Young wrote this in 1964 on his 19th birthday (November 12), just after leaving his band The Squires. The song is about losing the idealism of youth, making reference to his advancing years in the line, "You can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain."
As told in Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History
, Neil Young wrote this song in a room at the Fort William's Victoria Hotel in Ontario. And just around the corner from this event would be his meeting Stephen Stills for the first time.
Said Young of his time kicking around Ontario with his new friend, "Mainly, he was the funniest person I'd met in years. He didn't have another gig until next weekend, so he stayed in Thunder Bay and we played and he took us to see buffalo. We lived on A&W cheeseburgers and root beer. Very Canadian."
Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game
" was inspired by this song. As she explained to a live audience at The Paris Theatre in 1970, "Neil Young wrote this song that was called 'Oh to live on sugar mountain' which was a lament for his lost youth. And I thought, God, you know, if we get to 21 and there's nothing after that, that's a pretty bleak future, so I wrote a song for him, and for myself just to give me some hope. It's called 'The Circle Game.'"
This was first released as the B-side of Young's first single as a solo artist, "The Loner." He used it as a B-side on a few other singles, but did not put it on an album until his 1977 Greatest Hits compilation Decade.
Young discussed the playing the song live in a 1985 interview with NME: "I do 'Sugar Mountain' really for the people more than I do it for myself. I think I owe it to them, cos it seems to really make them feel happy, so that's why I do that. They pay a lotta money to come and see me and I lay a lotta things on 'em that they've never heard before, and I think I owe it to them to do things they can really identify with. It's such a friendly song, and the older I get and the older my audience gets the more relevant it becomes, especially since they've been singing it for 20 years. It really means a lot to them, so I like to give 'em the chance to enjoy that moment."
Young speaks about the song's lyrics on his bootleg album Live on Sugar Mountain: "At first I wrote 126 verses to it. Now, you can imagine that I had a lot of trouble figuring out what four verses to use... I was underneath the stairs... Anyway, this verse that I wrote... It was the worst verse of the 126 that I wrote. So, I decided to put it in the song, to just to give everybody a frame of reference as to, you know, what can happen. What I'm trying to say here, by stopping in the middle of the song, and explaining this to you, is that... I think it's one of the lamest verses I ever wrote. And it takes a lotta nerve for me to get up here and sing it in front of you people. But, if when I'm finished singing, you sing the chorus 'Sugar Mountain' super loud, I'll just forget about it right away and we can continue."
He follows this by singing: "Now you're underneath the stairs/And you're givin' back some glares/To the people who you met/And it's your first cigarette."