#82: Neil Young, "Harvest" (1972)

82 Harvest.jpg

I knew Nash was coming over so I asked Elliot, who was working with me as producer at that time, to rig up the house and barn like we’d talked about. We’d been working on Harvest for months and I was ready for someone other than the two of us dimwits to have a listen. Nash was a good dummy run, always had been. He didn’t say too much and that was the good part.

It was a warm afternoon in late summer and the trees were just starting to turn on the ranch. Nash and I got to shooting the shit, I fed him a couple of beers on the porch while he talked about the Israeli athletes just killed in Olympic Village, and then I asked him if he wanted to hear some of the new stuff. He agreed, and suggested we go to the studio. Instead I got up, gathered our beer cans into a pile, and motioned for him to follow me down the hill to the lake.

I bent down to untie the boat from the dock. “Get in the rowboat,” I said.

“Get in the rowboat?”

“Yeah, we’re going into the middle of the lake.”

Now Nash had known me quite a long time by then and he was used to my peculiar requests. My ex-wife used to say the only people who could stand me were people fascinated by bullshit instead of put off by it. Nash never was presented with a question he didn’t want to tinker with, and when the answer seemed unknowable, he loved that the most.

My hair was long in those days and I was working on a scraggy little mustache streaky as a skunk. It was a windy day, and that shit was bothering my face so much I slid my sunglasses onto my head to push my hair back and sacrificed my eyes to the blinding sun. Nash had a similar haircut at the time, or lack of haircut I guess, but his hair was so heavy with grease it didn’t move an inch in that wind. The effect, coupled with his squinty eyes, made him look inhuman.

He got in the boat while I held it to the dock, and then I stepped in myself, one foot at a time, the boat rocking in the shallow water. The algae stank in the heat and a swarm of flies buzzed close to Nash’s head. You could see a couple of red-wing blackbirds floating in the distance.

I don’t know what he thought. Maybe he thought I had a cassette player ready to play him a tune, one of those early models that had just come out. Maybe he thought I was about to open up my mouth and serenade him and the birds and the fishes right there in the rowboat.

When we got to the middle of the lake, I called to Elliot and gave him the signal.

Then: the opening bars of “Heart of Gold,” that familiar thud of bass and guitar I’d heard dozens of times in recent weeks. This time it was louder than hell and I could feel it in my chest, rising and warm as bathwater. I saw the blackbirds whiz away over the hill, their red wings like some kind of flare.

Nash looked behind him, ahead of him, and side to side more than once before looking back at me. True to form, he didn’t say anything at all, and it took him until about the start of the chorus to realize what the hell kind of contraption we’d rigged up. Even once he realized it he clearly couldn’t believe it. From our spot in the middle of the lake, the whole house was playing the left-hand channel and the whole barn the right. In the house, Elliot had set up big speakers by every window, and in the barn, he’d cranked the recording PA system all the way up. It was the loudest surround sound we’d ever heard, out there under the open sky, the music drowning everything out.

Keep me searching for a heart of gold / and I’m getting old.

When “Heart of Gold” faded out, Elliot came running down the hill from the barn smiling huge. “How was that, Neil?” he hollered.

“Could use a little more barn,” I said.

Nash started laughing so hard the boat shook. “You crazy son of a bitch,” he said.

That much was true, to be sure. I stood right up and dove into the lake. Nash yelled after me, his voice garbled in that underwater way. The music started up again—this time it was “Harvest.” I could barely make out the piano chords or the tenor of my own voice, but I could hear the subtle high frequency notes of the slide guitar, more uptempo than it should have been because sound waves travel faster underwater, vibrating that heavy bone right behind your earlobe. I stayed under as long as I could, letting my ears quiver. After the first verse, I opened my eyes and took in the filth of the lake. The moss coated everything, from the scummy bottom of the boat to the frothy rocks and the fish fins. It was growing on me, too. I could see it griming up my forearms. But that music, though distorted, was more clean and pure and loud than it’d ever been, and I had to have it. I opened my mouth and swallowed up every last wave.

—Lacy Barker