The Loner

Album: Neil Young (1969)
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Songfacts®:

  • "The Loner" is written and performed by Neil Young and is perhaps one of the better-known tracks from his debut solo album Neil Young. Certainly, it is the most telling of where Neil Young was at the time. To quote Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History, "The Loner" is "a bit of self-mythologizing on Young's part, perhaps, as it concerns a menacing (but emotionally vulnerable) figure who is 'the unforeseen danger, the keeper of the keys to the locks.'"

    Put this together with the unnerving cover art of the Neil Young album, painted by local Topanga artist Ronald Diehl, who knew Young personally. Consider that Young had confessed that he was "going crazy" in this part of his life, having joined and quit and rejoined and quit again several bands in the space of a few years. We are left with the inevitable conclusion that Young is writing about his darker side here. There is no question that Young is a passionate artist, putting his blood and marrow into every work. And he'd certainly left a string of rapidly formed friendships abandoned in his wake. At the age of just 23, he just might have been startled to discover that perhaps even Neil Young might not be able to handle Neil Young!

    Right after this was when he met the group The Rockets at their Laurel Canyon headquarters, and with quite a dash of the cavalier, poached three of them to begin his own backing band Crazy Horse.
  • That's Jim Messina on bass. You'll remember he was part of Buffalo Springfield, and the only member of the group who tagged along on Young's solo launch. Messina would later move on to the country-rock band Poco and join with Kenny Loggins to form Loggins & Messina. The Earl Palmer on this album was a session musician playing drums - not to be confused with (and no relation to) former Buffalo Springfield alumnus Bruce Palmer or the Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
  • A widely regarded theory was that the song is about Stephen Stills, who played with Young in Buffalo Springfield and CSN&Y. The theory was so popular that Michael Watts titled a 1972 Melody Maker feature, "Stephen Stills: The Loner." The first two lines in the piece were lyrics from the song.

    In that interview, Stills suggests that he thinks the song is actually about Neil Young, not himself. Today, most people generally agree with Stills, though Young has never made a definitive statement one way or the other. The song was written while Buffalo Springfield was still together but beginning to come apart.

    Stills did a version of the song on his album Illegal Stills in 1976.
  • This is the first Young song produced by David Briggs, who proved a lifelong collaborator and friend, and who may also be the subject of "The Emperor Of Wyoming." Briggs said that they put Young's guitar though a Leslie speaker to attain "psycho guitar noises."
  • Neil Young's reception was somewhat lukewarm, but "The Loner" stood out for critics and fans. A Rolling Stone review said, "'The Loner' is a contemporary lament that features a nice blending of Neil's guitar with strings in non-obtrusive fashion, allowing Young's balanced ice-pick vocal to chip effectively at the listener."

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