“You ready, Briggs?”
That was the start signal Neil Young gave to the late David Briggs, his longtime producer, at the start of the single-evening 1976 session that is now being released as “Hitchhiker.” The songs aren’t new — eight of the 10 would surface over the next six years on more fully realized studio recordings — but the performances are rough and revealing sketches from a point in Young’s extensive career long regarded as a creative zenith.
“Hitchhiker” isn’t some folkie throwback but rather a lab experiment of sorts, in which immediacy was encouraged along with the technical coarseness it entailed.
Several songs were intended for what was then his most recent album, the 1975 Crazy Horse summit “Zuma.” But in its blueprint state, “Powderfinger” trades out the electric inferno that would fuel the tune when it surfaced on 1979’s “Rust Never Sleeps” for soft-spoken tenacity that only seems to further empower the song’s youthful but troubled protagonist.
Similarly, “Human Highway” retains all the country sentiment of the band version heard on 1978’s “Comes a Time” by presenting its search for consolation in an uncaring world (“Take my eyes from what they’ve seen”) into a solo sketch that underscores the song’s inherit vulnerability.
Other entries are arresting from a purely musical standpoint, including the album-closing piano revision of “The Old Country Waltz,” in which a lone guitar mic can be heard being moved in the studio to accommodate the instrument switch. That’s how intentionally primitive this session was.
There also are two songs that never surfaced on later albums: the trippy, troubled “Hawaii” and the loner’s lament “Give Me Strength,” with sentiments far more direct and despondent that any country heartbreak song (“The happier you fly, the sadder you fall”). Also, we hear how the drug-addled and presumptively autobiographical adventures in the title tune to “Hitchhiker” were retooled for the far more fanciful “Like an Inca” that would appear on 1982’s “Trans.”
More than anything else, “Hitchhiker” is a snapshot from an era that fueled the most vital music Young ever made. It’s no nostalgia ride, for sure, but rather an unrefined document that unlocks a folk-rock journeyman’s true heart of darkness.