Listen to this track by legendary back-up vocalist phenomenon and vital solo artist in her own right Merry Clayton. It’s “Southern Man”, a song written by Neil Young and recorded by Clayton on her 1971 solo record Merry Clayton. The sessions were overseen by Lou Adler, and the material was sourced from some of the best writers of the era besides Young; Carole King, James Taylor, Leon Russell, and others.
A few years after this tune was laid down for her self-titled record, Clayton had been called on to sing on the answer song to this tune, that being Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” which chided Young by name on his criticism of southern life. But, the Skynyrd song fails to acknowledge in any distinguishable way that southern life for one is not the same life for another, depending on one’s background. The cultural weight and matters of historical record behind all of that is impossible to ignore. For Clayton, participation on that song rankled. But, as she said about the Skynyrd session in the excellent documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, part of her calling when it came to civil rights was singing. So, she sang on the Skynyrd tune anyway, and “sang the shit out of it” with the boo-boo-boo backing vocal lines when governer George Wallace is alluded to in the song being among the stand out elements.
But, that session would be after she covered this Neil Young tune. In retrospect now that we’ve got both songs to listen to, Clayton twisted that dialogue back in on itself by doing a full on interpretation of “Southern Man” and transformed it while she was at it. Read more
Listen to this track by Godfather of Grunge Neil Young playing with the now-venerable equine-monikered rock institution Crazy Horse. It’s “Cinnamon Girl”, a single as taken from Young’s second record bearing his name; Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, released in the spring of 1969 .
The song itself has appeared in many forms over the years since it was released, including on the essential compilation album Decade, released seven years after it appeared on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. By now of course, the song is a concert staple and a rock standard that serves as a touchpoint for many bands across the rock spectrum even now in the 21st Century.
It’s almost absurd to imagine that this song hasn’t always been around, so important is it to the way that rock music would develop in the ensuing decades. But, despite its standing in the annals of rock music history, it had some pretty humble, yet strangely magical origins. Read more
Listen to this track by Canadian singer-songwriting force of nature Neil Young. It’s “Look Out For My Love”, from 1978’s Comes a Time, a record that represented a then-recent return to Young’s musical base sound (or one of them) that brought him to prominence. This is a song about returning home after a sojourn abroad, and to a relationship that has meanwhile moved on.
Neil Young’s statement about his arguably most famous album, Harvest, more specifically about his song “Heart of Gold” was that it was the song that put him in the middle of the road, after which he “aimed for the ditch”. And it’s true that much of his output afterwards focused on a more abrasive hard rock sound on albums Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach, and Zuma.
But, another style that still kept Neil Young interested was country-folk music,with orchestral pop flavouring. It certainly was a mainstay on Harvest, and now again six years later on Comes a Time, and “Look Out For My Love”. But, how does this stylistic choice play into what’s going on in the song? Read more
Here’s a clip of Canadian-American 60s psych-folk rockers Buffalo Springfield with their epic 1967 track “Broken Arrow”. The song was written and sung by guitarist Neil Young, appearing on the ‘Springfield’s second album, Buffalo Springfield Again . It also appeared on Young’s essential Decade in 1976, a handpicked example of his finest work to date.
I think what I like about this, a song that I consider to be their greatest achievement as a band, is that it takes a lot of established imagery of American mythology and distorts it, throwing in some unexpectedness along the way. The fade out from the album’s opening track “Mr Soul” (the original track also written and sung by Neil Young), is like the sound of a photograph on fire, burning into cinder, and revealing the layers underneath it; a sepia-toned tale of the Old West and the disappearing American frontierin the late 1800s, a good old-fashioned day at the ballpark, and trad-jazz. This is the sound of the American Dream; not all sweetness and light after all, but rather a dance between light and dark, good and evil, innocence and experience.
By 1967, it was clear that the excepted understanding of American history was being questioned, helped along by the changing values of the nation. Neil Young would employ a similar approach when he wrote “Cortez the Killer” years later on the Zuma album in 1975, exploring the same ground in an even more overt way. The conquest of the West and the rise of Western civilization in the Americas is contrasted with what was also being lost – a way of life of hundreds of thousands of people living on the plains who had been there for as many years.
But despite it’s social implications which can be gleaned from the song’s images, I just love the tune itself. It’s sumptuous in its arrangement, and with some really surprising twists and turns musically. The jazz piano-and-clarinet break that seems to come out of nowhere is strangely welcome rather than jarring. The sound clips and effects really give the song a sense of scale, and of the passage of time. And Young’s vocal is perfect in tone, the sound of lost innocence itself.
Here’s a clip of everyone’s favourite Canadian ex-pat, Neil Young with a solo piano version his song “A Man Needs A Maid”, recorded in a more sumptuous manner on his 1972 album Harvest.
This is actually my favourite song of his, and I love a good deal of them. One of the reasons is that it tends to live outside his usual oeuvre of folky-country or electric freak-out rock. It is wistfully orchestral, not unlike a Jimmy Webb tune. And the lyrics are very clunky in places, yet the clunkiness works, just because this is a song about trying to express oneself, and finding that the words just aren’t available. It’s a love song for those who know that navigating through it is treacherous. And although it is about being in love, it’s also the song for someone who is very lonely at the same time.
The song was recorded using the London Symphony Orchestra on the record, along with another tune; “There’s a World”. But, more recently it was featured on the ‘official bootleg’ Live at Massey Hall 1971 a concert recorded a year before Harvest came out. And on that version of the song, it is presented much like it is here – just stark piano and voice. Young introduces it as a new song, a “showtune from the movie of my life”.
The shock of hearing it presented so nakedly was quite a delightful on first hearing, since it revealed even more of the vulnerability which lies at the core of the song. Also on that version, he adds a middle section which is made up of another song, which hadn’t been fully formed at that point – “Heart of Gold” – a song which would make Neil Young a star.