The song became Young’s only No. 1 hit in the United States. In Canada, it also reached No. 1 on the Canada Top Singles for the first time on April 8, 1972, the same date Young held the top spot on both the singles and album charts. At the end of the year, Billboard ranked it as the No. 17 Song of the Year.
“Heart of Gold” was also included in Young’s 1977 compilation album, Decade, where he wrote in the liner: “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.”
The statement was said to be Young’s response to the mainstream popularity he gained due to the song’s No. 1 status.
A Hit That Came To Life After an Injury
Written by Neil Young himself, “Heart of Gold” is a straightforward metaphor of a man who finds himself searching for the heart of gold.
“I’ve been to Hollywood. I’ve been to Redwood. I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold. I’ve been in my mind. It’s such a fine line. That keeps me searching for a heart of gold. And I’m getting old,” the song goes. Depending on your perspective, it is either a touching and heartfelt sentiment or a sappy cliché.
Young wrote the song in 1971 after suffering a back injury that made it difficult for him to stand for long periods of time and play the electric guitar. Despite the injury, the singer was in good spirits and went back to his acoustic guitar that he could play sitting down. Young also played his harmonica during the three instrumental parts, including the introduction to the song.
Interestingly, the song features backup vocals by Grammy Award winners James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt – though they did not come in until the end of the song. Young, Ronstadt, and Taylor were in town to appear on The Johnny Cash Show. So, Young had the chance to convince them to lend their voices to this track, to which they happily agreed. They came in the day after the rest of the song was finished.
When it was already their turn to add harmonies, the job proved rather tricky. “We were sitting on the couch in the control room, but I had to get up on my knees to be on the same level as James because he’s so tall,” Ronstadt recalled. “Then we sang all night, the highest notes I could sing. It was so hard, but nobody minded. It was dawn when we walked out of the studio.”
The result was a hit song, by far the biggest one for Young as a solo artist.
However, despite being a country favorite, one artist thought otherwise. And that was none other than Bob Dylan, one of Young’s musical heroes. Unfortunately, Dylan found the track’s closeness to his own style way too similar that listening to it bothered him.
“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,'” Dylan admitted. “I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, ‘That’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.’ It seemed to me somebody else had taken my thing and had run away with it, you know, and I never got over it. Maybe tomorrow.”
Whatever side you pick, we can’t deny the fact that Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” is such a treasure. You can listen to it in the video below.
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