Journey Through the Past

Archiving Neil Young, past, present, and future

Neil Young, 1957
Neil Young, 1957 (All art from 'Neil Young Archives Vol. 1')

Teeth determine the grin. Self-conscious hardware hides in pursed smiles.

On their wedding day in Winnipeg, Canada, 1940, Edna Ragland – "Rassy" – beams, anything but self-conscious, while Scott Young's barely unturned lips cede all curvature to his arched eyebrows and knowing look. Eldest son Bob favors his mother in a family portrait circa 1954, "Say cheese" replaced by pre-Elvis pout. Dad reveals a top row of senatorial ivory, but Rassy and Neil (born Nov. 12, 1945) match genuinely happy grills. A picture three years later, of the youngest Young, prompts your ear-to-ear amusement with its Howdy Doody glee.

Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 (1963-1972) lacks only for more such toothy expressionism from its visionary namesake.

Ground zero of Neil Young's new millennial music box set reimagining occurs literally at Disc 0 – Early Years (1963-1965), with his debut single, the Squires' surf splashdown of "Aurora" and "The Sultan." Four previously unreleased originals from the Winnipeg high school quintet, also penned by Young, include his earliest commercial vocal, "I Wonder," a more wistful, lower-register declaration than his future whinny. The singer's moony "I'll Love You Forever" cues up just as choice, but "(I'm a Man and) I Can't Cry" jitterbugs on a doo-wop bassline and barbershop harmonies that reveal NY – as the 10-disc Archives brands its maker – already an unbending truthsayer.

Access the Squires through the song selection menu – Archives is only available on DVD and Blu-ray – and suddenly a whole new universe becomes interactive. All 128 audio tracks listed ("listed" being the operative word here), except for those repeated through the Archives' four live sets, roll out of a virtual file cabinet with corresponding dossiers that include a song's sessionography, lyrics, and combinations of relevant photos, press, and vintage memorabilia. Pavlovian response kicks in wherever there's an index card tucked in behind a track's stat sheet, since both audio and video footnotes, noted and housed therein, animate Archives like a dedicated YouTube.

One more note: Though advertised as 10-disc, last year's CD/DVD of Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968 comes hidden in Archives' not-so-concealed compartment, accompanying the collection's Neil Young & Crazy Horse Live at the Fillmore East (New York 1970) and Live at Massey Hall (Toronto 1971), as previously available releases corralled archivally here. That makes Archives 12-disc.

Prior to the vetting of both "Aurora" and "The Sultan," however, a file marked "Early Years" spills forth the Youngs' early family photo album, those and much more duplicated in Archives' leathery journal. Cased in Archives' hard-shell box, which could house Al Swearengen's Indian head on Deadwood, the diary/credits gather-all reprints correspondence NY sent his mother from the road to immortality, underlining a relationship forged in part by Scott Young leaving the family in 1958, sending Rassy and her 13-year-old younger son back to Winnipeg together.

High school dropout and child of divorce, almost dying of polio at age 6, Neil had myriad reasons not to bare his gums for the cameras throughout the first decade of his ascendance – ego implosion (Buffalo Springfield), heroin reap (Crazy Horse's Danny Whitten), ego explosion (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) – but if his lockjaw determination and sensitivity drew on Rassy's deep end of the gene pool, then Scott Young, a journalist, provided the template to which Neil applied said force of nature.

Scott and Rassy Young on their wedding day, 1940
Scott and Rassy Young on their wedding day, 1940

"Do I feel alone?" repeats Neil Young.

Puttering about the lush hills of his Broken Arrow Ranch in northern California while drinking Michelob and maneuvering his Willys Jeep, Young, with deteriorating disks in his back gluing cans of beer to his palms, addresses the camera in a videotape log for "Heart of Gold" on Disc 8 – North Country (1971-1972), the last platter before Archives' final act, 1973 theatrical release Journey Through the Past, around which much 16mm documentation was gathered.

"I don't know. When I write the songs I feel mostly like I ...

"I guess I'm writing about a part of me that I don't know if I'll ever share. I don't know. I'm writing about the way I feel inside, and no matter how many people are around me, I keep talking about it – all the things that go on inside me. I guess that by talking about it, it helps, you know.

"In my case, I talk more about it than almost anyone I know."

Young laughs, open-mouthed, self-deprecation and realization twin incisors.

"And it still keeps on coming out, so I don't know. I don't know where it comes from. It just comes out ....

"It's like having a mental orgasm."

Meet the Neil Young Archives Vol. 1.

