Out on the Weekend / Harvest / A Man Needs a Maid / Heart of Gold / Are You Ready for the Country / Old Man / There's a World / Alabama / The Needle and the Damage Done / Words
by Jyrki Kimmel
"Think I'll pack it in and buy a pickup / Take it down to L.A."
Those lines begin Neil Young's Harvest, the legendary album that "put (Neil) in the middle of the road." The image I always get listening to this part is of driving down I-15 from Nevada to San Bernadino and Los Angeles - but what could be more inappropriate? Neil has since commented, "It was time to head for the ditch," after he made this album, but signs of the ditch are already evident here. The opening tune, "Out on the Weekend," sets the tone for Harvest's first section, which is comprised of four melancholy songs, including Neil's one and only number-one hit single, "Heart of Gold." Between these two are "Harvest" and "A Man Needs a Maid." All of them are clearly MOR (middle of the road), but they are just another segment of Neil's vast range of material. However, experiments with the London Symphony Orchestra distinguish this music from the usual chart-hit mache. "Out on the Weekend" is the story of someone escaping a broken relationship. The L.A. reference is a permanent symbol in Neil's work. With this song you can escape anywhere. "Harvest" is a much more innocent-sounding tune, with folkie references to a young maiden:
"Did I see you walking with the boys / Though it was not hand in hand"
The "promise of a man" Neil wants to "fill your cup" with is, however, a powerful reference to responsibility and the final decisions one encounters in life. "A Man Needs a Maid" is superficially a womanizer's song, but in fact "a maid" is, literally, a profession. If your heart is pure, you will understand as there are no hidden meanings here! The use of the London Symphony Orchestra seems pompous at first, but maybe the Streisand sound in fact works better here than anywhere else. The song is simply heart breaking. "Heart of Gold" is a song anyone can relate to, and maybe that's why it went to number one on the US charts. Neil's simple acoustic playing and piercing harmonica give it a feeling of utmost importance:
"I'd cross the ocean for a heart of gold"
We all know there's a "fine line" that cannot be defined which makes all the difference. The first side of the vinyl LP ends with "Are You Ready for the Country," a healthy reminder of the "ditch" side of Neil. Morbid references to the hangman, and the haphazard guitar work, flip the album totally to the other side of midnight.
Side two starts, again, with two songs in the MOR vein, "Old Man" and "There's a World." "Old Man" features another chilling performance, and James Taylor's banjo provides a superb touch. Neil's thoughts on the life of a celebrity, and the fundamental loneliness found in overt publicity, are reflected here:
"Oh, one look at my eyes and you can tell that's true"
"There's a World" is another experimental tune with the London Symphony Orchestra, complete with kettle drums and all. "Take it in and blow hard" is Neil's advice to his listener as to the attitude one ought to take in life. A counterpoint to these is "Alabama," a song altogether too widely labeled, along with "Southern Man," as a comment on racist attitudes in the Southern United States. In fact, this is one of Neil's more personal tunes, and has the ultimate reference to the MOR / ditch dualism:
"Alabama - You got the weight on your shoulders that's breaking your back / Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track"
The guitar here is perfect "ditch." The subject matter of the next track, "The Needle and the Damage Done," brings Harvest to the bottom of the ditch. It is Neil's anti-drug manifesto, performed live on acoustic guitar. However, the tune itself is strictly MOR. Imagine the lyrics of "From Hank to Hendrix" inserted and you'd get another chart-buster, but talk about junkies and drug deals may not be appropriate. The last song on the album is also "ditch." Rhythmically, "Words" is an experiment, but proves its point in a wall of electric and slide guitar barrages, which is a more than appropriate ending to this album. Harvest is to the diehard Neil fan like a box of corn flakes; you know what's there, you've tasted other cereals and maybe prefer more exotic varieties, but you still have to go back once in a while for the classic. Trust me, it's all here, as the core of Neil's work has not changed over time. Neil has since produced albums that have surpassed the material on Harvest, with respect to both MOR and "ditch," more so than probably anybody imagined in 1972. Harvest deserves its legendary status, even though it has been criticized as patchy and not wholly developed conceptually. I would argue that it is conceptually perfect as a document of Neil's personality. With its middle-of-the-road attitude and its "ditch" flip side, Harvest provides both questions and answers concerning "life, the universe, and everything."