Neil Young: Archives II (1972-1976) (Reprise)
This much-anticipated and very pricey ten-CD box set has arrived, at least for people who pre-ordered it from Neil’s website. (Yes, I did.) It’s a deluxe version, it turns out; limited to 3000 copies, it sold out in two days, and eventually it was announced that a less deluxe version will be available in March. The wait probably would have driven me crazy, since the first Archives box was such a treasure trove of rarities. Young was hinting at such releases decades ago. I’m pretty sure the first reference was in a 1979 interview in Rolling Stone (which is behind a paywall) where he jokingly called it “the bus crash tapes” that would come out after he died. Fortunately that tragedy wasn’t necessary and Neil’s been assembling these eccentric retrospectives himself.
Archives II includes three whole CDs that were recently released: the shelved (and uneven) studio album Homegrown, and the concert albums Tuscaloosa (1973) and Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live (1973). More about them in the sequence of the box. There are 131 tracks total, with 63 previously unreleased; 12 songs are released for the first time.
Including only one recording (“Yonder Stands the Sinner”) from the official release of Time Fades Away, the first disc continues the short shrift Neil has given to that live album, which holds bad memories for him. There are, however, ample previously unreleased alternate versions of that LP’s songs. However, for me the prizes are the TFA tour Stray Gators live versions of two songs on Neil’s first solo album, “Last Trip to Tulsa” and “The Loner.” The former in particular was a downer, a rambling solo acoustic version that seemed like a bad early-Dylan imitation or, at least, too whimsical for its own good; “The Loner” of course is a classic brooding Young tale of alienation, but staid. Here, both are transformed into rollicking rockers. Elsewhere on CD 1 there are very early solo versions (possibly demos) of songs that eventually emerged differently ("Letter from ‘Nam" = "Long Walk Home"; "Monday Morning" = "Last Dance"), a solo demo of TFA’s “The Bridge,” a studio band take on “TFA,” three fine never-before-heard songs from one of Young’s peak periods, a superb solo concert version of TFA’s “L.A.” that includes an amusing spoken intro, and a CSNY version of “Human Highway” from their aborted attempt at a second solo album.
Tuscaloosa (1973) acts as something of a stand-in for Time Fades Away. As mentioned, it’s from the tour that produced that album (reminder: TFA consisted entirely of songs never before on a Young LP; it wasn’t the usual cash-in rehash of already released material performed live). Recorded five weeks before the concert on TFA, it opens with Neil solo, playing two older songs; then comes a band set with the Stray Gators, focusing on five songs from his then-current studio release, Harvest. It does, however, include three of the more rousing TFA songs: the title track, “Don’t Be Denied,” and “Lookout Joe.” We also get an early version of “New Mama.” It’s a fine album, though a disappointingly short considering we could have also been given more tracks from other stops on the tour to fill out the CD length.
The Tonight’s the Night-era material might seem like the biggest draw for fans, that being Young’s most legendary album, but aside from the Roxy show (for folks who don’t already have it), there’s little here to excite. It does not start well, with an extremely ramshackle rendition of “Speakin’ Out” (here titled Speakin’ Out Jam”) from the first night of the sessions (August 25, 1973) that suggests nobody knew the song, some were drunk, or (probably) both. Throw in tape-speed glitches and that it is cut off before the end, and its inclusion is perverse. But it does document the process of the notorious Tonight’s the Night sessions in all their drug- and alcohol-fueled and tragedy-inspired grimy glory. It’s as though Young is telling us, “You thought the takes we released were sloppy? THIS is sloppy.” And he includes the released take of “Speakin’ Out,” which is magnificent. In fact, he includes most of the released tracks.
Young fanatics have long been tantalized by this story told by Scott Young (Neil’s father) in his book Neil and Me: “Ten years after the original recording, David Briggs and I talked about Tonight's the Night, on which he had shared the producer credit with Neil. At home a couple of weeks earlier he had come across the original tape, the one that wasn't put out. ‘I want to tell you, it is a handful. It is unrelenting. There is no relief in it at all. It does not release you for one second. It's like some guy having you by the throat from the first note, and all the way to the end.’ After all the real smooth stuff Neil had been doing, David felt most critics and others simply failed to read what they should have into Tonight's the Night – that it was an artist making a giant growth step. Neil came in during this conversation, which was in his living room. When David stopped Neil said, ‘You've got that original? I thought it was lost. I've never been able to find it. We'll bring it out someday, that original.’” One wonders what it could possibly be other than more material from August 25th, unless it’s the August 26th tracks (minus the song discussed in the next paragraph) in the different order in which they’re presented here, without the non-8/26 tracks on the original release (the Danny Whitten song “Downtown” live with Crazy Horse in 1970, included in the first Archives box; the solo Neil track “Borrowed Tune” from a December ’73 session, included on CD 5 of this set, and “Lookout Joe” with the Stray Gators, studio take MIA from both boxes, though a live version is included in the Tuscaloosa concert). That sequence could be called “unrelenting.”
However, there is a surprising, and welcome, interpolation: an appearance by Canadian compatriot Joni Mitchell, singing a then-as-yet-unreleased Joni song, “Raised on Robbery,” accompanied not by the slick jazzers on her familiar version released as a single that December and on her LP Court and Spark in January 1974, but by Neil’s band of the time, dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers: Neil on guitar and vocal harmony (elsewhere piano), Ben Keith on lap slide guitar (elsewhere pedal steel), Nils Lofgren on piano and harmony (elsewhere guitar), and the Crazy Horse rhythm section of bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. In fact, it was recorded on 8/26/73, the same night most of the released takes of Tonight’s the Night were recorded. One wonders, naturally, how this came about (beyond Young having played with Mitchell at a couple of shows that month), but the book (yes, a full-sized hardcover book, the accommodation of which requires the packaging to be much larger than the CDs can fill on their side) has zero commentary by Neil or any writer to explain such matters, or any matters. It does, though, include an abundance of photos, newspaper articles from the era, Neil’s handwritten lyrics, a discography of sorts for the period, and the tracklist with personnel.
Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live (1973) now includes “The Losing End,” not on the separate release. The album was drawn from three nights of shows, so I again feel like people buying it for the second time deserve more material for a full CD, but at least that one early song redone is of interest. The band knows the music better but is still loose, and Young keeps up an amusing sleazy-entertainer shtick.
The CD titled Walk On has all but one track from On the Beach, Young’s greatest album IMHO (missing is "See the Sky About to Rain"). Also here are “Winterlong,” released on Decade; “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” a former rarity released in several versions in recent years and here appearing in yet another previously unreleased take, this time with Crazy Horse; the solo track “Traces,” which I don’t recall from other releases; and a solo version of English folksong “Greensleeves.”
After this we’re into the 1974 CSNY tour and anticipations of Zuma. The following disc picks up with some June 15-16 sessions, two solos on the 15th and four duos with bassist Tim Drummond on the 16th. “Love/Art Blues,” a bit of doggerel that Young seems overly fond of – there are THREE versions on this CD and no overlap with the previously released versions – is a trifle, but then comes an early version of “Through My Sails,” a song on Zuma with a slightly altered structure and CSN harmonies; here it’s sparse and haunting. “Homefires” is a “new” song, Zuma tune “Pardon My Heart” makes an early appearance, and the very slight “Hawaiian Sunset” a.k.a. "Maui Mama" is a tad hokey. Then, though, comes “L.A. Girls and Ocean Boys,” a superb song apparently abandoned after Young used one of its lines in Zuma’s “Danger Bird.”
With CSNY, we get a previously unreleased version of the great and, until the release of the CSNY Live 1974 box, rare “Pushed It Over the Edge” and a tweaked mix of “On the Beach” that includes no CSN harmonies. Then it’s November ’74 and a stretch of mostly solo Young tunes mostly heard for the first time here; he was really on a roll, they are all excellent songs, and it is amazing that “Frozen Man” had to wait this long for a release. Back to bands for December sessions; one track pairs Crazy Horse with Ben Keith, the rest Keith-focused bands similar to the Harvest sound, some with Levon Helm on drums (including “The Old Homestead,” which Young released on Hawks & Doves in the following decade. This brings us to Homegrown, which I reviewed in June (http://culturecatch.com/node/3951), and takes things a bit out of chronological order.
Zuma gets much love here; I suspect that we can tell which albums Neil is happiest with based on how many tracks are included in these boxes. Eight of its nine tracks are on CD 8, whereas the closing “Through My Sails” is only represented by the solo version programmed earlier in the set. Does Young now wish he hadn’t had CSN add vocal harmonies? Of course, anybody who would buy this box already owns Zuma, so for all its greatness, the reader is presumably more curious about the non-Zuma material. It’s fascinating: early Crazy Horse versions of Rust Never Sleeps classics "Ride My Llama," “Powderfinger,” and “Pocahontas,” Horse renditions of “Kansas” (better that the Homegrown version) and “Hawaii” (more mundane than the haunting 1976 solo recording was released on Hitchhiker), the previously unheard "Born to Run" (recorded seven weeks before Springsteen released his song and album of the same name), an odd “Too Far Gone” with Frank Sampedro on mandolin, and the beautiful voice-and-piano "No One Seems to Know."
After that, we’re into a mix of American Stars & Bars, aborted CSNY, Stills-Young Band, and Comes a Time sessions. In particular, all of Young’s songs on the Stills-Young Band’s Long May You Run are heard; the title track and the great “Fountainbleu” in the LP versions, “Ocean Girl” and "Midnight on the Bay" in mixes preceding the elimination of Crosby and Nash’s vocals (the former has a much cheesier instrumental arrangement than the LP version; the latter song is also heard in a live solo rendition from a March London show; two other March live performances here include a banjo take on “Mellow My Mind”), and "Let It Shine" in a different but C&N-less mix. There are also two outtakes, including “Traces,” more fleshed out in this band rendition than the more intimate version heard earlier on this box. “Stringman,” recorded live by David Briggs in London, has studio overdubs Briggs added two days later. Recorded the same day as those overdubs is the pretty solo “Mediterranean,” heard here for the first time, with overdubbing allowing Young to be heard on both electric and acoustic guitars (there’s also some uncredited piano). Finally, there’s another CSNY stab at “Human Highway,” with Stills contributing some nice bottleneck slide guitar (sounds like a resonator model).
The tenth and final disc combines concert recordings from London (solo at the Odeon, 3/31/76) for the first five tracks and Tokyo (with Crazy Horse, 3/10-11/76) for the other five. (The rumor is that Sampedro and Young were dosed on LSD for one of the Bukokan shows.) It totals just 44 minutes, so again one wishes more tracks had been included. Perhaps it’s to keep it vinyl LP length... Putting the solo acoustic tracks first despite their later recording date preserves the structure of Young’s concerts, where he’d start solo before bringing the band out. He reaches all the way back to his first LP for “The Old Laughing Lady,” a bit too rollicking folkie in tone to do the lyrics as much justice as Jack Nitzsche’s arrangement originally did. The other four tunes sound better. The Crazy Horse half rips ferociously and is a welcome addition to their discography...too bad there’s not more.