Here to Stay? The Neil Young Archives

Neil Young combines his punk ethos and tech savvy in this new online archive.

1. Punking the Archives

Neil Young was punk before punk was “punk”.

In the days of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Young shot the glare of the exiled out from under his choppy long hair. It was the anticipation of exile, really, the perception of its inevitability which then became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Accordingly, driven by death and drugs and artistic ambition, he swerved from the Laurel Canyon largesse of Harvest (1972) into the self-proclaimed “ditch” of On the Beach (1974), Tonight’s the Night (1975), and Zuma (also 1975), a trio of albums that liberated him from the Sixties™ and probably saved his career. No punk album can best the offhand but intensely emotional nihilism of Tonight’s the Night. By the time Young was giving a shout-out to Johnny Rotten in “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” in 1979 with Crazy Horse, it seemed like punk bands should have been paying him royalties.

Anyway, punks grow old and they wonder what to do with their old tapes and show flyers. At the Curating Resistance: Punk as Archival Method conference at UCLA this past February, one presenter described keeping these materials in a giant Tupperware-sort of bin, never sure what to do with them but unable to throw them away. But if punk was about burning out instead of fading away, why keep such things at all?

One of the great lies about punk rock circa 1975-1980 is that it was absolutely ahistorical—that it was only about a self-destructive present and a rejection of the future via a nihilistic ideology named, aptly enough, “No Future”. This could certainly be true in the music itself, be it the Germs, Sex Pistols, or Dead Boys. But as a local vet of those times once told me, “‘No Future’ meant there was no future for you under capitalism—very specific. There’s no future for you under Reagan. There’s not going to be a future for you in twenty years, or forty years, or sixty years. And, in fact, it was pretty true.”

Punk rock’s rejection of a specifically capitalist future helps to explain the seemingly paradoxical archiving of punk music, shows, flyers, fanzines, and clothing. There was also the invasion-of-capitalism methodology defined by the punk cartoonist Gary Panter in his “Rozz-Tox Manifesto” “If you want better media,” he famously wrote in 1980, “make it.” Underground zines, galleries, record labels, house concert circuits, and an enormously influential network of weekly alternative newspapers sprang up as sustainable alternatives to the capitalist status quo which wasn’t even going to distribute let alone document and preserve the sounds and images of punk. (Using knockoffs in commercials was a different thing, mind you.) If you want better media to last, make it last.

You can see all of this at work in the new Neil Young Archives, an online library overseen by Young himself. What I find compelling is the way this archive is built on another of Young’s punk qualities: an ethos of Emersonian self-production that’s always been tied to his fascination and adeptness with technology.

Long before tech bros were disrupting industries that didn’t need disrupting, Young was fiddling around with technology mainly for personal reasons. The pedal/amp rig used with his Les Paul “Old Black” in Crazy Horse-mode is, shall we say, not exactly industry-standard. Discovering that his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, loved model trains, Young researched and built an interface his son could use. Eventually, Young designed a control system for Lionel Trains and became a stakeholder in the company. An early critic of digital music, in 2014 Young launched Pono, a streaming service and music player designed to provide lossless audio. Though it tanked, most likely it was instructive for the Xstream audio used on the Archives website.

Unlike the tech-utopians who populate Wired and Silicon Valley, Young has never seemed like a wide-eyed futurist. Maybe it’s because, as a child of the ’50s whose collaborations with Crosby, Stills, and Nash helped define Woodstock, Young has seen his share of utopian visions come and go. At the same time, he’s made some deeply nostalgic music in the past couple decades. Hell, most of his early solo work drips with the pastoral nostalgia that marked the music of the late ’60s and early ’70s, which was among other things a way of voicing concerns about the environment. (I never said Young fit neatly into the punk mold. No real punk does.) While his party politics have oscillated over the years—he infamously supported Ronald Reagan in 1984—he has always been an activist on behalf of farmers (Farm Aid), disabled children (The Bridge School), and a number of environmental causes. The past, present, and future all seem to matter to him, which may not seem like a radical statement until you look at the tech leaders and politicians making the news today.

The Neil Young Archives combines the punk ethos of self-documentation with an eye toward an elegantly sustainable future. Its design is simple, its navigation nearly effortless, and its high-quality audio kicks a bunch of ass. As an archive, the site is historical without giving up on the present or future, and respectful and detailed about the history it represents without falling into nostalgia. Certainly it exists in the overlap of art and the making of necessary greenbacks in order to keep the thing running. Anti-capitalist, it ain’t. Access is free now, but by the time you read this it may require a $1.99/month or $12.99/year subscription. Is it worth it? We’ll see. The challenge for the site is the same thing by which it resists the dreaded museum-equals-mausoleum vibe: this is a living archive, capable of growing in multiple ways. Hardcore fans will expect more from it. But if the Archives hasn’t fulfilled its potential already, that’s probably a good sign.

