n the winter and spring of 1972, right around the time I commandeered a transistor radio lying around our house and began listening religiously to Toronto’s 1050-CHUM, there was a six-month window when Neil Young was something of a radio star. “Heart of Gold” made it to #1 in March, followed soon after by “Old Man,” a more modest hit. “The Needle and the Damage Done” also got some AM airplay (in Toronto, at least), and when “Heart of Gold” fell out of the #1 spot, it was supplanted by America’s “A Horse with No Name.” I have a very dim memory of America insisting at the time that “A Horse with No Name”’s similarity to Neil (ditto their “Sandman”) was purely accidental; just like the Osmonds and “Yo-Yo,” America’s sound was their very being, impervious to outside influences. Meanwhile, less covert cover versions of Neil had been on the radio within the past couple of years: Buddy Miles (1970) and Joey Gregorash (1971) both charted with “Down by the River,” Matthew’s Southern Comfort (1971) included “Tell Me Why” on the same album as “Woodstock,” and somebody named Tommy Graham (no recollection of him at all; he sounds like he should have been in Deep Purple) made it onto CHUM’s Top 30 with “After the Gold Rush” in 1972. Neil’s liner note on Decade about not liking the middle of the road very much following the massive success of Harvest wasn’t altogether an exaggeration; if he wasn’t exactly Elton John, you didn’t have to search very far to hear him, someone who sounded like him, or someone singing one of his songs in 1972.
And that was pretty much it for Neil Young and AM radio. Neil himself had another half-dozen very minor hits over the next decade (none making it higher than #61), and two more cover versions charted: Linda Ronstadt’s “Love Is a Rose” (1975, a B-side) and Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love” (1979). No more Top 100 singles of any size for Neil after that, and no more hit cover versions. But cover versions did continue to appear—lots of them. Lots and lots and lots of them.
With the help of various online resources (www.coversproject.com especially; I’d also direct you to http://s-woods.blogspot.com/, where Scott Woods has been conducting a large-scale survey of cover albums from Beach Boys’ Party to Rod Stewart’s recent reinvention as Ella), I began a few months ago to track down as many of them as I could. I had an eye towards writing about whatever I eventually assembled, but I also wanted to put together a box set for a friend. Obviously, you need to have access to a good filesharer to even think about such a project; as the old K-Tel commercials used to warn, going out and buying the necessary CDs individually would set you back a couple thousand dollars (besides which, some of what follows exists only in the ether, never having been actually released). As it stands today—I’m more or less finished, but every now and again I turn up something new—I’ve collected 277 individual songs (including versions drawn from four multi-artist tributes), plus another four full-length single-artist tributes, almost 22 hours’ worth of music in all.
Simultaneous to all of this, I’ve also been collecting cover versions of the Beatles and the Velvet Underground. I’m going to hazard a guess that Neil is the third most-covered artist in the history of pop music. The Beatles, as you might imagine, are in another stratosphere altogether—I’ve got 115 hours of Beatles covers on the computer, and I know there’s at least another 115 hours still out there, possibly even twice that. I’ve got about 12 hours of Velvets covers, so let’s say they’re good for fourth- or fifth-place; I sense they’ve been covered more often than the Rolling Stones or Chuck Berry or anyone else you could name, but I might be wrong. I would assume Dylan sits second behind the Beatles.
The Neil box for my friend ended up comprising 10 CD-700s, a winnowing down that gave me the latitude to leave out all of the bad stuff and most of the merely ordinary. For the purposes of this piece, though, I’ll run through the entire haul, arranged alphabetically by song. On the eve of these long-rumored anthologies of unreleased archival material finally seeing the light of day, here’s another tangential piece of the Neil Young puzzle.
(Formatting note: Each song title is followed by the Neil Young album on which it originally appeared, with the covering artists for that song grouped below. I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible with the albums and dates for the covers, but I’m sure there are glitches—when dealing with a live version of a song somebody performs regularly, there’s sometimes no way of determining whether the one I have matches up with information I’ve located online. So in quite a few instances, I’ve left things undated and unsourced. Be the Rain, a two-disc tribute put together by people on something called the “Rusted Guitars mailing list,” is available for free download.)
1. “A MAN NEEDS A MAID” (HARVEST, 1972)
Antony & the Johnsons (undated)
Not the best place to start. If you were to poll a representative sample of Neil fans, “A Man Needs a Maid” would, I believe, be the consensus pick as Harvest’s most enduring song. In trying to pinpoint what makes the original so evocative, the key is how the London Symphony Orchestra swells and surges while Neil’s small voice gets lost underneath and almost disappears, a perfect corollary for the helplessness conveyed by the lyrics. And then, of course, there’s the autobiographical line about falling in love with the actress who was playin’ a part that Neil could understand—Carrie Snodgress in Diary of a Mad Housewife, whom, very understandable if you’ve seen the film, Neil was deeply involved with at the time. Whether or not you’re receptive to Antony Hegarty’s quavering voice (I’m not), he’s not anyone who’s going to disappear into anything; Hegarty overwhelms the song’s fragility. And Carrie Snodgress is long gone—not literally, but the only film of any real consequence she did after her relationship with Neil was Brian De Palma’s The Fury almost 30 years ago. Try to substitute someone more contemporary, and it’s the resonance of the line that disappears.
2. “AFTER THE GOLD RUSH” (AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, 1970)
Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt & Dolly Parton (Trio II, 1999)
Flaming Lips (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
k.d. lang (Hymns of the 49th Parallel, 2004)
Michael Hedges (Aerial Boundaries, 1985)
Natalie Merchant (Live in Concert, 1999)
Thom Yorke (Bridge School Benefit Concert, 2002)
Tom Rapp (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Certain songs are hard to mess up. With the Velvets, I don’t know that I’ve found a version of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “Jesus” that’s less than merely good, and most are better than that; “After the Gold Rush” and (especially) “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” are Neil’s two most cover-proof songs. Female folkies with angelic voices get “Gold Rush” right, and so do arty new-wave bands (even if, like the Flaming Lips, they feel compelled to fuck around for 15 seconds as a prologue). Take away the lyrics and it even makes for excellent Windham Hill, which maybe shouldn’t be so surprising—the essential storyline of the song is pretty new-agey. Actually, I think I’d even pick the Michael Hedges version as my favourite, followed by Thom Yorke’s. There was another great live version I found from Jackson Browne, but the more I listened and the more I checked around unsuccessfully to try to find a date, it eventually dawned on me that it was in fact Neil Young, mislabelled. So I’ve omitted that one.
3. “ALBUQUERQUE” (TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT, 1975)
Clem Snide (undated)
Treble Charger (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Walkabouts (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
This won’t be the last time I say this; covering anything from Tonight’s the Night is a minefield. You can’t outmess the messy songs, but anyone who tries to go the opposite route by seizing on the beauty of the prettiest ones—and I count “Albuquerque” and “Borrowed Tune” as two of Neil’s prettiest—loses the backdrop against which that beauty was set. Having said that, though, Treble Charger do an amazing job on “Albuquerque.” Twenty years ago, I remember how it seemed like every review of Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me mentioned Neil Young as an obvious point of reference, and sure enough, Dinosaur Jr. make a couple of lukewarm appearances in this survey. Treble Charger’s “Albuquerque” is the Dinosaur Jr. Neil Young cover that they should have done—fuzzy, loud, exceptionally lyrical. There are still a couple of hundred songs to go, but it might be my single favourite Neil cover out there. I like what Clem Snide does, too, but the Walkabouts cross a line that divides slow from narcoleptic.
4. “AMBULANCE BLUES” (ON THE BEACH, 1974)
R.E.M. w/Neil Young (Holiday Single, 1999)
I’m going to cheat and call this a cover, seeing as it was issued as R.E.M.’s 1999 Christmas single for fan-club members. Neil handles vocals, Peter Buck plays banjo, Michael Stipe is not involved; it’s a live recording, from where I’m not sure. Neil begins with a disclaimer that he’s going to work from a cue sheet, amusing to me because after listening to the original approximately three zillion times through high school, it’s the longest song I know where I have every last word down cold. The one significant change from the original—Neil follows his cue sheet closely, and the mood and the pacing are just right (a few extra seconds actually push it over nine minutes)—occurs in the Patty Hearst verse:
I saw today, in the entertainment sectionThe first three lines are familiar, the last comes out of nowhere and is startling—as casually as can be, Neil takes the greatest of Nixon songs (with all dissenting votes for Jefferson Airplane’s “Mexico” and the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” acknowledged) and sets it down squarely in the Clinton/Lewinsky moment. Divine inspiration or a disclaimer to the disclaimer? I’d like to get hold of that cue sheet.
There’s room at the top for private detection
To mom and dad, this just doesn’t matter
But he still screwed around, and now he won’t even look at her
5. “ARE YOU READY FOR THE COUNTRY” (HARVEST, 1972)
Jason & the Scorchers (Essential, Vol. 1: Are You Ready for the Country? 1992)
Waylon Jennings (Are You Ready for the Country? 1976)
Speaking as someone who’s never believed that Robert Altman’s Nashville is, musically speaking, a work of condescension, I have no idea how this slop bucket would be perceived by dedicated country listeners; in a genre where Big & Rich are considered adventurous, my frame of reference is limited. That Waylon Jennings saw fit to cover “Are You Ready for the Country” probably means it’s okay, although my sense is that both he and Jason & the Scorchers had the same kind of arm’s-length relationship with Nashville that Neil has maintained over the years. The original is one of my favorites from Harvest, but I find both of these a little stiff.
6. “AURORA” (OFFICIALLY UNRELEASED; AVAILABLE ON NEIL YOUNG MEETS BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD AND THE SQUIRES, 1991)
Treble Spankers (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
A dirgy, Link Wray-ish instrumental that goes back to Neil’s days with the Squires—you can find it on various bootlegs, and I’m sure it will turn up on one of the upcoming boxes. Maximum points for scholarship and execution, but I don’t care that much for the original.
7. “BARSTOOL BLUES” (ZUMA, 1975)
Feelies (Doin' It Again, 1991)
Lemonheads (The Secret Life of Evan Dando, 1993)
Soul Asylum (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Yo La Tengo (Here Comes My Baby, 1990)
“Cortez the Killer” is Zuma’s most famous song, “Barstool Blues” its best. Obviously it’s not punk, but it does kind of go by in a blur, both literally and figuratively, and there are enough great lines for three songs. My favourite version here is the Feelies’, whose minds are movin’ so fast they actually get the very first line wrong: “If I could hold on to just one thought before I have to go…” Makes me smile every time—if you’re going to sing a song about how out of it you are, being a little bit out of it can only help. Soul Asylum’s version is better than I would have guessed, Yo La Tengo’s not as good, and Evan Dando turns it into folk music.
8. “BIRDS” (AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, 1970)
Aubriton Meek, Jr. (Be the Rain, 2006)
Bette Midler (Live at Last, 1977)
Claudine Longet (Let’s Spend the Night Together, 1972)
Field Mice (undated)
Jann Arden (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Paul Weller (Studio 150, 2004)
Four covers of “Barstool Blues” makes sense, 15 of “Cinnamon Girl” is a given, but seven different “Birds”? It’s not a bad song by any means, I’m just surprised so many people have latched onto it—it’s maybe the ninth title that comes to mind when I think of After the Gold Rush. I don’t think anything here stands out from anything else, they’re all pretty good versions of a pretty good song, with nobody straying too far from the original. (Aubriton Meek, Jr. trades the piano for a harmonica, so his is noticeably more folkie.) Bette Midler devolves into melodrama after a great start, but she has the most fun, by far; some funny patter at the beginning, and then, after stretching the song to its limit, a fadeout of “It’s over…thank God it’s over.”
