Neil Young – Young Shakespeare

A wonderful dive into the vaults...

Imagine it’s 1971. You have tickets to see Neil Young on his recent acoustic tour.

Since leaving Buffalo Springfield Young released two albums in 1969 – ‘Neil Young’ and the proto-grunge classic ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’ – before following this with ‘After The Gold Rush’. You settle down at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut on January 26th and he opens with ‘Tell Me Why’ to thundering applause. After that he plays ‘Old Man’, which has a delightful rambling introduction about how the song is written about foreman of Young’s range. Then he plays ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ with a warning about heroin usage, ‘Ohio’ to more thundering applause and then ‘Dance Dance Dance’ before ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’. Three of those songs were unreleased, at the time. The audience is literally listening to two of Young’s most beloved songs for the first time. What is going through their minds? Were they hoping he’d play ‘The Loner’ or ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’?

Young then played a medley of ‘A Man Needs A Maid and Heart Of Gold’ on piano. Before he starts singing Young says: “I haven’t been playing piano very long folks. This next piece I’m going to play is my most elaborate accomplishment on this instrument. What I’m trying to say is that I usually screw it up in the middle ‘cos I can’t play it. But as you’ve never heard it before, anyway, so you’ll probably think this is and it’ll be alright…” This honesty is something that grounds Young to fans. He knows he’s well and doesn’t try and dumb it down. There is a modesty to Young that is refreshing now, considering what happened after this gig, but at the time it must have.

‘A Man Need a Maid’ features slightly different lyrics to the studio version. “Afraid / A man feels afraid” line was removed from the studio version. Here are gives the song a deeper meaning. The original always felt like a rich rock star couldn’t be bothered to clean up after himself, but now it takes on a meaning that Young was almost afraid to be on his own, so having someone come in would normalise his existence.

Rumour has it that the song was written weeks before going out on tour. Which is even more remarkable that he was tinkering with it live. Even though ‘Heart Of Gold’ makes up the final third of the song, and doesn’t feature Linda Ronstadt, you can still hear the quality of that song coming through. Having Young play it on piano, instead of guitar, gives the song a more intimate quality that is missing from the studio version.

The album closes with ‘Sugar Mountain’. He asked the audience to sing along so he “doesn’t feel inconspicuous”. As ‘Sugar Mountain’ progresses, and the audience gets more familiar with the words and their voices grow louder and louder. About halfway through Young admits he wrote 126 verses for the song when he was 20. The audience laps this up, as they bask in his honesty and generally welcoming personality.

Throughout the performance Young’s vocals sound light and lilting. He isn’t bellowing, like he did on ‘Everybody Knows this is Nowhere’, instead they sound like gossamer wisps flowing from the speakers. His guitar, and piano, work is accomplished yet functional. He doesn’t play any solos. He elongates the chord progressions instead. It’s as interesting as it is captivating.

Looking at the track list it’s hard to imagine that in 1971 half of the songs hadn’t been released yet the audience is totally captivated throughout. Imagine going to a gig and hearing ‘Old Man’, ‘Needle And The Damage Done’, ‘A Man Needs Maid’, ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Journey through the Past’ for the first time? A review by Steve Smith from a gig at University of Oregon on January 10th appeared in The Daily Emerald, commenting: “(the) audience was held spellbound by the wispy Canadian armed with a few guitars, a piano, and a voice of rarest beauty. Young writes songs on a level which most people can understand. He writes about feelings we all have felt, hassles we have all been through, and hopes we all have had.”

‘Young Shakespeare’ is a fascinating artifact. Before ‘Sugar Mountain’ he says he’s 25 years old. Imaging being 25 and knowing you have another album, pretty much, ready to go and teasing audiences with snippets from it? It really does boggle the mind. The album is another flawless release which sees Young digging through his live recordings and releasing albums of interest. If an album of this quality has been in the vault for 50 years, what else has he got squirreled away?


Words: Nick Roseblade

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