In the ‘70s, while his peers Bob Dylan and Van Morrison exuded personae of mystery or moodiness, Neil Young was capricious to the point of possible self-immolation when it came to the arc of his career. At the end of the decade he was winding down from the deliberate “anti-popularity” of “The Ditch Trilogy.” In the liner notes of his then-greatest hits album Decade, the Young wrote, “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.”
But what a glorious ditch it was. Young (with either his backing bands Crazy Horse or the Stray Gators) released a trifecta of still-stunning, consecutive rock albums: Time Fades Away, On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night.
Releasing such stark and emotional albums mystified many, yet the influence of those albums is resolute. During this same era, usually working with his longtime producer-ally-enabler David Briggs, Young began writing, recording and then shelving entire albums of music; certain blasphemy in an age when his peers were racking up serious monies with every new album and battling for FM-radio supremacy.
In the early 2000s, Young began releasing many of these recordings courtesy of his multimedia-rich Neil Young Archives, increasing the output of these formerly unreleased or previously bootleg-only recordings. The quality and desirability of these long-dormant albums varies and (historical value aside) is truly dependent on the temperament of each listener.
Originally compiled in the spring of 1977, Chrome Dreams is Young’s 44th album and it boasts an impressive quantity of the tunes that would become standards in Young’s undeniable canon of 20th-century songwriting achievements.
A song that Young has claimed was originally written for Lynyrd Skynyrd, the three-minute recording of “Powderfinger” is Young at his best: an acoustic guitar strumming a total of four chords; a microphone, surely a strong buzz happening, and (as ever) nary a musical bridge in sight. “Powderfinger” documents that last moments of a “just turned 22” young man left to defend the family homestead, armed with only a gun and headful of questions about life. By song’s end, the hero is reduced to being a ghost singing his own epitaph to the listener.
Chrome Dreams reveals to us the original version of “Powderfinger’— it first appearing on Young’s 1979 live-and-studio album Rust Never Sleeps. The closing stanzas of the song, where Young turns his clairvoyant skills at chronicling anguish to their peak level: “Shelter me from the powder and the finger / Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger / Just think of me as one you never figured / Would fade away so young / with so much left undone / Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her.”
Neil Young has a prenatal immunity to trends. He still releases so many current solo recordings or albums with his longtime musical comrades that one would be hard pressed to believe that even Young likes all of his own music. To many younger listeners, he may come across as an irascible and admirably opinionated ’60s burnout. But his legacy is resolute more due to the consequence of his work than his personality.
“Powderfinger” is Young swinging the perfect game and an ideal touchpoint to clearly hear an artist working at an optimal and intimate level.