Neil Young is one of those artists that returns to my cd player on a regualar basis. My very first Neil Young album was 1970’s After The Gold Rush. It has always been my favorite. The story behind the album.
Neil (Percival) Young was born on November 12th, 1945, in Toronto. When Young was young he listened to music a lot, from rock ‘n roll, rockabilly, doo-wop and R&B to country. His big idol was Elvis Presley. Music became so important he dropped out of school and started playing in bands in the early 1960s. He soon met Stephen Stills, and they became friends. Some time later he also met Joni Mitchell, who became another friend. In 1965 Young toured through Canada as a solo artist. In 1966 Young joined the Mynah Birds, a band led by Rick James, who would make a name for himself during the second half of the 1970s. The Mynah Birds didn’t last very long.
In 1966 Young left Canada for the US, where he reunited with Stephen Stills and they formed Buffalo Springfield. Their mix of folk, country, psychedelica and rock, made them popular. The band played a role in the emergence of the genres folk rock and country rock. In 1967 the band released their second album, but in 1968 Buffalo Springfield was already over.
Subsequently, Young signed a solo deal with Reprise Records. Around that time Young befriended Elliot Roberts, who would be Young’s manager until he died in 2019, and David Briggs, who would go on to produce many of Young’s records until his death in 1995.
On November 12th, 1968, debut album Neil Young was released, on which Young, just one year later, would remark it was “overdubbed rather than played”. The initial release was mixed for mono by Reprise. The result didn’t please Young at all and he demanded a re-release. On January 22nd, 1969, the album was released again, but now with the sound Young had initially envisioned. Nowadays, the first release can only be listened via Young’s website neilyoungarchives.com.
For his second album he gathered three musicians, Danny Whitten (guitar), Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums), who would be known under the moniker Crazy Horse, and would contribute to Young’s music on a regular basis throughout his entire career. On May 14th, 1969, Young’s second solo album was released, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The album was recorded in just two weeks and contains Young classics like Cinnamon Girl and Cowgirl In The Sand.
Soon after Young started working with Crosby, Stills & Nash, who had just released their debut album. The quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY) gave their first concert on August 16th, 1969, to be followed by their real baptism one day later in front of half a million (!) people: the legendary Woodstock festival. Stills said: “This is the second time we’ve ever played in front of people, man. We’re scared shitless”. Understandable. By the way, Young was absent from the acoustic set, as he didn’t want to be filmed. The group toured all through the summer into January of 1970 and released the classic Déjà Vu on March 11th, 1970. Within two weeks the album reached gold status in the US, would remain in the album charts for 88 weeks in a row and provided 4 singles. Young brought two songs to the table, one of them being the fantastic Helpless. But things within the band weren’t so much fun, with a lot fights between Young and Stills, upon which Stills remarked that Young “wanted to play folk music in a rock band”.
Following the Kent State massacre on May 4th, 1970, Young wrote Ohio. It was quickly recorded and released by CSNY. Next, Young focused on his third solo album which would be released in the same year.
After The Gold Rush
On September 19th, 1970, Neil Young’s third solo album, After The Gold Rush, was released and it was a huge success. Young was inspired by a movie script by Dean Stockwell and Herb Bermann, called After The Gold Rush. That inspiration was most apparent in the title song and Cripple Creek Ferry. The script was never turned into a movie and (unfortunately) has been lost over time.
During the first sessions for the album Young used Crazy Horse, but only two songs made the album (I Believe In You and Oh, Lonesome Me). Later recordings took place at the basement of Young’s house with CSNY bass player Greg Reeves, Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina and a very young Nils Lofgren. Young was looking for a mix between CSNY and Crazy Horse.
The album was released at the turning-point between the ideals and naiveté of the hippie generation and the harsher reality after the dream. Even then (!) the environment was in a bad shape: “look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s” sings Young in After The Gold Rush. Mind you, it is just 1970, the very first year of the new decade. A year later Marvin Gaye would more or less proclaim the same on his masterpiece What’s Going On.
Also, the abrasive Southern Man was (just like Ohio) about important and painful stuff, racism in this case. Unfortunately still very relevant, maybe not confined to just the south of the US, as Neil Young states in the 2002 biography Shakey, but still.
Thrown in together with Alabama from the succeeding album Harvest, it would inspire Lynryd Skynryd to write the song Sweet Home Alabama, which contains the lyric “Well I heard mister Young sing about her, I heard ole’ Neil put her down, well I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow”. The south of the US wasn’t too pleased with Young’s attention.
The album is filled with songs like these and beautiful, intimate love songs. Despite, or maybe thanks to, its diversity, the album is great.
Early 1970 photographer Joel Bernstein shot some photos with Young, some out in the street. Much to Bernstein’s shock, Young chose a somewhat blurred photo, while he was passing an old woman. The photo was deliberately overexposed for use on the cover. The album design was done by Gary Burden.
Nowadays the album is regarded as a masterpiece. In the 1970s as well, but not immediately. Around the time of its release it was described as boring, uninteresting and whiny. Once again Rolling Stone Magazine was the champion of negativity.
After The Gold Rush
By Langdon Winner
Neil Young devotees will probably spend the next few weeks trying desperately to convince themselves that After The Gold Rush is good music. But they’ll be kidding themselves. For despite the fact that the album contains some potentially first rate material, none of the songs here rise above the uniformly dull surface. In my listening, the problem appears to be that most of this music was simply not ready to be recorded at the time of the sessions. It needed time to mature. On the album the band never really gets behind the songs and Young himself has trouble singing many of them. Set before the buying public before it was done, this pie is only half-baked.
