Neil Young – Old Man

Neil Young wrote this about the caretaker of the ranch he bought in 1970.

His name was Louis Avila. The ranch was the Broken Arrow Ranch, purchased for $350,000 in 1970 (I have to wonder what it would cost now). Reportedly, Avila was giving Young a tour of the place and asked him how a young man like him could afford a place like this. Young, aged 25, replied “Well, just lucky, Louie, just real lucky.’ And Louis said, ‘Well, that’s the darndest thing I ever heard.’

Neil Young Archives on Twitter: "February 71' Neil and Louis Avila on  Broken Arrow Ranch,1970, just around the time it was purchased. Neil lived  there for 44 years. Taking care of the

Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor sang backing vocals on  Old Man and another Harvest track, Heart of Gold. James Taylor played six-string banjo.

Old Man peaked at #31 in the Billboard 100 and #4 in Canada in 1972. Looks like Canada got this right.

Linda Ronstadt: “I can’t remember why Neil wanted me to sing with him – I guess he just figured I was there and could do it but we went in there and they were doing ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’ and I thought they were such beautiful songs. I loved them.

And I knew how to do harmonies. I’d listened to the Buffalo Springfield harmonies and I knew how to get that 7th they always used. I don’t think we started until midnight and it was dawn when we came out, and it was snowing – we came out to this beautiful snow storm in the rising sun. It was really exciting. I just thought I’ve been part of something really wonderful.”

Neil Young: About that time when I wrote (Heart of Gold), and I was touring, I had also — just, you know, being a rich hippie for the first time — I had purchased a ranch, and I still live there today.

And there was a couple living on it that were the caretakers, an old gentleman named Louis Avala and his wife Clara. And there was this old blue Jeep there, and Louis took me for a ride in this blue Jeep. He gets me up there on the top side of the place, and there’s this lake up there that fed all the pastures, and he says, ‘Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?’

And I said, ‘Well, just lucky, Louie, just real lucky.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s the darndest thing I ever heard.’

From Songfacts

This was the first song recorded for the Harvest album. Neil Young arranged the session the previous night when he was at a party held at Quadrafonic Studios in Nashville (he was in town to record a segment for Johnny Cash’s TV show). The studio owner Elliot Mazer was also a producer who had worked with a band Young admired called Area Code 615. Young asked if he could record there the next day, and Mazer complied, supplying not just the studio, but also the musicians.

The session took place on Saturday, February 6, 1971 with a group of Music City studio pros: Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar, Tim Drummond on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums.

It was never the metric on which he wanted to be judged, but “Old Man” was the second-biggest hit for Neil Young as a solo artist, reaching #31 on the Hot 100. His biggest hit, by far, was his previous single, the Harvest track “Heart of Gold,” which went to #1.

There was some conflict over a hi-hat when Young recorded this song. When drummer Kenny Buttrey played it, Young told him not only to refrain from the hi-hat, but to only play with his left hand, which Buttrey thought was ridiculous. The drummer complied, however, literally sitting on his right hand to resist temptation. Buttrey later quipped: “He hires some of the best musicians in the world and has them play as stupid as they possibly can.”

It was immediately after the success of “Old Man” and the Harvest album that Danny Whitten, central to Young’s band Crazy Horse, passed away. Young invited Whitten to audition for his backing band the Stray Gators on the condition that he cleaned up his substance abuse. Young gave him a trial, but it looked to be the same old story with Whitten, so he fired him. Whitten promptly went home and overdosed, found dead with Valium and alcohol in his system.

Young got the call that night, and was devastated. Whitten’s death was part of the darkening of Neil Young’s act during the time following “Old Man;” it wasn’t just the success or being “headed for the ditch.”

Young told Jimmy McDonough that the line “Does it mean that much to me, to mean that much to you?” is meant to be directed towards the audience.

James Taylor is credited with playing “guitar-banjo” on this song. Taylor, who along with Linda Ronstadt was in the studio recording vocals, saw the banjo and started playing it. The instrument belonged to Young; it was a called a “guitar-banjo” because it was a banjo tuned like a guitar.

Bob Dylan covered this song throughout his 2002 tour.

This song has appeared in various films over the years, including Due Date, Lords of Dogtown, and Wonder Boys.

2015 The Voice champion Sawyer Fredericks covered the song during the show’s finale. The following week his version reached #63 on the Hot 100.