'Disc 0'

Journey Through the Past

Time counts down not from year one, but rather beginning at Bob Dylan's Biograph, in the case of the CD box set. 1985 didn't quite yet bracket vinyl's lifespan on the R.I.P. end of the equation, but Biograph's celebrated 3-CD mixtape spawned digital offspring that made records petrify. Eric Clapton's Crossroads (1988) and the Allman Brothers' Dreams (1989) still define the standard, set by archival guru Bill Levenson: 4-disc chronological overviews sweetened with previously unreleased extras, in an LP-sized box with a book-length booklet. Rod Stewart's Storyteller and Elton John's To Be Continued... remain first-generation CD compilations, forgotten but untainted by their sources' last 20 years. They're all of either artist you'll ever need.

What never followed – at least not to the extent that the digital (r)evolution pledged – were The Complete Hank Williams and Led Zeppelin's The Complete Studio Recordings (see "Top-Shelf Boxed Relics," below). Actually, both 10-CD essentials define the medium's completist potential; only where are The Complete Leonard Cohen, Total MC5, Tom Waits: Asylum Seeker, and Don Walser's Pavarotti of the Plains? Catalogs from Aerosmith to the Zombies have been swept into boxes or pressed into scrapbooks, but as Patti Smith, Pink Floyd, and the Police fly, most regurgitate rather than excavate. The addition of DVDs proved bogus, visual teases rather than companion pieces – e.g., Ray Charles' Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959) – but then DualDisc ventures such as Björk's Surrounded and the Talking Heads box, from 2006 and 2005 respectively, wedged a hybrid CD/DVD in your laptop even after being unceremoniously unread by iTunes. On the other side of the fence, AC/DC's DVD reveal Plug Me In (2007) never made its rare audio available to planet iPod.

Not only does Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 come with a card to download its entire song content in MP3 format onto your PC, the combination of nearly half its tracks being previously unreleased and archival video footage accompanying almost every step makes it all seven volumes of Dylan's Bootleg Series – Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home included – fused into one.

The inability to play through the audio portion of each disc while at the same time hunting for treasure on the visual layer – 12 hidden songs join 55 tracks of concert raps, radio interviews, and record company promos, plus 20 mouthwatering video segments – means I don't have Blu-ray, which allows multitasking. In that sense, Archives may be Blu-ray's strongest argument in the music market, given that despite the likes of Plug Me In, Led Zeppelin, Can, and too few others, the DVD hasn't fulfilled its digital destiny either, though direct delivery of television content by the networks and cable will soon correct that.

And make no mistake, the digital covenant is written in stone code: Beethoven, Ellington, Osterberg, Fellini – all of it, all in one. One box, one download, one love. That's not how intellectual property managers manage their investments, but if "Led Wallet" himself, Jimmy Page, can sell the Zeppelin DVD for $20, then $20 per disc for Archives matches import, bootleg, and boutique CD/DVD price guides. The music does the rest.

Disc 0: Young's 1965 demo of "Sugar Mountain," his singing not yet settled at higher climbs, precedes four previously unreleased songs – Neil Young compositions never heard, which constitute young songwriter runoff, but given the stature of the artist here, they're a gold strike. Morbidly fascinating is "The Ballad of Peggy Grover," with the opening exhortation that its namesake has died (Young eventually settled down with a Pegi), while "The Rent Is Always Due" and its "Just put your blue jeans on, grab a guitar, and write a song/don't think I'm kidding you. The rent is always due," belie the folksinger shrugging it off.

Disc 1 then mines 2001's stampeding Buffalo Springfield Box Set, adding the previously unreleased "Sell Out," the memorabilia for which reveals a 1967 acetate of the tune, then titled "The Greatest Song in the World." Pay no mind to the stoned NY interview, courtesy of onetime Bay Area radio powerhouse KSAN, particularly in the face of a letter from BMI to Rassy Young that ends with: "You should be very proud of your son. He is not only talented but a young gentleman."

He's honest too in addressing the similarities between "Mr. Soul" and the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." A 1967 TV broadcast of the pre-supergroup supergroup miming "Mr. Soul" on Hollywood Palace – Young's squaw outfit has no reservations whatsoever – sets up the real discovery: a 15-minute audio montage from Springfield's final concert, hidden in the disc's "timeline." Rust never sleeps thanks to corrosives like Buffalo Springfield.

'Topanga 1,' '2,' '3'

"They're just all so down! ... They're all just, low."

The Squires, 1964, Neil Young, left
The Squires, 1964, Neil Young, left

Young's live intro to one of his first songwriting efforts, "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," which reappears from Disc 0 on both Disc 2 Topanga 1 (1968-1969) and Sugar Mountain, oversimplifies the singer's 1968 eponymous solo debut, glued together on Archives in an alternate format with unreleased versions (early indelible "Birds") and corrected mixes. Nine-minute laceration "The Last Trip to Tulsa" travels a familiar rural path from the author's frontier upbringing, NY's negotiation of the sexes forever entwined with Mother Nature herself.