Your first clue that the Archives isn’t an exercise in nostalgia is the homepage, which is designed to look like the drawer of a filing cabinet. If you were expecting something more fetching—the cover of 1992’s Harvest Moon, perhaps, with its silhouette of Young in a fringe jacket—forget it. The filing cabinet is industrial brown and its silver handle is smudged. Click it and the drawer opens to reveal color-coded hanging file folders.

These minor details, which have little to do with why you’d visit the Archives, actually reveal quite a bit about Young’s intentions for his archives, and a bit more about archives and popular music in general circa 2018.


2. Working Space and Time

It’s worth being skeptical about a specialized, pay-access Neil Young archive when nearly all of its music can already be found on typical streaming services. Aside from the higher fidelity of the audio, what’s so special about this archive compared to some other internet services?

Today’s popular music streaming platforms can and should be understood as a new form of archives. Like the art archives we typically think of, streaming archives collect the old and the new. They’re more expansive than our private collections can ever be. As with museums and libraries, we don’t own the works with which we engage; we either pay for or freely receive access to the archive for a designated time. On the other hand, streaming services, unlike archives, make little to no distinction about the artistic or historical worth of their contents. Playlists highlight what’s trending, and thus the “new” in its shallowest sense, but in sum, streaming archives contain everything. They rely, of course, on digital music, which means they don’t house the kinds of original works we’d expect in a museum; there is no rarity; there are no physical objects at all.

The streaming archives of today, e.g., Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, have combined the reproduced art object of popular music, now made intangible as a digital file, with the limited access common to physical archives. This version of the museum is always open, but it’s never free. Your monthly subscription is similar to buying a ticket for a day at the museum, or even more precisely, becoming a member. What does this buy you? With a few exceptions, you can access the same works—the same reproductions—available through any other archive. The contents of each archive are, however, always changing at a rate much faster than any physical archive can match. New works are always being added. Through playlists, you can create your own exhibits. And, of course, you never have to leave home, or your car, or your office desk to access these works.

One thing a streaming archive cannot create very well is a sense of being in space: the tangible effect of walking through a museum or library and standing close to the art objects. A couple years ago at MoMA I was shocked that I could smell the paint, leather, and rubber of Robert Rauschenberg’s First Landing Jump (1961) just by leaning in a bit. There are distancing elements to archival spaces—high ceilings, frosty architecture, the fact that you can’t touch the art—but they offer an unrepeatable kind of intimacy in a public space. Streaming archives have only deepened the personal intimacy we’ve usually found in listening to music, but they are retreats from the public. As visualized spaces, they’re flat and boring and cold.

The Neil Young Archives website attempts to create the sense of intimacy and space missing from streaming platforms, beginning with that industrial brown filing cabinet. Here on the home page you’re already in the archive’s back room, so to speak, the space where items are stored when they’re not on display. Unlike older archival websites that attempted to put you into a unique interactive space that often represented the musician’s life—Prince’s many experiments with online archives and distribution are good examples; the old NPG Music Club site was a virtual version of Paisley Park—the Neil Young Archives site puts you into a working space that could be any other working space. You’ve seen one filing cabinet, you’ve seem them all.

Partly because streaming archives create no sense of space, they also fail at creating any sense of time or history. Not that they even try. Like I said, their focus tends to be on the present. That’s the knock against the internet in general, of course; it’s a network, a virtual web of anachronic nodes of information. If you’ve ever tried to find an artist’s 1970 album on Spotify and discovered it listed in 2014 because of its reissue date, you know what I’m talking about. The new streaming archives have so far not placed any more emphasis on historical accuracy or clarity than Facebook has on your privacy.

Presumably because Young cares about his own history, the Archives site presents you with two ways of experiencing it. You can pick through the Cabinet, as it’s called, beginning with Young’s most recent work, currently his soundtrack for the film Paradox and his album The Visitor. It’s tedious backpedaling through the cabinet, but you can use a wheel to quickly scroll to a certain year.

The other option is the Timeline feature, which provides more context and is easier to use. The timeline consists of, from top to bottom of the screen: years, album covers, tour dates (which look like barcodes), months, the scrolling bar (designed to look like a mixing board fader), and then the real prize, individual buttons for each song arranged by recording date. Below that are occasional entries for important events in Young’s career, politics, world history, and media, e.g. the election of Barack Obama, the introduction of the Blu-ray. The song buttons are small, but if you hover over them, a magnifying glass appears that allows you to zoom in and check them out individually. No one would argue that a timeline is innovative as a visual representation of time, but given the way the internet works, it certainly feels that way here.

