Reader’s Choice…Song #9/250: Old Man by Neil Young.

The Stories Behind Your Favourite Songs.

Harvest was the #1 album in America in 1972.

“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!

Producer Elliott Mazar.

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.

Neil Young and Louis Avila at Broken Arrow Ranch.

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.

Neil Young at Broken Arrow Ranch.

“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.

***As always, all original content contained in this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #28: Heart of Gold by Neil Young (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM 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, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

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.