Recorded at the Cow Palace, San Francisco on October 22, 1978
What did you do on your 19th birthday? I don’t remember anything about my 19th birthday, but it was during a particularly directionless point in my life, where I was going to Fresno City College, and KFSR didn’t have any fixed date it was going on the air. (Though it did go on the air before I turned 20.) If I remember correctly, the only things I was doing on any consistent basis was going to as many concerts as I could afford and drinking a lot of beer.
I was also playing soccer, but there weren’t any World Cup championships in my near future.
And while in the wake of my parents separation, I was seriously considering escaping Fresno altogether and going to, like, UCLA (where Larry had gone) or Berkeley (because the Bay Area), the reality was that my high school grades were just too shitty.
Meanwhile, on his 19th birthday — the day I turned two — Neil Young wrote “Sugar Mountain,” his already nostalgic look at his fleeting youth, and his first great song.
Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
You’re leaving there too soon
I prefer the 1978 Live Rust version of “Sugar Mountain” to the 1968 version that first showed up as a b-side and eventually made it to Decade. I’ve always found that earlier version to be a bit tentative, like Neil is still too close to the subject matter of his oncoming adulthood to properly put the feelings across.
It’s so noisy at the fair
But all your friends are there
And the candy floss you had
And your mother and your dad
But, of course, as a veteran and having crossed the untrustworthy age of 30, he had enough distance to truly sing the song, and his performance on Live Rust is one of his greatest vocals. Just check how he creates space before he sings “sugar mountain,” or the way he wraps himself around “barrkers and colored balloons.”
There’s a girl just down the aisle
Oh, to turn and see her smile
You can hear the words she wrote
As you read the hidden note
Listen to how his voice trails off on the word “note,” giving everybody time to imagine the contents of that note as he heads back into the chorus, following it with an equally lovely harmonica solo, which dances around the melody without actually giving into it.
His confidence level is utterly off-the-charts — in the Rust Never Sleeps film, which also features this peformance, the conceit is that Neil is sleeping on top of one of the giant speaker cabinets, wakes up and just starts singing “Sugar Mountain,” — so of course he actually sings the opening couple of the chorus at the end acapella, and completely gets it over.
“Sugar Mountain (San Francisco 10-22-1978)”
“Sugar Mountain” live at the Canterbury House, 1968 (audio only)
“Sugar Mountain” at Live Aid, 1985
“Sugar Mountain” live at Farm Aid, 1995
“Sugar Mountain” live at the Bridge School Benefit, 1998
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