The Neil Young Archives’ fluency depends on the streamlined way all points lead to info cards. Click on a folder in the Cabinet: info card. Click on a song on the timeline: info card. If the information card is for an album, it’ll have all the tracks, which you can play—nearly everything listed is playable except, notably, the official Geffen releases—and sometimes extra material such as photos, video, handwritten lyrics, press clippings, etc. As you’d expect, most of the bonus material is to be found in the older portion of Young’s catalogue. The info card for “Ohio”, for example, includes photos, lyrics, a newspaper clipping about the song, photos of the 45 rpm singles… and a copy of the First Amendment.


This is, of course, very different from streaming sites, which offer pitiful biographies, no lyrics, and a smattering of press photos. When I say that such platforms have become archives, I don’t mean that as flattery; so far, they’ve corrupted the very notion of an archive, borrowed what can be commercialized—access—without providing any of the additional features of traditional archives. For all of their hip talk of “curating” music, little to no substantial curation has actually happened.

Young’s site should offer some rarity in the form of unreleased songs, albums, live performances, out-of-print films and videos. One suspects that if the site is to work in the long-term, it cannot simply offer early access to this material, as it promises, and then put that material up on Pandora in a few weeks. We’ll see how it goes. Right now, the site is promising quite a bit. There are sticky notes for four unreleased Crazy Horse albums: Alchemy (coterminous with 2012’s Americana and Psychedelic Pill albums), Toast (2000), Garage (1986), and Early Daze (1969). There’s a note for a solo Trans album, the Boarding House shows from 1978 (which needs to be released right this very minute), the original Chrome Dreams, a live Odeon-Budokan album with Crazy Horse circa 1976, an unreleased album from 1977 called Oceanside/Countryside, and the unreleased Homegrown, which was famously set aside for Tonight’s the Night in 1975. In the ’80s, Young has posted the Eldorado EP, a Freedom-era import that includes the hard-to-find tracks “Cocaine Eyes” and “Heavy Love”—but you can’t play those tracks yet. There’s also a sticky note for something called Freedom Live, which may be the audio from an excellent 1989 Jones Beach show released on VHS.

(I’ll spare you my long list of additional requests except to say: Bottom Line, 1974. Thanks.)

The best selling point for the site at the moment is its sound quality. You control the site’s audio via the upper right-hand playback console. The “master” switch engages the Xstream audio, which in theory allows all of the audio information to come through uncompressed. On services like Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and even Tidal, the audio signals are compressed, not only tamping down the high and low ends but also normalizing them to a consistent level. Using the Xstream master, you’ll notice the levels fluctuate on what looks like a voltage meter; this is normal since the song’s signals change throughout the performance. It also depends on your hardware and network speed, among other things. If your computer is running slow, you can switch the Archives “master” to “320”, which flattens the signal and gives you pretty much what you’d hear on other streaming services.

I’m not an audiophile, but a quick comparison between the Archives’ sound and Spotify produces obvious differences. Listening to “White Line” from Ragged Glory with the “master” switch on, the Archives version is clearly louder and more robust. On streaming services you won’t hear any bass frequencies unless you use headphones or external speakers; on the Archives, the bass is present, and it sounds bouncier via headphones than it does on Spotify. Young’s guitar and voice are crisper on the Archives version of “White Line” but never thin. Another way to put this is that, on Spotify, the performance “room” sounds smaller and flatter, while on the Archives the additional space and dynamics create a livelier texture.


3. Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live

My hunch is that sound quality alone will not keep the Neil Young Archives running. As Young found out with Pono, lots of people, including his own fans, don’t care enough about lossless fidelity. According to a blog post on the site, Young and his team are working on an app version of the site, and so the challenges of streaming HQ audio will become even more formidable. However, I don’t think audio or portability are going to be the reasons people end up using this site. The Archives is a chance for Young to tell his story in his way, and to not only include as much possible information pertaining to that story—excerpts from his books, perhaps; unseen video; unique commentary; fan Q&A—but to create ways for his fans to piece together new ideas about his career and his music.

This brings us back to the archival releases, which often fill the gaps of history… or create gaps. I’ve done a little disservice to the vast amount of previously unreleased material that’s on the site, beginning with the nine albums in The Archives Vol. 1 which includes the entirety of the film Journey Through the Past. Young’s released a live album from the Bluenotes era and, praise be, the recent album Hitchhiker which is filled with superb, early acoustic takes of songs like “Powderfinger” and rarities like “Give Me Strength” and the epic title song. The potential for these discoveries, aside from their standalone beauty, is how they illuminate and maybe even change our understanding about the historical context.

