With a straightforward metaphor and complete lack of pathos, this is not a typical Neil Young song. It finds him mining for a heart of gold, which depending on one’s perspective, is either a touching and heartfelt sentiment. The listening public and Young’s fans were far more accepting, however, and the song became his biggest hit.
“Heart of Gold”: Young’s only no. 1 in the U.S.
Released from the 1972 album Harvest, “Heart of Gold” is a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young. So far, it is Young’s only U.S. No. 1 single. In Canada, it reached No. 1 on the RPM national singles chart for the first time on April 8, 1972. Billboard ranked it as the No. 17 song for 1972. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 297 on their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
The song, which features backup vocals of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, is one of a series of soft acoustic pieces which were written partly as a result of a back injury. Unable to stand for long periods of time, Young could not play his electric guitar. So returned to his acoustic guitar, which he could play sitting down. He also played his harmonica during the three instrumental portions, including the Introduction to the song.
Young wrote in the liner notes of his 1977 compilation album Decade,
“This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
This statement was in response to the mainstream popularity that he gained as a result of the number-one status of “Heart of Gold.“
In 2005, “Heart of Gold” was named the third greatest Canadian song of all time on the CBC Radio One series 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version.
By far, this was the biggest hit for Young as a solo artist. A very influential musician, he was never too concerned about making hit records.
A Song Written after a Back Injury
Young wrote this in 1971 after he suffered a back injury that made it difficult for him to play the electric guitar. Hence, on the Harvest tracks, he played acoustic. Despite the injury, Young was in good spirits, which is reflected in this song.
The next few years were more challenging for Young, as he suffered a series of setbacks. His son Zeke was born with cerebral palsy; his friend Danny Whitten died; he split with his girlfriend, Carrie Snodgress. His next three albums, which became known as “The Ditch Trilogy,” expressed these dark times in stark contrast to “Heart of Gold.”
Bob Dylan’s reaction
This was the song that tweaked Bob Dylan. Young had made no secret that he idolized Dylan, but when Dylan heard “Heart of Gold” he thought this was going too far.
In 1985, Bob Dylan admitted that he disliked hearing this song, despite always liking Neil Young.
“The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold.’ I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to ‘Heart of Gold.’ I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.'”
Watch Neil Young perform his song, Heart of Gold.