9. “BORROWED TUNE” (TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT, 1975)
Marc Jordan (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
An official cover of an unofficial cover: Neil purposefully lifted the original’s melody directly from the Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane,” the point being (this was Tonight’s the Night, after all) that he was “too wasted” to write his own at the time. Very good legal strategy, one that George Harrison should have used in defending himself against the Chiffons: “Surely you can see what I mean, judge—I was too wasted to write my own.” Marc Jordan adds a little extra instrumentation to augment the piano, but not so much that he interferes with the song’s barren, desolate mood; if he doesn’t sound quite as convincing as Neil singing about his head being in the clouds, I’m not sure that anyone could.
10. “BURNED” (BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD, 1966)
Chocolatey (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Ron & the Splinters (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Walter Clevenger & the Dairy Kings (Five Way Street: A Tribute to Buffalo Springfield, 2006)
Wilco (I Shot Andy Warhol O.S.T., 1996)
I’m including all covers that officially fall into the domain of Buffalo Springfield and CSNY; Neil’s contributions to those bands were so overwhelmingly stamped by his own obsessions and idiosyncrasies, they’re all Neil Young songs through-and-through. (Does anyone think of “Helpless” as belonging to CSNY?) These four versions of “Burned” are close to interchangeable—the addition of some twang from Wilco gives theirs a slight edge.
11. “CAMPAIGNER” (DECADE, 1978)
Matt Mohler (Be the Rain, 2006)
Snares and Kites (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Neil’s partial mea culpa for “Ambulance Blues” and “Ohio”—conceding that Richard Nixon was actually human was a small step towards forgiveness, but a step nonetheless. (The song was written, if I’m remembering correctly, after Neil saw some post-resignation news footage of Nixon emerging from hospital.) Matt Mohler stays close to the original in mood, but he pretty much rewrites the lyrics wholesale to incorporate everyone from O.J. Simpson to Osama Bin Laden. Based on the “Ambulance Blues” version discussed previously, I think Neil would approve. Snares and Kites up the tempo and turn it into a Zuma guitar workout, and that also brings something new to the song.
12. “CAPTAIN KENNEDY” (HAWKS & DOVES, 1980)
Nikki Sudden & the French Revolution (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
For reasons I don’t understand, this is the only cover on this list drawn from either Hawks & Doves or Re•act•or, whereas Trans generates a few; I have a pronounced preference for the first two. “Captain Kennedy,” though, I hardly remember, a memory lapse this very ordinary cover underscores. The Swell Maps’ “Read About Seymour,” incidentally, remains one of the greatest punk singles ever.
13. “CINNAMON GIRL” (EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, 1969)
Andy Curran (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Big in Iowa (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Brett Anderson & Terence Trent D’Arby (undated)
Dream Syndicate (Out of the Grey, 1986)
Killdozer (Intellectuals Are the Shoeshine Boys of the Ruling Elite, 1984)
Loop (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Los Lobos (undated)
Malc Brookes (Be the Rain, 2006)
Mark Lanegan (undated)
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs (Under the Covers Vol. 1, 2006)
Motorhead (All the Aces: The Best of Motorhead, 1978)
Radiohead (Live@Music Planet2Nite, Paris, 2001)
Replicants (Replicants, 1995)
Smashing Pumpkins (Live@WZRD, Chicago, 1989)
Type O Negative (Symphony for the Devil, 1999)
“We need to cover something a little less obvious…Hey, I know—let’s do ��Cinnamon Girl!’” Fifteen covers—almost twice as many as “Cortez the Killer”’s nine and “Heart of Gold”’s eight, the runners-up—make “Cinnamon Girl” Neil’s “Yesterday.” Happily, it’s not a song that’s going to end up on a Ray Conniff album—that’s something “Heart of Gold” will have to contend with through the years. (My references are out of date…substitute “Nickleback” for “Ray Conniff.”) I recently counted down my 100 favourite songs on a college radio show I do out of Toronto, and I had “Cinnamon Girl” at #2, behind Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well.” The original figures so prominently in my imagination—the mood of which is perfectly conveyed by Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’s cover shot, something I’m not sure I could explain, other than to say it’s a Canadians-in-flannel thing—that any kind of an overly faithful run-through is going to go right past me, like the Brett Anderson/Terence Trent D’Arby and Los Lobos versions.
You have to mess around with the song to even have a chance, and most of these people do. The metal and noise bands (Killdozer, Motorhead, Loop, Type O Negative, Replicants), not surprisingly, slow it down and accentuate its essential heaviness; Killdozer’s typically over-the-top yowling is so engagingly inane that they come off best, while Type O Negative forget there’s still a song there and ruin it. Thom Yorke and Billy Corgan are both in full whine, which actually works well in this context—I like their versions fine. Susanna Hoffs brings a female voice to a definitively male song, and that’s worth something (truthfully, you can barely hear her until the very end—Sweet dominates). Best bet? I don’t know anything about Mark Lanegan except the little bit that I’ve read online, but he does a terrific Richie Havens-like version for an Italian radio station, complete with some breathless Italian patter from the host at the end. And there’s his secret—he’s alone and confused and far away from home. Ma, send him money now, he’s gonna make it somehow, he needs another chance.
14. “COME ON BABY LET’S GO DOWNTOWN” (TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT, 1975; APPEARS EARLIER, WITHOUT NEIL, ON CRAZY HORSE, 1971)
The songwriting credit on Crazy Horse’s original goes to Danny Whitten alone; on Tonight’s the Night, it’s co-credited to Whitten and Young, so I’ll sneak this in as a Neil song. Adding to the confusion, I can’t find any information on the Tactics’ version—likely it’s the early-��80s punk band from Australia, but not being a group I know at all, I can’t be sure. Whoever it is, they start off like they’re about to do “Baba O’Riley,” then race through a very nasal version that’s appropriately raucous but loses the chime of its two predecessors.
15. “COMES A TIME” (COMES A TIME, 1978)
Chuck Singer (Be the Rain, 2006)
Prescott/Brown (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Don’t care for either of these. They both slow the song down, for some reason, which is part of a bigger problem: the original exuded a kind of a wide-eyed wonderment that might’ve seemed corny in another context, but which seemed absolutely right coming out the other side of Neil’s mid-��70s murk, and neither Singer nor Prescott/Brown capture anything of that.
16. “COMPUTER AGE” (TRANS, 1982)
Sonic Youth (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
There’s a dearth of covers out there drawn from Neil’s mid-career meltdown, the five LPs he made for David Geffen in the ��80s. It would be nice to imagine that there’s a wealth of unexplored genius hidden in those records, but Neil interpreters stay clear of them for good reason—the first four were almost uniformly without distinction, and I include Trans in that assessment, the one with some critical standing. Do I ever include Trans—I’m prepared to blame Trans for just about everything that was dreadful about the ��80s, Scarface, “The Five-Minute Workout,” and the collapse of the ’87 Blue Jays included. I’m not surprised at all that Sonic Youth would be drawn to the album for its perversity alone, and they do in fact kick some life into “Computer Age.” This is where I’m supposed to say that I need to go back and reevaluate Trans. Yes, yes, will do—right after I finishing reevaluating “The Five-Minute Workout.”
17. “CORTEZ THE KILLER” (ZUMA, 1975)
54-40 (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Built to Spill (Live, 2000)
Hallo Venray (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Marissa Nadler (Pitchfork Forkcast, 2006)
Mercury Rev (Deserter's Songs, 1998)
Ted Matsumura (Be the Rain, 2006)
Church (A Box of Birds, 1999)
If brevity is the soul of wit, it’s also often the soul of good cover—get in, get out, stay away from drum solos, spoken interludes, and other such embellishments. There’s no value in cutting corners when it comes to “Cortez the Killer,” though: you want to lose yourself in the song as completely as possible—it’s a song about losing your way, right? and not remembering when or how it happened?—and if it takes you 20 minutes to find your way out, as it does Built to Spill, all the better (provided, of course, you don’t lose sight of what you’re actually covering, which they never do). Great, great version that dwarfs all the real-time simulations listed above. The two other attempts that stand out are Marissa Nadler’s and Mercury Rev’s. Both of them go the other route by cutting the length in half for more plaintive acoustic versions. Nadler’s slow-motion dreaminess is especially striking.
18. “COUNTRY GIRL” (DÉJÀ VU, 1970)
Steve Taton (Be the Rain, 2006)
Mike Durham (Be the Rain, 2006)
The original, from Déjà Vu, rarely gets mentioned in anything written about Neil Young, having long since been subsumed into the shadow of “Helpless” and the tracks that classic-rock stations cling to (“Woodstock,” “Teach Your Children,” “Our House”). I count it as one of his greatest songs—four minutes of opaque, orchestral doom-and-gloom, culminating in that ecstatic moment when everything breaks in half and the sun comes cascading through: “Country girl, I think you’re pretty…” Enough drama for Phil Spector, and when you compare it to the two aforementioned Graham Nash warhorses, well, you know that Neil and his bandmates weren’t really on the same page. Steve Taton tries to go it alone, and, as much as I applaud his calling attention to a neglected masterpiece, a substantively different song emerges: some of the moodiness remains, but the high drama’s absent. Mike Durham proceeds from something I’d forgotten, that “Country Girl” is technically comprised of three movements, each with its own subtitle (“Whiskey Boot Hill”/”Down, Down, Down”/”Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty),” and he lifts out the middle section as a standalone. Strange, to say the least—everything’s build-up, stopping just short of the moment you live for in the original—but he actually gets much closer to what I love about the song.
19. “COUPE DE VILLE” (THIS NOTE’S FOR YOU, 1988)
Philosopher Kings (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
One of six instances where I’d never heard the original before starting this project. My initial instinct was to just go ahead and deal with the covers on their own merits, partly because I think that’s more honest than scrambling around for the sake of pretending I know something I barely know at all, and also because, well, I’m really lazy. But I decided to be a good researcher and make sure I had some familiarity with Neil’s versions before proceeding. Based on the title song, I always figured This Note’s for You would be shrill from start to finish. “Coupe de Ville,” as played by Neil, is quiet and kind of dreamy, though, not a bad song. The Philosopher Kings put on a big show and find that bad song.
20. “COWGIRL IN THE SAND” (EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, 1969)
Byrds (Byrds, 1973)
Indigo Girls (undated)
Iron and Wine (Live@Bowery Ballroom, NYC, 2004)
Unlike “Cortez,” nobody takes on “Cowgirl in the Sand” full-out—all of these versions run between three and four minutes, and three of them are acoustic, a major overhaul of Neil’s 10-minute, guitar-mad epic. (A brief salute to the one electric version, Benalto’s frat-house yelping; it’s quite likely the single worst thing in this survey, and standing out from 250 other covers in any way is worth something, I suppose.) In one of those parallel universes I spoke of earlier, Iron and Wine (and Calexico) do a great “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and they do almost as well with “Cowgirl”; they’re masters of the spooky dirge. The prize here, though, goes to the Byrds, a live version taken from the not very well regarded reunion LP they put out in 1973. I’ve never heard the whole album, just the two Neil covers (cf. “[See the Sky] About to Rain” below), but to me you’ve got the real Byrds, all five of them together, intersecting with an emerging colossus who shares both their strangeness and their brilliance. It’s Einstein and Freud, walking together on the beach, and I’m very grateful to learn that such a meeting took place.
