Thursday, September 3, 2020

After The Gold Rush-50th Anniversary | Lefsetz Letter

It came out the week I started college.

Those were different days, we didn’t even have telephones in our dorm rooms, never mind the internet. As a matter of fact, your dorm room was the last place you wanted to be, this was back when all the action was outside as opposed to inside, and we were doing our best to integrate ourselves with our new compatriots.

Then again, that was back when college was something completely different, back before it was seen as a glorified trade school, back before parents hovered over their children, we were in a far distant state and it was our own responsibility to measure up, with no guidance, no instruction, you had to hit the ground running.

I went to college with more records than anybody in the dorm. They were my lifeline, and I needed more. But there was no E.J. Korvette, the closest one was two states away, as for indie shops…they gained traction as the seventies wore on, most people bought their albums at the big box store, at a discount. But in Middlebury, Vermont there was only one outlet, the Vermont Book Shop, which charged too much, but I had to own “After the Gold Rush.” Ultimately everybody else in the dorm did too. Before they switched to the Dead in ’72 and overplayed “Brothers and Sisters” in the fall of ’73…I still can’t listen to “Ramblin’ Man,” however I cannot get enough of “Come and Go Blues.”

So, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were the biggest band in the land. Which was kinda weird, since “Deja Vu” was nowhere near as good as the initial LP. But it was the “Woodstock” movie which cemented their status, you heard the band, both albums, everywhere you went. One can argue that Woodstock and the resultant three album set is what really clued everybody in America to the music revolution, the album revolution, the rock revolution, it no longer had to have a single to matter, earlier in the summer Traffic released its comeback opus “John Barleycorn,” and despite having no AM radio play whatsoever, the LP was all over rock radio, my favorite track was always “Empty Pages,” which came out before the album, with “Every Mother’s Son” on the flip side, suddenly Traffic was no longer a cult item.

So, with the penetration of CSNY into the public consciousness everybody was hungry for more, music and information. The Buffalo Springfield greatest hits album “Retrospective” sold like hot cakes, not that I ever noticed hot cakes selling that well, and everybody knew “Rock & Roll Woman,” listeners hungered for more of that Stephen Stills magic, he was the linchpin in the new band, the most famous member, and when his solo album came out just before Thanksgiving it was an instant smash, carried along by the hit “Love the One You’re With.” There was not as much furor, not as much pent-up demand for “After the Gold Rush,” as for Graham Nash…he sang some singles, but he was perceived as a lightweight, which was disproved with “Songs for Beginners,” but that didn’t come out until the summer of ’71, and as for David Crosby…I still cannot get enough of “Long Time Gone” but he was always seen as a supporting player, and despite its legendary status today, “I I Could Only Remember My Name” was a flop when it came out at the tail end of the winter of ’71.

So, the first member of CSNY to release a solo album after the band became the biggest in the land was…Neil Young. Who had released his initial solo LP in January of 1969 to crickets, he was not a household name, and the only thing those paying attention knew about it was the controversy, Young being pissed about the sound and insisting the LP be remixed, which it was, and you knew it was the right version if his name was emblazoned in white atop the cover, but like I said, most people didn’t buy it, at this late date most people are still unaware of it, but its peaks are as good as Neil Young gets.

There was the opening instrumental “The Emperor of Wyoming.” A trademark people were unaware was him just like many didn’t know Frank Zappa cut “Peaches en Regalia,” even though they knew both tunes from radio airplay. But it’s the second track, “The Loner,” which announces Neil Young is here to stay.

Know when you see him
Nothing can free him
Step aside, open wide
It’s the loner

Back when loners were truly such, when they could not connect online, when they were outcasts, truly singular figures.

Equally great, but different, was “I’ve Been Waiting For You.” The intro slayed you, with the distorted guitar and the vocal AHHHs.

I’ve been looking for a woman to save my life
Not to beg or borrow
A woman with the feeling of losing once or twice
Who knows how it could be tomorrow


Talk about a generation gap. Today everybody is a winner, no matter the truth, just check out Instagram. You don’t want to reveal your warts, your problems, unless it’s a mea culpa, unless it’s its own shtick, in the desire of sympathy.

I’ve been waiting for you
And you’ve been coming to me
For such a long time now
Such a long time now

Rock fans were nerds. The dedicated ones, who owned all the LPs and read all the magazines, they dreamed of getting laid, having a relationship, and it was only the music that kept them sane while they waited for this to arrive. They were never the captain of the football team. This was back when you were looking for another outcast, to understand you.

And, of course, the initial solo LP ended with “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” and either you know it or you don’t, either you don’t understand it or…are lying.

