Certain Songs #1281: Neil Young – “Unknown Legend”

Album: Harvest Moon
Year: 1992

Recorded at Redwood Digital on January 30, 1992

The formal sequel to Harvest — one might argue that Comes a Time was an informal sequel, at least — 1992’s exquisite Harvest Moon was a bit of a fluke: because he had developed a raging case of tinnitus while mixing Arc-Weld, he had no choice but to do quiet music for awhile.

I mean, I guess he could have chosen to do no music for awhile, but c’mon, this is Neil Young! So he reconvened the Stray Gators: Tim Drummond on bass, Spooner Oldham on keyboards, the always reliable Ben Keith on pedal steel and — in a surprise — Kenny Buttrey, last seen being fired during the Time Fades Away tour two decades prior.

Neil claims that the resulting album, Harvest Moon, is his quietest album, and I’m not sure that there is an electric instrument within 15 miles of it. Which is I’m surprised to report that it’s not just my favorite of his acoustic albums, my favorite of his 1990s albums, but one of my favorite Neil Young albums full stop.

1992 was another tumultuous year for me: it got insane around March or so, and didn’t let up until just around my 30th birthday, which was only a week or so after Harvest Moon came out. I’m guessing I needed a chill out album, and from the very first three-note hook of “Unknown Legend,” Harvest Moon was that album.

She used to work in a diner
Never saw a woman look finer
I used to order just to watch
Her float across the floor
She grew up in a small town
Never put her roots down
Daddy always kept moving
So she did too

“Unknown Legend” was a love song for his wife, Pegi, who was a waitress in a local diner when he met her. And may you have anybody ever write a song this gorgeous about you, especially the myth-making chorus, which is one of the best parts of any Neil Young song. It’s pure genius.

Somewhere on a desert highway
She rides a Harley-Davidson
Her long blonde hair
Flying in the wind
She’s been running half her life
The chrome and steel she rides
Colliding with the very air she breathes
The air she breathes

I mean. Those Linda Rondstat harmonies on “desert highway,” “Harley-Davidson,” “half her life” and “steel she rides” are pretty amazing, but when when echoed by Ben Keith’s pedal steel they become almost otherworldly. And if Neil ever wrote a more evocative couplet than “The chrome and steel she rides / Colliding with the very air she breathes,” then I haven’t heard it.

Neil & Pegi are divorced now, of course, making the paragraph near the end of his Special Deluxe memoir — written while they were still together — where he praises “activist Darryl Hannah” seem incredibly awkward when I read it earlier. That said, at the very least, she inspired songs as exquisite as this one.

“Unknown Legend”

“Unknown Legend” music video

“Unknown Legend” live at the Bridge School, 1992 (w/ Elton John) (no, really!)

“Unknown Legend” solo acoustic live on the Tonight Show, 1993

“Unknown Legend” on MTV Unplugged, 1993

“Unknown Legend” live at Red Rocks, 2000

“Unknown Legend” live at Farm Aid, 2008

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