This video starts out uncomfortably and ends stunningly.
It's 1971. Neil Young is performing live. In the midst of the show, he rummages around in his pockets for a harmonica, an instrument he's only recently begun playing.
This is a guy who's already experienced great professional success. His fumbling around would today be seen as an unprofessional waste of the audience's time. We seem to have lost touch with how endearing being real can be.
Another element of what happens before Young dives into the song is his near apology for how weird it must be for the audience to hear "these new songs." The impatience of audiences with artists performing new songs is nothing new. Old success can be a straight jacket for artistic exploration.
In a recent interview on BBC radio, Paul McCartney--incidentally, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Neil Young--talked about what it's like to sing an old Beatles or early McCartney solo classic before a packed arena. Everywhere, he said, there are flashes from cameras and cell phones ablaze. But when he introduces a new song, the arena becomes a "black hole."
McCartney has the same sympathy for audiences wanting to hear the classics that Young seems to voice here. People save up a lot of money to come to a concert, McCartney says, and if he were to attend a concert by the Rolling Stones, he too, would have certain songs he would expect.
Still, I admire artists who challenge both themselves and their audiences by trying on new or unexpected material in live concerts.
The bravest example of this I've ever seen came from Eric Clapton at a sold-out show in Cincinnati some years ago. "If you came here tonight to hear the pop hits," Clapton said, referring to almost his entire musical catalog. "This is a blues show."
The disappointment among what seemed like a majority who hadn't known that this was a blues tour was almost palpable. But over the course of a unique show that seemed to add instruments and volume with each song--starting out acoustically and moving toward a screaming finish--Clapton won everybody over. Even me. I knew it was a blues show when I went and I'm not that into blues, but a friend had gotten my ticket for me. That was the only reason I'd gone. But when I left, I was glad I had. It was, I think, a satisfying night for artist and audience.
So, back to the video at hand. After fumbling around for the right harmonica and tuning it, Young, in this 1971 clip, plays the simple intro to Heart of Gold. The tune, the arrangement, and the voice are simple but arresting. And a classic is ushered into the world.