21. “DANGER BIRD” (ZUMA, 1975)
27 (Songs from the Edge of the Wing, 2001)
From the moment that everyone started pointing to Neil as ground-zero for Nirvana and all the Seattle bands of the early ��90s (you’ll notice I’m working hard here to avoid the phrase “The Godfather of…”), many of the bands who’ve covered Neil have gravitated towards the side of him that’s pure sprawl. “Cortez” has been the default choice in that direction, and “Danger Bird,” also from Zuma, falls into the same category. Back in high school in the late ��70s, I played Zuma no less obsessively than Tonight’s the Night; the two were of a piece to me, although Zuma’s raggedness had a very different shape and took you to a different place. 27 navigate “Danger Bird”’s amorphous ebb and flow (getting back to Nirvana, I think Neil’s original helped invent here’s-the-soft-part-now-here-comes-the-loud-part) well, and, helped by some evocative vocal filtering, they arrive somewhere close to that place.
22. “DAYS THAT USED TO BE” (RAGGED GLORY, 1990)
Ad Vanderveen (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Bears the same relation to Dylan’s “My Back Pages” that “Borrowed Tune” does to “Lady Jane”; Neil should’ve borrowed his own line about having borrowed the tune. No one wanders around the past as obsessively or as wistfully as Neil (hope I don’t offend any Rusties, but actually Madonna does, sometimes), and “Days That Used to Be” is a good one. I like the janglier original better, but Ad Vanderveen does all right with a more straightforward folkie version.
23. “DEAD MAN” (DEAD MAN O.S.T., 1996)
Cowboys on Dope (High Noon, 2003)
Jim Jarmusch’s film was received by a lot of people with a befuddled shrug when it first appeared in 1995—me, for starters—but a few years later, it turned up high in decade-end polls. One day, I’ll steel myself and try it again. I do remember Neil’s fuzzed-up soundtrack noodling as being fairly atmospheric, although I don’t recall any vocals; Cowboys on Dope add some portentous spoken-word stuff overtop for anyone who missed the movie
24. “DEEP FORBIDDEN LAKE” (DECADE, 1978)
Fil Wisneski (Be the Rain, 2006)
Another of Decade’s archival excavations that seemed like such an event at the time. Pleasant song, nothing more.
25. “DO I HAVE TO COME RIGHT OUT AND SAY IT” (BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD, 1966)
Edward Rogers (Five Way Street: A Tribute to Buffalo Springfield, 2006)
The original was left off the Buffalo Springfield compilation I’ve had since high school, the double-LP set that came out in the early ��70s, but I’d easily take it over the bloated showpieces “Bluebird” and “Broken Arrow.” It was one of the Springfield songs where it was felt that Neil wasn’t sufficiently God-only-knows to sing his own composition—still one of the most forward-looking decisions in pop music history—so it’s one of three covers in this survey where you’re comparing the vocal to somebody other than Neil (Richie Furay, in every case). If you took a blindfold test on Furay and Edward Rogers, you wouldn’t want to bet anything valuable that you’d be able to tell them apart.
26. “DON’T BE DENIED” (TIME FADES AWAY, 1973)
Map of Wyoming (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
This one fares better than the version of “Last Dance” discussed below; it’s a better song, a better story, and Map of Wyoming accentuate its country underpinnings effectively. With something so candidly autobiographical, though, you’re still acutely aware that you’re hearing somebody mouth somebody else’s life story.
27. “DON’T CRY” (FREEDOM, 1989)
Absolute Zeros (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
I had to get out the vinyl to refresh my memory on this one—actually, I had no recollection of such a song even existing, and I assumed at first that it was going to be “Don’t Cry No Tears” mistitled. (The only two songs on Freedom I ever really loved and still occasionally go back to are “Hangin’ on a Limb” and “Wrecking Ball.”) The original doesn’t make any more of an impression on me now than when I shelved it 18 years ago. The Absolute Zeros do what they can, throwing in some vocal filtering and other studio tricks.
28. “DON’T CRY NO TEARS” (ZUMA, 1975)
Constantines (Constantines Play Young/Unintended Play Lightfoot, 2006)
Ghosthouse (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999) Lemonheads (undated)
Teenage Fanclub (Deep Fried Fanclub, 1995)
Zuma’s defiant opener set the tone for the rest of the album: the “Ditch Trilogy” now behind him (Time Fades Away/On the Beach/Tonight’s the Night), Neil had rejoined the living. (Personally, I don’t think Zuma’s any less dark than On the Beach, it’s just a much more slashing kind of dark.) The Constantines and Teeenage Fanclub stick close to the original, while Evan Dando again strums an acoustic version—does this guy even own an electric guitar? I like Ghosthouse the best, a Jason & the Scorchers-like rendition on overdrive. The Constantines’ cover is taken from an LP they split with the Unintended; they do Neil on one side, the Unintended do Gordon Lightfoot on the other. It’s vinyl-only, though, and I couldn’t track down anything beyond this one song.
29. “DON’T LET IT BRING YOU DOWN” (AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, 1970)
Drop D (Be the Rain, 2006)
Annie Lennox (Medusa, 1995)
Amanda Marshall (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Bobby Sutliff (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Victoria Williams & the Williams Brothers (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Not my favorite song on After the Gold Rush, but that’s only speaking relatively; it’s pretty great, and I always thought of it as coming closer than anything else on Gold Rush to capturing the mood of that LP’s memorable cover shot. Annie Lennox’s version is used really well in American Beauty, moments before Kevin Spacey sleeps the big sleep—as I mention every chance I get, American Beauty’s use of pop music never gets enough credit. Nothing else here goes anywhere, and I probably wouldn’t think twice about the Annie Lennox, either, if not for the film. Not a song that translates well.
30. “DOWN BY THE RIVER” (EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, 1969)
Buddy Miles (Them Changes, 1970)
Low & Dirty Three (In the Fishtank, 2001)
Meters (Kickback, 1975)
Undisputed Truth (Cosmic Truth, 1975)
Wild T. & the Spirit (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
I haven’t done any research above and beyond the songs I write about here, but chances are that Buddy Miles did the first-ever Neil Young cover, so all credit to him. My completely uninformed sense of Miles before hearing “Down by the River” (I’ve never heard anything else by him) pretty much amounted to two scare phrases: “jazz-rock fusion” and “drum solo.” So I don’t think anyone else in this survey surprised me as much as he did—I love what he does with the song, re-imagining it in a way that brings to mind the Chambers Brothers singing about how their soul’s been psy-che-DEL-i-cized. Weirdly enough, it’s his version, rather than Neil’s original, which then becomes the blueprint for the Meters and Undisputed Truth, with all three of them incorporating a recurring “sha-la-la, the weather” refrain that comes out of left field and makes you wonder how Neil missed it. The two rock covers have opposite problems: Wild T is exceedingly shrill, Low & Dirty Three so low-key they’re barely there (it’s almost funny—in a nine-minute version, they don’t finish tuning up until the six-minute mark). I led off my friend’s box set with Buddy Miles, just so I could sneak in Chris Farley beforehand: “You’re gonna end up eating a steady diet of government cheese, and livin’ in a van down by the river.”
31. “DOWN TO THE WIRE” (DECADE, 1978)
Grip Weeds (Five Way Street: A Tribute to Buffalo Springfield, 2006)
Matt Piucci (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Noteworthy as Decade’s opening track, making it the earliest Neil Young recording commercially available at the time. (I assume that even earlier stuff turned up on the Buffalo Springfield box that came out a few years ago.) I like the original for Neil’s weird singing—I don’t think he ever sounded quite like this again, even with the Buffalo Springfield. Matt Piucci’s cover is initially more interesting than the Grip Weeds’, but at over six minutes, it just goes on too long.
32. “EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE” (EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, 1969)
Ida (Ten Small Paces, 1997)
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs (Under the Covers Vol. 1, 2006)
Rheostatics & the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Tom Stevens (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’s title song always seemed anomalous to me: very crisp, very precise, a perfect pop song nestled in an album of shadowy, esoteric dread. Very coverable, too, it turns out: all four versions are really good, even the Rheostatics’, local Toronto heroes I never much cared for. Especially the Rheostatics’, actually—theirs is the oddest and the best.
33. “EXPECTING TO FLY” (BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD AGAIN, 1967)
Emily Haines (Live @ 9:30 Club, Washington, 2006)
Sonya Hunter (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Windbreakers (Five Way Street: A Tribute to Buffalo Springfield, 2006)
I think this is viewed as one of Neil’s most significant songs with the Springfield; I can’t remember if I ever thought highly of it, but nowadays it strikes me as overly ornate and too distant to connect with. I much prefer “Out of My Mind,” with which it shares certain similarities. The four covers are close enough for horseshoes.
34. “FALLING FROM ABOVE” (GREENDALE, 2003)
Jamey D (Be the Rain, 2006)
New to me. I was a little iffy on seeing Greendale from what I’d read about it, but if the rest of the soundtrack is this good, I’ll have to rethink that. Jamey D begins with a minute of what I assume is dialogue lifted from the film, and then settles into a version as calm and as pretty as Neil’s. Great singing.
35. “FLYING ON THE GROUND IS WRONG” (BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD, 1966)
Bill Williams (Be the Rain, 2006)
Kendra Smith (Rainy Day, 1983)
Here’s another one where Richie Furay handled lead vocal on the original. I didn’t know anything about the Rainy Day LP until I started collecting all these covers. Supposedly it’s somewhat valuable; it’ll turn up again later when I get to “On the Way Home,” and the Velvets’ “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is also on there. I’ve listened to the Dream Syndicate’s Kendra Smith four or five times, and I’m on the fence: the ultra-spare arrangement suggests what Nico might have done with a Neil Young song, but in the end, it’s a little bland. One thing I’m discovering as I work through this survey is that if you give me three or four covers of the same song, I’ll usually gravitate towards the one that has some steel guitar. On that basis alone, Bill Williams gets the nod.
36. “FOR THE TURNSTILES” (ON THE BEACH, 1974)
Jean-Louis Murat (Live@Coopérative de mai, Clermont-Ferrand, 2003)
Okay—if I haven’t done so already, I’m going to blow all my credibility with hardcore Neil lovers: I do not like On the Beach. Once you get past “Ambulance Blues,” which, as I indicated earlier, I worship—one of Neil’s five greatest songs, easy—there’s not a single track I ever go back to. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned conceptual whole, not an album of individual songs. And that was indeed how I experienced it in high school, even though I was probably deluding myself a little—side two accounted for 90% of the play I gave it, and that, yes, was really for one song, “Ambulance Blues.” Whenever I see some kind of Neil poll online now, On the Beach usually ranks high, right below Gold Rush and Tonight’s the Night and two or three others. I don’t get it—conceptually integrated or not, stuff like “Walk On” and “See the Sky (About to Rain)” and the title track are lifeless. If I had to choose, I’d take “For the Turnstiles” as the album’s second-best song. The version by Murat, a Frenchman who turns up two more times later on, is appropriately edgy, although the original’s banjo has unfortunately been excised.