But “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” was something different. Even though it came out mere months after the debut, it contained “Cinnamon Girl,” which was not the ubiquitous golden oldie it is today, but was ready for spinning a year after it came out as part of the CSNY mania. This was the LP that new fans owned. And when they did, they were exposed to the nine minute plus “Down by the River” and the even longer “Cowgirl in the Sand.” These three cuts were the heart of the album, but really it was about “Down by the River,” assuming you owned it. And everybody did not, but many more than the initial LP, and they got stoned and listened to the extended tracks.

Down by the river
I shot may baby
Down by the river
Ooh, shot her dead

It was the extended riffing, the solos that cemented Neil Young’s legacy, this is what you go to see him for today. As for acoustic numbers safe for the populace…after “Harvest” Neil went on an arena tour and played all new music, ultimately released as the live album “Time Fades Away,” putting his new soft rock fans on notice, he was not gonna deliver what they wanted, he was not playing it safe, he was not safe.

So “After the Gold Rush”…

All the people who purchased “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere needed it immediately. And slowly, but not that slowly, the soft sound akin to what was included in “Deja Vu” spread to the point where casual fans picked up the LP, it was the beginning of the Neil Young juggernaut, cemented by “Harvest” released nearly eighteen months later, in February of ’72.

And “Tell Me Why,” “After the Gold Rush”‘s opening cut, was a jaunty country number that you could accept if you’d purchased “Deja Vu.” As for hearing it for the first time, in the wilds of Vermont, it was an intro, to the title track…

There was a fanfare blowin’ to the sun
That was floating on the breeze
Look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s
Look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s

The seventies were new. A change from the sixties, nearly as significant as the millennium thirty years later. What would this new decade hold? More death and destruction or..? We were licking our wounds, this was less than four months since “Ohio,” it seemed Neil Young had reflected, was pondering what was going on, what would come.

But there were more significant lines:

I was lyin’ in a burned out basement

Thinkin’ about what a friend had said
I was hopin’ it was a lie

And then there were the “silver spaceships” and “mother nature’s silver seed.” This was heavy. This was not a ditty. And the lyrics permeated boomer psyches, we all know them. And stunningly, “After the Gold Rush” became a standard, because the forgotten Prelude had a hit with it in ’74, and then Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris covered it on their “Trio” album and the song is one of the weirdest ever to become a standard.

“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”… That country feel. But palatable to the rockers. There were no clunkers on “After the Gold Rush,” but really it’s what came next that mattered, “Southern Man”…

Southern man better keep your head
Don’t forget what your good book said
Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burning fast
Southern man

You could not drive south of the Mason-Dixon Line with long hair, you were asking for it. Nixon had won on the Southern Strategy, the seeds of separation were sown, and this was the cut that became ubiquitous on FM rock radio which was spreading its wings everywhere. “Southern Man” was a compressed “Down By the River,” only five and a half minutes long it allowed Neil to stretch out yet there was no issue of boredom, and you didn’t need to be stoned to get it, most people consider “Southern Man” to be the heart of the album, and it would be hard to argue with that, but it’s not my favorite.

“Old man lying by the side of the road
With the lorries rolling by”

Edgier than the title track, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” was buried on the second side, it was not obvious, it was heavy, something you could get right away but could never get enough of.

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around

Once again, there’s that concept of being behind the 8-ball, holding the losing end of the stick, someone at a distance, not in the mainstream, the music wasn’t for everybody, just like-minded people, and there were a lot of us, it couldn’t be more different from today. You had to endure, but you knew you were not alone.

Each side of the LP ended with a short ditty. I loved “Till the Morning Comes.” Prior to the era of CDs, I used to lift the tonearm to play this incessantly. A meaningful throwaway. Which I played with my roommate, me on the guitar and he on the trombone, probably the only moment we bonded. And the closer on the second side was “Cripple Creek Ferry,” which one could not listen to without thinking of the Band song, our music was part of a continuum.

“Oh Lonesome Me” opened side two. There’s all this talk of Gram Parsons, how he was the innovator, the man who merged country and rock, with the Byrds and the Burritos, and that’s probably true, but none of that work had anywhere near the ubiquity of “After the Gold Rush,” one can argue quite strongly that it was Neil Young who truly brought the country feel to the rock masses.

And just before the end of the second side, there’s “I Believe in You,” a slow walk on the prairie, with a very sweet chorus, which made the song, but it’s Linda Ronstadt’s 1973 cover that endures, what burned the track into people’s brains.

And in the middle of the second side was “Birds,” almost a palate cleanser between two heavy numbers, two of Neil’s best, the aforementioned “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” and…

When You Dance, I Can Really Love.