It’s true that some archival releases are already so mystical-mythical in their importance and meaning that even the quality of the performances seems pointless. But damn, it helps when the tracks still cut. Bob Dylan’s complete Basement Tapes and the May 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall show are full of extraordinary performances in their own right. Prince’s Small Club Second Show (circa the Lovesexy tour in 1988) is an astounding set of music. A Toot and a Snore in ’74, however, despite being a coked-out jam session featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Harry Nilsson, is unbearable listening.

In Young’s career, there are canyons and foggy landscapes where albums have disappeared—only Prince can match him in this respect, really—and perhaps no other time period is as full of mysteries and sunken treasure as the years between 1973 and 1975.

Which brings me to Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live, the recently released live set from 1973 available on the Archives. It’s sunken treasure, but it’s also the shipwreck. The crowd’s in a tizzy to start. “Welcome to Miami Beach,” Young says from the stage of the newly opened club on the Sunset Strip. Everyone sounds like they’re expecting this to be fun, but as Young and his backing band, the Santa Monica Flyers, slide down into “Tonight’s the Night”, you realize that this isn’t even a wake, it’s a funeral.

Early in the mornin’ at the break of the day
He used to sleep until the afternoon
And if you never heard him song
I guess you won’t too soon

“Bruce Berry was a working man” and roadie for Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; he OD’ed on heroin in June 1973. The previous November, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten had overdosed, too. It’s now September 1973, and having recorded most of the songs that would comprise Tonight’s the Night, Young and the Flyers—Ben Keith on pedal steel, Nils Lofgren on piano, and the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums)—are still inside the grief and descending. They sound wrecked, haunted. And because rock ‘n’ roll is both cruel and liberating, their performance is a thing of terrifying beauty: the sublime, right there in your ears.

Slowly over the course of the set, though, the mood changes. After “Tonight’s the Night”, Lofgren plays a bit of “Roll Out the Barrel”, a polka standard, and the room becomes an absurd party, a nightmare Cabaret. Maybe this is the wake? Nope, not yet. “Mellow My Mind”, marked by Ben Keith’s swooping pedal steel and Young’s cracking voice, is the lazy country-rock of Harvest gone to seed. “World on a String”, which follows, finally puts the proceedings above water. The melancholy and doom never go away, but they’re counterbalanced by a looseness that’s winning out—life winning out.

The historical significance of Roxy begins with the proximity of its performances to the Tonight’s the Night recording sessions, which were quite audibly fueled by weed and tequila. “I would have to say that’s the most liquid album I’ve ever made,” Young told Rolling Stone in 1975. “You almost need a life preserver to get through that one.” Converting a rehearsal space at Studio Instrumental Rentals on Santa Monica Boulevard into a studio—which involved knocking a hole in a concrete wall—the band started recording in late August, entering the studio around dinnertime, playing pool and drinking until midnight, and finally recording until the early morning. S.I.R. was owned by Berry’s brother. Young would later say they “played Bruce and Danny on their way all through the night.” The first studio date listed on the Neil Young Archives is August 26, though other sources, including Jimmy McDonough’s excellent book Shakey, suggest the sessions began a bit prior. In any case, they concluded on September 13—a week before the first show at the Roxy Theatre.

That means Roxy, still oozing with tequila sweats, is a straight shot of the original Tonight’s the Night album. All but one of the tracks on the live album—”Tonight’s the Night”, “Mellow My Mind”, “Speakin’ Out”, “World on a String”, “Albuquerque”, “New Mama”, “Roll Another Number”, “Tired Eyes”, and the reprise of “Tonight’s the Night”—undoubtedly formed the core of those S.I.R. sessions (though other songs were recorded) and Young’s onstage raps mirror the between-take raps that were originally going to be on the studio album. The only outlier is “Walk On”, which Young had been playing for a while but it wasn’t recorded in a studio until November 1973.

For the literalists out there, I should acknowledge that Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live combines takes from the three nights and six sets—early and late—that Young and the band played September 20-22, but according to the best sources I can find, the sets were entirely the same with one crucial difference: the encores. Sometimes it was “Down by the River”, sometimes it was “Cowgirl in the Sand”, and once, possibly, it was “The Losing End”. None of these appear on Roxy, which is an example of how Young is editing the historical record and the literal truth for the sake of an emotional truth. Would I still like to hear those encores? Yes I would. In fact, after hearing Roxy, I want to hear every damn set.

