Journey Through The Past by Neil Young


I was born in 1954. That’s 66 years ago. I guess that’s how your age works (because I’m also 66 years old) but 1954 seems such a long time ago. I was only just born in the second half of the last century. I was born only nine years after WWII ended. Here’s the page of images I got when I googled “London 1954”.

Everything’s in black and white! When I was born, everything was in black and white! Or so it seems now.

I have a very clear memory of being in a cot in my bedroom in our house in Bush Hill Park – that’s an area of North London, not an actual park. I was looking over to my left in the small bedroom at the front of the house to see where my parents were. The cot was at the back of the room behind an open door and facing the window at the front of the house where the curtains were drawn. I have a very clear memory of this. I wonder whether this memory is true or false?

Here’s an interesting quote that Paddy sent me. Its written by Jenny Diski who wrote a book called “Skating to Antarctica” in which she mixes an account of a trip to Antarctica with autobiographical recollections of her childhood.

“Memory,  as far as I can make out, does not have a particular location in the brain, as was once thought, but resides in discrete packets dotted all over the place. Or it doesn’t reside anywhere, except in the remembering itself, when the memory is created from bits of experience stored around the brain. Memory is continually recreated, a story told and retold, using jigsaw pieces of experience. It’s utterly unreliable in some ways, because who can say whether the feeling or emotion that seems to belong to the recollection actually belongs to it rather than being available from the general store of likely  emotions we have learned? Who can say that this image is correct, and not an image from a book or film or a picture, another part of one’s life, which, seeming to fit in with the general story, is pressed into service? Memory is not false in the sense that it is wilfully bad, but it is excitingly corrupt in its inclination to make a proper story of the past.”

So, who can say whether my image of lying in a cot in the mid Fifties is correct or whether it is a combination of images, memories and stories from other parts of my life? It seems unlikely to be correct. If I was in a cot, I was probably younger than three years old and it would be unusual to remember something from such a young age.

Other things I remember from my childhood. 1) Standing at the open front door of our house in Bush Hill Park next to my Mum, looking down the long road that led to the school where my sister went (and where I was to go later), waiting for her to return. I would have been about four years old. 2) Being bullied by David Bartholomew in a park which I went to by myself. This was not a park that I normally went to. I had to have been younger than seven because we moved to Winchmore Hill in 1961. So, I was allowed to wander off to a park by myself when I was six years old. 3) Falling off my bike, crashing into a gatepost and having six stitches just next to my right eye. I don’t remember the actual crash, but I do remember the moment just before I fell off when I swerved to the left but forgot to tilt the bike so I fell over onto my right eye. I can clearly remember this. Or can I? Jenny Diski tells us that memory is continually recreated. My Mum and Dad told the story of my bike crash over and over. I was cycling by myself and a neighbour saw the crash and carried me to my house. My Mum opened the door and saw her son with blood apparently pouring out of his right eye. The story was told many times and maybe I have pieced together the jigsaw to create an unreliable memory. It’s also worth noting that I was cycling around Bush Hill Park by myself aged six. That is not a false detail because I met Peter when I was seven years old and that was after we moved to Winchmore Hill.

A few people who have read some of this blog have been kind enough to compliment me on my memory. Talking to Peter, who is my oldest friend, some buried memories resurface. However, he can clearly remember us listening to “Rubber Soul” and giving every song a score out of ten. That activity has disappeared entirely from my memory or it’s buried so deep that I can’t get at it. So what is it that makes some memories surface and others remain hidden?

“Journey Through The Past” by Neil Young is a perfect encapsulation of how random memories can float to the top of consciousness. The album was released in November 1972, nine months after “Harvest” and was a brilliant example of, as he said in later years, his attempt to “systematically destroy the base of his record buying public”. It contains music that evokes memories of Neil Young’s past. The cover is very spooky and looks like a terrible dream where he can see the silhouettes of four members of the Ku Klux Klan on horseback. Or maybe it’s the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The front cover of the album states that this is the original soundtrack recording for a film, also called “Journey Through The Past”. The film was originally released in 1974 although it was critically mauled. The film has the same conceit as the album, insofar as it represents a journey through Neil Young’s past featuring live performances, backstage scenes and dream sequences. It was re-released on DVD in 2009 as part of the Neil Young “Archives” series.

