One Los Angeles evening in 1975, Neil Young gathered a few friends together at the Chateau Marmont to play them some music. He had two new albums in the can, and wasn’t sure which one to release. Sitting inside the same bungalow that John Belushi would die in just seven years later, Young’s friends — which included some of his Crazy Horse bandmates and Rick Danko and Richard Manuel of the Band — listened to two wildly different records.
First up was Tonight’s the Night, a grueling, Tequila-engorged meditation on fallen friends and the death of the Sixties. The other record, Homegrown, was harder to pin down; on the surface, it recalled the relaxed country rock that had made Young a star, but that warm exterior hid some of his most personal writing — so personal, in fact, that it was never released. “By listening to those two albums back to back at the party,” he told Cameron Crowe in 1975, “I started to see the weaknesses in Homegrown.”
But there was a bigger reason he didn’t want to release the record. Homegrown was written during his split with Carrie Snodgress, an Academy Award-nominated actress who was the mother of his first child, Zeke. Their relationship had been tumultuous and bitter, and as it dissolved Young channeled his pain into songs that pulsated vulnerability, insecurity and self-doubt. “I’ve never released any of those,” he said. “And I probably never will. I think I’d be too embarrassed to put them out.”
It’s taken 45 years, but he’s finally ready to let us hear it. Of the album’s 12 songs, seven have never been released, making this the most revelatory of Young’s recent run of Archives releases. Musically, Homegrown returns to the country rock of Harvest, some of which was inspired by Snodgress (“Harvest,” “A Man Needs a Maid,” “Words”) albeit in a happier time. Fitting Young’s despairing mindset, it’s ragged, frayed, confrontational, and offhandedly raw, where Harvest was soft-rock soothing.
“I won’t apologize,” he declares on the opener, “Separate Ways,” his caustic words melting into Ben Keith’s pedal steel guitar. “The light shone from in your eyes/It isn’t gone/And it will soon come back again.” On “Mexico,” he laments his loss over sparse piano: “Oh, the feeling’s gone/Why is it so hard to hang on to your love?” Tonight’s the Night was fueled by grief and On the Beach reflected the insecurities of post-Watergate America, but never had Young exposed the deepest, most personal part of his private life like this.
The slow-burner “Try” is slightly more optimistic, as Young playfully sings, “I’d like to take a chance/But shit, Mary, I can’t dance,” quoting a catchphrase favored by Snodgress’ mother. And then there’s “Vacancy,” a barnyard rocker assisted by Stan Szelest on Wurlitzer organ, where Young sings, “I look in your eyes, and I don’t know what’s there,” as if seeing an ex-lover who now appears as a phantom.
Such raw feelings of loss also color the LP’s looser, throwaway moments. Similar to “Hawaii” from 2017’s Hitchhiker, “Kansas” is a spare, acoustic destination ditty from the vault. On it, he seems to imagine finding new love as an impossible escape from reality: “We can go flying through the air/Far from the jeers and lies.” In the bizarre spoken word piece “Florida,” Young recalls a town he visited as a child with his family in 1952, when he was recovering from polio (he narrates as he and Keith rub the rim of a wine glass with wet fingertips). His aloneness also gives fun, half-baked tunes like the hazy blues oddity “We Don’t Smoke It No More” and the stoner-anthem title track an endearing quality. They’re not classics, but it’s nice to hear Young lighten up a little as he loses himself in jams with his friends, which include Robbie Robertson, a cuttingly funky Levon Helm, and Emmylou Harris, who sings beautifully on “Try.”
It’s important to remember how quickly Young worked in the mid-Seventies, churning out songs at a much faster pace than his label could release them (and after the commercial failure of 1973’s live LP Time Fades Away and 1974’s brilliantly depressive On the Beach, Homegrown was a guaranteed seller they were desperate for). Young was evolving so rapidly that every few months became its own era. By the time he released Tonight’s the Night, he was already hunkered down in Malibu, reuniting with Crazy Horse and new guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro to create Zuma. Homegrown was a record that most musicians could have built a career on, but for Young, who was relentlessly looking forward, it was already in the rearview mirror.
At 74 years old, Young knows he won’t be around forever. He’s spent the past few years painstakingly going through his vast archives, releasing Hitchhiker, Songs for Judy and Tuscaloosa. After decades of holding back, he’s finally letting this music out into the world. There’s still more to go, from Homefires to Chrome Dreams and the original Comes a Time and Trans. He’s just getting started.
In 1975, Homegrown evoked an organic hippie ideal. Right now, the title has more depressing overtones. But, in a sense, it’s hard to think of a better time to hunker down and listen to songs of anguish, confusion, and isolation. This is an album that proves something beautiful and enduring can come from even the most dire circumstances.