It’s sometimes easy to forget how long and varied a career Neil Young actually has had. Between his days with Buffalo Springfield, his work with Crosby, Stills and Nash, his remarkable solo career and his interests beyond music, he’s crammed more into the past 45 years than most people can in two lifetimes. His longevity as a performer and an artist can be explained by his willingness to experiment with his music and constantly push himself in new directions. Sometimes the results haven’t always pleased either critics or fans, but it hasn’t prevented him from becoming one of the more respected, if somewhat enigmatic figures in contemporary popular music.
Over the course of his career, Young has given probably more concerts than most of us can even begin to calculate. However, unlike many, he’s managed to hold onto control of recordings made of quite a number of these events and has put a great deal of effort into sorting through and remastering them before releasing any of them for public consumption. While an initial box set called Neil Young Archives Vol.1: 1963-1972 has already been released, containing a number of concerts from the earliest days of Young’s career, he’s also begun making various other concerts from that time available as solo CD releases. The most recent of them is Neil Young – Live at the Cellar Door, available on Warner/Reprise Records, from a 1970 concert he gave in the Washington, DC coffee house, The Cellar Door.
The recording features Young performing solo on guitar and piano and playing songs from his then-new release, After the Gold Rush, his 1969 release, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, a smattering of tracks from his Buffalo Springfield days, and a song that wouldn’t show up on record until 1972’s Harvest, “Old Man”. Everybody has their favourite albums by Young, and one of mine has always been After the Gold Rush. So the opportunity to hear him perform songs like “Tell Me Why”, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, the title track (“After the Gold Rush”) and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” solo was what made this disc intriguing.
I must say I wasn’t disappointed. Even without the added production values and the additional instruments used on the studio versions of tunes like “After the Gold Rush”, they still retain the captivating power. In fact, there is something particularly haunting about hearing him play that particular song only on piano. His always distinctive near falsetto voice stands out in even greater stark relief and makes the song’s lyrics all the more striking. I’ve often wondered where Young’s inspiration for the last verse of the song came from, and hearing the lyrics in this manner only reinforced my curiosity. “They were flying Mother Nature’s/Silver seed to a new home in the sun/Flying Mother Nature’s/Silver seed to a new home”.
There was a science fiction book published in 1960, A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. set in a world recovering from a nuclear war. The end of the book has a group of monks flying children off to a new home in the stars in space ships. I’ve often wondered if Young wasn’t inspired in part by the book, at least for the final verse of his song. However, no matter what his inspiration, the song remains as plaintive and frightening as it was the first time I heard it many years ago. The simplicity of his delivery and his willingness to let the words simply stand on their own reveals just how strong a songwriter he was and remains.
It was also fascinating to hear an acoustic version of “Down by the River” from the Everybody Knows... album. Anyone who has heard the studio version knows it’s one of Young’s “grunge” rock and roll songs filled with crunching guitar chords and driving bass and drums. Live versions of the song usually feature an extended guitar solo somewhere in the middle as an exclamation point to the song’s rather bleak subject matter. The version on this recording is simply Young on acoustic guitar and no leads. It comes across as a mixture between an old “murder ballad” and a traditional British Isles folk song.
Somehow, what had been a hard rock song was transformed into something which seemed to have its roots in another era. It makes you realize the natural power in Young’s writing. For when they are stripped down the their bare bones, his songs not only don’t lose anything, they actually gain a resonance very few contemporary artists can hope to match.
I’ve always appreciated the level of intensity Young brings to his performances, whether live or in the studio. Hearing him performing in the intimate setting of this venue makes it obvious how much of himself he puts into to each of his songs and how he doesn’t have to rely on amplification for power.
While I’ve always had an appreciation for Young’s intelligence, this recording also gives you an opportunity to enjoy his rather quirky sense of humour. In his introduction to the old Buffalo Springfield tune “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong”, which closes the recording, he displays an almost endearing irreverence for the way in which a rock and roll celebrity is supposed to behave. Obviously he’s standing next to the grand piano he’s going to be playing on the song, because as he’s talking he’s strumming on the exposed piano wires with his bare hand. He lets his audience know he’s been playing piano for about a year now and thought it would be an interesting quirk to have a rider included in his performance contracts that a nine-foot Steinway grand piano be made available for him at his shows. He then proceeds to tell us the song is about getting high, specifically smoking grass, and how that can be a problem when some of your friends, especially your girlfriend, aren’t as interested as you are in smoking dope.
The fact that he’s idly strumming the piano’s wires and giggling periodically while talking makes the whole thing very funny. Yet, there’s also a sense at this stage of his career he’s not completely comfortable directly addressing the audience. There seems to be a level of shyness about him, as if he’s not certain people are going to find him funny. However, once he begins singing, all traces of diffidence disappears and he becomes the same confident performer we’ve been listening to for the whole recording.
Neil Young has been, and continues to be, one of the more remarkable figures in popular music. Not only have very few others matched him in terms of their creative output, he’s continually pushed himself to search out new challenges. Live at the Cellar Door is an opportunity to hear him at an early stage in his solo career experimenting with playing material in a manner different to the way in which it was recorded (including a unique performance of “Cinnamon Girl” featuring Young solely on piano). While he has released other archival material over the last few years which have featured him performing solo, it doesn’t diminish this recording’s value. You gain new appreciation not only for his gifts as a songwriter, but as a performer as well. Recordings like this one serve to cement his reputation as one of the most important popular music artists of his generation.