On August 11, 1976, Neil Young was with his friends David Briggs and the actor Dean Stockwell, he had some ideas swirling in his head and decided it was the perfect night to record a new collection of songs that he had put together, he put his old Gibson J-45 in the trunk, beside some guitar nuts and his harmonica and the three of them set off for Indigo Studios in Malibu. Neil was feeling good and excited about the session, and while Briggs started to get the recording microphones in place, Young and Stockwell shared a joint. When everything was set, Stockwell sat in the softest chair with a bottle of Jose Cuervo in hand and Young asked, “Are you ready Briggs?”. And over the next few hours, they came up with the magic that belongs to special nights. They finished at 2 in the morning, having recorded 10 complete songs with just his guitar and harp on the first 9, and his piano on the last one. His new record was ready... but it didn’t see the light of day for 40 years.
The 70s were the creative peak for Young’s career, not only in releasing the most important albums on his discography (After the Goldrush and Rust Never Sleeps), but also the several songs that never saw daylight. Among them, there is Hitchhiker, recorded on that night in ‘76, as a record from top to bottom, but it wasn’t released then because the executives of the label told them it sounded like a demo and they had to re-record the songs with a band. And now that it has seen the light, it goes to prove that those men in suits and ties were wrong.
Eight of the songs that appear on this album were actually released on other efforts but perhaps these are the most original and freshest versions, starting off with that gem that opens the record, Pocahontas, a song that was on Rust Never Sleeps, the record that has the most similarities. The first versions of Ride My Llama and Powderfinger are also here, however they are the electric versions.
To make a record like this work, with the songs taken from its bare bones, you have to be sure of two things, that the material is high quality, and that the one in charge to interpret it is at the same level. Hitchhiker is a perfect example of this, you just have to listen to the 2 songs that didn’t come out until now, Hawaii and Give Me Strength, which speak of the split-up with the actress Carrie Snodgress, the mother of his first son. Young pours his soul out in these songs and shows again that his skill on an acoustic matches his passion, with those chilling notes on his Black Beauty.
Two big questions we should consider are how it has taken 40 years for them to be released, and why now? The first is a bit hazy, but maybe the answer to the second might be the political climate we now live in. And listening to a song like Campaigner with a chorus that states that “even Richard Nixon has a heart”, you can now just change the president’s name to the current one to realise that Neil is telling us something. Or that bit in Human Highway where he asks, “how could people get so unkind”, it seems like the author of Cinnamon Girl has figured that that summer’s night magic is perfect for the times in which we find ourselves. Or to put it another way, it’s the right time for the comeback of the protest song.