On Aug. 11, 1976, Neil Young went into Indigo Ranch Studio in Malibu, put his producer/engineer David Briggs behind the board, and with an “You ready, Briggs?” began recording “Pocahontas.”
"Pausing only for weed, beer, or coke,” Young wrote in his 2014 memoir “Super Deluxe,” he recorded 10 songs with just guitar or piano that day, intending them to be an album.
On further consideration, however, Young decided not to release “Hitchhiker” -- “I was pretty stony on it, and you can hear it in my performance,” he wrote in “Super Deluxe.”
But Young knew he was onto something with the material -- eight of songs, often in radically different versions, subsequently ended up on Young albums from 1977’s “American Stars ‘n Bars” to 2010’s “Le Noise.”
Now, Young -- surprise, surprise -- has reversed himself, officially releasing the oft-bootlegged “Hitchhiker.”
And it is a true lost gem, a raw, revealing recording that captures Young at what I would argue is his artistic peak, playing the simplest, but most effective versions of songs that have become classics. They deserve revisiting along with two that have never been released.
The classics include “Pocahontas,” which in its acoustic presentation doesn’t differ all that much from how it appeared on his 1979 masterpiece “Rust Never Sleeps.” The same holds true for “Ride My Llama.”
The stripped-down version of “Powderfinger,” however, puts a different, more-resonant spin on the song that, in the hands of Crazy Horse, became one of Young’s most earth-scorching rocker. The acoustic version becomes a dramatic reading by its 22-year-old protagonist facing down death.
Among the songs that deserve revisiting is “Hitchhiker,” which turned up on “Le Noise,” Young’s venture into electronic music. Here with jangly acoustic guitar, harmonica and Young’s sweetly ragged vocals, it becomes a haunted, drug-soaked autobiographical journey.
And “Campaigner,” from 1976’s “Decade” was, 41 years ago, an elegy for Richard Nixon, who’d resigned the presidency in disgrace two years earlier. But with lines like, “The speaker speaks, but the truth still leaks,” it takes on new resonance -- an instant protest song in the era of Donald Trump.
The two previously unreleased songs, presented back to back, are “Hawaii,” a story-song ballad of an encounter with a stranger that’s simultaneously unsettling and hopeful, and “Give Me Strength,” a sturdy, wandering tale of lost love.
“Got to change the vocal mic to the piano,” Young tells Briggs before beginning a stately version of “Old Country Waltz” that closes the 34-minute album that, for hardcore Young fans -- the album’s audience -- demands and rewards repeat listening. Grade: A