Living the Classics:

Neil Young’s Harvest (1972)

Words: Madeline Tirschwell
December 4, 2022

Harvest” finds Neil Young invoking most of the L.A. variety of superstardom’s weariest cliches in an attempt to do a good imitation of his earlier self…he’s seemingly lost sight of what once made his music uniquely compelling and evocative and become just another pretty-singing solo superstar” (John Mendelsohn, Rolling Stone, 1972)

With our new series Living the Classics, WBRU is publishing essays on any album from an artist’s back catalog that a writer believes to be classic—whatever the term may mean.

Rolling Stone’s 1972 review of Harvest by Neil Young is merciless. After bashing every single track on the album, the only shred of praise critic John Mendelsohn offers is a vague backhanded compliment about one part of “A Man Needs a Maid,” which he found “particularly interesting.” He then demurs, explaining that although it is interesting, it is not even worth thinking about as it “offers few rewards to the ponderer.” Harvest turns fifty this year, and with a half-century having passed since this scathing review, it feels like a good time to reflect on why it defied the critics and ultimately rose to be the top album of 1972.

By 1970, Young had already been in three successful bands and released two solo albums. Although his initial solo works were not widely popular, he became known for his work in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Young’s solo career was jump-started by his infamous 1970 album After the Gold Rush. Coming off this initial success, Young was not intentionally putting together a new album; Harvest was ultimately a combination of songs from live sessions in Nashville, orchestra recordings, and lyrics he wrote in his barn. Several tracks were written while Young was bedridden with severe back pain. Unable to walk unassisted, he had no other choice but to use an acoustic guitar for a significant portion of the album. Ultimately, this seems to enhance certain tracks on the record, most notably Young’s most popular song, “Heart of Gold.” Defying the critics, “Heart of Gold” became the No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the year, while “Old Man” came in at No. 31 (again, with Harvest as the top album of 1972).

The album has its shortcomings, and we must credit Mendelsohn’s review, albeit harsh, for bringing up some valid points worth addressing. One of his main critiques is that several songs on Harvest mirror tracks on Young’s previous successful album After the Gold Rush. “Alabama” and “Southern Man,” for example, overlap thematically in their vague critique of the South and are strikingly similar acoustically, as well. This would suggest that Young hoped to extend his After the Gold Rush fame by essentially producing a copy of the previous album, assuming that his “star status” would boost Harvest’s popularity anyway. The evidence points to the contrary. Today, even though Young is no longer a big star, Harvest remains a classic. Rolling Stone in 2021 ranked Harvest as the 72nd best album of all time–18 places above After the Gold Rush–and “Heart of Gold'' as the 259th best song of all time. It is true that almost all the tracks are about Young and his problems–perhaps a symbol of his inflated ego post-stardom. However, it seems that Young is self-aware. In each track he highlights a different issue that is somehow personal to him; he reveals all his cards, all that he is struggling with. Young’s former band member David Crosby attested to this:

“Well he’s[Young] probably the most self-centered, self-obsessed, selfish person I know. He only thinks about Neil, period. That’s the only person he’ll consider. Ever!”

        — Would Young agree with that?

“Probably. He knows himself pretty well.”  
Young himself did not seem to view Harvest as a means to place him back in the spotlight. When questioned “What was the result of Harvest?” Young responded, “Seclusion was a big part of it. I liked the feeling of bein’ able to get away. Control that part of it. Not be on the frontlines all the time.”

This is not an attempt to maintain his spotlight, but to dial back. To prove that he has not become some “L.A. variety of superstardom,” he seeks to show his humanity and his humility through the tracks of Harvest.

