Neil Young began writing songs from a me-first perspective and has spent his long career growing out of it. His first Buffalo Springfield track as a 21-year-old began with the disgruntled complaint “Hey, who’s that stomping all over my face?” Meanwhile, the closing track on Young’s 2019 album Colorado is a two-way street: “I know you ask all the same questions I do.” Somewhere in between, in the ashes of a blown-up relationship on an album that would be shelved for 45 years, he sang a line that rang true: “You lose your love when you say the word mine.”
As a lone-wolf type with a documentarian streak, Young has sometimes been mired in mine. His most impactful songs of the 1970s were oftentimes his most self-absorbed. “I’m a pauper in a naked disguise / A millionaire through a businessman’s eyes,” he proclaimed on 1973’s “Don’t Be Denied.” “I need a crowd of people but I can’t face them day-to-day,” he admitted on 1974’s “On The Beach.” What was going on back then? His relationship with Carrie Snodgress, a Hollywood actress and the mother of his first child, Zeke Young, was falling apart.
While in the eye of the storm, Young made deeply personal music that hasn’t been fully heard until now. On June 19, 2020, he belatedly releases Homegrown, which was recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles in 1974 and 1975 before being abandoned and disassembled for other releases. (Some of its songs appeared in different forms on 1977’s American Stars ‘n Bars, and Decade, and 1980’s Hawks & Doves.)
“They’re a little too real,” Young told Cameron Crowe and Rolling Stone at the time. “I think I’d be too embarrassed to put them out.” When long-time fans commune with unheard gems like “Separate Ways,” “Try” and “Kansas,” they’ll be glad he did.
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Back then, it was a tie as to whether Young would release Homegrown or Tonight’s the Night, a tottering wake for his deceased colleagues Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. So he put each album on one side of a reel of tape and played them back-to-back for a few besotted buddies, including members of the Band. “It was late at night,” Young remembered in Jimmy McDonough’s 2002 biography Shakey. “We were all pretty f—ed up, listenin’ to tapes, on the edge.”
When Tonight’s The Night came on, “[Rick Danko] freaked,” Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina said in the book. “He said, ‘If you guys don’t release the f—in’ album, you’re crazy.’” And that’s what happened: Tonight’s The Night was released in 1975 to critical acclaim yet consternation from Young’s manager Elliot Roberts and label Warner Bros. Until 2020, Homegrown has mostly existed in fans’ imaginations along with fellow unreleased Young albums that have been discussed in hushed tones for years like Chrome Dreams, Toast, and Oceanside-Countryside.
Beyond the “what-if” factor surrounding its release, Homegrown contains a lot of insight into Young’s emotional state. Take “Separate Ways,” which is in a similar lane as 1974’s “Motion Pictures (For Carrie)” but with a subtle difference. In that song, the “you” doesn’t appear until the end. (That song was written “before I knew — when I could sense,” Young explained in Shakey.) But in “Separate Ways,” Snodgress is an equal participant. “The light shone from your eyes,” Young sings at the top, devastatingly adding “It isn’t gone / It will soon come back again.”
“Try,” which follows, is surprisingly conciliatory, especially in comparison with later put-downs like “Stupid Girl” from 1975’s Zuma. With guest vocalist Emmylou Harris abetting him, along with pedal steel player Ben Keith, bassist Tim Drummond, and drummer Levon Helm, Young sings of wanting to right the ship. He even works in a private reference to Snodgress’s troubled mother, Carolyn, who regularly feigned suicide for attention and had recently passed away due to complications from alcoholism.
“She had this saying when she had a couple of drinks — ‘Shit, Mary, I can’t dance,’” Snodgress remembered in Shakey. During the wake at Carolyn’s favorite Chicago watering hole, Young scrawled the phrase into the back of her funeral book; later, he worked it into “Try” as a miniature tribute to her late mother. (“It was such an appropriate elegy,” Snogress reflected.)
The pindrop acoustic ballad “Kansas” also addresses Snodgress directly. “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream / And it’s so good to have you sleeping by my side,” he sings as if stepping into a clearing from the chaos: “We can go gliding through the air / Far from the jeers and lies.” Once again, Young doesn’t sound embittered or lashing out; he sounds sweet and reciprocal. As on “Try,” the perturbing details of their breakup — as laid out in Shakey — didn’t seem to make it into the lyrics.
Not all of Homegrown is ripped straight from real-life drama. The title track, which has been floating around for decades, is a lighthearted love song to cannabis; “Florida” is a dosed-sounding monologue backed by a rubbed wine glass; and “We Don’t Smoke It No More” is an extemporaneous-sounding 12-bar blues that breaks the tension. A handful of outtakes from its sessions, like “Homefires,” “Barefoot Floors,” and “Love/Art Blues,” remain unheard outside of covers and live recordings.
Regardless, the 12 songs that did make it onto Homegrown paint a slightly different picture than is established about this period in Young’s life. For all the bad vibes surrounding this doomed relationship, these songs (the scathing “Vacancy” aside) show that he didn’t always process it negatively or cynically. “The way Zeke turned out, Carrie must’ve done a lot of stuff right,” Young pointed out in Shakey despite all the “hell” his son had to endure due to their discord. “She must’ve, because the fact is, he turned out pretty f—in’ good.”
Later on, Young released 1978’s Comes A Time, 1992’s Harvest Moon, 2000’s Silver & Gold, and 2005’s Prairie Wind, all richly sentimental albums about the passage of time and the preciousness of family bonds. And now we know that Homegrown, the lost link between all four, was where that door to Young’s heart was opened.
In partnership with Warner Records