The height of his career

By Sergio Ariza

After tasting the sweet success with Crosby, Stills & Nash on Déjà Vu, Neil Young resumed that same year, 1970, his solo career with After the Gold Rush, his 3rd record on his own after his stint with Buffalo Springfield. It is a record where he combines things from his previous 2, the country flavour and folk arrangements from the first, and electric attacks with Crazy Horse from the second, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, but also with a deeper influence of the sound of singer/songwriters of the day such as Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, which summarises him and the album as the best of the career of one of rock’s key figures.

To record the album Young used players from all his stages, there were his faithfuls from Crazy Horse, with Danny Whitten on guitars and vocals, Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums and vocals, but also Jack Nitzsche playing piano, with whom he already collaborated in Buffalo Springfield, the bassman Greg Reeves who had played on Dejá Vu, as well as Stephen Stills himself who sang backup on Only Love Can Break Your Heart. But perhaps the most curious signing for the record was Nils Lofgren. Young had discovered him earlier with his band Grin, and had taken him under his wing. Despite being an excellent guitarist at the young age of 18, Young and producer David Briggs surprised him by asking him to play piano. It was what Young was looking for, to find someone to give an amateur touch on piano for the recording and Lofgren was perfect for the part, his 10 years studying the accordion made the transition easy, and it can be heard on numbers as iconic as the title song or Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Of course, before the recording session ended Young decided he wanted to record Tell Me Why with just 2 acoustic guitars, and as young Lofgren didn’t have one, he gave him a Martin D-18, which can be heard in the song.

This great song was chosen to open the album, then came the title song, a spartan production where there is only vocals, piano and an emotional flugelhorn solo in the middle. The result is one of Young’s most emotional moments in his career. Both the song and the album were inspired by a screenplay that was never filmed by Dean Stockwell and Herb Bermann. The record continues with beautiful Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a song dedicated to his mate Graham Nash who had just broken up with Joni Mitchell.

Then gears change with Southern Man. This song may be remembered as an incentive to Lynyrd Skynyrd to dedicate Sweet Home Alabama to him, but it is one of the most important of his career. Its importance is based on the solo, a noisy blizzard of notes in which Young finds his definitive style, with his ‘Old Black’ and a Fender Deluxe Tweed from the 50s. Away from the conventional and perfect techniques but full of passion and feeling, getting the most out of the distortion to provoke an emotional response from the listener. Less raw but more direct is the other electric ride with Crazy Horse, When You Dance I Can Really Love, one of the most accessible humming songs of his career that never found the fame it deserved when it was released as the record’s 2nd single.   

Not long after, the components of the legendary quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would also put out successful records on the market. They were 4 great records that are possibly the best in their respective careers, but among them all the one that still shines more than ever is the marvel that confirmed Neil Young as the most special and had more than them all, being the only one who could excite folkies, rockers, hippies, and punks alike.