Certain Songs #1243: Neil Young – “Old Man”

Album: Harvest
Year: 1972

Recorded at Quadraphonic Sound Studios, Nashville, February 6, 1971

So in case you’re curious: when it comes to Neil Young’s biggest solo hits, I’ve always liked “Old Man,” and begrudgingly accepted that “Heart of Gold” is a fine song, and am glad that they both exist. It’s awesome that Neil Young had a #1 hit, regardless of my lack of enthusiasm for that hit. Besides, I think that Neil needed a taste of superstardom in order to realize that it was something that he didn’t really want.

And lets not forget that even before the so-called “Ditch Trilogy” that followed Harvest was Journey Through The Past, a combo of nearly unwatchable film — and yeah, I tried at a midnight movie at the Tower Theater back in the early 1980s — and tossed-off soundtrack that was clearly a direct challenge to the millions who came aboard at Harvest.

Let’s just say this: he wasn’t going to take the same path that the man who played banjo on this track — James Taylor, for those of you keeping score at home — took, no matter how tempting it might have been. So instead of being a harbinger, Harvest was really more of an anomaly, one of his few records that was musically in sync with his previous record. Which, for those who loved the spacey guitar jams of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere probably seemed kind of scary, as the closest thing to one of those was “Words,” which really wasn’t.

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

Inspired by the caretaker at the Broken Arrow ranch, which he had just bought and will probably prove to be his final resting place, “Old Man” is quiet and contemplative, a wise-beyond-his-years 24-year-old singing to his aged reflection in the mirror.

With bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Kenny Buttrey providing the trademark kick-kick-snare rhythm — Neil explicitly telling Buttrey to stay away from his hi-hat — James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt chiming in on high harmonies, and Taylor providing an extra banjo hook over Ben Keith’s pedal steel, “Old Man” was also a marvel in dynamics, quite a feat for a song that was fully acoustic.

Old man take a look at my life
I’m a lot like youuuuu
I need someone to love me
The whole day throuuuugh
Ah, one look in my eyes
And you can tell that’s truuuuue

But listen to how it builds to each chorus — Neil singing at the highest part of his range to keep up with Taylor & Ronstadt — and then drops to almost a whisper before the verses, and then at the end, even the rhythm section drops out for a few bars near the end so he can ask the question one last time.

Like “Cinnamon Girl,” “Old Man” feels like it was a bigger hit at the time, because it’s been so ubiquitous ever since, but it only got to #31 on the Billboard Hot 100, his last top 40 pop hit, as he was headed straight towards the ditch.

“Old Man”

“Old Man” performed on the BBC, 1971

“Old Man” performed by CSNY (and Joni Mitchell), London, 1974

“Old Man” performed in Austin, 1984

“Old Man” performed at Farm Aid, 1998

“Old Man” performed in Nashville, 2006

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