‘Homegrown’: A Track-by-Track Guide to Neil Young’s Unearthed Masterpiece
Neil Young has many complete albums tucked away in his vault, but none have captivated his hardcore fans through the years quite like Homegrown. The album was cut in late 1974 and early 1975 just as his relationship with girlfriend Carrie Snodgress was coming to a painful end. He poured all of his agony into the music, but ultimately didn’t feel comfortable sharing it with the world.
“It was a little too personal,” Young told Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe in 1975. “It scared me. … I’ve never released any of those. And I probably never will. I think I’d be too embarrassed to put them out. They’re a little too real.”
He’s played a handful of songs over the years in concert and re-cut a few for later albums, but the original LP never leaked out to the bootleg community and several of the tunes have never been heard by the public in any form. It wasn’t until last year when he finally decided he was wrong to keep it locked away for so long, and it’s finally coming out this week.
“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.”
Here’s a track-by-track guide to Homegrown.
The melancholy tone of Homegrown is set right away with “Separate Ways,” a chronicle of two lovers facing the end of their relationship with more than a little bitterness. “I won’t apologize,” Young sings at the top of the song. “The light shone from in your eyes/It isn’t gone/It will soon come back again.” Ben Keith’s pedal-steel guitar work is a sonic callback to Harvest, but the new love celebrated on that album is now a thing of the past. The public first heard the song on Young’s 1993 tour with Booker T. and the M.G.’s and it last surfaced on his 2014 Crazy Horse tour, right as his marriage to Pegi Young was coming apart, but the original recording is the definitive one.
The album takes on a slightly more optimistic tone on the second song, “Try,” where some sort of reconciliation seems to be at least briefly on the table. The breezy song features harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, drumming by Levon Helm, and Young himself on the piano. The most memorable line, “Shit, Mary, I can’t dance” was inspired by something that Snodgress’ troubled mother liked to say when she was drunk. She took her own life around the time that Young cut Homegrown. The song first surfaced in 2007 on the Chrome Dreams II tour when Young broke it out on the piano. (Chrome Dreams I has yet to be released, but that’s a whole other story.)
Homegrown must have been on Young’s mind for some reason in late 2007, because weeks after he debuted “Try” he also played “Mexico” for the first time. The original recording is just Young on the piano venting that “the feelings gone” and plotting out a trip to Mexico to escape his pain. It’s a mere 100 seconds, but every one of them is infused with anguish, especially when he tells his young son Zeke that “Daddy is a traveling man.”
“Love Is a Rose”
One week into Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s ill-fated reunion tour of 1974, Neil Young introduced the audience at Tempe Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, to a new song entitled “Love Is a Rose.” It borrows the melody of “Dance Dance Dance” from 1971, but has a darker message about how love fades like a rose stripped off the vine. Linda Ronstadt turned it into a country hit in 1975 and Young’s own version came out on Decade two years later. He’s played it 87 times over the years, making it perhaps the most famous song on Homegrown.
On the Homegrown title track, Young takes a break from lamenting the state of his love life to praise the many virtues of marijuana grown at home. At no point does he make even the slightest effort to hide the meaning of the song. “Homegrown is the way it should be,” he sings. “Homegrown is a good thing/Plant that bell and let it ring.” Crazy Horse tackled the song on American Stars ‘n Bars in 1977, but this a more sedate version with a lot less guitar. The sing-along song has become a concert favorite, especially when delivered at Farm Aid where it celebrates growing crops of all sorts.
If you smoke enough homegrown weed, and maybe lace it with something a little stronger, “Florida” might sound like a profound work of art. If you don’t do that, you’ll realize this is just Young spewing stoned-out nonsense about the state of Florida while someone runs their finger across the rim of a glass, creating a very unpleasant sound. Sample dialogue: “The downtown looked incredible. I couldn’t believe it. There were gliders flying around in the sky. These guys flying around in gliders and they’d swoop between the buildings and go down the alleyways and make a sharp left and a sharp right. I couldn’t believe that it was really happening.” Sometimes songs are put in the vault for a good reason.
Neil Young spent a lot of the Seventies on the road, which might explain why Homegrown travels from “Mexico” to “Florida” and now to “Kansas.” After the stoney detour of the prior two songs, this is another relationship song, though he seems to be on the rebound at this point with a woman he barely knows. “And it’s so good to have you sleeping by my side,” he sings on the solo acoustic tune. “Although I’m not so sure if I even know your name.” The song was first heard on Young’s 1999 solo tour and then played a handful of times throughout 2007 and 2008.
“We Don’t Smoke It No More”
On this loose, bluesy number, reminiscent of some of the boozier moments on Tonight’s the Night, Young insists that he’s done with drugs. “We don’t snort it, we don’t lick it, we don’t knock it, we don’t get it,” he sings. “We don’t smoke it no more.” The only problem is it sounds like all the drugs in a police-station evidence locker circa 1975 came together to write and record this song. Unsurprisingly, it’s never been done live and nobody has heard it until now.
Neil Young was running on fumes (and a few other substances) by the tail end of CSNY’s reunion tour. Shortly before the grand finale at London’s Wembley Stadium, he entered the studio with Robbie Robertson to cut this song. It perfectly encapsulates his state of mind at a moment when he was anxious to get home and start picking up the pieces of his life. “You were my raft,” he sings, “but I let you slide/I’ve been down/but I’m coming back up again.” He started playing the song with Crazy Horse in 1975, but he wouldn’t record it with them until the Ragged Glory sessions 15 years later. The original recording here is significantly less ragged, but just as glorious.
As Homegrown starts to wind down, Young seems to be reaching the anger stage of loss and he lashes out. “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there,” he sings. “You poison me with that long, vacant stare.” Listening to a song like this, it’s easy to understand why Young locked the album away for nearly 50 years. He’s never played it live and nobody has heard it until now.
Hawks and Doves is far from Young’s best album, but the opening track of the 1980 LP is this gem from the Homegrown sessions. The version here is identical to what appears on Hawks and Doves. It’s a simple, harmonica-driven song about a bird that flies away at the end of the summer. Until very recently, Young had only played it at a handful of 1977 bar gigs with the Ducks. But he finally resurrected it during a Fireside Sessions show in March. It was worth the long wait.
“Star of Bethlehem”
Many Homegrown tracks were re-recorded when Young decided to eventually release them, but he stuck with the original 1974 take on “Star of Bethlehem” for American Stars ‘n Bars in 1977. It was originally cut in Nashville, but Emmylou Harris overdubbed harmony vocals onto it at her house in Los Angeles. It’s the perfect ending for Homegrown (even if this exact rendition has been available for 43 years) since it shows Young finally reaching reaching a stage of loss where he can look back with something other than bitterness. “Ain’t it hard when you wake up in the morning,” he sings. “And you find out that those other days are gone/All you have is memories of happiness lingering on.”