In “Heart of Gold,” a song that today is accepted as a classic, we see Young reflect on the past few years of his life. Mendelsohn hated the song, saying it would have been “laughed off the airwaves coming from another solo troubadour.” But it seems to go directly against Mendelsohn’s claim about Young’s new big ego. In “Heart of Gold,” we see him as more contemplative after having reached a peak moment in his career with After the Gold Rush:

I've been to Hollywood
I've been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean
For a heart of gold
I've been in my mind
It's such a fine line
That keeps me searching
For a heart of gold
And I'm getting old

 - “Heart of Gold”
Young’s claim that “I'm getting old” may reference his inability to walk due to his injury, but it also takes on a novel meaning. It is an acknowledgement that he has grown from his previous work and feels a certain pressure to continue on this track. He is being dramatic: Young was not “getting old,” he was 26. Still, we see a man who is contemplating the future passing of the peak of his life (whether this be fame or youth). This comparison is of course emphasized in “Old Man:”

“Old man, take a look at my life, I'm a lot like you / I need someone to love me the whole day through,”
- “Old Man”

The majority of Side A, specifically “A Man Needs a Maid,” “Out on the Weekend,” and “Harvest,” seems to be a reference to this search for “someone to love me the whole day through.” He really drives the point home here, almost to the point of redundancy,but he does a nice job of it. “A Man Needs a Maid” particularly stands out. The message feels dated, and 1972 listeners felt the same way.

“I was thinkin' that maybe I'd get a maid
Find a place nearby for her to stay
Just someone to keep my house clean
Fix my meals and go away... 

To give a love, you gotta live a love
To live a love, you gotta be part of,”

    - A Man Needs a Maid

Rather than read this as a support of some sort of gender dynamic, this song shows Young trying to find love. The maid in question represents material love, a feeling of stability and companionship, but not the real thing. In the bridge, he realizes that material love will not suffice–To have love, “you gotta be part of,” or have more than a material investment in a relationship.

These songs feel very human. Young reveals that he is still struggling with the unifying problem of finding love. After side A, the album seems to take a darker turn.

Side B contains two songs that seem more grounded in reality, but still show Young attempt to express his humility by addressing more universal issues. The first is “Alabama,” which is largely about Young’s inability to process the grievances of the Civil Rights Movement. As an outsider, he was shocked when he came to the U.S. from his native Canada. 

“Oh, Alabama
The devil fools with the best laid plan
Swing low, Alabama
You got the spare change
You got to feel strange
And now the moment is all that it meant...

I'm from a new land, I come to you and
See all this ruin, what are you doing?”

- Alabama

It is certainly a ‘holier-than-thou’ moment, and also a shallow criticism of a more profound issue. Before proclaiming Young’s blatant selfishness, David Crosby also noted that “Neil doesn’t really do politics. He does Neil.” This seems to be the case here. The backing music is still pretty great, and he gets a nice guitar solo in there. Regardless of this song’s poignancy, we must of course acknowledge its contribution to music as Alabama (in addition to “Southern Man” from After the Gold Rush) prompted Lynyrd Skynyrd to write “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol' Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don't need him around anyhow”

-Sweet Home Alabama

While “Alabama” may be more superficial, “The Needle and the Damage Done” is much more personal. It is largely about Young’s bandmate Danny Whitten, but also his generation as a whole and their struggles with heroin addiction. Whitten, and Bruce Berry, Young’s roadie, would both die from an overdose just a year after the release of the album. The song seems to be a final plea, but also a warning from Young based on his experiences:

I hit the city and I lost my band
I watched the needle take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done

I've seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone

            - The Needle and the Damage Done

In both this track and “Alabama,” Young attempts to portray himself as a sort of “everyman,” one who suffers the same plight of many others. In this second song, he is successful. The track serves as a beautiful memorial for those lost to addiction, but also a message of solidarity for their loved ones.

The final track is a reflection on Young’s career as a whole.

I was a junkman
Selling you cars
Washing your windows
And shining your stars
Thinking your mind
Was my own in a dream
What would you wonder?
And how would it seem?

Singing words, words
Between the lines of age

- Words (Between the Lines of Age)

Young is questioning the exact problem Mendelsohn poses. If he was a ‘junkman’ and not already famous, would his music (Harvest) still matter? Young does not come to a conclusion. This final track asks the reader to reflect on the album as a whole. Is this just another album of “Singing words, words,” one of many that will be produced over the ages, or is it something more?

These “words” have now stuck with us for fifty years, standing alone, not thought of in reference to After the Gold Rush. Perhaps the songs are in fact too simple, too similar, too selfish. But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. When we hear “Heart of Gold,” we do not think of it in the context of all music. We just know that it has captured our own feelings of longing and love.






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