Neil Young's copious overdubs birthed the straight-to-console combustion of Crazy Horse, whose backing on 1969 follow-up Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere closes the first Topanga (NY's L.A. canyon of residence prior to Broken Arrow) with the album's vital organs: "Down by the River," "Cowgirl in the Sand," and the LP's title track. Natural settings are now murder scenes, lyrically and musically, Buffalo Springfield's distortion becoming Crazy Horse's serrated edge. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Live at the Fillmore East (New York 1970) controls the burn, leaving fertile soil for succeeding strike After the Gold Rush.'s consumer watchdogs will howl about the disc's 45-minute run-time. There's an unspoken presupposition that each installment in any box set needs to max out at 79 minutes or else someone better start consolidating discs. Archives' mission statement includes most NY hits, Topanga 2 (1969-1970) firing off on "Cinnamon Girl," cresting with "I Believe in You" from After the Gold Rush, cruising CSNY Woodstock offering "Sea of Madness," and coming down with "Country Girl" off Déjà Vu. Another flawless mix timing out at its predecessor's mark, the uncovered closer, piano-driven saloon slosh "It Might Have Been," couldn't quench any better. The only rationale to keep discs short is that the run-time doubles with DVD accoutrements, and in that regard, Topanga 2 jolts an L.A. fault line.

Video of CSNY's roiling "Sea of Madness" at the Big Sur Folk Festival in California, 1969, Young at the organ, Crosby and Stills on guitars, begs, borrows, and absolutely shrieks for more, more, more such archival blow-me-downs. Young clanging "Mr. Soul" with his great artistic goad Stephen Stills at Woodstock proves an interlude in the face of CSNY taking no prisoners on "Down by the River," live and raw on ABC, 1969.

Topanga 3 (1970), another tight play compounded by astounding visuals, redoes After the Gold Rush – both pressings(!) – though CSNY had a banner year at the turn of the decade with Young's chilling "Ohio." Footage of a 1971 CSNY show in Boston, the four-strong choir strapped with acoustics and Young-tarted sky-high harmonies, melts once they start chanting "Four dead in Ohio" over and over, the countercultural tribunal handing down one of its most damning indictments.

There's NY addressing Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" in a radio snippet, warm-up for the "Southern Man" solo on the piano at the Fillmore East, 1970, performing "Birds" during a CSNY show. Barely can the cameras see his face under the hair pushed forward, but when their perseverance finally pays off, you witness the high-note wince of emotional divestiture. From the same concert comes the quartet doing yet another Young standard, "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," Stills on stand-up bass, Young chopping at his acoustic, and Crosby & Nash sharing a mic for the harmonies. In the timeline, there's a clip of the foursome doing hippie-dippie strummer "On the Way Home." Let it be said, however, that after Topanga 2 and Topanga 3, consider CSNY U2.

Young dovetailing "Cinnamon Girl" with "The Loner" at the Fillmore East's Cafe Feenjon that same year constitutes two more video-poker aces. His acoustic guitar intro to the latter underlines his proficiency on the instrument, as well as his ability to compose complex chord structures that serve much simpler melodies. The excerpt includes a documentary segment of Young teaching someone in the park how to play "Cinnamon Girl." Only NY in NYC.

In light of its DVD/Blu-ray capabilities, three of Archives' four live discs, including Sugar Mountain, miss a corresponding camera crew. Audibly, atop Sugar Mountain, the headliner's hair practically sweeps the floor for length, while on Live at the Riverboat (Toronto 1969), "I hope nobody minds I didn't wash my hair today." Both shows preserve early repertoire such as "The Last Trip to Tulsa" ("the story of my life in nine minutes"), yet it's Young's unguarded stage monologing that cryogenicizes his youthful transparency. Twenty-four minutes of "Riverboat Raps" help piece together the overall narrative: "I recorded for Motown for a while. I actually did, you know? Six months I was with Motown. Phew! What a trip. Can you imagine me on Motown?"

Live at Massey Hall (Toronto 1971), again solo acoustic and crystalline – and in this case crucial – came with its provenance affixed to the plastic wrapper of the 2007 CD/DVD, on which Young noted: "This is the album that should have come out between After the Gold Rush and Harvest. David Briggs, my producer, was adamant that this should be the record, but I was very excited about the takes we got on Harvest and wanted Harvest out. David disagreed.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1969
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1969

"As I listen to this today, I can see why."

Debuting Harvest material as pure as Sierra Nevada runoff, Live at Massey Hall is unbelievably piercing, gaining goose bumps as it rolls: "Ohio," "See the Sky About to Rain," "Down by the River." Much better still, its attendant video captures a musician that may or may not have washed his hair that year, armed with acoustic guitar, piano, and the voice of an angel. If anything, it's tough for your brain to sync the audiovisual: Can this guy seriously have a voice like that?!

