After The Gold Rush

–Andrew Wasson

After The Gold Rush is a song and an album.   As an album, it contains several of Neil Young’s most commercially successful songs: Southern Man and Only Love Can Break Your Heart.   After The Gold Rush (the song) is an enigmatic ballad.  The song starts with some sort of medieval procession.  There are knights, peasants, and an archer, each who intends to see the queen.  Things get even more mysterious.  Fast forward to the present day, or, more likely, some point in the immediate future, where Young is lying in a burned out basement.  Apparently there has been a fire of unknown scope.  The song concludes in the future.  There is a spaceship and it is flying into the sun.

But what does the song mean and how does the Gold Rush fit in?  To answer that question we must analyze the lyrics in the context of the story of how the song came to be.

As it turns out, the story of After the Gold Rush is not your run-of-the-mill-dude-picks-up-guitar-while-watching-Family-Feud-and-writes-a-song story.  This story starts in Peru. [1]  As you may or may not know, Dennis Hopper directed and starred in the critically acclaimed biker epic Easy Rider.  Soon after Easy Rider, Hopper left for Peru to film his widely anticipated follow up, The Last Movie.  Set in the Andes, the movie was a disjointed story of an ill-fated Western shoot.  Dean Stockwell played Billy the Kid, who was an actor in a movie-within-the-movie.  While it won Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival, it was resoundingly panned by critics everywhere else.   Stockwell would later play Admiral Al Calavicci on Quantum Leap. [2]   Following Easy Rider’s success (but presumably before The Last Movie’s failure), Hopper made an agreement with Universal where they would match $25,000 of Hopper’s investment money for the development of future cinematic endeavors.   Hopper invited Stockwell to write a script.  Stockwell, back from Peru, was hanging out in Topanga Canyon, where Young and a host of bohemian-types lived at the time.   One of these bohemian-types was Captain Beefheart collaborator/poet, Herb Bermann (aka Herb Masters).  Bermann/Masters was by this time mainly a poet, but also had a unsubstantiated acting career in Dr. Kildare. [3]  After the series, Bermann had moved to the Mojave Desert, where he met Don Van Vliet, the driving force behind Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.  After Bermann read Van Vliet some of his poetry, Bermann contributed the lyrics to a number of tracks that ended up on 1967’s Safe As Milk.

Bermann moved to Topanga Canyon and wrote a 300-page rock novel about his Safe As Milk experience.  He hosted readings to members of the Topanga Canyon creative community.  Bermann and Stockwell had been friends for years, and Stockwell approached Bermann to help with his idea for a screenplay.  Hearing the rock novel readings, Stockwell decided that they were on the same artistic wavelength.  According to Bermann, the screenplay was about, “an artistic community living in Topanga Canyon in the sixties being affected by a tidal wave coming up from The Pacific Ocean and how that would affect this village of Topanga of creative people.  Dean likened it to the Tree of Life of the ancient Cabbala persuasion.” [4]  According to Stockwell, it was a personal, “Jungian self-discovery of the gnosis.” [5]  Further according to Stockwell, “It involved the Kabala, a lot of arcane stuff.” [6]  Shannon Forbes, resident of Topanga Canyon at the time, and privy to the script said, “[i]t was sort of an end-of-the-world movie… At the very end, the hero is standing in the Corral parking lot watching this huge wave come in and this house is surfing along, and as the house comes at him, he turns the knob – and that’s the end of the movie.”   Jimmy McDonough, the author of the Young biography Shakey pieced together bits and pieces of remembrances since the script has been lost: “Russ Tamblyn [7] was to play an over-the-hill rocker living in a castle; others vaguely recall some scene of George Herms [8] carrying a huge, ‘tree of life’ though the canyon.” [9]  Young got wind of this endeavor.   Apparently suffering from writer’s block, he offered to provide the soundtrack.   However, even by Young’s estimate (albeit his estimate shrouded by the passing of twenty years) only two songs on After the Gold Rush were actually inspired by the screenplay: the closing vignette Cripple Creek Ferry and of course, the title track. [10] The record was recorded in the basement of Young’s Topanga Canyon home at 611 Skyline Trail. [11]

To get to the bottom of what the Gold Rush is in Young’s song, we must analyze the role that it plays in Stockwell’s movie.  What part does the Gold Rush play in Stockwell’s movie?  The most widely known Gold Rush was the California Gold Rush of 1848.   You know, Sutter’s Mill and John W. Marshall, panning for gold in the American River, grizzled, grimy prospectors in overalls and floppy hats roaming the dusty streets of a town which is by now surely abandoned.  However, talking about the script, no one ever talks about the Gold Rush – they just focus on Topanga Canyon. [12]  Yet, it is entirely feasible that Stockwell was referring to the California Gold Rush as a point of reference to the scene he was trying to document.   Stockwell may have been trying to recount the story of California after the Gold Rush.  Playing a central role in this story is the colony of artists living in the hills above Los Angeles.

