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"We saw a 62-year old
Neil Young up close
at Massey Hall."

January 31, 2009

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Harvest - Neil Young

When I was a kid, I went to Camp Summerland, a YMCA camp on Lake Couchiching near Orillia.


It was actually on the Rama Road, just down from what is now known as Casino Rama, but that's another story.

Camp Summerland was just like the one in the movie Meatballs - we had NOTHING. We slept in tents. We ate Goo sandwiches (peanut butter, jam and honey.) We did our "business" in two outhouses called Turtle's Grave, and Rotary Roost. We didn't have electricity or stables with horses like the fancy-pants camp up the road from us did (Camp Wahanowin, if you must know.) We had no power, no plugs.

But I had my little tape recorder. You know, one of those portable cassette things with enormous play and record buttons? My parents had a much fancier tape recorder attached to their console hi-fi system, so before I went to camp, I bought a cheap tape and recorded Elton John's, "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player," on one side, and my older sister's Neil Young "Harvest" record on the other. I bought a pack of "D" batteries and packed for two weeks at Summerland.

That tape saved my sanity. That particular summer, I was in the worst tent EVER! They put me with my neurotic cousin who I didn't even like, and a counselor-in-training (CIT) who I think was on probation (I'm pretty sure she used to smoke dope in our tent, though at 12 years old, I didn't really know what that smelled like. Ah youth!)

I played that tape over and over just to stop hearing my homesick cousin cry and the CIT cough a smoky cough. Elton John was my favourite at the time (more on "Don't Shoot Me..." at a later date), and Harvest was a bonus and a surprise. Being my older sister's alum, it was cool...not quite so teeny-bopper top-10. In fact, I didn't really know what it was. Twelve years old in 1972, my experience with rock and roll was The Beatles, The Guess Who and Elton John. I knew about Gordon Lightfoot and folk, and I knew about true folk like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl as my mum was a big folkie. This album was sort of like that. It was sort of country, but it couldn't be country because I HATE country!

(I know, I'm doing it again aren't I?)

"Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" were known to me as I'd heard them a bit on CHUM-FM (who said CanCon was a bad thing?) These hits were fun to play and sing around the campfire, and no one ever felt they had a bad voice singing Neil songs! I was still a bit naive to understand "Needle and the Damage Done," but it was so compelling: scary, fragile and beautiful all at once. And how cool that it was a live track, the last note dissolving into cheers and applause.

A little folky, a little country, a little rock and roll...but then there was this orchestra thing going on too. I have to admit even back then, "A Man Needs a Maid" was a strange experience. I loved that he put the guitar down and played the piano, because I was and am a piano kinda gal. But all those strings, the bells and oboe? Really? Yet after that orchestral bridge comes the saddest, most hopeful, painful line:

To give a love, you gotta live a love.
To live a love, you gotta be part of.
When will I see you again?

And I find I can't get the song out of my head.

The other big orchestra song left me non-plussed then, and remains one of my least favourite Neil songs. "There's a World" starts with the big kettle drums and the minor key...it seemed too long and a waste of space, especially since fast forwarding on that old tape recorder sucked a ton of my "D" battery juice!

There are two absolute gems on Harvest. They frame the album, actually, the first song on side one and the last song on side two. The first, "Out on the Weekend," is probably the reason why I was hooked on this record from the start. That big thumpy bass drum, the simple plucking, then Neil's harp and Ben Keith's slide guitar...especially when the slide rings out in the chorus the second time around resolving to a major seventh... the song SEEMED so simple, but "Weekend" is complex in its combination of simple parts...I know what I mean!

The album ends with "Words." And there are few words to describe it - hyuck hyuck! But I'll try. When I was a kid, it seemed long and sort of disjointed. Heck, I knew about 4/4 time, 3/4 time, but as I tapped my toes to this track, I kept stumbling. "Words" challenged my young music ears and my keen sense of rhythm. And the electric guitar just ached all the way through. This was the first classic, "Neil in his own head jamming with the band for many minutes oblivious to everything else in the world" song. I've seen him many times on stage since, and he goes into that zone...like his Toronto concert in 2000 when he actually performed a blistering, extended version of the song, it made me want to eat Goo sandwiches again...well, umm, not really.

"Words" the recording also had that long ending that put me in mind of, "I Want You" from the Beatles' Abbey Road (you can tell I had a narrow reference catalogue) and I loved the song for that as well.

Harvest is one of those Top 100 albums on just about every list on the planet. And rightly so. It's on mine because it reminds me of my youth at the point where I was starting to be a little artistic and musical myself. I think I was developing good taste and a critical ear for different styles of music. Summer camp, canoe trips, Neil Young and Elton John, campfires at Breezy Point, Harvest is in my Top 100 for its simplicity - it's like a snapshot of a time when I wasn't jaded. And it's also there for its complexity - it challenged me to appreciate things that weren't quite so easy.

Okay, I'm done.

Released: February 25, 1972
Recorded: Jan.-Sept. 1971
Label: Reprise
Producer: Neil Young, Elliot Mazer, Henry Lewy, Jack Nitzsche

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