How Neil Young Got It Right the Second Time With ‘Unplugged’
Neil Young’s Unplugged album almost never existed.
According to Rolling Stone, in December 1992, Young took the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City (soon to be the home of The Late Show With David Letterman) to film an episode of MTV Unplugged. He had played 49 solo shows that year, most recently in support of his Harvest Moon album; most of those shows had probably gone off well. This one did not.
“Numerous songs had false starts,” the magazine reported, “and it was clear to everyone in the audience that Young wasn't happy. He eventually simply walked out the door and onto the streets of Manhattan, with stunned crew members trailing behind.”
“Neil was onstage, he was singing and suddenly, for whatever reason, he got agitated and ran outside,” Jim Burns, co-creator of MTV Unplugged, remembered in I Want My MTV. “He ran down Broadway, and [producer] Alex Coletti ran after him. Neil never came back to finish the show.”
Actually, he did come back and play two songs before splitting for good, but the evening was a washout. Young would not permit the film of the show to be broadcast.
A little less than two months later, on Feb. 7, 1993, Young brought a band to Universal Studios in Los Angeles that included three-fourths of the Stray Gators (with whom he had recorded Harvest Moon), plus background singers Nicolette Larson and Astrid Young, and Nils Lofgren alternating on several instruments. With the supple accompaniment of these musicians, Young recorded a second Unplugged, which would be played on MTV a month later and released as a standalone album in June.
Understandably, considering the personnel involved, the sound of Unplugged hews closely to that of Harvest Moon, and incorporates three of the album’s songs into a set list full with classics and rarities. Of the new cuts, “Unknown Legend” and Harvest Moon’s title track fare the best, thanks to the harmonies and the flexible accompaniment of the band. “Long May You Run” is another band highlight, an elegy to an old friend (in this case, one of the automotive sort) that’s every bit as moving as the original. The chief oddity of the band tracks is “Transformer Man” — the Trans cut on which Young made his voice weep through a vocorder — now re-imagined as a song that could have fit comfortably on, well, Harvest Moon.
Listen to Neil Young's 'Transformer Man'
Where Young shines brightest on Unplugged is on the solo tracks that open the album. Separated from the narcotic fuzz of Tonight’s the Night, “World on a String” seems less threatening and more like a piece of earned knowledge passed on by a learned sage, maybe that burnout uncle who still wears his fringe sleeved coat. That same uncle delivers a story like “Pocahontas” in the first person, sitting around the fire, swapping tall tales that sound feasible, but which couldn’t possibly be.
“Stringman,” a moving benediction for a departed love, was supposed to be on Chrome Dreams (a legendary unreleased album), but got tossed aside when Young’s muse moved past it and on to his next project. He resurrects it here in a simple piano-and-voice reading that makes you long to hear what other little masterpieces he has squirreled away in that ol’ barn in the canyon, or wherever he keeps his vault of recordings.
Watch Neil Young Perform 'Stringman'
But even then, you haven’t lived ‘til you’ve heard “Like a Hurricane” sung by Young, accompanying himself on a pump organ. It sounds like a hymn, though not quite a sacred one.
Unplugged is a fine live record and snapshot of Young in the middle of a fertile creative period, making music in the settings in which he felt made most sense, for an audience that had come back around to him in the previous few years. Whether he had driven them away deliberately, or they had wandered off on their own, none of it mattered — he was speaking to them again, and they were not just listening, but hearing him.