37. “FUCKIN’ UP” (RAGGED GLORY, 1990)
Junkhouse (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Pearl Jam (Live on Two Legs, 1998)
Pearl Jam, Bush, and a Canadian band that was less photogenic than either—this one wins the Temple of the Dog prize walking away. Not much essential difference between the three versions (Junkhouse’s is the growliest, if you’ll indulge me a made-up word), except in terms of length: Bush come in at under two minutes, Junkhouse is at four-and-a-half, Pearl Jam’s over six. Didn’t Pearl Jam release a box set with six or seven hundred live CDs a few years ago? You can’t do stuff like that if you make songs shorter.
James Mercer (Live at Moonshine Festival, 2004)
Jeff Healey Band (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Rufus Wainwright & Chris Stills (KCRW Sounds Eclectic: The Covers Project, 2003)
Verdena (Luna, 2004)
Tough call—no one strays more than an inch or two from the original, and they’re all nice. The one that surprises me the most is Jeff Healy’s: I would have thought he’d feel compelled to throw in all sorts of bluesy rough edges, for no other reason than that’s what he does, but he honors the song the whole way, and his might have the best singing of the four versions. Chris Stills in Stephen’s son, Rufus you know about. A quick Google search turns up some other early-��70s singer-songwriter progeny who have launched music careers of their own: Redmond Crosby, A.J. Croce, Ben Taylor, Yoriyos Stevens, Louise Goffin (King). There’s a supergroup there just waiting to happen.
39. “HARVEST MOON”
Calla (Insound No. 22, 2002)
Cassandra Wilson (New Moon Daughter, 1995)
Elliott Smith (The Complete Live Covers: Day Three, 2007)
If you like the original, you’ll probably like these four versions fine—I’m indifferent to the song in any setting. Not sure why, but on three of them, the singers lugubriously stretch the song out and hang on every word; the one thing I can appreciate about Neil’s own rendition is that it’s got a light touch and some country-swing to it. So who’s the one who loosens up and taps into a little bit of that? Naturally, the guy who committed suicide.
40. “HEART OF GOLD”
Black Label Society (Alcohol Fueled Brewtality Live + 5, 2001)
Boney M (Nightflight to Venus, 1978)
Johnny Cash (Unearthed II: Trouble in Mind, 2003)
Lawrence Gowan (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 2006)
Richard Lloyd (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Stereophonics (Have a Nice Day, 2001)
Steve Dahl (Be the Rain, 2006)
Tori Amos (Strange Little Girls, 2001)
Inevitable that this would generate the second most covers on this list; it was Neil’s only #1 single ever, and, 35 years later, it easily remains his most famous song. (“Hey Hey, My My [Into the Black]” and “Rockin’ in the Free World” get more airplay on Toronto’s biggest classic-rock station, but even there, “Heart of Gold” still pops up a lot.) I wonder how many of the covering artists above share the same kind of nostalgia for the song that I retain. I realize it’s not anywhere near to being one of Neil’s greatest songs, and all the overplay has drained it of whatever emotions it once stirred, but it was my introduction to Neil Young in 1972, on the air when I claimed that transistor radio, and Harvest soon after became the first album of his that I ever owned (on 8-track, no less), so there’s still something there for me that’s impossible to destroy. I know that Johnny Cash didn’t come to the song that way, and I’ll take a wild guess that Boney M didn’t, either, but the other six, maybe. Black Label Society (gothic metal) and Tori Amos (skronky noise) get credit for reinventing the song, but truthfully, they both sound kind of silly. Cash, Gowan, Lloyd, the Stereophonics, and Steve Dahl—whom I assume is not the Steve Dahl who burned disco records at Comiskey Park in 1979; if it is, I hope he doesn’t mind being listed alongside Boney M—are varying shades of faithful to the original.
Boney M split the difference: they can’t help reinventing the song to a certain extent, just because of who they are, but they also include some excellent harmonica playing (a young Rob Pilatus from Milli Vanilli, perhaps) that reminds me more of Neil than anything else on this list. I used to have a claque of Boney M acolytes who wrote for Radio On, a Top-40 fanzine I put out through the ��90s. I think they were a claque; they might have been a cadre, or even something really sinister, like a cell. A few of the issues featured a Radio On canon of the greatest artists ever, drawn from contributors’ lists of their 100 favorite songs, and, humorless drudge that I am, I would make sure to rig the rules so Boney M didn’t end up nestled in amongst the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Madonna at the top. Well, mea culpa, sort of: I like Boney M’s “Heart of Gold” better than anybody’s.
41. “HELPLESS” (DÉJÀ VU, 1970)
Buffy Saint-Marie (She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina, 1971)
Jesse Malin (Star Smile Strong: Live in Concert, 2005)
k.d. lang (Hymns of the 49th Parallel, 2004)
Lori Yates (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Nick Cave (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Shudder to Think (undated)
Whiskeytown & Gillian Welch (Shootin' Up with Roses, 1999)
If you really want to hear someone get lost in “Helpless”—and like “Cortez,” it’s a song that’s meant to get lost in—the first version to get is Neil’s from The Last Waltz, the one where Scorsese’s special effects department supposedly had to work overtime to make sure you didn’t think you were watching Al Pacino in Scarface. Not sure if that story’s apocryphal or not, but in any event, Ryan Adams and Gillian Welch are hands-down the best out of this group—the way Welch drifts in and out on harmony pretty much single-handedly takes care of the dreams, comfort, memory, and despair department—and I like what Nick Cave does, too. Picking out the worst version is as easy as picking out the best. Actually, Jesse Malin’s fine when he sticks to the song, but half of his eight minutes is given over to diatribes against Bush, the war, and modern life in general which, however heartfelt they might be, make me squirm. (Presumably facetious low point: “Hitler at least had some charisma, and cool boots.”) Save it for public television, guy—it’s “Helpless,” just shut up and play.
42. “HEY HEY, MY MY (INTO THE BLACK)” (RUST NEVER SLEEPS, 1979)
B.a.l.l. (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Golden Watusis (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Glutamato Ye-Ye (Grandes éxitos inéditos y rarezas, 2001)
Keller Williams (Live@Pioneer Saloon, Woodside, CA, 1998)
System of a Down (undated)
I’m cutting and pasting from a master list of Neil covers as I work through this, and I see that I initially entered two of these as “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).” If I wasn’t so tired of the original in both its electric and acoustic form—I automatically switch off the electric when it comes on the radio; occasionally I’ll stick with the acoustic—I’d take the trouble to figure out who’s playing which. I’ll just lump them in together, though, and observe that rock anthems—great ones like this, good ones like “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” comical ones like Twisted Sister’s—are not treated well by time. (Danny & the Juniors’ “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay”—that one holds up well.) I can understand how “Hey Hey, My My”’s sentiments might still be relatively novel and liberating for Spain’s Glutamato Ye-Ye, and their version is indeed the liveliest. But I’m surprised anyone who grew up with the song, and has heard it the same ten thousand times I have, can still find something vital there.
43. “HUMAN HIGHWAY” (COMES A TIME, 1978)
Jim Witter & Cassandra Vasik (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Haven’t heard the original for at least 20 years, but I used to like it. Witter and Vasik immediately reminded me that my favorite part was the melodic lilt of “How could people get so unkind?”
44. “INCA QUEEN” (LIFE, 1987)
Marshall Werthein (Be the Rain, 2006)
Neil’s original, as you can guess from the title and eight-minute running time, is his Geffen-era bid for another “Cortez the Killer.” There is a bit of “Cortez” in there, and that’s good, but there’s also a lot of “Midnight on the Bay” (cf. below), and that’s not. Marshall Werthein’s ghostly vocal brings out something in the song Neil shortchanged; I wish Marshall would have shortchanged the tribal tom-tom bridge right out the door, but unfortunately that’s still there.
45. “I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU” (NEIL YOUNG, 1969)
Bevis Frond (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Blue Rodeo (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
David Bowie (Heathen, 2002)
Dinosaur Jr. (undated)
Pixies (Velouria, 1990)
Puny (It Kills You, 2007)
I always thought this song was my own little secret, hidden away on the album that Neil made before anyone took much notice of him; six covers suggests otherwise. The one that stands out from the others is Blue Rodeo’s, who slow things down to a crawl and lose the song altogether. The others all stay close to Neil—Dinosaur Jr. are, surprise, a little louder and a little messier, but they basically keep their worst instincts in check—and they all leave me cold. I guess I want to pretend that the original is still my own little secret.
46. “LAST DANCE” (TIME FADES AWAY, 1973)
Widespread Panic (Live@Palace Theater, Albany, 2007)
As Time Fades Away’s album-closer, “Last Dance” makes perfect sense—meandering, obscure, miserable, it’s a stirring endpoint for Neil’s first great leap into the void. It’s all context, though; there’s really no song there to cover, just an unpleasant and very long dirge.
47. “LIKE A HURRICANE” (AMERICAN STARS ��N BARS, 1978)
Barney Bentall & the Legendary Hearts (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Heather Nova (Truth and Bone, 1996)
Jay Farrar (Stone, Steel & Bright Lights, 2004)
Mission (The First Chapter, 1987)
Rich Hopkins & Luminarios (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Roxy Music (Heart Still Beating, 1982)
The Billy Rubin (Punk Chartbusters Vol. 3, 1998)
Like “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” one that’s been lost to me over the years because of overplay—in this case, my own fault, not radio’s. For some reason, almost everybody here wants to slow the song down, and that’s not helping me remember what I used to love about it. Bryan Ferry really lounges it up, adding a female chorus and some Kenny G saxophone; I think he may have misunderstood the part about the crowded, hazy bar. And then there’s Billy Rubin (or “The Billy Rubin,” as most online references refer to him/them; that sounds so wrong…), who run roughshod over the song and come up with the worst version of all. I’d like to hear the Feelies try this one. Or Television. Or the Grateful Dead—somebody who can get some guitar swirl happening.
48. “LONG MAY YOU RUN” (LONG MAY YOU RUN, 1976)
Josh Ritter (Hello Starling [Snow Is Gone], 2004)
Mike Durham (Be the Rain, 2006)
There’s no secret formula for any of this, so after lots of complaints about people who needlessly slow things down, both of these versions do the same, and this time it works. Neil’s sprightly original always seemed very slight to me, although I like the Beach Boys reference, especially how it dovetails with his inclusion of “Let’s Get Away for Awhile” on Journey Through the Past. Mike Durham and Josh Ritter go for something closer to country—Durham in the twang of his own vocal, Ritter with the help of Sarah Harmer’s accompaniment.
49. “LOOK OUT FOR MY LOVE” (COMES A TIME, 1978)
hHead (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
The original was a spooky anomaly in the middle of Neil’s folkie nostalgia on Comes a Time. hHead try to make it even more sinister, really punching up the “you own it” line, but like a number of songs here, remove the context and you’re left with little more than generic indie rock.
50. “LOOKIN’ FOR A LOVE” (ZUMA, 1975)
Idlewild (Make Another World, 2007)
Jeff Tweedy (Live@Lounge Ax, Chicago, 1999)
I guess Neil was between sweethearts when he wrote this—Carrie gone, Susan not yet in the picture. Great song for a starry-eyed high school dweeb, not that I have anyone in particular in mind. Both these live versions are excellent. Tweedy’s acoustic run-through is what the song might have sounded like had it been held back for Comes a Time; Idlewild’s might have even more electric jangle and chime than Neil’s.
