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Heart of Gold by Neil Young

Album: HarvestReleased: 1972Charted:
1
10
  • With a straightforward metaphor and complete lack of pathos, this not a typical Neil Young song. It finds him mining for a "heart of gold," which depending on your perspective, is either a touching and heartfelt sentiment, or a mawkish platitude. Rolling Stone took the churlish view, complaining that the album evoked "superstardom's weariest clichés." The listening public and Young's fans were far more accepting, however, and the song became his biggest hit.
  • Young wrote this in 1971 after he suffered a back injury that made it difficult for him to play the electric guitar, so on the Harvest tracks he played acoustic. Despite the injury, Young was in good spirits (possibly thanks to the pain-killers), which is reflected in this song. The next few years were more challenging for Young, as he suffered a series of setbacks: his son Zeke was born with cerebral palsy, his friend Danny Whitten died, and he split with his wife, Carrie Snodgress. His next three albums, which became known as "The Ditch Trilogy," expressed these dark times in stark contrast to "Heart of Gold."
  • This song was recorded at the first sessions for the Harvest album, which took place on Saturday, February 6, 1971 and were set up the night before.

    Neil Young was in Nashville to record a performance for The Johnny Cash Show along with Tony Joe White, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. Elliot Mazer, a producer who owned nearby Quadrafonic Studios, set up a dinner party on February 5, inviting the show's guests and about 50 other people. Mazer was friends with Young's manager Elliot Roberts, who introduced the two at the gathering. Young and Mazer quickly hit it off when Neil learned that Elliot has produced a band called Area Code 615. Young asked if he could set up a session the next day, and Mazer complied.

    Nashville has an abundance of studio musicians, but getting them to work on a Saturday could be a challenge. Mazur was able to get one member of Area Code 615: Drummer Kenny Buttrey. The other musicians he found were guitarist Teddy Irwin, bass player Tim Drummond, and pedal stell player Ben Keith. All were seasoned pros.

    Keith recalls showing up late and sitting down to play right away. He says they recorded five songs before they stopped for introductions.
  • By far, this was the biggest hit for Young as a solo artist. A very influential musician, he was never too concerned about making hit records.
  • James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sang backup; they don't come in until the end of the song. Like Young, Taylor and Ronstadt were in town to appear on The Johnny Cash Show (the song's producer Elliot Mazer had produced Ronstadt's 1970 Silk Purse album). Young convinced them to lend their voices to this track, and they came in on Sunday, February 8, the day after the rest of the song was completed.

    When it was their turn to add harmonies, the task proved rather arduous. Ronstadt recalled to Mojo: "We were sat on the couch in the control room, but I had to get up on my knees to be on the same level as James because he's so tall. Then we sang all night, the highest notes I could sing. It was so hard, but nobody minded. It was dawn when we walked out of the studio."
  • In the liner notes to his Decade collection, Young said: "This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch."

    This statement reflected Young's aversion to fame, and was not meant to demean the song. In a later interview with NME, he clarified: "I think Harvest is probably the finest record I've made."
  • This was the song that tweaked Bob Dylan; Young had made no secret that he idolized Dylan, but when Dylan heard "Heart of Gold" he thought this was going too far. As quoted in Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History, Dylan complained, "I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to "Heart of Gold." I'd say, that's me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me."
  • This song was recorded in just two takes. The musicians were not familiar with Young or the song, but knew how to play. This spontaneity created just the right feel for the track - something that would have never come about through additional tweaking. This style of recording, where top-tier studio musicians are asked to give total focus to a take with little instruction, is something Bob Dylan often did. It's also a throwback to the analog days when tape (which was expensive) was rolling, making additional takes costly and cumbersome.
  • "Heart Of Gold" is the name of the spaceship stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox in Douglas Adams' book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. (thanks, Charles - London, England)
  • Young became the first Canadian to have a #1 album in the US when Harvest topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks in April 1972.
  • This song appears in the 1984 film Iceman, and on the soundtrack of the 2010 movie Eat Pray Love.
  • Lady Gaga references this in her song "You and I." The line goes, "On my birthday you sung me 'Heart of Gold,' with a guitar humming and no clothes."
  • In 2005, the CBC Radio One series 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version declared "Heart of Gold" to be the third best Canadian song of all time.
  • Stryper frontman Michael Sweet covered this for his 2014 I'm Not Your Suicide album. He also recorded a second duet version with country artist Electra Mustaine, who is the daughter of Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine.
  • Young revived the guitar riff for this song on CSN&Y's "Slowpoke" in 1999.
  • Tori Amos covered this on her 2001 album Strange Little Girls. She was trying to demonstrate how men and women hear different meaning in the same songs.
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Comments: 28

