When I was at the height of my Neil Young obsession, around 2007, I bought it all. Every time I saw an album I didn’t have, I bought it.
One album I heard mentioned by friends, colleagues, and online forums was 'Homegrown'. This fabled album was meant to be the follow up to 1974’s ‘On The Beach’. For months I tried to find a bootleg of the album, like I had with ‘Chrome Dreams’, but alas it wasn’t to be.
Part of this was down to no one really knowing what songs were on there. There were rumours, and Jimmy McDonough’s excellent Shakey biography comes close to nail it down, but eventually it wasn’t to be. Over the years Young had released songs on ‘Zuma’, ‘American Stars ‘N Bars’, ‘Hawks And Doves and the compilation ‘Decade’. I put the hopes of finally hearing it in the same part of my brain, and heart, where Springsteen’s ‘Electric Nebraska’ and Hendrix’ ‘Black Gold’ live.
I moved on.
One person who didn’t move on was Young himself as in November 2019 he announced it was being released in 2020. Amid all the cheers I started to remember why it has been shelved in the first place.
‘Homegrown’ was originally recorded between December 1974 and January 1975. The sessions were an intense. Young’s wife, Carrie Snodgrass, had left him. His relationship with Crosby, Stills and Nash felt like it was at an all-time low after the ‘Doom Tour’ and the aborted ‘Human Highway’ album. So Neil Young did was Neil Young always did. He wrote some songs.
When the album was finished, a release date set and artwork created, Young had a listening party at the Chateau Marmont with his friends, including Rick Danko of The Band, to get their opinion. As ‘Homegrown’ finished another album Young had been working on played by accident. That album was ‘Tonight’s The Night’. Danko liked it more and Young released that instead of ‘Homegrown’. Young later referred to ‘Homegrown’ as being “too personal... it scared me” which was another factor in shelving it for 45 years.
‘Homegrown’ kicks off with ‘Separate Way’ mid-chord. You think something went wrong and you didn’t press unmute/turn the amp on in time. This creates a sense anxious urgency. You think something must be wrong, so you go back and try it again and the same thing happens. This is a great way to start the album. Had ‘Separate Ways’ faded in/started normally there wouldn’t this rush of excitement. Through a studio error, producer Tim Mulligan pressed record just after the band started playing, the album starts with you questioning yourself. This turns you into an active rather than a passive listener. This is a masterstroke. Due to this mishap you have a far greater listening experience as you spend the rest of the album paying more attention to the minute detail of each track.
After the intro ‘Separate Ways’ winds and coils itself around you like a snake. With his melody the constrictions get tighter and tighter. We are captive as Neil laments the end of a relationship. ‘Try’ features Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. This feels like a throwback to the sepia country tinge of his landmark album ‘Harvest’. ‘White Line’ is another bittersweet breakup song that features The Band’s Robbie Robertson.
Title track ‘Homegrown’ is a barroom rocker that feels like it foreshadows all the great Crazy Horse music to come. And this is what ‘Homegrown’ does best. It shows where Young’s head was at. We know his heart was breaking, but he was embracing it by crafting songs that can rub their shoulders with some of the best he ever wrote.
The most interesting song on the album is ‘Florida’. Here Young tells a story about going to ‘Florida’. There is a macabre vibe to it and feels like a David Lynch short story. Musically the story is backed by abstract drones. Everything about it feels the polar opposite of the pristine music. It’s rough, raw, and unsettling. It sounds unlike anything Young had released to this point, and very little after. He’s shows that he was constantly pushing himself as an artist, not just as a songwriter.
The best thing about ‘Homegrown’, apart from it finally being real, is how much fun it is. From the jumped opening of ‘Separate Ways’ you are swept away on luscious melody after luscious melody.
There are nods to Young’s past releases and hints at his future ones. Emmylou Harris on ‘Try’ is reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt on ‘Heart Of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’, and hints at her inclusion on ‘American Stars ‘N Bars’, ‘Silver & Gold’ and ‘Prairie Wind’. ‘We Don’t Smoke It No More’ and ‘Homegrown’ feel like preludes to the garage rock sound that would feature heavily on his next official release ‘Tonight’s The Night’ and Young’s later collaborations with Crazy Horse. Weirdly the lyrics to ‘Florida’ feature on that album’s liner notes.
It is hard to know the impact ‘Homegrown’ would have had, had it been originally released in 1975. Would it have cemented Neil Young as a country-tinged balladeer? Would he have released more avant-garde pieces like ‘Florida’? Would Young have followed the garage rock sound of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ to the seminal ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ in 1979? These are all wonderful what ifs.
All we do know is that ‘Homegrown’ is real. It’s brilliant and it offers a snapshot into an artist at the height of his powers. Having the presence of mind to document his heartbreak and having an even stronger conviction to shelve some of his strongest songs to date.
‘Homegrown’ not only lives up to the hype of being a lost classic, it surpasses it.
Words: Nick Roseblade
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