March 18 – Bad Back But Heart Of Gold

Having a bad back isn’t fun, but they say every cloud has a silver lining. For Neil Young, it turned out to be a “gold” lining, in more ways than one!

Neil hurt his back sometime early in 1971, and that made it difficult to stand up for long periods of time, and limited his ability to play his electric guitar. So he decided to sit down and take it easy, literally and musically. He began writing and playing some acoustic material on his old acoustic six-string. And that turned out to become Harvest, his fourth album. Which in turn was his only #1 album (in both Canada and the U.S) and at 4X platinum, with about six million or more copies sold, his biggest-seller. Although it contained the controversial song “Alabama”,( which piled upon “Southern Man” led Lynyrd Skynyrd to rebuff him with “Sweet Home Alabama”) and “The Needle and the Damage Done”, much of the album’s success was due to its first single. “Heart of Gold” hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1972. As with the album, it remains his only chart-topping single in both countries. And it made the top 10 in Britain and New Zealand as well, even charting in Japan.

The weary, country-ish song was written for his then-love, actress Carrie Snodgress, with whom he had a five year relationship and a son. Neil had being playing a slightly different version of it, on piano, at some concerts before he recorded it in Nashville, but seems like the Tennessee session got it right. He played harmonica and acoustic guitar on it but added in some top-flight Nashville session players on it like Ben Keith on steel guitar and Kenny Buttery on drums. And, the cherry on the top, he happened to run into James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who happened to be in town taping a Johnny Cash TV show, and they went back to Neil’s place and sang backing vocals.

The song was obviously right for the times, and has endured what’s more. CBC Radio in Canada ranked it as the third best Canadian song of all-time back in 2005 and Rolling Stone has consistently listed it among their 500 greatest songs of all-time, noting it “signaled the arrival of a new countrified prettiness that would come to define the laid-back Seventies.” But one person who wasn’t thrilled with it was Neil himself. He said “the song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.”

Another was Bob Dylan, who says in general he likes Neil and his music but he felt it was a rip-off of his style. He’s said “the only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold’…(I thought) s*** that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me!” That considered, it’s perhaps ironic that “Heart of Gold” was replaced at #1 by America’s “Horse With No Name”… a song many people complained was a total rip-off of Neil Young’s sound!


14 thoughts on “March 18 – Bad Back But Heart Of Gold

    1. I don’t really hear the Dylan sound in it beyond the obvious , guy with an acoustic guitar singing kind of comparison. Like you say though, that America song sure did sound like Neil.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I’m not seeing where Bob was legit with complaining about Neil, very odd. But then that’s Dylan for you. It’s not like he invented the folk singer songwriter style, he was just better at than most everyone.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Quite true. And you can’t copyright a ‘sound’…same year Fogerty went bonkers over the Hollies because ‘Long cool woman’s sounded so much like CCR. Take it as a compliment guys, you can’t stop them and if you’re really good the others will be referred to as ‘second rate imitations’ of you anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Bob bitching about Neil stealing his schtick, America picking the bones out of Neil’s style of the time., Neil wondering what the hell is going on. But Neil lucked out with his backing group though. And Neil’s comment about off the road towards the ditch is priceless !

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  2. Neil Young is one of my all-time favorite artists and, in my humble and completely unbiased opinion, among the very best coming out of Canada.

    “Harvest” remains a timeless gem to this day. There isn’t one filler on that record – something I can’t necessarily say for many other albums by Neil, as much as I love the man.

    Perhaps you may be surprised that “Heart of Gold” isn’t my favorite tune on the record, though I like it. If I could pick only one, I’d go with “The Needle and The Damage Done”. I would also pick “Out On the Weekend”, “Man Needs a Maid” and “Alabama” over “Heart of Gold”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Harvest definitely a good one, start to finish. He’s put out the odd stinker but only because he kept moving instead of playing it safe. ‘Harvest Moon’ was good too but we’d all be sick of him by now if he was putting out ‘Harvest 38’!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love “Harvest Moon” as well but couldn’t agree more with you: It’s good he gave fans the “ditch trilogy” and other albums.

        Neil strikes me as spontaneous and at times even impulsive. While I like that he doesn’t overthink his albums, the results have definitely varied!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. For musicians, better to experiment and once in awhile fall flat on your face than to regurgitate the same three songs over and over again for 35 years, even if they were good songs to begin with (and your guitarist wears shorts & a school tie…)

        Liked by 1 person

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