"A Horse with No Name" by the band America replaced Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" at the #1 spot on the U.S. pop chart. That song's resemblance to some of Young's work aroused some controversy. "I know that virtually everyone, on first hearing, assumed it was Neil", Dewey Bunnell from America says. "I never fully shied away from the fact that I was inspired by him. I think it's in the structure of the song as much as in the tone of his voice. It did hurt a little, because we got some pretty bad backlash. I've always attributed it more to people protecting their own heroes more than attacking me."Jef - Passaic, Nj
Not all Tourette's involves spastic swearing - most just involves occasional facial twitches.Cyberpope - Richmond, Canada
I interpreted the song as Neil young being lonely and searching for love. He is lonely ( i want to live i want to give),wants to love and fears he might not find love( and i'm getting old). I might be wrong but that's how i'm actually feeling...Ashwin - Vacoas, Mauritius
Neil Young is one the the best Artists of all time.Danny - Fairmont, Wv
Neil Young had tourette syndrome....He over came it OBVIOUSLYPerry Gaffney - Gainesville, Ga
neil young is a god when it comes to music!Dominic - Phoenix, Az
In response to Ekristheh, I've never heard that Neil had epilepsy before, but if its true thats a shame. My dad used to play this song and "Harvest", I think, really loud a lot. I pictured Young as some blond, mustachioed,Stetson wearing cowboy until I heard Cinnamon Girl on the radio a few years back, then I really got into his stuff. All I've ever really listened to is Decade, though. Also, in deepest respect, what are you guys smokin'!?! I've always heard it as "I've been in my mine, it's such a fine mine." As in gold mine, perhaps?Andy - Columbus, Oh
The reason this song even works as being more then a "hit" is the fact that Neil is so genuine. The composition isn't difficult or anything but it catches your ears. The lyrics aren't jaw dropping, but they are sung so compassionately that you know the singer is actually feeling the emotions he is singing about. Great song.David - Huntington Beach, Ca
what an amazing song!God bless neilNikhil - Mumbai, India
It's interesting to read above that James Taylor sang backup for this song. Another great artist whose work has some of his subjects wrestling with despair.Marc - Perth, Australia
One of my favourite songs.

I've never read how Neil Young defined the meaning of this song but to me it's clearly about Neil's search for his capacity to feel compassion and his grappling with the looming despair of never finding it. I interpret the first verse to be an introspective search for compassion within himself (for the kingdom within perhaps). He begins with an aspiration - He wants to live and give. He admits, however that he has not realised his aspiration yet, but intends to continue the search (although he's "getting old"). The second verse alludes to the inevitable search-outside-himself that takes him far away from home (and perhaps his mission is driving him crazy? - I've been in my mind, its such a fine line). The final verse refers to a second party (you keep me searching for a heart of gold) who, for whatever reason, tries his patience but ultimately this vexation only further drives him to continue the search.

In the end (the "story-so-far") the subject is still in the hunt to realise his opening aspirations (i.e. he has not despaired) but he suspects that time (and I'm getting old - also a metaphor for the corrosion of cynicism, perhaps) may defeat him.

