The Neil Young Archives (NYA) has a URL, https://neilyoungarchives.com/, but to call it a website is a severe understatement. It is a museum of audio, video, film, and more, that amounts to the most comprehensive artist-curated collection in the vastness of cyberspace. I spent a weekend, and then a few more days, trawling through its treasures and pleasures, thanks to a gift subscription from my longtime Neil Young advisor/advocate Barbara Heinsohn, and felt, like an afternoon at the Louvre, that I was just barely skimming the surface.
There are three levels of paid subscriptions. The free, which I had signed up for some years ago, offers little. Classic, to which I was gifted, offers plenty for $19.99 a year. Rust ($39.99) and Patron ($99.99) provide escalating other perks, the latter including, “special consideration is paid to their ticket requests.”
I’m a Neil Young fan, but not an obsessive fan of anyone, really. How many Young albums, CDs, and downloads do I have: 20? 30? They’re like pebbles in a pond. How many times have I seen him in his various configurations? At least a dozen, meaning I’ve hardly seen him at all. I freelanced a review of the mystifying Greendale somewhere, reviewed the Jonathan Demme Heart of Gold movie performance somewhere, and posted reviews on my old blog on Blogger of Psychedelic Pill and the strange, one-of-a-kind Americana.
The NYA made me feel like an absolute beginner, but that’s a good thing, because even the total Neil nut will find plenty of fresh stuff.
Young’s many contradictions are apparent as soon as you visit. Log on, and what you want to do is go to the file cabinet. On screen, it looks like a pre-internet filing cabinet, one you’d see in every office, and it is filled with folders marked by subject (album titles) and subfolders (songs from those albums). It starts, at the bottom, with his most recent album, Barn, with Crazy Horse, an album with much to like that is almost a perfect distillation of quintessential Neil styles, from woozy harmonica ballads to nostalgic refrains to stoner scenarios to Crazy Horse jams.
As you lift the switch on the file cabinet with your cursor, you will hear the scratch of an old-school cabinet, its rollers scraping up against the sides of the steel tracks. Click on a folder, the folder opens, choose a song, and play it. When you get to the beginning of the cabinet, you’ll have access to the earliest Neil Young recordings: the surf/garage rock instrumentals “The Sultan” b/w “Aurora” by The Squires, released on the V Records label (label number V-109), produced by Bob Bradburn.
The newest recording is an unreleased album, an archives exclusive called Summer Songs and recorded solo at his Broken Arrow ranch on Christmas Day, 2021, including “Last of His Kind,” a lament for the family farmer, and “American Dream,” in which he sings: “Don’t know when things went wrong/Might have been when we were young and strong.” Co-producer Niko Bolas is here, there, and everywhere through the years; he and Neil as a production team are known as the Volume Dealers.
There are small tags on the timeline with typed historical data (the typeface is that of a typical ribbon typewriter). “NY forms his first band, the Jades, January 1961.” “He meets Stephen Stills for the first time, at the Fourth Dimension in Fort William, Ontario, April 21, 1965.” First US gig: The Wobbly Barn, in Killington, Vermont, October 30, 1965.
By 1966, there’s a selection by Buffalo Springfield called “Kahuna Sunset.” Another surf instrumental, recorded 9/15/1966 at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, produced by Springfield’s controversial managers, Brian Stone and Charles Greene. There’s a track that I don’t remember from the self-titled Atco debut album Buffalo Springfield in 1966, “Baby Don’t Scold Me,” a retro pop song which sounds like a mashup of the Mamas & the Papas, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and a lick from “Day Tripper.” It’s only a glimpse of how far the harmonies of the four singing members: guitarists Young, Stills and Richie Furay, and drummer Dewey Martin, with Bruce Palmer on bass, might have taken them. Release date: December 5, 1966.
The other songs I remember: “Sit Down I Think I Love You,” “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing.” The entire mono and stereo versions of that album are in the archives. What’s missing: “For What It’s Worth.” Click on the forward arrow and you’ve got that same album, re-released on March 6, 1967, with “For What It’s Worth” added as the lead track, and “Baby Don’t Scold Me” left to the dustbin of history. But should you crave hearing it, the NYA has it for you, in its original context, as track 10 of that first release of the debut album. You can also find it again as part of a collection of demos on the July 17, 2001, box set, also called Buffalo Springfield. It is an endless dream of rabbit holes to fall through.
Young has been forthright in expressing his distaste for the limited audio capabilities of compressed mp3s. He started his own audio company, Pono, as early as 2012, to offer better audio bandwidth. Labels wanted to charge a premium; Omnifone, which ran the Pono store, was bought by Apple, and shut down, according to the website Noise11.com (April 23, 2017).