51. “LOTTA LOVE” (COMES A TIME, 1978)
Dinosaur Jr. (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Eric Myers (Be the Rain, 2006)
Nicolette Larson (Nicolette, 1978)
The fact that Dinosaur Jr. chose to cover “Lotta Love” for The Bridge—I’m assuming artists get more or less free rein in choosing their material for tribute albums—says something revealing about that band, even though I’m not sure what exactly it is. This was the first of the Neil Young tribute albums, so it was a wide-open field at that point, and, as I indicated earlier, Dinosaur Jr. was born to cover Neil Young. With all of that working in their favor, they went for the simpiest track on a great album, one of Neil’s worst songs from his ��70s heyday. There might be a parallel in Sonic Youth choosing “Computer Age,” but I’ll give them credit for having a clear idea of what they wanted to do with it, and even more credit for making it better.
Dinosaur Jr. just yelps and caterwauls, like that’s going to somehow save the song. If what they’re doing is supposed to be joke (there’s no indication that is), the joke died at the operating table, and if they’re playing in earnest, well, that’s somewhat disturbing. Eric Myers seems to have the Dinosaur Jr. version very much in mind, but at least the singing’s better. In the end, I’ll take Nicolette Larson. I didn’t pay her version any mind when it was on the radio 30 years ago, but today it sounds rather dignified, probably in part because of Larson’s death a few years ago.
52. “LOVE IS A ROSE” (DECADE, 1978)
Linda Ronstadt (Prisoner in Disguise, 1975)
Anyone who covers Neil before-the-fact gets major extra credit, and Ronstadt’s version predates the original’s first appearance by three years. But I can’t see that Neil would have even included it on Decade otherwise—very minor.
53. “MELLOW MY MIND” (TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT, 1975)
Jean-Louis Murat (Live@Coopérative de mai, Clermont-Ferrand, 2003)
Simply Red (The Very Best of Simply Red, 2003)
Junk, death, Manson, Hearst, Nixon—when I think about the shadows that inform Neil’s Ditch Trilogy, and try to conjure up the names of who might be ideal interpreters of such material, I know that Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall is somebody who always comes to mind...Well, surprise, he not only pulls it off, he does so with a version that sometimes doesn’t sound all that different than “Holding Back the Years” (which, for the sake of clarification, I consider an amazing record). Hucknall, the Pet Shop Boys, Suede, and Paul Weller are all on this list. How come nobody ever calls Neil the Godfather of British Dandyism?
54. “MIDNIGHT ON THE BAY” (LONG MAY YOU RUN, 1976)
Red House Painters (Red House Painters, 1999)
The Stills-Young Band’s Long May You Run is a necessity for any Neil fan because of one song—not this one, and not the title song, either, but “Ocean Girl,” which regrettably does not turn up in this survey. The Red House Painters bring a somewhat atmospheric spareness to “Midnight on the Bay,” but in the end they can’t get past how essentially ordinary it is, true of so much of Long May You Run.
55. “MR. SOUL” (BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD AGAIN, 1967)
Bluetones (A Rough Outline: The Singles & B-Sides 95-03, 2006)
Bongwater (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Iron and Wine (Live@ the Meow Meow, Portland, 2004)
Love Battery (Foot, 1991)
Rich Hopkins & the Luminaros (Five Way Street: A Tribute to Buffalo Springfield, 2006)
Skydiggers (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Just to get something out the way up front, almost everybody here does a better job of covering “Mr. Soul” than Neil Young did on Trans (sole exception: the Skydiggers, who never recover from some overwrought opening shout-outs of “Mr. Soul! Mr. Soul!”). The Bluetones, Love Battery, and Rich Hopkins play it straight, and their versions are neither here nor there; I commended Iron and Wine earlier, and “Mr. Soul” certainly shares some of the same dread you find in “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” but they don’t go as deep here. Bongwater’s version, I love. It might be the only cover in this whole survey where someone gets really weird and arty, and manages to make it work. I lose my way trying to get through the entirety of their Double Bummer, where “Mr. Soul” originally appeared, but as a three-and-half minute standalone, bravo.
56. “NEW MAMA” (TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT, 1975)
OSI (Office of Strategic Influence, 2003)
Always thought this was easily the weakest song on Tonight’s the Night; I’m not even sure it fits in conceptually. OSI’s general weirdness, including disembodied chatter in the background, improves the song somewhat.
57. “NOWADAYS CLANCY CAN’T EVEN SING” (BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD, 1966)
Briets (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Fever Tree (Fever Tree, 1968)
Noctorum (Five Way Street: A Tribute to Buffalo Springfield, 2006)
I don’t remember ever caring much for the original, but I like all three covers, so I guess I’ve had a change of heart on the song itself. The Breits catch my ear a little more than the other two because of the guitar playing—I don’t have any credits on hand to check, but it almost sounds like they’re using a sitar. Partial correction to having earlier credited Buddy Miles with the first Neil Young cover version: solo Neil, yes, but extend that to the Buffalo Springfield and it’d be Fever Tree.
58. “OHIO” (SO FAR, 1974)
Coal Porters (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Dandy Warhols (Come On Feel the Dandy Warhols, 2000)
Toxic Reasons (Dedication 1979-1988, 1988)
Ween (Freedom, 2001)
Isley Brothers (Givin' It Back, 1971)
My favorite overtly political song ever (“overtly” meaning the ones that actually name names). A big part of what’s kept it so vital for me is that I play it for my middle-school students every May 4. I give them the backstory, post the lyrics on chart paper, and pass around the famous photo from Kent State; of the 40 or 50 songs I play for them during the course of the year, I’d say they’re as attentive to “Ohio” as anything. (I always follow up by asking them what they think the line “we’re finally on our own” means.) The Isleys’ version runs almost nine minutes, dissolving into Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” towards the end; no surprise that it wanders, but, appearing in 1971 as it did, it’s almost as much in the moment as the original, and that counts for a lot—like so many songs and films of that era, Nixon’s there lurking, and not just in the words.
I like the Dandy Warhols’ spooky slow-motion version even better. I was only eight when the killings happened, so my sense of Kent State is only second-hand (or third-hand, being Canadian), but I’m sure that along with the anger and outrage—which is where Neil focuses his energy—there was a feeling of falling endlessly through empty space, like a collective bad dream that just kept getting worse with each successive post-Dallas event. And that’s where the Dandy Warhols focus their energy (or lack thereof, to be more precise). One final note: Toxic Reasons contribute the fourth or fifth useless punk cover thus far. Maybe I’ve forgotten something that comes up later in this survey, but, although your instincts might tell you otherwise, Neil Young + punk is not a good idea.
59. “OLD KING” (HARVEST MOON, 1992)
Lazy Sunday Dream (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
The original has a nice “For the Turnstiles”/Stars ��N Bars front-porch feel, and even though I don’t think “Old King sure meant a lot to me/But that hound dog is history” is supposed to be funny, it cracks me up. Lazy Sunday Dream’s version is unnecessarily bluesy.
60. “OLD MAN” (HARVEST, 1972)
Brad Mehldau (Space Cowboys O.S.T., 2000)
Human Drama (Hopes Prayers Dreams Heart Soul Mind Love Life Death, 1989)
N’Dea Davenport (N´Dea Davenport, 1998)
Rose Chronicles (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Russ Tolman & Richard Mcgrath (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Supposedly the original was inspired by one of the workers at Neil’s Topanga ranch. I don’t know, I always assumed the old man in question was Scott Young, Neil’s well-known sportswriter father. Whoever it is, it’s a moot point in relation to Brad Mehldau’s subtle jazz-piano version, which has me again surprised to say that I like an instrumental best out of the available covers. As an interesting sidebar, when I type “old man” into Windows Media Player so I can round up all these versions and listen to them on my computer, a seventh old-man sound file comes up, a 1:22 excerpt from Richard Nixon’s farewell address to his White House staff: “I remember my old man. I think that they would have called him sort of a little man, a common man…” Neil’s nemesis also had his old man very much on his mind as things were falling apart around him, which in a way brings everything full circle back to the song’s key line, “Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you.” It was an insight that was truer than even Neil probably realized.
61. “ON THE BEACH” (ON THE BEACH, 1974)
Jean-Louis Murat (Live@Coopérative de mai, Clermont-Ferrand, 2003)
Radiohead (Gagging Order: Acoustic Recordings, 2004)
The original is surely on the shortlist of the most listless songs ever recorded—anomie, ennui, whatever you want to call it, “On the Beach” captures the very essence of what it’s like to sit in a chair for hours and stare blankly into space. I made it halfway through each of these versions before losing the will to live, so Murat and Radiohead both have the right idea.
62. “ON THE WAY HOME” (LAST TIME AROUND, 1968)
David Roback (Rainy Day, 1983)
George Usher Group (Five Way Street: A Tribute to Buffalo Springfield, 2006)
Ocean Colour Scene (Travellers Tune, 1997)
Neil’s been peeking over his shoulder since almost day one; “On the Way Home” was supposedly his farewell to Buffalo Springfield, although it also makes sense viewed through the prism of a relationship. Along with “For What It’s Worth” and “Mr. Soul,” it’s the only Springfield song I ever hear on the radio. George Usher has the best cover, but David Roback’s slowed-down version gets halfway there: love the music, find the vocal somewhat bland.
63. “ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK YOUR HEART” (AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, 1970)
Corrs (VH1 Presents The Corrs Live In Dublin, 2002)
Elkie Brooks (Shooting Star, 1978)
Everlast (Big Daddy O.S.T., 1999)
Juliana Hatfield (Gold Stars 1992-2002, 2002)
Psychic TV (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Saint Etienne (Foxbase Alpha, 1991)
Waltons (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
I wouldn’t say the original is the most famous song on After the Gold Rush (“Southern Man,” probably), and it doesn’t get much airplay on the classic-rock station here, but it has the ability to summon forth something extra in those who cover it; at least three of these are exceptional, and only the Waltons are less than really good. (Yes, it’s one of my own favorite Neil songs, and it’s always tricky to separate my feelings about the originals from the covers. There are a number of originals I rank just as high, though, and their covers just don’t have the same impact as some of these.) Everlast (rough-edged folk, with a Hawaiian twist), the Corrs (orchestrated folk), and Elkie Brooks (mid-tempo disco) all approach the song differently, and it proves eminently pliable. (I retain a funny memory of a former girlfriend, British, dancing to an Elkie Brooks album in her living room.)
I mentioned back in the introduction that Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson were the only two people to chart with a Neil cover after 1972; if the memory of Saint Etienne’s version made you think I must have miscounted, it actually only barely made it onto the UK Top 100. Radio’s loss—I put it in my Top 10 that year, and it’s only gotten more hypnotic with time. Juliana Hatfield’s rendition, is all swoon—beautiful singing, quavering instrumentation to mirror the song’s fragility, and a minor alteration to the melodic progression that adds an extra little lilt. And that leaves the bug-eyed, transgendered Satanist with the lengthiest and best version of all, the strangest thing about which is how very unstrange it is. There’s a lifetime of disappointment and missed opportunities in the counsel kept by “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” and while the lifetime that Psychic TV’s Genesis P-Orridge brings to the song is undoubtedly a lot more unusual than where Neil was coming from, all that matters in the end is the way he invests every last bit of it into the delicate fall of “Yes, only love can break your heart” each time he hits the chorus. Perfection.