I have been intrigued by Neil Young's early 70s live rendition of this song for a long time. To me it evokes the atmosphere of a man at the edge of despair but not quite ready to give up on himself. I have juxtaposed the song's ambience with one of Kurt Cobain's unplugged doleful, desperate renditions (for example, "Where did you sleep last night?") and they appear to manifest an eerie symmetry. One the one hand there's Neil's subject, still holding out hope for the existence of internal compassion; On the other there's Kurt who's descended beneath despair and cast himself into the abyss of nihilism. Whatever the specifics are for their motivations behind their respective interpretations, these two great artists appear to be driven by a deep awareness of/fear for the dark side of human nature gaining the ascendancy and thus defining one's ultimate character.
Marc - Perth, Australia
Boney M did a cover of this song as well.Alan - Singapore, Singapore
This is my favorite song to play on guitar so far. Of course, I'm still a beginner, but I love this. I'd only heard this song before on a VH1 show, but I didn't remember too much of it. When my guitar teacher taught me it last Friday, I haven't stopped listening to it.Emmie - Long Island, Ny
An interesting version of this song is sung by Timothy Hutton and John Lone in the movie "Iceman".Lee S - Hopkins, Mi
"I've been in my mind, it's such a fine line" is less likely a reference to cocaine than to Young's persistent epilepsy. Because he can tell when he is going to have a seizure, he can often keep them from happening just through willpower; but because he often has pleasant subjective experiences during one (according to what he said in the McDonough book), he had, for a while, a tendency to let go and allow it to happen. It is a very tempting, seductive thing in some ways, and he must often have found himself "on the fine line". However, it is not usually productive to attempt to interpret Young's lyrics. By his own report, even he does not always know what they mean, or if they even had an exact meaning or if they were meant simply to create ambience. ByEkristheh - Halath, United States
I wonder if this was the first #1 hit since early Beatles songs to feature a harmonica so prominently? And has it happened since? Funny that he sang about getting old in his mid twenties! Brought on the tears to see him sing it in his recent movie of the same name...Fyodor - Denver, Co
i love the harmonica riffs in this songBrandon - Saskatoon, Canada
Johnny Cash covered it on Unearthed II: Trouble in Mind (the Unearthed box set with Cash is well worth the money: aside of the "Best of Cash on American" there are four discs with a lot of nice songs recorded by Cash the 90's to his death, for example a amazing, epic cover of Neil Young's Pocahontas, a cover of Bob Marley's Redemption Song where Joe Strummer of The Clash is a guest artist, some of Cash's own songs, and some rock, folk and country classics).Petter - Ã?ngelholm, Sweden
I remember hearing this song on AM radio when I was 5 or 6 riding in my Mom's maverick. Makes me smile every time I hear it - still one of my all time favorites.Mike - Warwick, Ri
im just begging to play harmonica and i love the harp line. it gives me chills every time!Sam - Provo, Ut
I love the first two lines I wanna live, I wanna give you can tell exactly what kind of person the artist was, this song is filled with so much emotion, it ranks as one of my all time favorites! It makes me sad everytime I listen to it though...Kendall - Thomasville, Ga
On Harvest Neil Young performed with a band he called The Stray Gators (he names his bands whatever he wants to) and he reassembled that band in the 90s for Harvest Moon.

I think what he means when he says "I've been in my mind, it's such a fine line that keeps me searcher for my heart of gold" it he's just weary and he can see that he won't hold on much longer, it's a fine line between continuing and breaking down.
Doug - Pittsburgh, Pa
It could be talking about a line of cocaine but who knows forsure. Great song, i love the harmonica partBrett - Watertown, Sd
I always heard that line as "I've been in my mind, it's such a fine wine", maybe referring to how memories get better with age. I don't know, maybe I'm wrong.Brian - Old Lyme, Ct
Matchbox 20 has covered this song in concert with the bassist on lead vocals, and Rob Thomas on harmonica.Brendon - Paxton, Il
All right. I love this song, and i'm glad somebody mentioned the Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy.Brady - Fort Stockton, Tx
This is an great song...it seems depressing to me though, I'm not too sure about its meaning. I remember my dad listening to it when i was little and its cool to listen to it now, it brings back good memories.Shana - Pembroke, Canada
This is one of my all time favorites. However, I have always wondered what he meant when he says "I've been in my mind, it's such a fine line."Kathy - Jasper, Al