The Beatles had 20. Elvis Presley had 18. Michael Jackson—with and without his singing brethren—had 17. Had what? The answer is hit singles. And not just any successful releases but Number One winners that crowned the weekly Billboard Hot 100 list.
To most recording artists, earning such an achievement would be sublime. But Neil Young has never worried about having any of his 45s race up the sales charts. In fact, he was amazed—and not especially happy—when “Heart of Gold” soared to the top in the spring of 1972.
The voice behind “Heart of Gold”
Young was born in Toronto, Canada, in November 1945, and moved to Winnipeg to spend his high school years playing guitar in several rock bands. He dropped out before graduating and returned to Toronto, where he found work in local coffeehouses, singing folk and rock ‘n’ roll tunes in a quavering, melancholy voice. Sometimes, late at night and with the streets deserted, Neil trudged through the snow, wondering what to do next.
In time, he hooked up with a soon-to-fail rock band called the Mynah Birds. In the group were fellow guitarist Bruce Palmer and an African American bass player named James Johnson, Jr., who would achieve stardom later as Motown funk star Rick James.
Young and Palmer headed to California in a 1953 Pontiac hearse. In Los Angeles, they fell in with two American musicians they had met in Canada: Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. Along with drummer Dewey Palmer, the quintet found fame, fortune and respect as the folk-rock outfit Buffalo Springfield. The name had come from an old steamroller they saw parked near their rented house.
But each of the talented band members proved mulishly stubborn in their diverse outlooks about the group’s long-term musical direction. They eventually disbanded and went their separate ways, to varying degrees of success.
For a while, Neil contributed to the musical output of the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. As before, though, internal squabbles drove him away. He later signed as a solo act with Reprise Records, where he was granted artistic control.
Young’s million-selling 45 featured backup vocals by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. “Heart of Gold” was culled from Harvest, Neil’s fourth studio album. It was a disc that found the Canadian—once described as “the quintessential hippie-cowboy loner”—struggling to accept his frustrations concerning relationships.
I want to live, I want to give
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold
In the song, he admits that a lack of openness—and time slipping away—could be important reasons behind his problems.
It’s these expressions I never give
That keeps me searching for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Young always cringed at the success of “Heart of Gold.” “This song put me in the middle of the road,” he once grumbled. “I’ve seen a few artists who’ve got hung up on the singles market when they’ve really been album people… If you’re wise, you stay with being what you really are.”