Growing to despise your biggest song as an alternative musician is quite common. Being a commercial success as an anti-establishment person is akin to getting a free drink in a bar you despise. The majority of the time, this perplexed attitude causes musicians to regret their mainstream-leaning endeavor. This occurred to Radiohead with “Creep,” Led Zeppelin with “Stairway to Heaven,” and poor Neil Young was almost completely derailed.
Now, why does Neil Young regret releasing “Heart of Gold” specifically? You may argue that the song itself is very derivative, save from the magnificent heavy-strummed yet melodic entrance and the overall delicious performance. As explained by Bob Dylan:
“The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold’.”
He added, “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 think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me’.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t Dylan, and if it had been, I’m sure he would have hoped to add a little more uniqueness to the lyrics rather than relying on pop’s biggest cliché: the lonely-hearts ballad by a jaded star.
But none of these renders the music intrinsically flawed. Mawkish mundanity will always have a place in music as long as it is performed with a melody and performance that makes dullsville feel like the place where the music actually belongs as if the middle of the road were the pinnacle of the mount that has been finely tuned. But Young’s problem is that he’s never wanted to live there. Up until this moment, his songs had poked fun at the mainstream; now, with only a few chords and a purified mood, he was being forced into it.
A decade into his glittering career and five years after its publication, he reflected. “This song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
Since the liner notes of Decade imply, getting to the top proved to be a fork in the road since ‘Heart of Gold’ is Young’s lone US number one.
His next move, like that of many other musicians who detested their biggest success, was to reevaluate his role in culture and take a somewhat more personal leftfield. In Young’s case, this led to the creation of his potentially finest album, the follow-up masterwork On the Beach. Given his statement about driving off the center of the road and into a ditch, it is revealing that the 1974 album’s cover art features a picture of a car that has crashed into the sand on a deserted beach. Perhaps the half-buried ornate tailfin and Young’s expression as he looks out to sea, while seemingly being inspired by the cover for J.G. Ballard’s Drought, also represent him giving up the trappings of the smooth ride and looking towards a more distinct horizon.