Forty-one years ago in August, Neil Young rode a convertible Cadillac to a studio on the Pacific coast, smoked some weed and over one full-moon night recorded 10 songs reflecting on human cruelty and self-discovery.
Several of the tracks became signature songs of the folk rock legend. Yet the album itself, “Hitchhiker,” remained in the vault, a source of fascination to Young’s fans but inaccessible in its original form.
Young, 71, finally releases “Hitchhiker” on Friday. But after more than four decades, the question emerges—why now?
Certainly it is not for a lack of new material, with the ever-prolific Canadian-born artist putting out six studio albums since 2012.
Or could “Hitchhiker”—raw and lonesome, exploring the individual’s journey against adversity and injustice—be an album well-suited for 2017?
Young has revealed little on the timing of the release. But he said that his business side back in 1976 had been unenthusiastic about “Hitchhiker,” seeing it not as a proper album but as a collection of demos for later recording.
And that’s what he did. The best-known songs off “Hitchhiker”—its first two tracks, “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger”—came out in 1979 on Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps” album accompanied by his band Crazy Horse.
Recounting the “Hitchhiker” session at Malibu’s since-closed Indigo Studio, Young said that the versions that night were the “true originals.”
“I always knew the original album would find its place and surface. That time is now,” Young, reading handwritten notes, told the Colorado public radio station KOTO in a recent on-air appearance which he streamed on Facebook.
“A long time, a long wait—but worth it. This music is the essence of those times, pure and undisturbed, just as it was 40 years back.”
- Alone and unadorned -
“Powderfinger” is especially striking in its original. A meditation on the use of violence, Young strips back the 1970s rock vibe of the better-known version, revealing Young alone.
Young, his warbly voice no longer set to jamming guitar or juxtaposed with electric solos, delivers more understatedly the song’s oft-interpreted lines: “Shelter me from the powder and the finger / Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger.”
“Pocahontas,” while always an acoustic-driven song, also becomes more intimate on “Hitchhiker” as Young relates a massacre of Native Americans and jumps to a modern America dotted by mammoth constructions such as Houston’s Astrodome.
Two songs on “Hitchhiker” were never previously released—“Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength,” written after Young’s breakup with actress Carrie Snodgress, the mother of his first child Zeke.
“The happier you fly / The sadder you fall,” he sings delicately over his acoustic guitar on “Give Me Strength” before a passionate harmonica solo.
Young performed “Hitchhiker” solely on a Gibson guitar, harmonica and the studio’s piano. He was accompanied only by his longtime producer David Briggs, who mixed on the spot, and by a friend, Dean Stockwell, the actor later known for “Paris, Texas” and “Married to the Mob.”
“You ready, Briggs?” is the album’s opening line, the studio banter remaining for the historical record.
The references occasionally reflect the era. On “Campaigner,” Young quips, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul”—a line, one wonders, if the activist-singer would say about Donald Trump, even ironically.
Yet his solitude—and his incredulity on the direction of the world—ring contemporary. On “Human Highway,” Young describes a journey into real life and he wonders aloud: “How could people get so unkind?”