‘I fell in love with Neil’s pain,’ Carrie Snodgress said, recalling her life with Neil Young. Apparently, she meant physical pain: Young had back injuries from polio contracted at the age of six or seven, type 1 diabetes and epilepsy. But no matter how chronic, pain does not make for a solid foundation. The marriage ended. Young made an album about it, then shelved it. ‘It was a little too personal,’ he told Cameron Crowe in 1975. ‘It scared me.’ ‘You gotta keep changing,’ he said. ‘Shirts, old ladies, whatever.’
It was the seventies, man. But last month, Young posted a note to his website:
I apologise. This album Homegrown should have been there for you a couple of years after Harvest. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind … but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean. Anyway … this is the one that got away.
A few days later the album arrived: twelve songs, and a cover drawn by Tom Wilkes, who’d drawn the cover for Harvest. Chronologically, Homegrown would have followed On the Beach, appearing in 1975. As it was, Tonight’s the Night was released in its place. But the chronology is confusing. Of the three albums, Tonight’s the Night – a drunken threnody for Danny Whitten, who played guitar in Young’s band, Crazy Horse, and Bruce Berry, a Crazy Horse roadie – was recorded first, in 1973. And even that is confused, because the album’s fifth song (‘Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown’) was recorded live in 1970, and Whitten plays and sings on the track – making a cameo appearance on his own memorial album. It’s haunting, it’s haunted. ‘The whole thing is about life, dope and death,’ Young explained at the time. But Homegrown frightened him more. Why is that?
It’s revealing, sure, and direct, but Young’s ‘too personal’ sounds to me more like an aesthetic judgment. On the Beach was wild-eyed and dark: ‘I see bloody fountains/and ten thousand dune buggies, coming down the mountain’ – but that was about Nixon and Manson, the start of the nation’s collapse. Tonight’s the Night was a howl of pain – but it, too, was directed outward. Those albums were exorcisms because the pain had been processed, however partially. On Homegrown, Young doesn’t know which way to turn. He starts off by singing ‘I won’t apologise.’ In the next song, he pivots: ‘And I try to wash my hands/And I try to make amends.’ Some of the songs that follow sound barely finished or are – generously – tone poems. Some are opaque. Some are blistering. Some are beautiful. The old idea that art can describe confusion, but should not itself be confused, keeps coming to mind.
But so what? Neil Young is a master of right-wrong things. On Tonight’s the Night he rhymed ‘ignition’ with ‘hood ornament’ and got away with it (in fact, it’s a high point of his catalogue). Most of the time, he’s perfectly imperfect, and if Homegrown is merely imperfect, what of it?
Another way of looking at it would be to say the album’s unfinished. Not that it doesn’t compare to other great chronicles of divorce – Shoot Out the Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson; Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages; Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks; Aretha Franklin’s Spirit in the Dark – but it doesn’t resolve as those other records do. That, in itself, makes it truer to divorce, as divorce really is. But there’s still something missing. Phases and Stages and Shoot Out the Lights describe heartbreak, but also the start of new narratives; pearls forming around the old wounds and abrasions. On Homegrown, Young’s half in and half out of the oyster shell, stuck between stages, unstable, untenable, turned inside out, dying. Somehow, he survived.
Snodgress died in 2004, waiting for a liver transplant. ‘I fell in love with the actress,’ Young had sung in 1971. ‘She was playing a part that I could understand.’ In 1970, Snodgress had won two Golden Globes (best actress and ‘new star of the year’) for Diary of a Mad Housewife. She walked away from her career to live with Young on his ranch, but the divorce left her as a single mother. Film roles weren’t so easy to come by. At some point, she took up with Jack Nitzsche, who’d produced and played piano on ‘A Man Needs a Maid’. In 1979, he was arrested for pistol-whipping and threatening to kill her.
Was it worth it? Snodgress didn’t know who Neil Young was when he first asked her out. Did she know in 1974, or on her deathbed? She tended to speak of him fondly. ‘I decided I was going to be in love,’ she once said. ‘I was going to give it everything I had. It was like heaven up on that ranch. I don’t know why we broke up. We never fought.’