Neil Young - Hitchhiker

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2017-09-08

My first thought after listening to Hitchhiker was, why in the hell did he never release this! Of course, there all kinds of reasons. The best answer Young has come up with was, it was too “stony”.  If you were expecting another vault dump, think again. And let’s face it, vault dumps don’t make for good albums. But that’s not the case here. This isn’t just a collection of demos. It’s truly an album. A great album. As idiosyncratic and committed as anything Neil Young ever cut. While many of these songs were featured on subsequent releases, the versions laid down here put them all to shame. And what’s more, they all feel like they belong together, making for a truly rewarding listen.

The idea was to just play the songs on acoustic guitar with little other accompaniment. Unplugged, well before the advent of MTV. Laid down one afternoon with producer David Briggs and pal, Dean Stockwell as “observer”, the results were a sober reflection after a string of albums that could only be described as one helluva bum trip. Here, Young sounds free of the oppressive depression that marked his infamous “Ditch Trilogy” (Times Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night). Free, but on shaky ground.  

‘Pocohontas’ and ‘Powderfinger’ were among the highlights off Young’s 1979 comeback, Rust Never Sleeps. Forget about them. The spare, intimate renditions here are so much more powerful. ‘Pocohontas’ is less wistful lark and more cry in the dark. Albeit with Young’s goofy sense of humor shining through. Hitchhiker’s ‘Powderfinger’ is far more poignant and moving than the stadium anthem he cut for Rust. When he sings, “Then I saw black and my face splashed in the sky,” it puts a queasiness in the pit of your stomach.

I confess, as a concept album, Rust Never Sleeps never quite worked for me. I much prefer the underrated likes of Comes A Time. And I never knew what to make of ‘Ride My Llama’. It always felt like filler. One of those tracks on Rust that goes in one ear and out the other. On Hitchhiker, ‘Llamaachieves a resonance it never had before. The same for, ‘Human Highway’. On Comes A Time, it was jaunty and jaded. Here, it’s far more reflective and substantive. Just the right touch of sadness, lending it the gravitas it lacks on Time.

‘Captain Kennedy’ has been a longtime favorite of mine. But it’s always been buried on the obscure and largely forgettable, Hawks & Doves. Again, like the other songs herein, it feels much more at home on Hitchhiker. This is also true of ‘Campaigner’, a song that was tacked onto the Greatest Hits compilation, Decade. If it felt lost before, it doesn’t now.

Of course, it’s the previously unreleased songs fans are chomping at the bit for. ‘Hawaii’ is a haunting number about an enigmatic stranger. If it isn’t exactly the lost classic many are hoping for, ‘Give Me Strength’ and ‘Hitchhiker’ sure fit the bill. ‘Give Me Strength’ is simply beautiful. In fact, the entire mood of the album could be summed up with the chorus, “Give me strength to move along.”

As for the title track, ‘Hitchhiker’, it’s as naked and self-eviscerating as it gets.  I can understand why Young balked at releasing it in any form. It takes no prisoners. The drugs, the fame and the toll it took. It’s all here in stark, vivid detail. He may have seen the needle and the damage done on his friends. But it didn't stop him from hitching a ride on some other substance, in the hopes it would carry him a little further down the road. There’s no happy ending either. At the end, Young confesses, “Then we had a kid and we split apart, now I’m living on the road and a little cocaine goes a long, long way to ease that different load.” Devastating.

The record closes with ‘Good Old Country Waltz’, a song I’ve always loved. Where the version on American Stars N’ Bars was an acerbic, boozy affair, Hitchhiker offers a startling different take. Young alone at the piano, singing his guts out. A line cut from the 1977 version is revealing: “This old music has kept me on top and when you’re down it’s a hard thing to stop.” And on this version, Young’s voice is literally, “in this empty hall, echoin’ off the wall”. A high, lonesome sound.

“The picture painted here is not a dream but only reality, the way it seems”, Young sings on ‘Give Me Strength’. And it sums up Hitchhiker beautifully. I understand Young’s reluctance to initially release it. It’s almost too telling and threadbare. It’s also, as honest as it gets.  

I always felt Young was never quite the same after the Ditch Trilogy. That his subsequent albums were all missing a little something. Something, I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Whatever it is, it can be found here. Had this been released in 1976, I have no doubt it would have gone down as a classic milestone. Beating Springsteen’s Nebraska and Johnny Cash’s American Recordings to the punch by more than a few years. Well, better late than never. Do not hesitate to pick this up. For my money, as stripped down as Hitchhiker is, it remains one of the finest albums, Neil Young ever recorded.  

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