Neil Young’s 38th studio album was released on 8th September 2017. Recorded in a single session in the evening of 11th August 1976, two of the tracks, ‘Hawaii’ and ‘Give Me Strength’ have never appeared on any of Young’s records, although he’d performed them live on a couple of occasions. Alternate versions of the other eight songs have previously been featured on some of his LP’s.
‘Hitchhiker’ was produced by Young’s long-time collaborator David Briggs. The two met in 1968 when Briggs picked up Young, who was hitchhiking through Topanga Canyon at the time. They became friends, and Briggs subsequently produced Young’s self-titled debut album later that year. He then went on to co-produce 18 of the singer-songwriter’s 38 studio records.
Young and Briggs arranged a number of private recording sessions at Malibu’s Indigo Ranch Recording Studio between 1975 and 1977. The studio was located on a 60-acre estate in the hills by the ocean, having had operated from 1974 until 2006. It was owned by Richard Kaplan, who served as sound engineer for all the recordings Young had made there.
The ‘Hitchhiker’ session was one of the first times Young had visited the studio. He loved working there on nights of the full moon. According to Kaplan, he felt a special kind of energy on these days and enjoyed listening to the coyotes howling outside.
While working on ‘Hitchhiker’, Briggs told Kaplan to keep recording at all times whenever Young was playing, to make sure they didn’t lose any valuable pieces of music. Kaplan was using a 24-track recorder, and the session had to be paused every once in a while so he could put on a new tape.
There were plans to release ‘Hitchhiker’ shortly after it was recorded, but Reprise Records didn’t consider the tracks suitable, stating that they were merely demos and needed more work. Young disagreed, believing that the simple, stripped-down atmosphere suited the songs well, and he wanted the LP to remain acoustic. As a result, the project was shelved until very recently.
The studio was filled with candles in the evening of the ‘Hitchhiker’ session. Actor Dean Stockwell, a friend of both Young’s and Briggs’s, was present as an outside observer. Listening to the album, it’s easy to visualize the relaxed ambience of the room: Young only had his guitar, a piano and some marijuana, cocaine and alcohol. The short breaks during the recording gave him a chance to indulge in the mind-altering substances, and he has admitted that he was very much “stoned” for much of the session.
The tracks were recorded in the order they are heard on the album. ‘Pocahontas’, ‘Powderfinger’ and ‘Ride My Llama’ appeared on the 1979 LP Rust Never Sleeps’. ‘Captain Kennedy’ was featured on ‘Hawks & Doves’ (1980) and ‘Hitchhiker’ on ‘Le Noise’ (2010), recorded with an electric guitar. A slightly altered version of ‘Campaigner’ was included on ‘Decade’ (1977). ‘Human Highway’ and ‘The Old Country Waltz’ were recorded with a full band, the latter with Crazy Horse, and the tracks appeared on ‘Comes a Time’ (1978) and ‘American Stars ‘n Bars’ (1977), respectively.
The album captures an important snapshot in Young’s career, who was 30 years old at the time. It was a period of transition for him, both as a person and in his career, therefore the title suits this collection of recordings very well. Although neither of the songs are new to true fans, these early versions offer a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an artist who, at times, found it difficult to come to terms with rock stardom.