The Lingering Question Marks of Neil Young’s Long Lost Homegrown

In 1974, Neil Young and Bob Dylan were on parallel paths. Both songwriters had reunited with old cohorts—Dylan with the Band and Young with Crosby, Stills and Nash—for blockbuster tours that saw them playing to stadiums and arenas packed with fans hoping to catch a glimpse of that old 1960s magic. But away from the adoring throngs, their personal lives were in shambles. Dylan’s marriage to Sara Dylan fell into disarray; the relationship between Young and his girlfriend, the actress Carrie Snodgress (with whom he had a young son), crumbled as a result of infidelity and bad vibes.

Both men turned their respective pain into inspiration. Retreating to his home state of Minnesota, Dylan poured all the guilt, rage and bitterness he felt into the songs that would make up 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Young did much the same, penning an array of soul-searching heartbreakers destined for an album he planned to call Homegrown.

But here’s where Dylan and Young’s paths diverged. More than 40 years later, Blood on the Tracks is considered one of the high-water marks of Dylan’s storied career. Homegrown, on the other hand, has remained unreleased (though a few of its songs made it out via other lps and rare live performances). And yet to some collaborators, writers and close friends, it’s one of Neil’s finest, most nuanced works. Biographer Jimmy McDonough claimed that “to hear Homegrown in its entirety is to hear Neil Young at his best.” Precious few listeners have been given the chance—until now. At long last, Homegrown isn’t just a hypothetical. It’s a real record. 

Does it live up to the hype? Well, yeah. Young was close to infallible throughout the 1970s, great songs pouring out of him at an alarming rate. Homegrown is a worthy addition to the songwriter’s famed “Ditch” period, sharing with those other lps a heavy sense of loneliness, loss and heartache (as well as some of the boozy joy). But it’s a distinct effort, too, filled with its own melancholy and mystery. It’s a masterpiece. 

“…it wasn’t Harvest. It was something else.” —Elliott Mazer

“To Neil, Homegrown was Harvest, part two,” Elliott Mazer, who produced both records, told me a few years back. “But it wasn’t Harvest. It was something else.” 

However, Neil might’ve been on to something. There are definitely echoes of Harvest on Homegrown. For one thing, pedal steel maestro Ben Keith and bassist Tim Drummond are all over both albums. But it runs deeper than that. Homegrown’s opener, the skeletal “Separate Ways,” feels like a doomy, minor key re-imagining of “Out on the Weekend.” The following song, “Try,” shares a deceptively cheery vibe with “Harvest,” the latter song’s promise replaced in the former with helplessness. “I’d like to take a chance,” Young sings over a mockingly rollicking piano line. “But shit, Mary, I can’t dance.” “Mexico” feels like the missing link between the desolate piano ballads “A Man Needs A Maid” and “No One Seems To Know.” These similarities don’t feel like retreads, though. It’s more like Young is casting a nervous glance over his shoulder at the gathering years behind him, reckoning and wrestling with his past. 

One thing Homegrown doesn’t have in common with Harvest: a hit, a la “Heart of Gold” or “Old Man.” The closest Neil gets is the sweet ‘n’ sour “Love Is A Rose,” but the arrangement here feels too spare to have garnered much AM radio play (that would come later, thanks to Linda Ronstadt’s cover). Homegrown also lacks an epic along the lines of “Ambulance Blues” or “Don’t Be Denied.” In fact, the songs are generally short, almost fragmentary. That just adds to the overall atmosphere of the record, the slippery ambiguity. These songs are question marks, a portrait of an artist in transition. Maybe that’s why Young didn’t release Homegrown. Not necessarily because it was too personal—he has rarely shied away from baring his soul in song—but that it offered very few answers. Even Neil didn’t know quite what to make of it. 

If Tonight’s The Night was about the death of comrades, Homegrown is about the death of a family and all the subsequent fallout...

Homegrown’s defining song might be its weirdest. One of the strangest additions to Young’s canon, “Florida” is a well-nigh Lynchian spoken word piece featuring Neil reciting a dream he’s had over the shrieking, dissonant accompaniment of Ben Keith running a wetted finger along the rim of a wineglass. It’s bizarre, but it’s not just surreal nonsense. The dream ends with a vision of an abandoned child, and Homegrown is filled with corresponding imagery of families broken apart. There are specific references to his and Snodgress’ son in “Separate Ways.” There’s the absent father of “Mexico” and the despondent mother of “Try.” The children in “Little Wing” waiting for the title character to return, a spirit of comfort that only comes once in a while. (Outtakes like “Barefoot Floors” and “Daughters” seem to reinforce the theme). If Tonight’s The Night was about the death of comrades, Homegrown is about the death of a family and all the subsequent fallout.  

If that all sounds like an unbearable bummer, well, sure. But the music balances things out, as always. Check the irrepressibly funky opening jam on the title track or “We Don’t Smoke It No More,” a deeply fried bachelor holler. Best of all is “White Line,” with Robbie Robertson chiming in beautifully on acoustic lead guitar. “Right now I’m rollin’ down the open road,” Neil sings, high and lonesome but hopefully. “And the daylight will soon be breaking.” Here comes the sun…  words/t wilcox

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