"Cowgirl in the Sand" runs grainy, barely colored Blair Witch visuals ahead of "Old Man," slicing through you with its generational coda. Lighting makes Young ghostlike on "The Needle and the Damage Done," and extras include "Needle" and "Journey Through the Past" from 1971's Johnny Cash on Campus TV Show at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. On-camera Archives meetings, led by NY in 1997, are an intermittent cereal-box prize of the project, demonstrating that yesteryear's nonconformist remains yesterday's individual.

'North Country'

Live at Massey Hall preps Harvest, and the last song grouping of Archives delivers the 1972 chart-topper in bushels, even though that cry of protest is yours truly decrying the exclusion of LP pacesetter "Out on the Weekend." Fleshed out by material recorded at the same impromptu Nashville studio sessions that produced the heart of Harvest, North Country (1971-1972) strolls along the "Bad Fog of Loneliness," "Journey Through the Past," and saloon frolic "Dance Dance Dance," with assists from a live "Heart of Gold" from UCLA, 1971, and a 16-minute jam on "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" from the Journey Through the Past soundtrack. Problem is, if you've made it that far, audio apparently got stripped out of the visuals on your Disc 8.

Getting past the menu tease, the inside segment of which features NY's "mental orgasm," its landowner talking freely about being the "lonely boy" in "Out on the Weekend," might be your first obstacle to hearing the audio program of North Country. First, there's jaw-dropping documentation of Young, his manager Elliot Roberts, and pianist/producer/Crazy Horseman Jack Nitzsche trying to negotiate the London Symphony Orchestra's contribution to "A Man Needs a Maid" before nailing one of the three total takes. How many minutes to heaven? Eleven. Harvest's Stray Gators out "In the Barn" running through "Are You Ready for the Country?" and an acidic "Alabama" leave straw in your hair. A 13-minute interview with the group leader as he lies in a field a couple hundred yards from the Broken Arrow barn, picking apart a cow chip while grooving to an unending playback of "Alabama" echoing through the hills, crowns all save for a bonus, once again hidden in the timeline menu: uncomfortable video verité of Young walking into a small record store and confiscating a bootleg CSNY record, much to the confusion of the clerk. Never mess with the "Old Man."

Encore Journey Through the Past, a Taut & Gripping Inc. Production of "A Film By Neil Young" (1973, 80 minutes) rolls out vintage Buffalo Springfield; Young screeching "Southern Man" prior to his, Stills', and Crosby's guitars doing the screeching; and, as commensurate with the era of rock doc cobble-togethers, Fellini interludes. And many, many joints. Big, fat ones.

Salamanders, a herd of black riders, Psalm 23 as the literal opiate of the masses, and executive producers Ahmet Ertegun, David Geffen, and Elliot Roberts add up to the No. 44 entry of Variety's 50 Top-Grossing Films for the week ending May 8, 1974. Competition included The Sting at No. 1, followed by Blazing Saddles, The Great Gatsby, and The Exorcist, plus Papillon, Billy Jack, Sleeper, Bananas, The Conversation, Foxy Brown, Serpico, American Graffiti, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, Deep Throat, It's Alive, and The Poseidon Adventure.

Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 straddles film and music, but more so, it bridges old-school music media with the digital age's interactivity, capability, and storage. Neil Young's journeyed through the past and arrived at tomorrow – if anything, he's way ahead of the technological curve – an unwavering musical constant reviewed by his father in the Toronto Telegram in 1970, on the occasion of a Carnegie Hall appearance:

"As usual, a parent really can only watch from afar. The funny thing is I keep watching, and thinking of so many other times, and thinking: He hasn't changed.

Promotional poster for Altec Lansing amplifiers
Promotional poster for Altec Lansing amplifiers

"And yet ... from a boy fishing in Omemee, to a boy with his first ukelele in North Toronto, to a tall thin kid playing and singing to a full house at Carnegie Hall – what the hell happened?"

Archives happened. Smile, Neil.

Top-Shelf Boxed Relics

Duke Ellington

The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973) (RCA Victor/BMG) 1999 24-CD

Billie Holiday

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) (Columbia/Legacy) 2001 10-CD

Hank Williams

The Complete Hank Williams (Mercury) 1998 10-CD

Original lyric manuscript for Ohio, written on May 20, 1970
Original lyric manuscript for "Ohio," written on May 20, 1970

Led Zeppelin

The Complete Studio Recordings (Atlantic) 1993 10-CD

Kronos Quartet

25 Years (Nonesuch) 1998 10-CD

The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968 (Atlantic) 1991 9-CD

Eric Dolphy

The Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige) 1995 9-CD

Fats Domino

Out of New Orleans (Bear Family Records) 1993 8-CD

John Coltrane

The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino) 1995 7-CD

Golden Hornet Project

CD-R Series 2002 20-CD-R

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Neil Young Archives Vol. 1, Neil Young, Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 (1963-1972), Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

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