Just 24 hours before Neil Young jammed with the Band at “The Last Waltz” in San Francisco, he was in Atlanta to play two shows in a single evening at the Fox Theater. It was November 24th, 1976, and he should have been exhausted after a grueling year on the road with both Crazy Horse and the Stills-Young Band, but he was somehow playing in absolute peak form. The second concert of the evening opened up with a solo acoustic rendition of the 1969 Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere classic “The Losing End.” You can hear a never-before-released recording of that performance right here.
The song appears on his Young’s new archival release Songs for Judy, which hits shelves Friday. It’s a 22-track collection drawn from the acoustic set he did every night of the tour shortly before Crazy Horse joined him for the second part of the evening. Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe and photographer Joel Bernstein were on the tour taping every single show. You can read their notes below where they break down how the incredible Songs for Judy was born out of those tapes.
Cameron: Joel Bernstein and I first met on a crisp morning in March, 1974. It was already an auspicious day. Neil Young had agreed to join the Eagles for a benefit at the Cuesta College Auditorium in San Luis Obispo. We were all together for the bus ride up the coast. Neil was notoriously press-shy at the time. I snuck onto the bus as a guest of the Eagles. There is a picture from the day, taken by Joel.
Behind me, Neil is playing an early version of “For the Turnstiles.” (Later, passing some oil derricks, he would begin writing part of “Vampire Blues” on the same bus ride.) I’m just hunkering down trying to look like I belong. We became fast friends that very day — Joel the photographer (and guitar maestro-technician), and me the journalist. Our shared aesthetic was rigorous. As fans, we loved the raw and the real. For example — the demo was usually our favorite version of any given song. Joel the artist worked almost exclusively with available light. We viewed ourselves as documentarians, there to catch the spirit in the air. We even had a nickname for ourselves — Eyes and Ears (from the old movie newsreel “The Eyes and Ears of the World”). We still do. Joel and I went on many assignments together, and one of our early adventures was for Rolling Stone. I was invited on Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1976 North American tour. Joel was already on tour as Neil’s guitar tech, and was also documenting the shows by recording them. Full disclosure: I was in heaven.
Joel: The tour began at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles on November 1st, 1976, the day before Election Day. Neil started with a solo acoustic version of a powerful, unreleased song called “Campaigner.” I immediately realized that making these tapes was in fact a great idea. I was soon raiding malls for whatever blank C-90 cassettes I could find along the way. The U.S. leg of this tour was brief (18 shows in 12 cities, in 24 days) but the performances were at their best intense and thrilling. As the tour continued, the cache of cassette-tape grew, all of them filled with gems.
Midway through the tour, on Neil’s 31st birthday, he invited Cameron and I onto his tour bus, Pocohontas, parked in the snow in front of the Edgewater Inn, in Madison.
Cameron: Eight months earlier, Joel had been on nearby Lake Mendota, photographing Joni Mitchell skating for her Hejira album. Otis Redding’s plane had crashed, I think, in the same vicinity years earlier. The whole area felt rich in musical lore…
Joel: Neil and I might have smoked a joint. Then Neil said, “Oh, I’ve got to make a phone call.” This no doubt meant that Neil would have to return to the hotel, but he stayed put. “Just wait a second,” he said, and opened up a leather attaché case on the table. Inside was a telephone that looked like a prop from the 60’s TV show Get Smart. “It’s a satellite phone,” said Neil. What is that? It’s 1976! We’re on his bus! He makes a call to Mo Ostin, president of Neil’s record label, and to our amazement, cancels the release of his 3-LP compilation Decade; months in the making, already pressed, and scheduled to come out imminently.
Cameron: (The Rolling Stone piece had been assigned to come-out in tandem with the album. Now we were all suddenly in free-fall.)
Joel: The last two shows of the tour were to benefit the restoration of Atlanta’s historic Fox Theater, where we were playing. After the first show, an unusually long interval occurred before the second, midnight show. To celebrate the end of their months-long international tour, the band had found an excellent combination, that included at least Tequila and marijuana, with which to commune. One of the results, when the midnight show began after one, was the unparalled rap in which Neil conjures up the spirit of Judy Garland, a vision which would have vanished but for this recording. By the time the last show was over, and we loaded up the trucks for the last time, Tim Mulligan, Neil’s mixer, and I realized there was no point in trying to get any sleep; we had to catch the earliest flight to San Francisco. It was Thanksgiving, but we both had another show later that night with Neil…they said it was going to be called “The Last Waltz.”
Cameron: Joel and I made a pact. After the tour, we’d get together at Joel’s San Francisco apartment, and make our own “essential” audio-compilation of the tour. The goal was to create our definitive collection of the acoustic and electric performances. Each would feature one performance of every song that had been performed, and it should fit onto a 90-minute cassette. We began, of course, with acoustic sets. Joel listened to all the performances and whittled them down to three or four best versions. In some cases, if Neil only performed the song once, that one version would be included.
The acoustic shows were sparkling, sometimes stoney, often surprising, and always heartfelt. You might get a “Losing End,” or even a “Love Is a Rose.” Neil would regularly engage in conversations with the audience, including one epic monologue from a late show in Atlanta that became a darkly comic centerpiece of our collection. Young had always been a sharply witty stage conversationalist, but this one intro to “Too Far Gone” took a psychedelic journey to Oz and back. For days we listened and compiled. It was deliriously painstaking work. Wake up, eat breakfast, dive back into the recordings. Decide which of the 12 versions of “Old Laughing Lady” was most essential. Repeat.
Joel: Cameron, reading your account reminds me of just how much fun it was to do the listening and our notes, and discuss each performance until we agreed “that’s the one.” After you and I made our selections, I went next door to Graham Nash’s home studio, Rudy Records, and transferred each song we’d chosen to reel-to-reel, then cut it together into two reels, one for each side of a cassette. I made three cassette copies of the tape compilation; two went to the two crew members who got me the audio feed of Tim’s PA mix each night. (Audio nerds: to accomplish this required these adaptors: XLR > 1/4″ > RCA > DIN.) At the time, it seemed the right way to repay them for taking the time to do that.
I cautioned them each not to copy the tape, and to keep it in a safe place. A few years later, one of them called to tell me he couldn’t find his copy of the compiled cassette. A little later, a copy of a copy of a copy of that cassette became the master tape for a bootleg LP; just what I’d been trying to avoid. Years later, I was interviewed for Neil’s fan club magazine, Broken Arrow, and was asked what I knew about this (to fans) mysterious compilation, and told the story to the journalist, who wrote a piece about it, after which the bootleg was referred to as “The Joel Bernstein” tape.
Cameron: We never made it to the electric sets. Such was Joel’s attention to detail, and our shared commitment to exploring every crevice of the 1976 acoustic rabbit hole, by the time we finished part one, we were spent. We took a little break. Decades passed, but we always returned to the joys of this compilation. The tour had been so satisfying, and so different from all that rock would become in the ensuing years, something indelible was captured in our humble collection. Listening to it today is a little like discovering postcards from home. It was a precious time in Neil Young’s journey, a breath of oxygen in between some of his biggest adventures. Everybody involved was cresting towards another career peak, Rust Never Sleeps was just around the corner, and you can close your eyes and imagine the thrill in the room. It’s Bicentennial year in America, Neil Young and Crazy Horse are in your town, and out walks Neil with his acoustic. Press play.
Joel: Meet you back at my place this fall. Let’s start the electric-set compilation…
Cameron: Sounds good. I remember a blistering nine-minute “Cortez the Killer” from the Dane County Coliseum, in Madison that was absolutely essential…
Joel: Here we go again…
© Eyes and Ears Productions 2018