The story behind Homegrown, Neil Young’s lost ‘Ditch’-era masterpiece
It was to be the apex of Young's mid-1970s creative streak, blending the tuneful accessibility of his mainstream work with unflinching emotional authenticity and pain.
“I think I was on the edge makin’ Homegrown,” Neil Young once said of his unreleased 1975 masterwork. “Kinda lost. But at the same time, I had a lotta freedom to go wherever I wanted to go and do whatever I wanted to do.”
Young had confronted the global success of his 1972 album Harvest by famously veering away from middle-of-the road acceptability and towards a commercial ditch. His so-called “Ditch Trilogy” — Time Fades Away (1973), On the Beach (1974), and Tonight’s the Night (1975) — ranks among the most visceral and daring music Young ever made. But Homegrown was to be the apex of this creative streak, blending the tuneful accessibility of his mainstream peak with unflinching emotional authenticity and pain. “It was the darker side to Harvest,” he told Rolling Stone in 1975. “A lot of the songs had to do with me breaking up with my old lady.” Last November he announced plans to issue the album as part of his Neil Young Archives project, taking him back to one of the most difficult periods of his life. This week, almost 45 years after its recording, Homegrown will finally see the light of day.
By the fall of 1974, Young was overwhelmed by the decay of his personal and professional relationships. Crazy Horse collaborator Danny Whitten had died after consuming a toxic cocktail of booze and Valium on Nov. 18th, 1972, just a day after Young had dismissed the troubled guitarist from his backing band. “That blew my mind. I loved Danny,” Young later said. “I felt responsible.” The specter of Whitten’s death hung over the tour that followed in early 1973, as a grieving Young anesthetized himself with tequila and blasted the folkie fanbase who had made “Heart of Gold” No. 1 with sloppy, fuzz-distorted screeds.
Meanwhile, studio sessions with a reconvened Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were derailed by drug-fueled ego clashes and the June 1973 death of roadie Bruce Berry, whose fatal appetite for heroin had been whetted by Whitten. Despite several false starts, the proposed comeback album (tentatively titled Human Highway) was aborted. A bloated stadium trek in the summer of 1974, later dubbed “the Doom Tour,” exhausted what little remained of CSNY’s collective goodwill.
Young’s attempts to repair his relationship with his wife, actress Carrie Snodgrass, fared no better. Numerous stabs at reconciliation had failed, and now the muse behind songs like “A Man Needs a Maid” and “Motion Pictures” was living in Hawaii, where Young was convinced she was seeing another man. As a parting gift, he presented her with an acoustic guitar he’d used to compose much of Harvest; something for their infant son Zeke to remember him by.
In the midst of this emotional maelstrom — characterized by Young, with usual understatement, as “a major bummer” — the then-29-year-old songwriter entered Nashville’s Quadraphonic Studios that November to begin work on his sixth solo record. "The theme of that album was basically the demise of his relationship with Carrie," producer Elliot Mazer says in Jimmy McDonough’s book Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography. "It was intense, like trying to make a record in the middle of 42nd Street or Vietnam. Here's a guy going through hell, and this is like a f---in’ catharsis for him."
The focus was clear with desolate titles like “Frozen Man,” “Deep Forbidden Lake,” and “Love Art Blues.” The song “Separate Ways,” featuring the Band’s Levon Helm on drums, offers an unvarnished look at his heartbreak with mournful lines like, "As we go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharing our little boy/Who grew from joy back then." On “Mexico” he fantasizes about fleeing the country, “to live beyond the fears,” while “Give Me Strength” contains this despairing couplet: “The happier you fly, the sadder you crawl/The laughter in your eye is never all.” The sole note of optimism in Young’s output of the period, the gentle piano ballad “Try,” is cautious at best. “We’ve got lots of time to get together if we try,” he pleads over Emmylou Harris’ delicate backing vocal.
He called the album Homegrown. Label executives who heard the completed tracks in early 1975 were convinced they had a Harvest-sized hit on their hands. An appropriately folksy cover, resembling a turn-of-the-century advertisement, was printed up depicting a farmer munching an ear of corn.
On the eve of the album’s release, Young gathered a handful of friends, including the Band’s Rick Danko, inside his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont to get their opinion on his new work. “It was late at night, we were all pretty f---d up, listening to tapes, on the edge,” Young recalled in Shakey. As Homegrown ended, a raw and gritty collection began to play on the stereo. It was Tonight’s the Night, an unreleased album Young recorded two years prior as an anguished response to the back-to-back deaths of Whitten and Berry. By pure chance it shared a tape reel with the early Homegrown mix, and Danko liked what he heard. “If you guys don’t release this f---in’ album, you’re crazy,” he told its composer.
Against the advice of his label, Young did exactly that in June 1975, thereby abandoning the plans for Homegrown. Tonight’s the Night was met with mixed reviews, tepid sales, and confusion from fans hoping he’d return to the mellow sounds of Harvest — all of which solidified the album’s reputation in Young’s eyes. But the vulnerability of Homegrown proved too much for him to revisit. For years he couldn’t bring himself to hear the album in full, citing his own embarrassment. “It was a little too personal,” he said in 1975. “It scared me.”
Some of it may still scare him. Bruising Homegrown-era songs like “Frozen Man,” “Homefires” and “Love Art Blues” are notably absent from the official album. But the tracks Young has chosen to share — seven of which have never been released — stand alongside his most intimate work. Homegrown’s status as “the missing link” between early ‘70s folk-rock hits and mid-‘70s proto-grunge has been overhyped, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. Warmer and more inviting than Tonight’s the Night, Homegrown is spartan and even ragged when compared to the production polish of Harvest. A sense of foreboding is prevalent throughout. The familiar becomes foreign, and the unfamiliar seems threatening.
On the standout track “Vacancy,” a menacing rock stomper, Young confronts the terrifying reality that his onetime love is now a stranger to him. “I look in your eyes, and I don’t know what’s there,” he wails. “Are you my friend? Are you my enemy?” Another highlight, “Kansas,” finds a haunted Young struggling to rationalize his professional victories with the disintegration of his private life. He wakes “from a bad dream” inside “my bungalow of stucco that glory and success bought,” unnerved to realize he can’t recall the name of the woman sleeping beside him. Yet for all the paranoia, there are also glimmers of hope. “All your dreams and your lovers won’t protect you,” Young proclaims on “Star of Bethlehem,” the album’s closer. “Yet still,” he concludes, “a light is shining.”
Similar to Brian Wilson’s tortured Smile project, a halo of redemption and personal triumph hangs over Homegrown. Young’s decision to tackle his most painful music makes the bitter lyrics not only palatable, but inspiring. Nearly half a century has passed since he recorded these songs, healing the wounds that inspired them. Now 74, Young is wary of his own advancing age. His massive archival project reflects a man who always did things his way, anxious to curate his own legacy — lest anyone else to screw it up.
As many of his fans (and former collaborators…) would attest, Young is not exactly known for saying sorry, yet he announced his plan to revisit Homegrown with an uncharacteristic mea culpa. “I apologize,” he wrote last year on the Neil Young Archives. “This album Homegrown should have been there for you a couple of years after Harvest. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind….but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean. This is the one that got away.”