“Southern Man” is a good example. As a composition, it is possibly one of the best things Neil Young has ever written. In recent appearances with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the piece has had an overwhelmingly powerful impact on audiences. But the recording of “Southern Man” on After The Gold Rush fulfills very little of this promise. By today’s standards, the ensemble playing is sloppy and disconnected. The piano, bass and drums search for each other like lovers lost in the sand dunes, but although they see each others’ footprints now and then, they never really come together. Young tries to recover the dynamics of the piece with his voice alone, but can’t quite make it: On this and the other really interesting tunes on the album — “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” and “I Believe In You” — the listener hears only a faint whisper of what the song will become.
Another disturbing characteristic of the record, oddly enough, is Young’s voice. In his best work Young’s singing contains genuine elements of pathos, darkness and mystery. If Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist” could be made into an opera, I would want Neil Young to sing the title role. But on this album this intonation often sounds like pre-adolescent whining. The song “After The Gold Rush,” for instance, reminds one of nothing so much as Mrs. Miller moaning and wheezing her way through “I’m A Lonely Little Petunia In An Onion Patch.” Apparently no one bothered to tell Neil Young that he was singing a half octave above his highest acceptable range. At that point his pathos becomes an irritating bathos. I can’t listen to it at all.
There are thousands of persons in this country who will buy and enjoy this record. More power to them, I suppose. But for me the test of an album is whether or not its quality is such that it allows you to grow into it a little more with each subsequent listening. And I find none of that quality here. To the 70 or 80 people who wrote to Rolling Stone in total rage that I could be anything but 100% delighted with Deja Vu, I will simply say: this record picks up where Deja Vu leaves off.
© Rolling Stone, 15-10-1970
Just five years later the same magazine would call the album a masterpiece, which it ultimately is. It has a natural flow and is extremely moving. Songs like Oh, Lonesome Me go straight to the bone. The way Young sings the lyrics, as he accompanies himself on his harmonica, easily induces tears: “everybody’s going out and having fun, I’m a fool for staying home and having none”.
As stated before, the album is now regarded as the best Young has ever released and as one of the best albums of all time. I can only concur. No album can move me as deeply and profoundly as this beautiful After The Gold Rush.
All songs written by Neil Young, unless stated otherwise.
- Tell Me Why
- After The Gold Rush
- Only Love Can Break Your Heart
- Southern Man
- Till The Morning Comes
- Oh, Lonesome Me (written by Don Gibson)
- Don’t Let It Bring You Down
- When You Dance I Can Really Love
- I Believe In You
- Cripple Creek Ferry
- Neil Young – guitar, piano, harmonica, vibes, vocals
- Danny Whitten – guitar, vocals
- Nils Lofgren – guitar, piano, vocals
- Jack Nitzsche – piano
- Billy Talbot – bass
- Greg Reeves – bass
- Ralph Molina – drums, vocals
- Stephen Stills – vocals
- Bill Peterson – flugelhorn
In 2019 Neil Young wrote on his own neilyoungsarchives.com:
AFTER THE GOLD RUSH was based on a screenplay by Herb Berman, a friend of my first wife Susan, and Dean Stockwell. After reading it, I wrote some songs loosely associated with the story and recorded them in a studio built under my first house and above the garage, high on a Topanga hillside.
Danny Whitten could not make the sessions but he did come in at the end and recorded with us, doing a lot of chorus singing on many songs and playing on one song, ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’. Jack Nietzche was there on a wild piano. Billy Talbot on bass. What a memory that is! Ralph Molina played drums on every track.
I played piano on ‘Birds’, recorded at Sound City. There were a couple of Sunset Sound cuts that I had previously done with Crazy Horse, recorded in the mornings while rehearsing with CSNY in the afternoon at Still’s house. Those are ‘I Believe in You’ and ‘Oh Lonesome Me’. Some others from those Sunset sessions, (‘Wondering’ and ‘Helpless’) are on Crazy Horse’s ‘Early Daze’ album (still unreleased) and waiting for release in the Archive.
‘After the Gold Rush’ is one of my early high water marks as I look at it now. It could have been called ‘Topanga’. Joel Bernstein took the cover photo and the package was designed by Gary Burden. When I moved up north to the ranch, I sold the hillside house to Gary. Gary made about 50 album covers with me before he passed away last year. I miss him. He lives forever in this music and album.
Following After The Gold Rush
In the autumn of 1970 Young went on a solo tour of the US, of which the recordings of November 30th and December 2nd ended up on the Live At The Cellar Door release in 2013. When it became obvious that a sequel to CSNY wasn’t in the cards for the immediate future and Crazy Horse were working on their debut album, the tour was continued in 1971. The recordings made on March 11th, 1971, were released in 2007 on the impressive Live At Massey Hall 1971. Young played a lot of new songs that would end up on the 1972 album Harvest, which would make Young a (temporary) super star.
On the Johnny Cash TV show Young debuted the beautiful The Needle And The Damage Done, a song about heroin addiction, where Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten was struggling with and would ultimately succumb to. Young recorded some songs with a number of country musicians, called The Stray Gators by Young, that would eventually lead to Harvest.
After the success of CSNY, Young could afford to own his own ranch in the north of California, the Broken Arrow Ranch, where he would live until 2014.
What do you think of After The Gold Rush? And Neil Young? Let me know!
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Neil Young’s first masterpiece, After The Gold Rush!. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.
Neil Young 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Woodstock 1969 & Neil Young – New York June 1970 images: morrisonhotelgallery.com
Neil Young 1968 & Neil Young – After The Gold Rush – Ads images: pinterest.com
Neil Young – After The Gold Rush image: bol.com
Neil Young – After The Gold Rush – Inner sleeve image: snapgalleries.com
Neil Young – After The Gold Rush – Original Joel Bernstein photo image: popspotsnyc.com
Rolling Stone Magazine Logo image: srds.com
Neil Young – 1971 solo tour image: rollingstone.com