We have some information about Neil Young’s Sugar Mountain from fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. From a concert where she was singing a duet (familiar with Newton Family Singers):
She introduces her next song by saying:
In 1965 I was up in Canada, and there was a friend of mine up there who had just left a rock’n’roll band (…) he had just newly turned 19, and that meant he was no longer allowed into his favorite hangout, which was kind of a teeny-bopper club and once you’re over 18 you couldn’t get in there anymore; so he was really feeling terrible because his girlfriends and everybody that he wanted to hang out with, his band could still go there, you know, but it’s one of the things that drove him to become a folk singer was that he couldn’t play in this club anymore. But he was over the hill. So he wrote this song that was called “Oh to live on sugar mountain” which was a lament for his lost youth.He wrote it on his 19th birthday (…) And I thought, God, you know, if we get to 19 and there’s nothing after that, that’s a pretty bleak future, so I wrote a song for him, and for myself just to give me some hope.
The song she wrote?
The Circle Game. A live version from 1974:
Here’s Joni’s version of Sugar Mountain (1967):
Right. Back to Neil and Sugar Mountain:
He wrote this song right after leaving his band The Squires (this is a great interview with a bandmate from those teenage years about Young, Neil).
From Neil Young: Long May You Run: Neil wrote this at the Victoria Hotel in Fort Williams, Ontario. Around this time he met Stephen Stills, who was touring Canada with his band The Company. Young on Stills: “Mainly, he was the funniest person I’d met in years. He didn’t have another gig until next weekend, so he stayed in Thunder Bay and we played and he took us to see buffalo. We lived on A&W cheeseburgers and root beer. Very Canadian.”
Sugar Mountain was the b-side to Young’s first solo single (The Loner) and did not appear on an album until 1977’s greatest hits compilation “Decade.” (It appeared as a b-side on a number of singles.)
Here’s Neil from 1971 with a talky intro:
at about the 5:45 minute mark, he talks about writing the song saying:
Folks, I want to tell you something. When I wrote this song, I wrote 126 verses to it. Now, you can imagine that I had a lot of trouble figuring out what four verses to use… I was underneath the stairs… Anyway, this verse that I wrote… It was the worst verse of the 126 that I wrote. So, I decided to put it in the song, to just to give everybody a frame of reference as to, you know, what can happen. What I’m trying to say here, by stopping in the middle of the song, and explaining this to you, is that… I think it’s one of the lamest verses I ever wrote. And it takes a lotta nerve for me to get up here and sing it in front of you people. But, if when I’m finished singing, you sing the chorus ‘Sugar Mountain’ super loud, I’ll just forget about it right away and we can continue.
The verse he’s speaking of?
Now you’re underneath the stairs
And you’re givin’ back some glares
To the people who you met
And it’s your first cigarette.
Here’s one of Young’s biggest fans doing his version:
(Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, for those wondering.)
And here’s a (quiet) video of Young from last year’s Farm Aid concert: