Certain Songs #1265: Neil Young – “After The Gold Rush (Boston 10-04-1978)”

Album: Live Rust
Year: 1979

Recorded at Boston Garden on October 4, 1978

On the shortlist of Prettiest Songs Ever Recorded, Neil Young division, “After The Gold Rush” combines surreal, apocalyptic imagery with absolutely unforgettable melody.

While I’m sure a lot of folks prefer the studio version, I always loved the version on Live Rust, which admittedly sacrifices some of the fragility, but replaces the flugelhorn solo with a harmonica solo, and of course has the inappropriate audience cheering after Neil sings “and I felt like getting high,” which has always kinda cracked me up.

Like most of the songs on After The Gold Rush, the title track was influenced by a screenplay that the actor Dean Stockwell had written on the encouragement of Dennis Hopper. The film never got made and the script is long lost — because early 1970s insanity — but before that, it made its way to Neil, and led to one of his most vivid songs.

Well, I dreamed I saw the knights in armor coming
Sayin’ somethin’ about a queen
There were children singin’ and drummers drummin’
The archer split the tree
There was a fanfare blowin’ to the sun
That floated on the breeze
We got mother nature on the run
In the nineteen seventies
Look at mother nature on the run
In the nineteen seventies

From what I’ve gleaned from various sources, After The Gold Rush the film was remarkably like a book I read many times as a kid called The Last Days of The Late Great State of California, which combined a look at California’s history with a scary-ass chapter describing a massive earthquake that basically saw the entire state west of the San Andreas fault sliding into the ocean.

Apparently, in Stockwell’s screenplay, California doesn’t slide into the ocean so much as the ocean engulfs the state with a massive tidal wave. In the song, however, it’s pretty much armagideon time.

I was lyin’ in a burnt out basement
With the full moon in my eye
I was hopin’ for a replacement
When the sun burst through the sky
There was a band playin’ in my head
And I felt like getting high
Thinkin’ about what a friend had said
I was hopin’ it was a lie
Thinkin’ about what a friend had said
I was hopin’ it was a lie

Which is why the cheering after “I felt like getting high” — which of course, probably started in 1970 and goes on to this day — is so inappropriate: dude is basically talking either about being nuked or the sun going supernova and you’re cheering because he mentioned getting high?

What’s ironic is that a screenplay that ends with such a violent, catastrophic occurrence inspired such a delicate song. And in the the live version, there is an absolutely sublime moment during the second half of the harmonica solo where Neil switches from playing chords underneath to a series of high notes, and it is quietly transcendent, so much so that he comes to a dead stop prior to singing the final verse.

Well, I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flyin’
In the yellow haze of the sun
There were children cryin’
And colors flyin’
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loadin’ had begun
We were flyin’ mother nature’s silver seed
To a new home in the sun
Flyin’ mother nature’s silver seed to a new home

Though even this (relatively) upbeat ending is full of mystery and dread: who built the spaceships? Who got chosen? What happened to those who didn’t get chosen? These are, of course, impossible questions to answer, and when asked about it by biographer Jimmy McDonough, he said that it was both an environmental song and a time-travel song. It’s also a song that has been covered by people as diverse as Radiohead, Dolly Parton and Patti Smith.

“After The Gold Rush” from Live Rust (audio only)

“After The Gold Rush” original studio version

“After The Gold Rush” live in San Francisco, 1986

“After The Gold Rush” live at Jones Beach, 1989

“After The Gold Rush” live at the Bridge School, 1993

“After The Gold Rush” electric live w/ Crazy Horse, Dublin 2014

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