Neil Young’s Lost-Tape Album ‘Hitchhiker’ Is an Instant Classic
How rare it is to get a fresh, new glimpse into the mind of a renowned artist decades after the pinnacle of their career. Thanks to “Hitchhiker,” that’s exactly what we’re getting. Neil Young’s latest lost-tape album stems from a single recording session in August of 1976 in Malibu. Legend has it that Young cruised to Indigo Ranch Studios one evening only to step into the studio and unleash ten songs of folk glory. Fast forward to last week – Sept. 8 – and the world now knows what was going through his mind on that fateful night.
“Hitchhiker” has been the most talked about “lost” record of Young’s entire career. As the astonishing thirty-eighth studio album from his seemingly never-ending catalogue, this rare peek comes from an insanely productive time for Canadian songwriter. David Briggs, Young’s producer during these recordings said of him at the time, “He’d turn to me and go, ‘Guess I’ll turn on the tap’.” From there, Young would simply start playing, forming stunning stream of consciousness cuts like the lead track “Pocahontas.” Briggs’ elaborates on Young’s artistic mindset at the time, “I’m not talking about sitting down with a pen and paper. I’m talking about picking up a guitar, sitting there and looking me in the face and in twenty minutes – “Pocahontas.” The first words on the record is Young asking Briggs if he was ready, and in fact, he had no idea that what would come next. “Pocahontas” is without a doubt a tale of the times, when social upheaval was at its peak. Straight from the top of Young’s head, he poetically details the mass murder of Native Americans at the hands of European settlers. He even throws mentions of Marlon Brando, hoping the two of them could have a fireside chat with the fabled Native American woman.
The entire album is from the hands and mouth of Young with help only from Briggs’ production. It’s hard to imagine an album being rawer than this. “Ride My Llama” details Young’s desire to travel by animal across South America all the way to Texarkana, meeting strange travelers along the way. The title track follows another journey, one fueled by drugs like valium, amphetamines and cocaine. “A little cocaine went a long way/To ease that different load/But my head did explode/My head did explode” he sings after a calming harmonica solo. “Campaigner” speaks on what would later become the clichés of the mid-70’s. Richard Nixon, trench coat streakers and test tube babies all make appearances on this lonely track.
To be clear, most of these songs have already been heard by the public. A majority of them appear on other records throughout the years, in various forms. That said, these stripped-down acoustic versions are something to behold. “Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength” are the only two previously unreleased tracks. The former feels highly improvised while the latter could have easily found a space on a record at any point in his career. During “Give Me Strenght”, one of the more personal takes, Young is slapping the guitar strings as his voice floats above him dropping nuggets of wisdom about heartbreak.
Overall, “Hitchhiker” feels comforting. Just a beloved artist spilling genuine creativity onto the studio floor by way of weed, beer and cocaine. Sure there are flubs along the way because of that, but it’s part of what makes this record such a sign of the times. “Hitchhiker” is at the same time a personal look into Young’s mind on a single evening in 1976, as well as an encompassing look out onto his surroundings. Why he decided to release this album forty-one years later, who knows? All that matters now is that he did, and it’s here to stay.
“Hitchhiker” is available Sept. 8 on Apple Music.