In 2018, a 72-years Young said during a concert in Chicago: “It’s hard to do ‘Old Man’ now. It’s like, ‘Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like I am.”

At the memorial service for actor Heath Ledger, “Old Man” was chosen as the song to play over a slideshow showing his various roles and life.

Old Man

Old man, look at my life
I’m a lot like you were
Old man look at my life
I’m a lot like you were

Old man, look at my life
Twenty four and there’s so much more
Live alone in a paradise
That makes me think of two

Love lost, such a cost
Give me things that don’t get lost
Like a coin that won’t get tossed
Rolling home to you

Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes and you can tell that’s true

Lullabies, look in your eyes
Run around the same old town
Doesn’t mean that much to me
To mean that much to you

I’ve been first and last
Look at how the time goes past
But I’m all alone at last
Rolling home to you

Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes and you can tell that’s true

Neil Young – The Needle and the Damage Done

This is a powerful song by Neil. This song was the B side of Old Man. It’s gotten a lot of airplay through the years and serves as a cautionary tale for drug use. The lyric “every junkie’s like a settin’ sun” says it all.

Neil Young wrote this one about Danny Whitten, one of the original members of his band Crazy Horse. In 1971, Young went on tour and hired Crazy Horse and Nils Lofgren as backup. During rehearsals, Whitten was so high on heroin that he couldn’t even hold up his guitar. Young fired him, gave Whitten 50 bucks (for rehab) and a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. Upon reaching LA, Whitten overdosed on alcohol and Valium, which killed him.

This wouldn’t be Young’s only loss from heroin. Longtime friend and roadie Bruce Berry would also overdose on heroin just months after Whitten. Berry’s song is “Tonight’s The Night,” on the album of the same name.

The song was on Harvest which peaked at #1 in the Billboard Album Charts.

Neil Young on Danny Whitten: “I felt responsible. But really there was nothing I could do. I mean, he was responsible. But I thought I was for a long time. Danny just wasn’t happy. It just all came down on him. He was engulfed by this drug. That was too bad. Because Danny had a lot to give. boy. He was really good.”

 

From Songfacts
Danny Whitten was one of the founding members of Crazy Horse and was very influential on much of Young’s work preceding his heroin addiction. His influence is particularly noticeable on Young’s second album, 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Leading up to Whitten’s dismissal from the band and overdose, Young even attempted daily one-on-one lessons to try and rehabilitate his old friend.

As quoted in Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History, Neil Young says of the tragic death of Whitten: 

The song’s first line mentions a “cellar door.” Young and Crazy Horse, with Whitten, had played Washington DC’s Cellar Door club in 1969.

Young’s famous version was recorded live at the University Of California in January 1971, a year before it appeared on his Harvest album.

A solo, acoustic performance of this song by Young from Massey Hall in Toronto on January 19, 1971 features on his 2007 Live at Massey Hall 1971 album. He introduces it with a short explanation: “Ever since I left Canada, about five years ago or so and moved down south… found out a lot of things that I didn’t know when I left. Some of ’em are good, and some of ’em are bad. Got to see a lot of great musicians before they happened, before they became famous – y’know, when they were just gigging. Five and six sets a night, things like that. And I got to see a lot of great musicians who nobody ever got to see, for one reason or another. But, strangely enough, the real good ones that you never got to see was… ’cause of, ahhm, heroin. An’ that started happening over an’ over. Then it happened to someone that everyone knew about. So I just wrote a little song.”

This was one of the songs that Young performed at Live Aid in 1985.

Young made this succinct statement about the song in the liner notes to his album Decade: “I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men.”

Flea, famed bassist of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, played the song frequently on a 1993 tour following the singer John Frusciante’s temporary departure due to heroin addiction.

The song has struck a long-lived chord with broad range of musicians. Over the years, it’s also been covered by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Dave Matthews, and Jewel.

At Young’s 1995 Bridge School benefit concert, the Pretenders sang this in honor of Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon, who died a week earlier from a drug overdose. Blind Melon was scheduled to play the event but canceled after Hoon’s death.

The Needle and the Damage Done

I caught you knockin’ at my cellar door,
I love you baby can I have some more?
Oh, the damage done.

I hit the city and I lost my band,
I watched the needle take another man.
Gone, gone, the damage done.

I sing the song because I love the man,
I know that some of you don’t understand.
Milk blood to keep from runnin’ out.

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done,
a little part of it in everyone,
but every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.