Still, those encores don’t matter as much in the larger historical context of these shows and their proximity to the Tonight’s the Night sessions because the bigger question is what happened between September 1973 and June 1975, when Young released a different version of Tonight’s the Night.

In Shakey, Young says the “pure” version of the album was a “nine-song deal”. Presumably this set mirrors precisely what was played at the Roxy with the exception of “Walk On”. It would have been an unadulterated slice of nihilism, the Rolling Stones post-Altamont rewritten by Lou Reed and a dime bag of heroin. Young’s longtime engineer David Briggs, who recorded the S.I.R. sessions, described the unedited version of Tonight’s the Night as “unrelenting from minute one to the last.”

That, it seems, was the problem.

At some point another version of Tonight’s the Night was supposed to include “Walk On” along with “Bad Fog of Loneliness” and “Winterlong”, two songs that Young had already played and recorded in some fashion but which were re-recorded in February 1974 according to McDonough, though the version of “Winterlong” included on the greatest-hits retrospective Decade (1977) is attributed on the Archives to a session in November 1973. Anyway, that trio of songs would have lightened up the mood… a little. “Walk On” is damn near jaunty, a song that could’ve scored on the radio. Like one of the songs that would eventually replace it, “Winterlong” was a staple of Young’s brief spring 1970 tour with Crazy Horse, and though its story is forlorn, it struts. But the version that ended up on Decade is not nearly as compelling as the live versions from 1970. Although some Young fans adore “Bad Fog of Loneliness”, I’ve always thought of it as one of those songs that wins you over with a single gorgeous moment, that being the “So long woman, I am gone” bridge. The lyrics sound like a kiss-off but Young’s soaring fragile voice suggests otherwise. The rest of the song, though, is slight compared to the rest of the tunes in question.

Sometime after “Walk On” was used on On the Beach (1974) as the spring-loaded duck-walking opener from which everything descends into a spiral of despair, “Winterlong” and “Bad Fog of Loneliness” were switched out, probably at the suggestion of Elliot Roberts, Young’s manager, for “Borrowed Tune”, recorded in December 1973, “Lookout Joe”, recorded in 1972, and “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown”, a song co-written by Danny Whitten and recorded at a Young and Crazy Horse show at the Fillmore East in 1970 featuring Whitten singing the lead vocal. Those three songs plus the original nine make up the less nihilistic version of Tonight’s the Night that was eventually released in 1975.

“I diluted it,” Young tells McDonough in Shakey. “I had to. That’s where the other songs came from. They held it together, but they diluted it a little bit. The pure, essential Tonight’s the Night was more of a work of art than what came out….” Young also explains that tape degradation led to the studio “raps” sounding too different from the mastered recordings, though intriguingly he speculates from a pre-millennium viewpoint that digital restoration might allow for the “re-creation” of the original album.

Maybe we’ll hear that one day, maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live is, more or less, a staged but entirely genuine re-creation of those sessions, as contemporaneous as you can get, really, and filled with the stage patter Young would soon inflict upon unsuspecting audiences looking to hear Harvest‘s mellow heart of gold during a fall 1973 tour of Canada, England, Scotland, and the United States.

The point of archives is not just to protect what’s valuable, it’s to introduce new understandings about what is familiar—to interject claims of newness itself. Roxy and its inclusion in the Archives is a way of signaling the what-could-have-been of the original Tonight’s the Night, which should make us reconsider the official release. Not that it’s worse, or that it’s no good anymore, but that it’s the result of compromise, a certain amount of uncertainty and concern for its audience. All of this forces us to take a different look at a period of Young’s career that in some ways has been set in stone for a long time.

Since this recontextualization is natural to the archive—but wait, it’s not. Not in the world of streaming archives which offer no context. All of this reminds us, then, that the Archives results from Young’s conscious decision-making about how to use technology to produce his own story, and as a prolific artist who has always chased what comes next while studiously documenting his own work—and, frankly, as an artist whose proto-punk hippie-meets-cowboy loner aesthetic belongs to and still produces a pre-postmodern, pre-“end of history”, pre-Retromania belief in the new—Young will have to choose what archival releases add new understanding, new angles on the story, new points of emphasis in his own history, and which do not.

I’ve argued elsewhere that a single performance can unfinish a song’s previous incarnation, can totally and radically alter our perception of the art and its circumstance. But what’s the limit of that potential?

Or, to put it a different way, it’s likely that 12 of the 17 shows Young and the Santa Monica Flyers played in the fall of 1973 were recorded.

A person like me wants Young to post them so I can hear them all.

Do I need to?