64. “OUT ON THE WEEKEND” (HARVEST, 1972)
Bright Eyes (There Is No Beginning to the Story, 2002)
Elliott Smith (The Complete Live Covers: Day Three, 2007)
Tonia Sellers & Laura Hagen (Be the Rain, 2006)
Harvest’s opening track, basically “On the Beach” with a melody—just as listless, but you can sing along. (I’m sure there are people out there who sing along to “On the Beach,” just as there are probably people who sing along to Metal Machine Music, too.) Nothing too noteworthy among the covers, except maybe that Tonia Sellers & Laura Hagen leave the lyrics unchanged (“The woman I’m thinkin’ of, she loved me all up”). So maybe they’re lesbians.
65. “PARDON MY HEART” (ZUMA, 1975)
Devendra Banhart (“At the Hop” 7-inch)
Malcolm Burn (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
If songs like “Cortez the Killer” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” helped invent one kind of indie guitar music, “Pardon My Heart” might have had a hand in inventing another—the quieter, dreamier, living-room meditations that you sometimes get from Yo La Tengo, something along the lines of “Satellite.” The Devendra Banhart is a live recording that seems thin; Malcom Burn, a producer/engineer by trade, brings a lot more presence and some terrifically atmospheric guitar playing to his version, which is as good as the Built to Spill and Jeff Tweedy Zuma covers discussed earlier.
66. “PHILADELPHIA” (PHILADELPHIA: MUSIC FROM THE MOTION PICTURE, 1994)
Pet Shop Boys (undated)
The idea of the Pet Shop Boys covering Neil Young makes me inexplicably happy. This is from a television performance, with a bit of patter at the end in which Neil Tenant expresses his admiration for the film. I bet most gay artists would be a lot less charitable, but Tenant has always seemed like a fan at heart (“The Night I Fell in Love” being the most obvious example, but it’s something that runs through all his work), so it would feel wrong to hear him say anything else. In any event, the stateliness of the song suits his voice well, and they come through with a credibly somber rendition. It’s my understanding, by the way, that Chris Lowe was pushing hard for “Are You Ready for the Country?” but was overruled.
67. “PIECE OF CRAP” (SLEEPS WITH ANGELS, 1994)
Slobberbone (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
I’m surprised, and glad, that I only found the one cover of this—I would have thought it’d be a magnet for any band wanting to bash out some Neil at his most garage-like (self-consciously so, I’d say, which is ultimately the song’s limitation). I’m not surprised that the one band who grabbed it is named Slobberbone.
68. “POCAHONTAS” (RUST NEVER SLEEPS, 1979)
Crash Vegas (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Everclear (For College Radio Only, 1997)
Johnny Cash (Unearthed II: Trouble in Mind, 2003)
Marshall Wertheim (Be the Rain, 2006)
In looking over Neil’s entire body of work, the only important part of the human experience he’s in short supply of would be humor. (I guess there’s not a lot of sex, either, but if he’s not exactly 50 Cent, I wouldn’t say he’s Huey Lewis, either.) A kind of zonked-out wryness creeps into some of the mid-��70s albums—“Roll Another Number” makes me laugh, for sure—and when I saw the Rust Never Sleeps show in 1979, those hooded little munchkins running around on stage were pretty amusing. But I think “Pocahontas”’s last verse still contains the funniest lines Neil ever wrote:
And maybe Marlon Brando will be there by the fireThe prettiest of these covers belongs to Crash Vegas or Marshall Wertheim, but I’d probably still take Johnny Cash over either of them—really good on the merits, and extra points for the Einstein-Freud Principle discussed back in the “Cowgirl in the Sand” entry.
We'll sit and talk of Hollywood, and the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome, and the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, and me
69. “POWDERFINGER” (RUST NEVER SLEEPS, 1979)
Beat Farmers (Glad 'N' Greasy, 1986)
Chris Burroughs (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Cowboy Junkies (The Caution Horses, 1990)
Tonia Sellers & Laura Hagen (Be the Rain, 2006)
Uncle Tupelo (undated)
Yung Wu (Shore Leave, 1987)
Not sure why, but this is one case where any voice other than Neil’s seems to automatically diminish the song. The Beat Farmers, Uncle Tupelo, and Sellers/Hagen are serviceable, Chris Burroughs oversings, and the Cowboy Junkies try to do their “Sweet Jane” thing to little effect. Yung Wu were a Feelies spin-off; although their version’s a little crisper than the others, it basically falls in line with the rest.
70. “PRISONERS OF ROCK ��N ROLL” (LIFE, 1987)
Art Bergman & One Free Fall (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
I consciously avoided Life at the time, even though the reviews were pretty good (cf. “Computer Age” entry above), and being one of those records released in the last couple of years before CDs killed vinyl, I never did end up owning a copy. But I’ve now downloaded the album, and I can see where “Prisoners of Rock ��n Roll” was a path back to the vital work that lay around the corner for Neil. “That’s why we don’t want to be good” runs the risk of self-incrimination only two albums removed from the über-dreadful Landing on Water, but otherwise it’s a great line, and the song is a romp-and-a-half. Bergman’s cover is a little noisier and a lot hoarser; he and his backup band lose a little of the sparkle in Crazy Horse’s harmonizing, but it’s a fine version nonetheless.
71. “RED SUN” (SILVER & GOLD, 2000)
Charlie Macon (Be the Rain, 2006)
“Razor Love” was the only song on Silver & Gold that registered with me—I have the CD on the shelf, but I don’t know it at all. Checking back on “Red Sun,” the first thing I notice is how much the fold-out inner cover is meant to evoke the huge fold-out lyric sheet included with vinyl copies of Time Fades Away. Good song: I like Charlie Macon’s version a lot, but Neil’s gets the edge because of the backing vocals from, who else, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.
72. “REVOLUTION BLUES” (ON THE BEACH, 1974)
Eric Amble (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
From Charlie Macon to Charles Manson…Jimmy McDonough’s massive Shakey has some good stuff on Neil’s peripheral involvement with Manson during his Topanga Canyon period, which basically consisted of the two men sharing a birthday, being introduced to each other by Dennis Wilson, and Neil passing on a discarded motorcycle to Manson. (A footnote to this section contains my favorite quote in the book, the reaction of Crosby and Stills to the Tate-LaBianca murders: “They’re killin’ all the people with estates!”) Manson obviously made quite an impression on Neil—“He was an angry man. But brilliant. Wrong, but stone-brilliant…He was kind of skewed”—and five years after the fact, he ruminated on the cataclysmic events of 1969 in “Revolution Blues.” Same deal as “Last Dance”: it’s a song that works fine in the context of its album, but off on its own it’s not worth covering. The Bush version, which drags on for six minutes, is especially an ordeal.
73. “ROCKIN’ IN THE FREE WORLD” (FREEDOM, 1989)
Ian Biernacki (Be the Rain, 2006)
Moog Cookbook (The Moog Cookbook, 1996)
Sacred Roots (Be the Rain, 2006)
I’ve shrugged off enough famous songs by now (with a couple more still to come) that I wonder if anyone reading is thinking, “Does this guy even like Neil Young?” The problem is that Neil’s someone with a large, deep body of work that’s been collapsed into a half-dozen songs that get played to death on the radio. You could say the same of Dylan, the Byrds, the Jefferson Airplane, and any number of artists from the ��60s and ��70s (and ��80s, and ��90s…). That doesn’t really even apply to “Rockin’ in the Free World,” though, which always struck me as a pedestrian echo of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” and the overplay has only diminished it further. The best thing about the four covers is that they’re all sufficiently different from each other: Kobranocka sticks closest to the original, Sacred Roots slow it down for an acoustic version, Ian Biernacki plays herky-jerky new wave (for a while, anyway, until he turns into Joe Satriani), and I’m sure I don’t have to elaborate on the Moog Cookbook. But it’s still “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and it’s still tired.
74. “ROLL ANOTHER NUMBER” (TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT, 1975)
Tonia Sellers & Laura Hagen (Be the Rain, 2006)
Not really coverable. Sellers & Hagen give it a straightforward, respectful reading, but the original is the most wacked-out song on Tonight’s the Night, and it’s not like there’s not a lot of competition. “I’m a million miles away / From that helicopter day” sums up Neil’s mindset at the time quite succinctly, and the opening lines where he fumbles around with his car keys address his general motor skills. You can’t sing it like earnest folk music, and, to be honest, I’m not sure if it’s a song that lends itself to female voices.
75. “ROUND AND ROUND” (EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, 1969)
Jyrki Virta (Be the Rain, 2006)
“Round and Round” and “Running Dry” are veritable bookends on Everybody Knows, being so different from the rest of the album, so it’s apropos that they’re side-by-side alphabetically. “Round and Round” is the more conventional and, for me, the lesser of the two—it’s the only song on Everybody Knows I never really took to. Jyrki Virta transforms it into upbeat pop, and if I liked his voice more, it’s an idea that might’ve worked.
76. “RUNNING DRY” (EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, 1969)
Shane Faubert (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
A continuation of the artier experiments on Neil’s debut, but much more successful—never did find a cover of “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” and if anything was a disaster waiting to happen, that was it. Shane Faubert’s “Running Dry” really overdoes the piano; I can’t get past the fact that it feels like you’re listening to Liberace.
77. “SEDAN DELIVERY” (RUST NEVER SLEEPS, 1979)
Feelies (No One Knows, 1986)
Absurd memory from the summer of ’79, just after Rust Never Sleeps came out: me trying to convince my friend Peter (who’d introduced me to punk rock a few months earlier…I was a little late on that one) that “Sedan Delivery” sounded “exactly like Devo!” The absurdity was in how excited I was, as if aspiring to sound like Devo was a positive development for Neil. Listening to the Feelies’ cover, I don’t think the comparison was totally wrong—I think I hear some “Come Back Jonee” in there, and I’m sure I was aware at the time that the two had been “conferring” about working together. (Earlier I blamed Trans for a variety of the world’s problems; Devo must shoulder much of the blame for Trans.) In any event, the original holds up as well as “Pocahontas” or “Powderfinger,” and the Feelies are a perfect match for the song’s frenetic rhythm.Then, as now, I have no idea what it’s all about.
78. “(SEE THE SKY) ABOUT TO RAIN” (NEIL YOUNG, 1969)
Byrds (Byrds, 1973)
The Byrds took on a masterpiece with “Cowgirl in the Sand’; I hope their rationale here was that they thought there was something worth preserving in the very ordinary original, something they could make better. They do, a little.
79. “SLEEPS WITH ANGELS” (SLEEPS WITH ANGELS, 1994)
Mike Twitty (Be the Rain, 2006)
My two favorite meditations on Kurt Cobain are Imperial Teen’s amazing “You’re One” (cryptic, but I think they’re saying that if Cobain had accepted what they perceive as his homosexuality, Imperial Teen’s singer could have saved him and made everything all right) and Metal Mike Saunders’ “Kurt Cobain’s Dead” (not cryptic at all: “I’m jammin’ with Jim Croce, baby / It’s pretty sad / He wants to play Pearl Jam tunes now / And it’s makin’ me mad”). My least favorite is Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, which reduced a real life to a bad film-school experiment. Neil’s “Sleeps with Angels” falls somewhere in between—15 years after Rust Never Sleeps, he’s a half-beat off in trying to make sense of a cultural moment and a kindred spirit who left behind a very specific connection to his own life. (McDonough’s Shakey again has some very good interview material concerning Young’s reaction to Cobain’s death and his suicide note.) Mike Twitty’s drum-machine version actually sounds a little like disco. He maybe should have tried “Change Your Mind” instead, also from Sleeps with Angels and a better song, although I’m not sure it’s strong enough to justify its almost-15-minute length.
