songs that you feel would lend themselves well to the type of storytelling I like to do then, by all means, send your requests in to me. I consider song requests from all eras and from all genres of music. Everything is on the table. So, send me your lists and I will tell you a story. That is what Reader’s Choice is all about.
The link to the video for the song, “Old Man” by Neil Young can be found here.
The link to the official website for Neil Young can be found here.
The link to the video for the episode of The Johnny Cash Show in which Neil Young appeared can be found here. He is introduced by Cash and then sings “Needle and the Damage Done” which was about a musician friend of his named Danny Whitten.
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