Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Massey Hall, January 19, 1971. It is the second of two sold-out performances that evening by Neil Young, who is making his first local appearance since a modestly attended week of shows at the Riverboat in Yorkville two winters earlier. He is sitting alone on the stage looking slightly frail, likely due to the back pain that would cause him to wear a brace for most of the year (during the performance, he notes the difficulty of bending down to grab a dropped guitar pick).
“Sitting alone on stage,” Telegram reviewer Peter Goddard later wrote, “flanked on one side by his guitars and on the other by an ebony concert grand, he seemed splendidly isolated.” As Young is about to launch into the fourth number of the set, he provides the appreciative audience with his intentions for the evening: “I’m going to sing mostly new songs…I’ve written so many new songs that I don’t know what else to do with them except sing ‘em.” With that declaration, he launches into a fresh tune that shares its name with the tour, “Journey Through the Past.” As Young plays, tape recorders are preserving the evening’s performance for possible release as a live album.
But unless they found a bootleg, anyone who enjoys the show later, at home, will have waited thirty-six years for a recording to call their own.
Advertisements, (left) the Toronto Star, January 9, 1971; (right) the Telegram, January 19, 1971.
Neil Young was coming off a hectic year, as 1970 had seen him release popular records on his own (After the Gold Rush) and with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Déjà Vu). His first marriage had collapsed and a new relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress had begun. He moved from Los Angeles to a ranch near San Francisco, which provided inspiration for several songs he was working on as he set out on a solo tour of Canada, England, and the United States. He was originally scheduled to play just one performance in his hometown, but a quick sell-out led to a second set that evening.
Among the tunes introduced to the audience at Massey Hall was, according to Young, “a new song I wrote about my ranch…There’s this old man who lives on it that…he came with the place when I bought it.” After the audience laughed, he carried on. “Ranches have foremans [sic], you know. He stays there with the cows no matter who owns it. He’s about seventy years old or something like that.” Young then began to sing one of the night’s highlights, “Old Man.”
Sitting in the audience for the first show was his first, original “old man”: father Scott Young, who was the Telegram’s sports editor at the time.
I was sitting with my family a few rows back from the stage in Toronto’s Massey Hall. It was my first experience in my later official capacity as Neil Young’s father. Strangers leaned over seats to talk to me about him. The next day I received a note from two young women along the row. The note said “Thank you for your son.”
Neil and Scott met briefly backstage and compared the experience to Neil’s last visit to Toronto. Scott recounted their concise conversation years later in his book Neil and Me:
Scott: Different from the last time.
Neil: Sure is!
Massey Hall, photographed by F. Ellis Wiley between 1945 and 1966. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 1, Item 70.
Scott’s paper felt the evening was, as reviewer Peter Goddard put it, “full of strange surprises”—such as the enthusiastic response Young’s introverted stage persona received. “As warm and earthbound as his songs were,” Goddard noted, “Neil managed to look a little frail and wraith-like with his black hair falling over his face and almost concealing intense eyes and a set jaw…if it wasn’t for Neil’s reluctance to play the super-star revisiting, last night would have been a homecoming of epic proportions.” Goddard felt each song “seemed like a personal impulse made public.” As for the “strangest of all the evening’s surprises,” Goddard found that “as part of the audience, you felt you were seeing more of Neil Young than you should…that each tune was a little bit of his own life strung out on the highwire of his own nerves.”
In his review for the Globe and Mail (which was used as artwork when the concert was released on compact disc), Jack Batten felt he was sitting in an audience of young fans who demonstrated that they “were there not merely to listen but to worship” by applauding the slightest movement Young made onstage. Batten felt the constant clapping prevented “any close relationship between Young and the best part of his audience.” Apart from feeling some of Young’s songs needed more seasoning, Batten was impressed with the singer-songwriter.
Young comes across as one of the most honest and direct of today’s folk-pop-rock singers and songwriters. There is, not to put too fine a point on it, no crap about him… There is in Young so much talent and so much quiet charm that he’s bound to stick around for a long time, maturing and writing and rewarding his audiences.
Wilder Penfield III’s review in the Star noted that:
There is such awareness in his melancholy, such a full-blooded love of life, that the sorrow he expresses is oddly uplifting. It moves us because we can identify with him. Though the insights he compulsively turns into lyrics come mainly from private dreams and introspection…His images relate to the experience and thoughts of all of us and we can feel them personally.
Front cover to the 2007 release of Live at Massey Hall 1971.
Had Young’s producer David Briggs had his way, the Massey Hall performance might have been Neil’s next album. But Young was feeling good about how work was going on studio sessions for Harvest and refused to listen to the tapes. A quarter of a century passed before Young listened to the concert, during the long assembly period for his Archives project. According to studio engineer John Nowland, “Neil sat here and heard it…It was pretty intense.” As Young admitted when the concert was officially released in 2007, “I was very excited about the takes we got on Harvest, and wanted it out. David disagreed. As I listen to this today, I can see why.”
Additional information from Shakey by Jimmy McDonough (Toronto: Random House, 2002); Neil and Me by Scott Young (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1984); and the January 20, 1971 editions of the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Telegram.