80. “SOUTHERN MAN” (AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, 1970)
Fire Down Below (undated)
Mystery Machine (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young , 1994)
Warren Haynes (undated)
I can still get something from the original’s atonal guitar barrage in the context of After the Gold Rush, contrasting as it does with the melodic purity of the album’s three opening songs, but on the radio, on its own, I almost always switch off. It feels cumbersome at this point—I even prefer the much-reviled-in-its-day “Alabama,” where you can at least have fun thinking about the Lynyrd Skynyrd feud. If U2 were going to show up on this list, “Southern Man” seems about right; Fire Down Below’s unimaginative thrash doesn’t bring anything new to the song either. Mystery Machine comes out best, opening with some Sonic Youth chords like they’re about to launch into “Teen Age Riot.”
81. “SUGAR MOUNTAIN” (DECADE, 1978)
Hush Arbors (Tour Souvenir CD, 2006)
Keith Wood’s voice is as conspicuous as Antony Hegarty’s, but, unlike Hegarty’s cover of “A Man Needs a Maid” that I wrote about earlier, Wood negotiates his way through “Sugar Mountain” just fine. I remember how incredibly far away the original seemed when I first encountered it on Decade (though I also remember the vague sensation that I’d heard it before—it was the B-side to the “Cinnamon Girl” single, so it probably got some airplay in Toronto); next to all the ��70s stuff I knew so well, it felt like some kind of excavation from another world. Without always getting the words exactly right—“cigarette” rhymes with “met,” not “meet”—Wood keeps the song’s secret-world quality intact, and that’s all he needed to do.
82. “TELL ME WHY” (AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, 1970)
Ashley Park (The American Scene, 2001)
Hayden (Live at Convocation Hall, 2002)
Hemingway Corner (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Hitchin’ Post (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Matthew’s Southern Comfort (Later That Same Year, 1971)
I’ve got take major issue with one of Sam Inglis’s pronouncements in his 33 1/3 book on Harvest (writing about Harvest’s predecessor): “Only ��Tell Me Why’ still sagged under precious lyrics and over-elaborate guitar playing…” Ouch—“Tell Me Why” nearly tops my list of Neil favorites. I’ve never thought much about the lyrics, I just blissfully sing along, but the guitar work is as lyrical and as nimble as anything Neil’s ever done, and it’s one of those melodies from Gold Rush that seems to have drifted down from some higher musical plane. Matthew’s Southern Comfort and Hayden have the best feel for the song, and Hayden gets additional credit for a) recording at Toronto’s Convocation Hall, where my own convocation was held 23 years ago, and b) some patter at the end about how “fucking Crosby never returned my call.” I also have covers of the Beatles’ “Tell My Why” by the Beach Boys and Terry Molhada—I think it’s the only title Neil and the Beatles ever shared.
83. “THE EMPEROR OF WYOMING” (NEIL YOUNG, 1969)
John “Mortimer” Evans (Ranted@Rust, Vol. 1, 2000)
Mushroom (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
I’m a big fan of the original—to me, it’s the best thing on Neil’s debut after “The Loner.” Being such an oddball throwaway, though, and especially because it’s an instrumental—Jack Nitzsche’s fingerprints are all over it—I’m surprised there are any covers versions out there at all. John Evans plays it like Billy Joel piano music, and (unlike Brad Mehldau’s “Old Man” discussed earlier), if that doesn’t seem right to you, we probably like the song for the same reasons. Mushroom do a good job sticking much closer to the source.
84. “THE LONER” (NEIL YOUNG, 1969)
Randy Bachman (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Supergrass (“Seen the Light” 7-inch, 2003)
My feelings about “The Emperor of Wyoming” notwithstanding, “The Loner” is indisputably Neil’s first great song out on his own. In the annals of creepy stalker songs, it’s up there with “Riders on the Storm” and Hüsker Dü’s “Dianne”—I’m sure there are others I’ve forgotten. It’s almost funny that it’s written in the third person, there not being much doubt who Neil’s writing about (“the darker side of me,” as he would later call it on “Lookin’ for a Love”). Like mid-��60s Dylan, every oblique line is crystal-clear: “He’s the unforeseen danger, the keeper of the keys to the locks.” Seeing Randy Bachman on this list makes me as almost as happy as seeing the Pet Shop Boys, and I wish his version were better than it is—he and Neil go way back in their shared Winnipeg roots, and the two collaborated in the mid-��90s on what I remember as a pretty good song called “Prairie Town.” I think the problem is that Bachman wants to raunch the song up, and raunchy is not what I hear in “The Loner.” Supergrass get the guitar right, but the singer sounds kind of…British.
85. “THE LOSING END” (EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, 1969)
Gourds (Best of Boots, 2002)
With the Gourds’ cover of “The Losing End,” Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere becomes the only Neil album in this inventory to be covered in its entirety. (Gold Rush, Harvest, Tonight’s the Night, and Zuma are all close.) Just the way I’d want it; the difference is microscopic, but Everybody has always had a slight edge over Gold Rush as my favorite. (It was also, I’m pretty sure, the first one I bought on vinyl, having made the audiophile upgrade from my 8-track of Harvest.) I guess “The Losing End”’s primary interest is as the foundation for Neil’s ongoing forays into country—in the context of its album, it’s an effective change of pace but otherwise fairly inconsequential. The Gourds do all right with it.
86. “THE NEEDLE AND THE DAMAGE DONE” (HARVEST, 1972)
Flea & Pearl Jam (Live @ Entertainment Centre, Sydney, Australia, 1995)
Henry Kaiser (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Our Lady Peace (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Pretenders (Pirate Radio, 2006)
Steven Roback (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Chrissie Hynde prefaces her live version by mentioning that she’s never met the songwriter. I find that exceptionally surprising, but obviously lines like “I hit the city and I lost my band” are made to order—as she also notes, she secretly suspects if was (clairvoyantly) written for her. Hynde can sing in the voice of the observer, as Neil wrote it; with Flea, well, he’s probably observer and participant. Everyone else, no idea. Having an autobiographical stake in the song is the best rationale I can see for wanting to cover it; working from the outside, there’s not a lot you can do with it. Not that you can’t go wrong working from the inside; Flea and Pearl Jam’s a cappella clap-along is a waste. Emma, whoever and wherever you are, I like your version best—intimate, unadorned, and under two minutes.
87. “THE OLD COUNTRY WALTZ” (AMERICAN STARS ��N BARS, 1977)
Harvest (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
My mid-��70s worship of Neil Young was as complete as could be, so my vague recollection is that when I first bought American Stars ��n Bars, I played it almost as uncritically and as regularly an all the other LPs. Today, I seriously doubt whether I could name half the songs. “Like a Hurricane,” “Homegrown,” “Saddle Up the Palomino,” this one, “Will to Love” (because it was so strikingly bad, something I thought even at the time)…that’s about where I start to draw a blank. “The Old Country Waltz” was Neil’s first straight-up country since Harvest, and you can see where that thread in his work was starting to devolve into little more than a retreat into genre. As for Harvest’s version, all the band’s imagination was seemingly invested in their name.
88. “THE OLD LAUGHING LADY” (NEIL YOUNG, 1969)
Johnny Yuma (Be the Rain, 2006)
Thea Gilmore (Loft Music, 2004)
Two totally different versions, both good, of a song that I never cared for at all—I’m very confused. Thea Gilmore’s, as her album title indicates, is ornate art-song, another approximation of the Nico Neil Young cover that doesn’t exist. Art-song is more or less how I remember the original, too—Johnny Yuma finds the folk song in there, and if you weren’t listening closely, you might even think he’s doing “Sugar Mountain.”
89. “THIS NOTE’S FOR YOU” (THIS NOTE’S FOR YOU, 1988)
Van Christians (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
With one of the tribute albums taking its name from this monstrosity, it follows that one of the participants had to contribute a cover. It’s either a little bit better or a little bit worse than Neil’s original, which I’ve been able to avoid since its release thanks to a restraining order I took out.
90. “THRASHER” (RUST NEVER SLEEPS, 1979)
Stephen Fearing (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Five years after “Ambulance Blues” and “Walk On” (and a decade after “On the Way Home”), Neil’s still working on that same song, the one where he breaks with the past and announces that he’s ready to move on. Not a problem—as I mentioned earlier, no one writes that song better than he does. Unfortunately, there’s something in Stephen Fearing’s vocal that misses the mark.
91. “THROUGH MY SAILS” (ZUMA, 1975)
Mojave 3 (Live@KCRW, California, 1995)
And therein is the punchline to Neil’s ongoing project to break free of the past, one that I’m sure he finds pretty funny himself: even as the hardheaded half of him says goodbye, the recidivist half is forever nostalgic for what “Thrasher” terms as all that “dead weight,” which in the case of “Through My Sails” meant an invitation to Crosby, Stills, and Nash to play on Zuma’s album-closer. As such, it’s definitely the most polished song on Zuma, and there are probably many people who feel it stands somewhat apart from what makes the album so great. Myself, I always thought it was the perfect way to finish off, and Mojave 3��s in-studio live version more than does the song justice.
92. “TILL THE MORNING COMES” (AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, 1970)
Françoise Hardy (If You Listen, 1971)
“Till the Morning Comes” stands alone within Neil Young’s body of work: much like David Bowie with “Kooks,” it’s as if he had temporarily been inhabited by whatever muse produced all those Bacharach-David classics for Dionne Warwick and Jackie DeShannon in the mid-60s, the ones where the horns peek out just long enough to elevate liliting melodies into the realm of sublime, childlike beauty. (I love After the Gold Rush’s other miniature side-closer, “The Cripple Creek Ferry,” almost as much.) That such a song should fall into the hands of a waifish Parisian ye-ye singer makes perfect sense, and though the horns are gone (replaced, as best I can hear, by a muted bit of synthesizer), the brevity, the piano, and the lilting melody remain.
93. “TIME FADES AWAY” (TIME FADES AWAY, 1973)
Steve Wynn (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Another one I played to death in high school, but in this case, it hasn’t lost hardly a thing. I once had an idea that it would make for an amazing interview if you could track down the two girls holding the Kiss sign on the back cover of Alive!, an image that just says everything about that particular moment in time. It’d be almost as good if you could find the guy flashing the peace sign on the front of Times Fades Away. The only thing we know for sure is that he was named Randy, because it’s an established scientific fact that every burnout in the ��70s was named Randy. Odd that Steve Wynn turns up twice with Neil Young covers (cf. “Cinnamon Girl”), but not at all among all the Velvet Underground covers I collected. Although his vocal on “Times Fades Away” isn’t as acerbic as Neil’s, the guitar din’s just fine.
94. “TIRED EYES” (TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT, 1975)
Cowboy Junkies (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
I’m not sure if the Cowboy Junkies should be allowed to cover songs that were dirges to begin with—to draw a baseball analogy, it’d be like sending out Cecil Fielder to pinch-run for David Wells. The bigger problem is Margo Timmins’ voice, which was a revelation on “Sweet Jane”; it’s all wrong for “Tired Eyes.” The Cowboy Junkies are one of only a few bands who have covers in each of my Neil, Velvets, and Beatles folders.
