Neil Young is Documenting Himself From Every Angle

Morgan Enos (Other Houses) talks Neil Young’s Tuscaloosa and the importance of capturing every side of your artistic self.

There’s a sense of fear prevalent among musicians in 2019. Fear of flopping. Fear of tweeting the wrong thing. Fear of showing a less-than-ideal public face. These are the focus tracks. Here are your talking points. Was this press photo approved by management? All this machinating can make art dull — at worst, suffocating — which is why I’m glad to have Neil Young.

For a decade, Young has been rolling out his Archives project, combining the brilliant, the absurd, and the ill-advised of his 50-year career into an avalanche of material. In his 2002 biography Shakey, Young explained why. “That’s what a fuckin’ archive is about, not ‘Here’s Neil Young in… all his great, phenomenal fucking wonderfulness.’ I want people to know how fuckin’ terrible I was. How scared I was and how great I was.”

Tuscaloosa, his latest addition to the Archives, is all about that cliff’s-edge feeling. It captures a never-before-heard performance at the University of Alabama in 1973, where he tackled recent hits under a stormcloud of grief. Reason being: his guitarist, Danny Whitten, had overdosed three months earlier — and Young was blaming himself.

Whitten was supposed to be up there for the Tuscaloosa show, but he was battling a nasty heroin addiction, and was nonfunctional during rehearsals as a result. Unwilling to risk a crucial tour, Young sent Whitten home to Los Angeles — and got a call from the coroner later that night. He spent the ensuing dates nervous, insecure and consumed by grief.

He sounds like it, too. Some performances on Tuscaloosa are molten and majestic; others feel rushed. He often slurs his intros. On the easy, introspective “Old Man,” he yelps far beyond his register. “For me, it’s edgy,” Young told Rolling Stone in 2019, describing the vibe. “It’s like those mellow songs with an edge.” Young doesn’t directly invoke Whitten’s loss onstage, but he sounds like a young man in pain.

Any other artist would have stuck this music in a drawer, or thrown it to the bootleggers and forgotten about it. Not Young. A year before the Tuscaloosa show, he released Harvest, an often sunny, commercial album of folk-rock gems. But through Tuscaloosa and his Archives at large, he clearly wanted to show himself as a full-fledged artist — not one who just showed his “best” side.

Maybe we could use a jolt of that today. As a music journalist, I have noticed a desperate attempt at polish even with smaller acts, as if any crack in the facade will do them in. You need to make Harvest, not its sloppy live counterpart where you mourn dead friends. Make a nice follow-up, not a drunken one in the back of an audio rental store. But Young has made his whole career on this. He’s both artist and documentarian.

On Tuscaloosa, Young saves the most emotionally naked moment for the end: “Don’t Be Denied.” I’d heard the song many times, mostly from his drunken, confrontational 1974 live album Time Fades Away, in which he ran roughshod over it. There, I hear grief turning into rage, denial into anger. But on this fragile, straining version two months before, Neil’s even closer to the event. The mellow, self-assured artist who made Harvest is suddenly on the precipice.

“Don’t Be Denied” is a tribute to resilience, a mini-memoir of Young’s early days in which he and his folkie pals wedged a foot in the door. But sung with an almost unbearable ache, it feels directly addressed to Whitten. “He was better than me,” Young wrote in his 2012 memoir Waging Heavy Peace. “I didn’t see it. I was strong, and maybe I helped destroy something sacred by not seeing it.”

Unlike on the Time Fades Away version, the song never catches fire. That’s the point. He’s easing his way into the great unknown, in real time. Any casual Neil Young fan would point you to his three most famous albums as a measure of the man. But I wager these documented in-betweens are just as important.

Through the lens of the Archives, these songs aren’t just lyrics and melody; they’re like wine varietals, taking on the attributes of the weather that they’re grown in. Somewhere in America, a coffeehouse singer is fingerpicking “Old Man.” But I assure you it doesn’t sound like the version here, sung by a wealthy 27-year-old with a couple of screws loose, facing down loss too young, his entire life ahead of him. It gives the song a new patina. I’m grateful Young is preserving these moments. How scared he was. How great he was.

Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in BillboardHuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.