This was a throwback to what had come before, closer to the cuts on the first two LPs, a melding of edge and sensitivity that was Neil Young’s trademark, the ability to rock out and be meaningful at the same time.

One of the great things about the guitar is style triumphs over skill. There are great technical players with barely a hold on the public consciousness, and then there are others whose sound we know immediately, that just rings right, so true, like Neil’s blistering notes in “When You Dance, I Can Really Love.”

When you dance do your senses tingle then take a chance

Wait a minute. The rockers, the dedicated listeners, they might have been on a date, but they never danced, if they even went to the school events. They were wallflowers, at best mirror stars. This is what separated Neil Young from his hardest core fans, HE WAS COOL! There were those patches on his jeans, the way he laconically laid on that couch, the album cover of “After the Gold Rush” was studied, for clues, it was influential.

Or is it his potential beloved who is doing the dancing? “While the lonely mingle with circumstance”?

I got something to tell you, you made it show
Let me come over, I know you know
When you dance, ooh ooh, I can really love

Between the music and her movement you become INSPIRED! To make a move. That’s one of music’s powers, it can infiltrate you, make you take chances, perform better than you ever have before.

I can love, I can really love, I can really love

This was the dream. Not getting on stage, those were gods, but having music lead you to the point where your dreams were fulfilled.

At this point, one of the most famous things about “After the Gold Rush” is not contained in the album, it’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” the answer track by Lynyrd Skynyrd. And the funny thing is, however great “Southern Man” and the rest of “After the Gold Rush” are, “Sweet Home Alabama” is better.

Oh, don’t get your knickers in a twist. The fact is “Sweet Home Alabama” is either the best or second-best song Skynyrd ever cut. That illustrates the power of inspiration, the Skynyrd boys were pissed, they had to blow back, to a track that was now ubiquitous on the FM rock radio that was everywhere.

It wasn’t until the fall of ’71 that the Allmans broke through nationally, with “Fillmore East,” the Brothers and the rest of the Capricorn crew and Skynyrd were giving us new insight into what was happening down there, when Miami was still dilapidated, when Nashville was seen as third-rate and Memphis was the dark place where Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was southern rock which opened the minds of northerners as to what was really happening down there.

Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her
Well I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man don’t need him around, anyhow

MR. YOUNG! There’s that southern politeness, which still exists. Everything in the south is indirect. You don’t tell someone to close the window, you say you’re cold, the listener is supposed to figure it out. The key is not to offend, and the Skynyrd boys were offended by Neil Young, making both their track and its inspiration, “Southern Man,” staples to this day.

Now the truth is it was “Harvest” that put Neil Young on the pedestal, that demonstrated not only did he deserve to be in Crosby, Stills & Nash’s band, maybe he was better than any of the others. It was “Heart of Gold.” Not that “Harvest” was not great.

But “Harvest” could not have existed without “After the Gold Rush,” that’s how Neil Young got there.

Musicians want it. It wasn’t like today, they didn’t make it overnight. And Neil had been through a number of bands where he had not shined, where he had not been the star. And rather than calculate, he filtered his message for the masses on “After the Gold Rush.” Not that he was aware of how big the Woodstock movie would make him, what attention it would focus on him. It’s nearly impossible to deliver when eyes are upon you, but when you’re still on the way up, when you can feel it in your bones, your desire is at its peak, this is when you do some of your best, if not your best, work.

After dismantling his career, Neil Young got a second wind, came back into the public consciousness, with 1979’s “Rust Never Sleeps.” It doesn’t, and that term has become part of the lexicon. And since then, Neil has bounced all over the map, tried new sounds, discarded them, followed his muse, not concerned what the public thinks.

But it is “After the Gold Rush” that paved the way, that allowed Neil Young the freedom to experiment, to be him. Not everybody loved “Harvest,” the hipsters were getting off the bus as the newbies were coming on board. But “After the Gold Rush”? It was a stealth achievement, a hidden victory. There was no hit single. Fans bought it, then musos bought it, and then everybody owned it, you heard it everywhere, what was on the hit parade was irrelevant, if you wanted to know what was going on you listened to an album. And there were many turning points in this journey, most notably “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and “After the Gold Rush” may not be quite that achievement, but it’s close, and nearly as influential.

But it was a different era. The world was smaller. Everybody could be reached. You could start at the bottom and ring the bell. And the youth, no matter where they grew up, where they lived, were on the same page, they rejected what came before, they were busy paving their own way, with music riding shotgun. We were still testing limits, albeit more personally than politically, and if you wanted to free your mind and get inspired at the same time you played…

“After the Gold Rush.”


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