When Neil Young Found a Neil Young Bootleg

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Neil Young explains to a record store clerk why he doesn’t like seeing a bootleg album with his picture on it

It isn’t the way it used to be. Back then, in the early 1970s, an artist released an album, you went to a store and you bought it. The artist decided what you heard and what you didn’t hear. If you went to a concert, you didn’t take the music home with you; you had your memories, and that was it. There was no downloading, no YouTube, no device that you could stick in your pocket or purse and then employ for the purpose of making a video recording.

A few ambitious souls, extreme fans of certain artists, might scheme to smuggle in a reel-to-reel tape recorder, microphones, blank tapes and, if they weren’t caught and tossed out, they went away with a souvenir. Then came the cassette recorder, much smaller and more portable, which made it that much easier. But it was still an effort.

You had to be very determined, and you understood that you were making a sacrifice: The chore of getting this recording was such a challenge—changing tapes, keeping an eye out for ushers charged with making your task impossible—that you might not be able to concentrate on the concert as it was taking place. For whatever reason, your prime concern was having the ability to listen to it another time.

There was also the issue of studio recordings that the artist didn’t release—and didn’t want you to hear. Perhaps these were demos or rehearsal tapes, unfinished songs or songs that just weren’t deemed good enough to make the album. These outtakes and other unreleased recordings were meant to remain in record company vaults forever, locked away so that fans were exposed only to finished products approved by the artist and all other parties.

It didn’t always work out that way. Occasionally, a record company employee, a producer, maybe the janitor, would decide he or she wanted something that no one else had. A tape would get copied surreptitiously. That person would make another copy, for a friend. That friend would make copies for other friends. Trading networks developed so that like-minded fans could own what other fans had.

In 1971, many of us looked like this guy, seen selling his 8-track tapes to an L.A. record store

Then, invariably, someone, somewhere along the chain, would get an idea: Let’s press some copies of this live or studio recording onto vinyl discs, and sell them.

The bootleg record industry, something that had always existed, but on a small scale, became big business starting in the late ’60s. Bob Dylan’s “basement tapes” with the Band, a live Rolling Stones concert, Grateful Dead shows—they all found their way to hungry fans. By the ’70s, bootlegs—rarely sold in legitimate record stores but easily found—were in many rock fans’ collections.

Related: The 10 best classic rock live bootlegs

Some artists didn’t mind as much as others—the Dead even set aside a “tapers’ section” at their concerts so that those so inclined could go about their business without obscuring the view of others. But other artists were livid—they hated the idea of ceding control of their output, whether to enthusiastic fans or to criminal entrepreneurs. They didn’t appreciate that the money went to bootleggers, not to them.

Which brings us to Neil Young. Neil didn’t like bootleg records, not in the least. The film below—our understanding is that Young went to the store, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, while making his film Journey Through the Past—is all about what happened one day in late 1971 (we can tell the date by looking at the Dec. 1971 Pete Townshend issue of Rolling Stone on sale) and discovered unreleased Neil Young music being sold. We won’t give you any spoilers. Watch it and see for yourself. It’s pretty extraordinary stuff, a morality tale of sorts. That moral? Don’t try to rip off Neil Young! (Even if you have no idea who Neil Young is, as the case with this poor, beleaguered clerk.)

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Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Callmewhatyouwill
    #1 Callmewhatyouwill 14 January, 2017, 22:11

    I felt sorry for the clerk, and Neil was a bit arrogant when he walked from behind the counter, knocking something over and not even being polite enough to pick it up or say something like “Excuse me”. He could have handled the whole situation in a much more enlightened way. After all, the clerk didn’t know who he was and Neil just took the album the first time and walked out of the store. He should have at least shown his drivers license with his name on it. The clerk is responsible for the store and cannot allow thievery to take place. Neil was actually in doing something illegal in this instance and could have been arrested if the police had been called. There are procedures for things like this. Neil should have first called the police and then have them come and confiscate the material.

    After all, though the album may have been legally his, he didn’t pay to have it pressed onto vinyl. Nor did he pay to have the album jacket made and printed. In a court case the purchaser or owner of the store most likely would have been held unaccountable for any violation and the person or distributor to the stores would have to be located. But meanwhile, of course we all understand that it’s not right that people should bootleg, and we all understand that a few albums aren’t going to hurt Neil financially, and we all understand the principle and the morals involved. But Neil needs to learn how to be polite to people and not villain-ize people like the clerk or the owner. I’m a bit surprised at his overall behavior.

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    • joseph
      joseph 26 January, 2018, 13:50

      Although the whole game has changed now, I wouldnt be surprised to find that the “clerk” is in fact the owner.
      Back then, an LP cost about 4-5 dollars to a record retailer. Being busted for selling bootleg copies would cost the owner THOUSANDS. Young knew this, and trusted that the “clerk” did as well. Granted, Neil was being a dick, but so was the store for selling records he had absolutley no intention of presenting to the public. Neil was, just 4 years earlier, a penniless musician from a bombed out Canadian city of Thunder Bay, Ont., and at this point was certainly a millionaire when that still meant’
      something, but, I think the IDEA of someone who has been all along stealing his art for there own profit probably felt as offensive to him as stealing his guitars. Most musicians wouldn’t be too cordial to
      find their stolen instruments for sale in a store, and wouldnt want to leave without them

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  2. Ed Sullivan
    #2 Ed Sullivan 26 April, 2017, 12:04

    Neil Young is a horse’s ass. Documentation can be found on this page.

    Reply this comment
  3. Lurker
    #3 Lurker 2 July, 2017, 15:40

    What a miracle it is that modern technology allows us to judge and criticize an even that took place some 46 years ago, when many of us were children or not even born yet. 1971 was a very different time than 2017. It’s an interesting piece of history to see the 8 track tapes, the land line phone, and the wind-up phonograph (Victrola or similar brand) in the center of the store. Back then, if you wanted bootleg music you still had to physically go somewhere and look for physical media like a vinyl album or a tape. Simpler times!

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