The tracks on the album that are not by Neil Young are as interesting as the songs that he does perform. Some children sing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, a popular song originally published in 1910. There are two songs performed by The Tony & Susan Alamo Christian Foundation Orchestra & Chorus: “Handel’s Messiah” and “King Of Kings”, a 1961 film about the life of Jesus. In the middle of a rehearsal of “Alabama”, there’s a brief rendition of “God Bless America” which is followed up with a rant by David Crosby against the right wing elements of the USA. There’s a one minute dialogue between Neil Young and an unknown person about how all things are related and the impact of Christianity called “Relativity Invitation”. Most bizarre of all, the final track on the album is “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” which is an instrumental from “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys. These songs are interspersed with Neil Young songs in exactly the same way as they might appear in a dream or in the way that fragmented memories rise to the consciousness. “Who can say that this image is correct, and not an image from a book or film or a picture, another part of one’s life, which, seeming to fit in with the general story, is pressed into service?

As an aside, it’s quite difficult to play this album as Sides One and Four are on the same disc as are Sides Two and Three. This allowed for the discs to be put onto a record changer – as Side One came to an end, Side Two would slam down on top and start playing. Only people of a certain age will understand this.

The instrumental track “King Of Kings”, as mentioned above, is pretty good and as it finishes, the track “Soldier” starts playing. This is the only previously unreleased song on the album. Talk about systematically trying to destroy the base of your record buying public. “Harvest” had sold in massive quantities and anyone hoping that a new album – a double album – released later the same year would be in the same style was in for a massive disappointment. However, “Soldier” is magnificent. It features Neil at his falsetto best along with a piano and a roaring fire. It’s one of his most affecting songs from this period. Following on from a conversation about religion (“Relativity Invitation”), “Handel’s Messiah” and “King Of Kings”, the lyrics include the lines “Jesus, I saw you walking on the river. I don’t believe you.” It might not be fanciful to suggest that following this with a song called “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” is Neil Young’s rejection of religion.


The other standout song on the album is “Words” which lasts for over sixteen minutes and takes up the whole of Side Three. It’s a rehearsal for the final version which had appeared on “Harvest”. It’s hadn’t been my favourite song as originally recorded but the version here is great. After three minutes, he stops and explains to his band how he wants certain notes emphasised. They resume playing and in its extended version, a certain hypnotic quality emerges. Neil Young’s guitar playing is, as always, exceptional.

One song that is not on this album is “Journey Through The Past”. How contrary is that? It was on his next album, “Time Fades Away” and it’s lovely. “Now I’m going back to Canada on a journey through the past”. Most people would have made this song the opening track on the album as a prologue. Neil Young is not “most people”.

Other songs on the album include a storming version of “Mr. Soul” by The Buffalo Springfield and a beautiful version of “Find The Cost Of Freedom” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young from a 1970 performance at The Fillmore East. Side One ends with another performance from the same concert: “Ohio” was one of Neil Young’s most political songs (until “Living With War” thirty six years later) and this version is magnificently angry.

In this album, Neil Young gives us an insight into the music and memories that soundtrack his dreams. It’s well worth a listen. As for me, I’m continuing to dig deep into my memory and wonder if “the feeling or emotion that seems to belong to the recollection actually belongs to it rather than being available from the general store of likely emotions we have learned?”

“Journey Through The Past”. Not on the album “Journey Through The Past”

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

One thought on “Journey Through The Past by Neil Young

  1. Intelligent and informative post. Thanks. I love the Diski quotations. Never thought of that – or perhaps I just don’t remember that I never thought of that…….!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: