Neil Young: Comes A Time When You Settle Down
Neil Young was only 25 when he recorded “Old Man,” but it hardly mattered. The mood of his song gently provided a window to the years most of us hope to experience, especially as youthful determination gives way to gratitude for simply being around. Even Peter Townshend will tell you that “I hope I die before I get old” doesn’t have to be taken literally. After all, some people get old way too early in life, without the tell-tale signs expected with aging. But addressing the matter most succinctly was Forrest Rogers, a friend to many in Atlanta’s rock community, when he lamented shortly before passing away, “I hate to miss stuff.”
The sensibility in “Old Man” sweetly conveys the greying and wisdom accumulated of one fortunate enough to truly qualify as being old. The old man has made it through the years and the decades and is happy to hang in there, wondering what tomorrow might bring. Tomorrow, never guaranteed, sounds promising enough. With thousands upon thousands of tomorrows before him, and wise for his years, Young may not have realized it when he wrote “Old Man,” but its perspective recalls A.P. Carter’s “When The Roses Bloom Again.” Beautifully covered by Wilco in 2000, Carter’s song reflects optimism even as unpleasant duty calls, the image of “strolling through the gloaming” acknowledging dread, hope and faith.
“Old Man” was the second hit single off Neil Young’s immensely popular Harvest album, released in February 1972. The success of Harvest, the year’s best-selling album, was no surprise to those paying attention to Young’s career since the mid ’60s. He had contributed penetrating and thoughtful songs to the three Buffalo Springfield albums and proved the most artful member of the supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. His three previous solo albums were rich with various styles and moods. Young wrote engaging melodies and he also rocked.
Upon, and even before, the release of Harvest, it was clear Young’s work already stood head and shoulders above the output of the accomplished and heretofore better-known musicians he had played with over the years. And greater work was expected. The smart money said Harvest would be a stellar album, likely filled with classic material, a prediction that proved correct. Going on 40 years later, Harvest is still regarded as a classic, rated highly on the lists of many rock publications’ greatest albums.
But with Neil Young, success didn’t equate artistic fulfillment. “Heart of Gold,” the first single off Harvest, topped the Billboard Hot 100, placing Young solidly in the American pop mainstream. Perhaps the vision of teeny-boppers buying “Heart of Gold” along with “Precious and Few,” the Climax single climbing the charts the same winter, made Young think of the Groucho Marx line about never wanting to be in a club that would have him as a member. In the liner notes for his ’76 Decade compilation, Young wrote that “Heart of Gold” had “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
Young’s navigation of his ride through the ditch was ragged but right. His next three albums, Time Fades Away, On The Beach, and Tonight’s The Night, all released in less than two years, came to be known as “The Ditch Trilogy.” Setting aside the conventional approach expected of a chart-topper, Young delivered songs, many filled with fervid and rambling energy that smacked of despair over longings denied. Violence and death served as backdrops. The search for a heart of gold had taken a druggy and tequilla-soaked path. Having already lamented the perils of drugs on “The Needle and The Damage Done,” a despondent song from Harvest, Young’s work on”The Ditch Trilogy” albums evinced the awareness of one who had too closely and too often seen the gloom of life’s seedy side. Unconcerned with landing on Casey Kasem’s playlist, Neil Young took inventory of what he had witnessed and shared it all brilliantly.
In November ’75, less than five months after the release of Tonight’s The Night, Young’s emergence from the ditch began with his seventh studio album, Zuma. Even without a hit single, Zuma was still Young’s most accessible effort since Harvest. Working again with Crazy Horse, Young assembled a fine collection of melodic and spirited country-rockers, while also including rugged and unflinching tracks such as “Danger Bird,” “Drive Back” and “Cortez the Killer,” each luminous with his dynamic guitar playing.
Young’s next album, American Stars and Bars, released in June ’77, has often been referred to as a “hodge-podge,” as its tracks were recorded in four sessions over two and a half years. Best known for “Like A Hurricane,” a forlorn and haunting rocker about the elusive patterns of love, American Stars and Bars, as did Zuma, showed Young adroitly working his various styles. Particularly impressive was the first half of the album with its robust country-rockers, five songs that so genuinely created the aura of a western saloon that one could imagine Walter Brennan walking in, offering to split the price of a pitcher of Olympia Beer.