Click on the Audio Setup button, and you’ll get a thorough explanation of Young’s audio philosophy and numbers that he says back it up. The defunct Pono has been replaced by XStream, developed by Young with Singapore’s Orastream, which the NYA claims to deliver “the highest-quality audio ever provided over the internet.” There is an article in the onsite newspaper, The NYA Times-Contrarian, on adding a DAC to your phone for maximum quality. (I have been viewing and listening through my longtime computer desktop companions, the Altec Lansing ACS-33 with subwoofer.)
There is no compression to save memory: “They are all master quality, ranging from 44.1 kHz/16-bit to 192 kHz/24-bit.” (There is some music in the archives whose source quality doesn’t match up to high-res or CD-standard audio). In the player window, there is a green bar with an old-school up/down toggle switch. It is labeled a “320” switch: If your network speed, computer processor, or memory can’t handle a high-res stream, you flip the switch down to the 320 kbps setting, which the NYA says will provide audio quality comparable to that of Spotify or Pandora.
Being contrarian, Young also offers a remarkably lo-fi recording. On Sept. 16, 2013, Neil had gone into Jack White’s studio in Nashville to cut an album called A Letter Home for release on Record Store Day on April 22, 2014, on White’s Third Man label. It’s an album of covers, featuring Neil on guitar, harmonica, and vocals, with White sometimes adding a second guitar and harmony. The songs include Don Everly’s composition for the Everly Brothers, “I Wonder If I Care as Much”; Springsteen’s “My Hometown”; and a few Gordon Lightfoot songs in tribute to Young’s fellow Canadian national hero.
What’s the audio catch? It was recorded in White’s telephone-booth sized 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine. Alex Petridis of The Guardian called it “arguably, the lowest-fidelity album ever made by a major artist.” But the performances are interesting, depending on your tolerance for true lo-fi.
For complete audio instructions from the NYA Times, go here: https://m.neilyoungarchives.com/news/7
There is plenty of data for each song: the date it was recorded, who the players are, the label it was released on, and the lyrics (when available, most of the time). Listening to “Mr. Soul,” Young’s first star turn with Springfield, as lead track to Buffalo Springfield Again, (October 30, 1967), sounds even punchier than I remembered. Again, the credits help: great L.A. studio drummer Hal Blaine is listed in the album credits, and it sure sounds like he’s on “Mr. Soul.”
Here I am, stuck in Buffalo Springfield Again, again. Let’s move forward. I fell in love with “Crime in the City,” recorded at Jones Beach, New York, on August 27, 1988. It’s on a live album that wasn’t released, if I’m reading the timeline right, until November 13, 2015, and credited to Neil Young & the Bluenote Cafe, which is related to but not exactly the same as the much-derided blues tour and record Young made with the Bluenotes also circa 1988. But the album sounded better than I remembered it, once you get used to the idea of Neil Young and “Ten Men Working,” as the opening song goes, which include a big collection of horn players, led by Steve Lawrence, his frequent tenor sax accompanist on projects through the years. This was when Neil expressed his contempt with corporate sponsorship on “This Note’s for You,” a sarcastic jab at a Budweiser commercial. A Joe Turner style of jump blues of “Hey Hey” features a line, “get off of that couch, turn off that MTV!”
But my favorite part of the trip through the archives was watching parts of a movie in the Hearse Theater, which has three screens. The screens are shaped like longer, wider rearview mirrors of an automobile. The movie that grabbed me was LINCVOLT, a five episode, multi-hour journey from San Francisco to Wichita, Kansas. It features Neil and his longtime producer and associate, Larry “L.J.” Jackson, and stars Neil’s gas-guzzling 1959 Lincoln Continental, which got around nine miles per gallon. In Wichita, there was a car expert, Johnathan Goodwin. Neil had seen him on the TV show Pimp My Ride, and Goodwin converted the Lincoln into an electric hybrid in 2007 – 2008. (Here’s a video of Goodwin:
On the road, Young’s cherry-looking Lincoln was a conversation starter in itself, and every time they stopped for gas or to admire scenery, from Las Vegas through Flagstaff to Hoover Dam, to Dodge City, KS, all sort of people: bikers, Native Americans, retirees, attendants, and stragglers, would talk to Neil about the car, and their journey. I left with Neil driving into Goodwin’s driveway, and a scene of Young finding a piano somewhere, alone in the dark, playing and singing “After the Gold Rush.”
Copper columnist Wayne Robins also writes the Substack Critical Conditions at waynerobins49.substack.com. Subscribers are welcome.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Andy Roo.