But how does this correspond to the actual lyrics of the song?  Young doesn’t sing about Topanga Canyon or a flood or anything that vaguely resembles Stockwell’s script.  Thus, all we can really go on is what Young said about the song himself.  In an interview cited in Shakey, Young explained that the song dealt with three times in history, “[t]here’s a Robin Hood scene, there’s a fire scene in the present and there’s the future….the air is yellow and red, ships are leaving, certain people can go and certain people can’t.” [13]  Somewhat extraordinarily Young commented, “[i] think it’s going to happen.” [14]  In Shakey, Young further explains his thoughts on the song: “Civilizations.  Dropping seeds.  Races.  Blending.  Species getting stronger.  Like plants do.” [15]  Looking back, he admits that After the Gold Rush was probably an environmental song.

It seems that Young’s Gold Rush is a more abstract Gold Rush than the actual California Gold Rush.  There is some evidence that Young treats the Gold Rush as a composite.  Young calls the album “the spirit of Topanga Canyon.”  At the same time, the only other song that Young recalls that was inspired by the script was Cripple Creek Ferry.  But Cripple Creek was the site of a major gold rush in Colorado (1891). [16]  Not California.   Therefore, it seems reasonable to believe that Young did not have a single gold rush in mind.  The metaphor of a gold rush and a time after the gold rush is paralleled in the temporal distinctions in the song.  The joyous parade = gold rush.   The burned out basement = after the gold rush. [17]  The story of humankind, stretching back to its very origins, has been self-absorbed waste.   The archer split the tree.   The archer didn’t care.   He didn’t have anything better to do than to take an arrow, line it up, and then just shoot it at a tree.   For kicks.   Fast-forward to just a little further in the future.   After the Gold Rush, the party’s over, the camp’s trashed and the prospectors who trashed it aren’t around to clean it up.   After the Gold Rush, there was a fire, and you know what, Randy Bachman told me that the government started building spaceships to evacuate the planet.   And there aren’t enough of them to take everyone.

Thus, the Gold Rush may mean different things in each work.   One is the Gold Rush from Stockwell and Berman’s movie script – a historical bookmark placing the subject matter of the script into the larger historical history of California.  The other is Young’s idea of the ramifications of a Gold Rush – unbridled greed for natural resources causing the haphazard destruction of the environment.   These two interpretations do not need to be reconcilable.   The beauty of inspiration is that it need not be constrained to reflect a certain storyline.  Young did not need to write a song that described each scene in the movie verbatim.   However, there is a certain environmental poetic justice underlying both works in a tidal wave that destroys Topanga Canyon – water, once robbed of its gold, has its revenge on California at last.


[1] Well, the story really starts with Young’s birth in Canada, and his trek from Winnipeg (where he spent most of his childhood) through Thunder Bay to Toronto and then to Los Angeles and through the short, fractured, but brilliant career of Buffalo Springfield.   But if you bracket the Neil Young part of it, the story starts in Peru.

[2] He was also once a child actor of some acclaim (Tommy Green in Gentleman’s Agreement ).

[3] Dr. Kildare starred Richard Chamberlain as a young intern.   There is no independent verification of this save a rare interview with Bermann:  http://www.beefheart.com/datharp/herb1.htm.  Dean Stockwell also played a minor role as Dr. Rudy Devereax in 1965 for 6 episoides.   Credit also Gene Roddenberry as a writer and William Shatner as Dr. Carl Noyes for six episodes spread out over several seasons.

[4] Interview Herb Bermann by Derek Laskie, 2003.

[5] Interview with Dean Stockwell by Jimmy McDonough, Shakey p. 331.

[6] Id.

[7] Russ Tamblyn is perhaps best known as playing Riff, the leader of the Jets in West Side Story.   His daughter, Amber Tamblyn, you may know as Joan of Arcadia.

[8] George Herms is an assemblage artist.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 331-32.

[11] Researching for this piece, I found an old real estate ad online offering the house for sale.   It had been taken offline and I had to read it cached, so presumably the house had sold.   The offering price was $839,000.  http://www.garyharryman.com/photogalleryskyline.html (thumbnails don’t work).   Young had moved away from that house to his storied Broken Arrow Ranch   not too long after he finished the record when he split with his first wife.   Bernie Leadon, an original member of the Eagles, later bought the house, and lived in it with Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis.  Leadon left the Eagles in 1975.

[12] Young also called the album, “the spirit of Topanga Canyon.”   Interview with Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone (8/14/1975), reprinted in Shakey, p. 338.

[13] Interview with Mondo Magazine, 1992 or 2000, reprinted in Shakey, p. 338.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 351 (Interview with McDonough).

[16] However, there were a number of other gold rushes; lesser gold rushes.   The first American gold rush took place in the Appalachian mountains in the 1830s.   The Idaho Gold Rush.   The Wild Horse Creek Gold Rush.   The Central Otaga Gold Rush.

[17] The spaceships part of the song is also after the gold rush, but I think even further removed.   By this point, things have gotten so bad that they have to abandon earth.

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