“Saddle Up the Palamino,” one of the country-rockers from American Stars and Bars, offered the summation that “It’s a cold bowl of chili when love lets you down,” a perspective worlds away from “To live a love, you got to be part of” from Young’s reeling Harvest track, “A Man Needs a Maid.” But perspectives. in life and artistic endeavors, change often and fast. Sometimes a change in perspective is represented by embracing the feelings of the past, or looking to recreate what was achieved in years gone by. In the fall of ’78, that’s what many in the rock world thought Neil Young was up to when he released his Comes A Time album. “Finally, they said, Harvest II.” Well, not exactly…
Even with its immense popularity, Harvest had its share of dark moments. The overall mood of Comes A Time, however, is more optimistic. The harvest is in and it’s been a good year, one bountiful enough to face a tough winter. Returning to his folk and country roots, autumnal glow intact, Young proffered a collection of heartening songs on Comes A Time. Unlike some troubadours oozing sincerity and a brittle heart, Young demonstrated an awareness of what’s profound and precious in life without giving way to sentimentality.
Possessions and Concession . . . There was a teeming bunch of us in the record business back in the ’70s who followed Neil Young with an intensity that exceeded fascination. It wasn’t hero worship, though; it was simply strong admiration for an artist who took chances with his work and considered the music he was creating more important than fame or keeping the suits at the record company satisfied.
Prior to the release of Comes A Time, the record business appeared in great shape, but to paraphrase Young, there was more to the picture than met the eye. Disco had yet to go away and in a last blaze of glory, the cheesy musical genre would drive soundtrack albums such as Saturday Night Fever and Thank God It’s Friday up the charts. Disco had gone mainstream and its adherents flocked into our stores, snapping up the soundtracks and other albums by the wildly popular Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and others who fueled the dance floors. In order to keep our jobs, we were happy to sell the disco LPs and 45s to the people in polyester, but still we were nonplussed. Disco, coexistent with materialism at its gaudiest, represented a far different musical world than the rock, folk and blues many of us embraced in the ’60s. Maybe we were self-righteous about it, but it was far more satisfying to sell a Neil Young or Muddy Waters album than one by A Taste of Honey. The folks at the book store around the corner probably felt the same in preferring to sell novels by E.L. Doctorow instead of those by Harold Robbins. Yet, having to eat, pay rent, and send increasing amounts of money to Georgia Power each month compelled us to resist temptation and not lecture customers on matters of taste.
In the summer of ’78, stellar albums by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones made it seem as if the golden days of rock and roll had returned. The rock fans were highly visible in our stores again. From an aesthetic point of view, we were delighted, and from an economic perspective, we were hopeful. Disco was fading fast. The disco shoppers, no doubt in search of something else shallow and fleeting, had vanished. We actually missed those people, or at least their money; so making it up with rock and roll sales doubled our pleasure. Besides, our chain, Peaches Records and Tapes, was struggling to pay the record companies and other vendors. The troubles plaguing Peaches were obvious even at our flagship store on Atlanta’s Peachtree Road. We needed customers. We needed our jobs.
Having entered the record business in the hopeful days of youth, the work first embraced with zeal became real work, accompanied by real problems with accountants and bankers. The first order of business was to stay in business. Another season of releases by Springsteen, Dylan and the Stones would be a long time coming. We’d sell junk if that’s what it took, and listen to Comes A Time and other favorites at home. Those hopeful days of youth, as always, evolved into the days of responsibility. There were spouses, children and futures to consider. On his new album’s title song, we heard Neil Young remind us, “Comes a time when you settle down.”
And We’ll Keep Good Time . . . Some three years before Young sang so warmly of hearth and home, the Peaches store in Atlanta opened — with a bang. Atlanta had never seen anything like it. People stood in line for 20-30 minutes on weekend days to buy stacks of vinyl, tapes, t-shirts and peach crates in which to store the music. Peaches was as much of a gathering place as any club in town. The popularity of the store overwhelmed us. Only a bar and a few beds in the stockroom could have made Peaches more social. Amazingly, a job in a record store made the world seem wide open.
Diana Desern was among the young people in Atlanta who wanted — badly — to work at Peaches Records and Tapes. Her interest in music was genuine and when she demonstrated knowledge of certain artists, one of the managers, Gary Chaney, proclaimed, “She’s hired.” Starting as a cashier, Diana eventually was promoted to the office where she handled most of the store’s paperwork. In those peak years, there were at least 50 people employed at the store. She had lots of paper to shuffle, most importantly, paper involving paychecks. When back in the office working up orders, a conversation with Diana might include opinions on the latest by Steve Winwood or Neil Young and some welcome news. “You must be doing a good job,” she’d say, “you got another raise.”
