It pays to be lonely: How Neil Young’s Harvest changed my life

By Adam Carroll

(Aug/Sept 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 4)

I always had a really hard time fitting in at school. I’ve always been kind of a loner, I guess. I know that the tortured artist persona is kind of tired, but anyway, here’s my story …

Growing up with a physical handicap and being small wasn’t always easy. So I wound up not having too many friends. I just found life to be a lot easier to bear when I was able to use my imagination to take real people and make them into fictional characters. I remember sitting in class in the fifth grade one day, and suddenly imagining this big old black girl who was being teased by some kids getting her revenge on everybody with a whole bunch of fireworks and dynamite. I imagined her firing these rockets at all of the kids but me, and taking them out one by one. Then I imagined her blowing up half of the school and taking the teacher out as well for a grand finale.

Now, I know that all sounds pretty horrible, but in my head at the time it was all just a cartoon, much like the Martian in Looney Tunes with his one big stick of dynamite that was supposed to blow up the earth. Nobody was really hurt in this world of make believe. But I did give this girl her own theme song. She was singing it as she was blowing up everyone. The song was called “Nobody Messes with Me.” It was kind of a blues song that was playing in my head; I don’t remember the words, but I gave the girl one of those big strong voices like Big Mama Thornton. She was the hero!

I guess that was my first song.

I also remember stargazing with my dad through his telescope. I loved it, just taking in the poetry of the stars and planets. I found myself pondering a character like Einstein, and telling my dad that we didn’t really need school at all if we could all just be geniuses like that. It made sense to me at the time, because I was terrible at math, and my dad always told me that Einstein was terrible at math, too. So there might be hope for me yet! No disrespect to my dad, though, but I found out later that Einstein was actually really good at math. That seems a lot more plausible, obviously; but as I said, I always preferred make believe to real life.

Fast forward to my junior year of high school, and I had pretty much given up all hope of succeeding and standing out as a student at all. I was failing out of school. I was able to get on a program where I worked half a day and went to school for the other half, but I was still just a very depressed and lonely kid. So for my senior year, my parents sent me to a boarding school in Lenoir, N.C., hoping to give me a fresh start. I guess it worked out OK, but I have to give a lot of the credit to Neil Young.

One day near the end of the school year, I went to the mall there in Lenoir and bought Neil’s Harvest album. I came back to my dorm room and listened to it — a lot. That old record (which was brand new to me) pretty much changed my life — and made me want to be a songwriter.

Harvest was my first real introduction to Neil. I think I saw some of his Unplugged special on MTV, and I vaguely remember seeing a video for “Rockin’ in the Free World.” But from the moment I put on Harvest, I remember being struck by how unique it sounded. I mean, wow — he spoke to me more directly than Skynyrd or Zeppelin or the Stones ever had. It was just different from anything I’d ever heard before. And it instantly got under my skin. I was deeply affected by the awkward and unique quality of Neil’s guitar playing and singing; the way his voice shook when he sang (is that why they call him “Shakey?”) the opening lyrics from the first song — “Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pick-up, take it down to L.A.” — took me on a very personal journey that carried me all the way through to the end of the record. It was unearthly and beautiful, like taking a trip with an awesome songwriter from Mars.

Neil’s voice and the songs on that record to me stirred up feelings of madness, great pain, isolation, sadness and loneliness. It was as thought he had written that entire album just for me. There was an instant connection between me and the songs on Harvest at that time in my life. I would lie there listening to it night after night all alone in my dorm room, endlessly fascinated by what he was singing and the way he was singing it. There’s a lot of pain in Neil’s voice, but it’s got a lot of soul, too. And his words! The song “Harvest” reminded me of an old silent movie — but one in color, with greens and blues and yellows and of course blacks, too. I felt like I could actually see the music, which was something I’d never experienced before

Sometimes I couldn’t help but relate his songs to my own situation. “A Man Needs a Maid” would come up, and I’d look around my room at all the spilled Copenhagen snuff on the floor, at my wrinkly clothes and the school uniform tie that I could never quite tie right, and think, “I could use a maid!” But more than anything, it was the loneliness in that song that really got to me. It’s kind of like a giant symphony of loneliness, just a big ol’ lonely song. But you can hear a little bit of hope weaving through it, too.

Song after song hit me like that. “Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were … 24 and there’s so much more, live alone in a paradise that makes me think of two.” Man, the dude was only 24 and he was already cranking out work like this? Obviously, he’d been through some shit! But I was only 18 and I could relate to that one, too; I didn’t live in paradise, but I sure lived alone. I couldn’t relate to “Needle and the Damage Done,” thankfully, but I could still feel the needle going into my arm (I’m scared of needles). “There’s a World” sure made me eager to try some weed, though! “There’s a world you’re living in, no one else has your part/All God’s children in the wind take it in a blow hard.” “Wow,” I thought. “A dirty hippie singing  about God? Wait until the Baptists back home hear this — they’ll burn me at the stake!”

“Are You Ready for the Country?” made me think of home, too — it made me homesick. The hillbillies in North Carolina were still strange to me; I mean, whoever heard of putting coleslaw on a cheeseburger? “Alabama,” meanwhile, told some really hard truths I wished weren’t true. The truth I took away from “Words Between the Lines of Age,” though, was, “Man, this dude plays sloppy — but it’s perfect!” I suppose like many of us I’d had some music lessons growing up in school from the perspective of teachers trying to instill in us foundations and structure. This may be unfair, but I did not like the idea that there was a “right way” and a “wrong way” to sing and play. So Harvest was a new idea to me: to hear someone who had written their own songs and sang and played them in their own way.

The song that made the biggest impression of all on me was “Heart of Gold.” “I wanna live, I wanna give,” he sang, and I thought, “Man, me too! Just because I can’t pass Algebra doesn’t mean y’all should throw me under the bus!” “Heart of Gold” is the song that made me first pick up a guitar. I had a Japanese friend down the hall in our dorm who played Beatles and R.E.M. songs on his acoustic guitar all the time, and I borrowed it from him and tried to learn an E-m chord just so I could play “Heart of Gold.” And to be honest, that’s pretty much all I learned to play and I didn’t want to learn anything else, because it seemed like Neil had pretty much all it takes. Everything else was pointless.

After I heard Harvest, I started collecting and listening to as many of Neil’s other albums (there’s a lot) that I could. They’re all pretty different from each other but all just as relentless and beautiful in their own ways. I think if there’s one overall lesson you can take from all of his work, it’s that if you’ve got a unique voice and you’re different, and you know how to use that, there’s a lot of power in there. You can turn pain into beauty and loneliness into a hell of a song. That’s a great deal. You can even be a rock star if you want to.

I don’t know if I ever really wanted to be a rock star, but Neil Young’s Harvest definitely made me want to be a singer-songwriter. First it made me want to learn guitar just so I could play Neil’s songs, and later it made me want to try and write my own. But most of the songs on my first record, South of Town, were largely inspired by the impact that Harvest had on me from the very first time I heard it, and that’s why I’ll always call Neil “Big Daddy.”