Recording is a little bit like fishing. Sometimes you make elaborate preparations, get the best gear and set up in advantageous surroundings … only to wind up with zilch.
Sometimes you grab whatever is close at hand and just get busy. The hours go by like minutes, and the next thing you know, the bucket is full.
So it was for Neil Young on August 11, 1976, at Indigo Studios in Malibu.
The Canadian singer and songwriter had material he’d been developing, including three songs that became part of his landmark Rust Never Sleeps with Crazy Horse – “Pocahontas,” “Powderfinger” and “Ride My Llama.”
He showed up with acoustic guitar and harmonica (moving to piano for the final track, “The Old Country Waltz”), and after a shaky-voiced check-in with the control room – the first utterance is Young on the talkback microphone, asking longtime collaborator David Briggs “You ready, Briggs?” – he put down stark, blueprint-like solo renditions of songs that he’d develop into fervent anthems on later albums. There’s no affectation, no studio agony – just the songs, served straight up.
In this raw way, Hitchhiker is pre-history, offering tunes from Young’s extensive archive in just-past-sketchbook form. In his 2014 memoir, Special Deluxe, he recalls that he viewed the songs as a unified whole and recorded them that way, in rapid succession, “pausing only for weed, beer, or coke.” Then he sat on the results. Like other occasions throughout his career, he ultimately decided against releasing it. His explanation in the book: “I was pretty stony on it, and you can…