95. “TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT” (TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT, 1975)
Chris Cacavas (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Colin Linden (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
When I saw the Neil Young concert film from a few years ago—not Heart of Gold but The Year of the Horse, the one Jim Jarmusch directed—I found “Tonight’s the Night” almost assaultive. I believe it was played twice, just like on the album, and I remember thinking that it had been transformed over the years into a kind of communal exorcism shared by Neil and his audience, very close to what Lennon was up to on Plastic Ono Band. Yes, there was good reason for all of Neil’s ravaged yowling, but knowing the backstory didn’t make it any less of an ordeal to sit through. The two covers, of which Chris Cacavas’s is best, take a step back and return the song closer to its original form: eerie, mysterious, a strange invitation. Tonight’s the night…for what?
96. “TOO LONELY” (LIFE, 1987)
Empty Set (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
A much lesser “Prisoners of Rock ��n’ Roll,” cover and original both.
97. “TRANSFORMER MAN” (TRANS, 1982)
David Wilcox (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
David Wilcox, a longtime Toronto club journeyman who’s a staple on the classic-rock station here, is playing against type as much as Neil did with “Transformer Man,” and for that I’m glad—doing his own stuff, Wilcox plays in a style that’s anathema to me. So I’m even more surprised than I was with Sonic Youth’s Trans cover by how really not-bad this is. I guess I’m hearing for the first time what Trans admirers (there was Robert Christgau, and, uh, there was also that other guy, the one sitting over there) were saying all along: there are actually songs there.
98. “VAMPIRE BLUES” (ON THE BEACH, 1974)
Mercury Rev (Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp, 1998)
Pat Thomas & the Family Jewels (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Wooden Wand & the Vanishing Voice (Live@KDVS 90.3,California, 2005)
Not a fan of blues, of Neil doing blues, or of people covering Neil doing blues. So the relative quality of these three versions is lost on me. “Vampire”’s lyrics remain very elusive. They might be about a bad relationship, about the pop musician and his audience, about Manson, about general mid-��70s malaise, or about the ecology. Or they might just be surreal nonsense—they might not mean anything.
99. “WALK ON” (ON THE BEACH, 1974)
Jeff Tweedy (Live@Mandel Hall, Chicago, 2006)
I thought I’d read somewhere that “Walk On” was Neil’s post-mortem on the aborted Stills-Young Band tour, but I see now that’s impossible—the song predates the tour by two years. One of the Amazon reader-reviews says it was in fact addressed to press critics of his ’73 tour, which would make sense, and also to Lynyrd Skynyrd in the wake of “Sweet Home Alabama.” I hope that second part’s not true, because if this was the best Neil could come up with on that front, game, set, and match to Skynyrd. (I like the other account I’ve heard of Neil’s reaction to “Sweet Home Alabama” much better: that he loved the song, and almost immediately started adding it to his set lists.) Jeff Tweedy finishes his live version by saying “Just had to do it—speaking of Uncle Tupelo…”, which explains why he’d want to cover this; the problem is that he picked a song as ordinary and as bland as Uncle Tupelo were. I like the Hawaiian tinge he infuses into his guitar playing, though.
100. “WHEN YOU DANCE I CAN REALLY LOVE” (AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, 1970)
Big Sugar (Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1994)
Continental Drifters (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Okay, back on track after a bit of a dead stretch…As one of only two electric tracks on Gold Rush, “When You Dance” was always integral to the deep connection I made with that album; it’s basically Gold Rush’s “The Loner” or “Cinnamon Girl,” except with a little more sparkle and a lot less dread. Big Sugar seem to want to reverse course, laying on all manner of fuzzed-up guitar noodling overtop an overwrought lead vocal. The Continental Drifters’ version has clean harmonies and no waste—much superior.
101. “WINTERLONG” (DECADE, 1978)
Lee Ranaldo (This Note's for You Too: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1999)
Pixies (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Amerindie Hall of Fame, circa 1989—where’s Galaxie 500 on this list? Another of Decade’s archival extras that seemed to be more significant when it first appeared than it does now, with both covers sticking close to the script. Four songs to go, and I’ve officially run out of things to say.
102. “WITHOUT RINGS” (SILVER & GOLD, 2000)
Scott Sandi (Be the Rain, 2006)
I gave a link where you can obtain Be the Rain back in the introduction; you might also try http://www.cherk.com/ranted/ for Ranted@Rust Vol. 1: A Tribute to the Songs of Neil Young. I can’t get that one to fly; the download works, but because I lose a few songs when I try to unzip the folder, I’ve omitted the rest entirely. Scott Sandi’s “Without Rings” is another good one from Be the Rain. If I’m reading the notes correctly, both these albums compile semi-professionals who are first and foremost fans. Anonymity is not a disadvantage when covering other people’s music—gets all preconceived notions out of the way—and all in all, I think there’s a higher percentage of good stuff to be found on Be the Rain than The Bridge, This Note’s for You Too, or Borrowed Tunes. It’s even legal—they want you to help yourself.
103. “WONDERIN’” (EVERYBODY’S ROCKIN’, 1983)
Aubriton Meek, Jr. (Be the Rain, 2006)
I’m sure glad somebody had the wherewithal to rescue “Wonderin’” from Everybody’s Rockin’, which was even good enough at the time to withstand Neil’s belated Stray Cats fixation. (It’s a song that Young had written years earlier and never recorded.) Aubriton Meek gives it a jangly countryish reading—perhaps he thought he was lifting from Old Ways—and the song’s essential winsomeness shines through. Of the very few Neil Young videos I’ve ever seen, “Wonderin’” was the only great one.
104. “WORDS” (HARVEST, 1972)
Henry Kaiser (The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, 1989)
Harvest’s messiest song, and one of its best. There’s a version on Journey Through the Past that goes on forever—I set down the needle 30 years ago, and it still hasn’t finished. Henry Kaiser convincingly wends his way through all the formless muck, but the strident vocal from Roseanne Lindley, David’s daughter, is a little hard to take. We’re back to Cecil Fielder pinch-running for David Wells—“Words” is already test enough of one’s endurance, it doesn’t need any additional uglification.
105. “WRECKING BALL” (FREEDOM, 1989)
Emmylou Harris (Wrecking Ball, 1995)
As unpromising a start as Antony & the Johnsons were 104 songs ago, Emmylou Harris comes full circle with a sublime exit. Beautiful singing, which you’d expect, but the harder part is getting all that ghostly accompaniment in the background right, and she and her band do. And that’s where we’ll finish off with the song part of this inventory, at the wrecking ball. Meet me there, and wear something pretty and white. I’ll be in some kind of plaid lumberjack get-up, trying my best to look like the big guy.
Before moving on to single-artist tributes, these are my favorite Neil songs that aren’t listed anywhere above: “Cripple Creek Ferry,” “Soldier,” “Journey Through the Past” (the most surprising omission—thought for sure someone would claim that), “Love in Mind,” “Ocean Girl,” “Over and Over,” and another real early one from the Squires days, “There Goes My Babe.” A version of “Cripple Creek Ferry” by Charlie Coombs turns up on the aforementioned Ranted@Rust, but with the rest I didn’t come across anything. An even more surprising omission: I couldn’t get my hands on Joey Gregorash’s “Down by the River,” quite likely the very first Neil Young cover I heard back in 1971.
RUSTED MOON: THE STRING QUARTET TRIBUTE TO NEIL YOUNG (VITAMIN, 2002)
Strings are dramatic. You could take the collected works of Mr. Mister, Billy Vera, and My Chemical Romance, and if you set it all to strings, there’d be drama. There’s something about the violent swoop of violins that brings out the best in almost anything, and Neil’s work lends itself to the full treatment beautifully. The songs I most love, “After the Gold Rush” and “Ohio,” stand up fine; the big rock statements I’m tired of, “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Southern Man,” are charged back to life; and even “Lotta Love,” possibly the most lightweight thing Neil ever wrote, seems vital. Quotations from “Pachabel’s Canon” are snuck into “Harvest Moon,” and while I don’t quite get the connection, musically they mesh together seamlessly. (Oh—that must be the connection.)
Best of all is the album’s one original composition, “N.Y.T.,” a loose paraphrase of “After the Gold Rush”’s melody. The only misstep is “Down by the River”—it starts off promisingly, but there’s a clear alteration in the chorus’s melody that throws me. Seeing as side two of Neil’s debut led off with “String Quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill,” it was probably preordained that he’d one day be the subject of a string quartet tribute. I’m kidding…the Beatles’ recent orchestral experimentation notwithstanding, do you think anyone in 1969 thought that rock music would eventually be acceptable territory for classical musicians? Also highly recommended: The String Quartet Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico, a remake of the entire first album. Same label, different musicians, same story—dramatic.
DAVID ARI LEON: THE PIANO TRIBUTE TO NEIL YOUNG (VITAMIN, 2005)
Piano isn’t quite so infallible. Although I enjoy some of this (“Wrecking Ball” is quite good, and again there’s a solitary original composition, “Rolling Home to You,” that demonstrates a real understanding of Neil’s melodic gift), my attention wanders in a way that it doesn’t with the string quartet tribute. Another obstacle that sometimes gets in the way for me when it comes to piano renditions of familiar rock music is what I’ll call the Bill Murray Problem. When Leon takes on “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Ohio,” and his playing becomes more aggressive and intense, I start thinking of Bill Murray’s lounge lizard from the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live. There are no vocals on this record, but at times it feels like Murray might swoop in at any moment: “We’re finally on our own, cats…Can you hear it? Can you dig that drumming?”
GETTING HIGH ON NEIL YOUNG: A BLUEGRASS TRIBUTE (CMH RECORDS, 2000)
I’m surprised I didn’t come across any straight-up multi-artist country tributes to Neil—it seems like such an inevitable idea. There’s probably some suspicion at work there—once an interloper, always an interloper—and more generally speaking, I always feel like country never got much past Elvis when it came to pop music. Getting High on Neil Young limits itself to two songs from Harvest, and includes none from either Harvest Moon or Old Ways, so credit it with avoiding the obvious; almost half of the songs here are drawn from the electric half of Neil’s catalogue. As to whether “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Mr. Soul” were meant to sound like the Beverly Hillbillies theme, well, if I’m of a Jethro Bodine frame of mind, it doesn’t sound altogether wrong—I go back and forth on this record. When they bring in some violins on “Ohio,” it feels more like Stephane Grappelli than anything country. The weirdest moment of all, though—and I’m not making this up, because I couldn’t—is when they break into three seconds of the Odd Couple theme during “Cinnamon Girl.” I have no explanation.
HALLO VENRAY: ROLL ANOTHER NUMBER: A TRIBUTE TO NEIL YOUNG (INBETWEEN, 2001)
Strings, piano, bluegrass—here’s a real novelty to finish off, a live album of a rock group playing Neil Young songs. Nothing too adventurous, but a couple of moments make me smile: Dutch guys proclaiming “Back in Canada, I spent my days…” (I wish I could see what pictures run through their minds when they sing that; Mounties on bison playing ice hockey, maybe) and the way they send everybody home with “On the Beach.” Show Business Rule #1: always leave ��em laughing.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, at the very last minute I discover four (!) albums I wasn’t even aware of: Mirror Ball Songs (Japanese bands), Everybody Knows This Is Norway: A Norwegian Tribute to Neil Young, Headed for the Ditch: A Michigan Tribute to Neil Young, and The Fiddle and the Damage Done: The Ultimate Pickin’ on Neil Young. Step aside, open wide—there’s no end to it.
By: Phil Dellio
Published on: 2007-09-10