Before things got tough for Peaches, Diana left for another job, likely dealing with more serious people than us longhairs who fancied ourselves as t-shirt executives. And soon it would come a time for her to settle down. Spousal unit, children, and all that implies. Like a lot of friends who started families, she wasn’t able to intently keep up with music over the next two decades as she did in the ’70s.
Now Diana says she’s working to catch up with Young’s career, picking up where she left off in the early ’80s. It won’t be quite as demanding as taking in all of Haydn’s symphonies, but it’ll be fascinating. She should expect to be frustrated, puzzled, intrigued, and very often, quite impressed.
I Was Talkin’ To The Preacher . . . There were many of us, though, who kept up with the music, buying the albums, and later replicating the LP collection on CD. Even in the summer of 2002, aware that something was really wrong with him, my brother, David Cochran, headed to the nearest Best Buy to pick up The Rising, by Bruce Springsteen. Several weeks later David’s worst suspicions were confirmed; he wouldn’t make it more than four to eight months. On one of those remaining days, he noticed that his oldest son, Jarrod, also had a copy of The Rising. “Son, I hate to sound morbid,” he said, “but now isn’t the time for buying two of things.”
In his work as a minister in the Christian Church, David, who also enjoyed the music of Neil Young, must have taken part of the message in “Comes A Time” to heart — and then some. Settling down involves more than supporting a family or being diligent in one’s work. Sometimes there are challenges no one should welcome. One hit David big-time in ’91. A young couple in his church lost their child in a horrible car accident on one of the Atlanta area’s highways. David headed out to sit with the devastated couple, knowing that despite whatever scripture he read or how eloquently he prayed, there was little he could say to make them feel better. The father of three boys, the whole thing was tough enough for David to visualize, let alone knowing it happened to his friends, but he had to be there. Just be there. In all walks of life, there comes a time when you have to measure up. He did so that time in a way that’s difficult to fathom.
David was very serious about his ministry, but he was also serious about having a good time. He and I attended numerous concerts together, usually meeting up at my apartment on 8th Street. During his visits he got to know my best friend, Bob Woodland, who lived down the street, just a couple of blocks from Piedmont Park, where in 1969, the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band gave free concerts. Less than a decade later, Piedmont Park, minus the free music, was still a great gathering spot, especially for locals fast becoming part of the jogging nation.
Bob Woodland was jogging out of Piedmont Park at Charles Allen and 10th, a minute or so from his apartment. He and I planned to meet for an Atlanta Braves game that afternoon, so he was in a hurry to finish the run. However, something made him stop. On Charles Allen, a car was bumped by the one behind. Minor fender-bender. Both drivers got out, supposedly to discuss the matter, but the one who was hit began striking the driver of the other car. That’s when Bob stopped. The Braves could wait. He wanted to do the right thing and thought yelling at the guy to knock it off would be enough. It was, thankfully enough, for the guy getting pounded, but the assailant then chased after Bob. He pulled his gun out and struck Bob on the head with the butt of his pistol, causing the gun to go off. The assailant ran off, but Bob couldn’t — not with a bullet in his foot. Eventually the police showed up as did an ambulance. Bob was taken to Grady Hospital and he was back home a few hours later. Two months later, he was back running through Piedmont Park.
The pain, the crutches and the sheer inconvenience of it all annoyed Bob. However, coming to someone’s aid was how a guy like Bob responded. It was all about determining that in life, settling down included an obligation to help others. At the time, he was going through a painful divorce. Dealing then with his own pain made him more sympathetic toward someone under attack. He believed life allowed a lot of wiggle room but some codes of conduct should not be violated. Those beliefs and a sympathetic view toward the underdog guided his life, which ended way too soon, in November 2009.
On December 1, 1978, a few months after Neil Young married Pegi Morton, Bob Woodland, David Cochran and my youngest brother, Todd, stood with me as I married Gena Phillips. During the grindingly slow hour before the ceremony, the four of us headed out to the parking lot. From my car, I grabbed 3 copies of Comes A Time and passed them out to the guys. It seemed appropriate; the time had come to settle down. Besides, a Neil Young album beats a set of cufflinks any day.