The Meaning Behind “After the Gold Rush” by Neil Young

Neil Young’s marvelous recording career has encompassed countless rocking anthems and enduring country-folk weepers. But has there ever been a Young song quite as mysteriously captivating (or maybe captivatingly mysterious) as “After the Gold Rush?”

Many have found beauty and solace in this track, even while they scratched their heads at Young’s somber pronouncements. Let’s try to answer all the questions about “After the Gold Rush.” What does it mean? How we can tell what it means when its author has admitted he’s not so sure himself? And what the heck does the guy who played Al on Quantum Leap have to do with it all? Read on to find out.

The Y of CSNY Steps Out on His Own
Young had already established himself as a force in the world of rock and roll by 1970, only about three years or so after the Canada native gained his first wide renown as a member of Buffalo Springfield. That band soared and crashed within a span of just a few years, leaving Young enough time to release two solo albums in 1969, the second of which, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, featured him recording for the first time with longtime collaborators Crazy Horse and, with classics like “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and “Down by the River,” established him as a leading light of the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement.

His level of exposure massively increased when he joined up with David Crosby, Stephen Stills (his former bandmate in Buffalo Springfield), and Graham Nash, who had already released a smash album as a trio in 1969. Although he mostly ceded the spotlight, and the big hits (“Our House” and “Teach Your Children”) from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s 1970 album Déjà vu came from Nash’s pen, Young nonetheless took part in a chart-topping album in the US.

It meant that his next release, which would arrive just a few months after Déjà Vu in September 1970, would be a far more momentous event than his previous solo records. Young had already begun writing material for the album before the CSNY record was released. And it was a three-verse, chorusless song inspired by an unproduced screenplay that ended up being the album’s title song and affecting, if somewhat baffling, centerpiece.

What Is the Meaning of “After the Gold Rush”?
Young encountered a touch of writer’s block at some point in 1969, which is where Dean Stockwell, who enjoyed a long acting career and found fame with the beloved sci-fi series Quantum Leap. Stockwell also had a memorable part in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which co-starred his longtime friend Dennis Hopper. Hopper figures into the tale of “After the Gold Rush,” as Stockwell, who passed away in 2021, explained in a 2016 interview with Classic Rock:

“In Peru, Dennis very strongly urged me to write a screenplay, and he would get it produced. I came back home to Topanga Canyon [in the mountains outside LA] and wrote After the Gold Rush. Neil was living in Topanga then too, and a copy of it somehow got to him. He had had writer’s block for months, and his record company was after him. And after he read this screenplay, he wrote the After the Gold Rush album in three weeks.”

Stockwell’s suggestion that the screenplay inspired the entire album seems a bit unlikely, since songs like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and “Southern Man” have little to do with what this movie was going to entail. The script was apparently a sci-fi cautionary tale that had to do with the final hours of California before it was engulfed by the ocean (a scenario also imagined by Warren Zevon in his “Desperadoes Under the Eaves.”)

Stockwell’s movie was never filmed, but the script made enough of an impression on Young that he wrote a few songs based on it, including “After the Gold Rush.” But even then, the proposed story of the movie seems to have only been a jumping-off point to let Young’s imagination go wild.

The easiest way to understand Young’s narrative in the song is to divide the three verses into past, present, and future. In the first verse, he sets up a gleaming scene of Arthurian pageantry, replete with archers, knights, and majestic horns. Before the verse is over, however, the healthy sun blowing on the breeze is contrasted by what the narrator sees when he looks out his window: Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s.

In the present time, the narrator is lyin’ in a burned-out basement, a reference to some sort of ecological catastrophe suggested by the closing line of the previous verse. As this poor soul looks for solace in music and drugs, Young ends the verse with a chilling couplet: I was thinkin’ about what a friend had said/I was hoping it was a lie.

After a lovely instrumental interlude featuring Young’s piano and Bill Peterson’s flugelhorn, the final verse presents a future where mankind’s only hope is to take certain members of the population to build a new civilization on, of all places, the sun, that same sun that shone so benignly in the first verse. All in a dream, Young wails, but what a dream this song turned out to be, wondrous and terrifying all at once.

The Aftermath of “After the Gold Rush”
Many outstanding versions of “After the Gold Rush” have been recorded over the years, with the take laid down by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt for the Trio II album, an especially beautiful one. When asked about the song, Dolly is quoted thus: “‘After the Gold Rush’ happens to be one of my favorite songs of all time. So I took it to the Trio project. I loved the song on Neil Young’s [1970] album and I loved it when Prelude had it out in 1974. But I didn’t know what the song meant. Linda and Emmy knew Neil, so we called him and asked him. He said, ‘I have no idea.’ I thought that was so funny.”

Funny indeed, Dolly. The moral of the story is that Neil Young doesn’t need to know exactly where he’s going with a song, as long as the detours along the way are as memorable as those taken on “After the Gold Rush.”

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