Just keep one thing in mind," Neil Young told an interviewer in 1975, "I may remember it all differently tomorrow." The brain plays tricks, memories have second thoughts, and who knows how it all really went down. There were many challenges in assembling Neil Young's massive Archives Volume I: 1963-1972 , one of them being the quest to document with the best possible certainty the early career of an extremely fruitful perfectionist.
And while the highly anticipated box set is available Tuesday, it is not, strictly speaking, quite finished yet - and it may never be, according to Larry Johnson, Archives co-ordinator. "Last Monday we began work at 6 in the morning, and didn't finish until 12:30 a.m.," says the documentary filmmaker, who met Young in 1971 while working on the Woodstock soundtrack. "Neil was thinking about the early days in Fort William, Ont., still going over it in his mind, trying to remember the truth."
The collection is available as eight CDs, or 10 DVD or Blu-ray discs, but it's the high-definition Blu-ray package that has not only superior sound and visuals, but enhanced flexibility as well. Both the standard DVDs and the Blue-ray discs have a virtual filing cabinet, a funky old thing that can be pulled open for details on each of the songs. But because Blu-ray players can be hooked up to the Internet, Young can send out newfound content as he (or his team) unearth it. "We were in Wichita, Kan., recently," Johnson explains, "and someone showed Neil and I photographs of Buffalo Springfield backstage in 1968. We continue to come across new material."
So, those who splurge for the Blu-ray format ($316.40), will periodically find a cyber stick-it note from Young on their filing cabinet, advising of new content and asking if they'd like to download it. New goodies such as a recording of I Wonder by "Swinging Neil Young and the Squires" in 1963 go to your disc, to be integrated into an interactive timeline that serves as the skeleton for all the photos, tracks and archival curios.
What is likely the world's tallest freestanding box set - it is nearly 30 centimetres high, weighing in at three kilograms - first began as a concept of Young's in 1998. The iconic Canadian singer-songwriter envisioned a product that would allow fans to browse through handwritten lyrics, historical documents and what-have-you treats, while simultaneously listening to the music. "I said to him, 'No, you can't do that,'" recalls Johnson, principal collaborator on Young's 1973 experimental film Journey Through the Past . "I told him you can't play music and browse at the same time."
As the pair waited for technology to catch up with their concept, they intermittingly plugged away - editing, organizing and collecting material - as they continued to work on current projects, such as Young's Greendale film and concept album from 2003.
Then three years ago the digital format required for what Young had in mind became reality. Still, he had to wait for the format-war between Sony's Blue-ray Disc and Toshiba's HD DVD to play itself out. In 2008, Toshiba conceded the high-definition standard format to Sony. "The day after that battle was done, I started developing the Blu-ray edition," Johnson says. "And that was when Archives became a reality for Neil."
When asked about the man-hours put into the project, Johnson couldn't fathom a number, saying only that for Young, himself and three other team members, Archives was a "labour of love." The group worked out of Young's Broken Arrow ranch in Northern California for the audio content, while gathering in San Francisco for the visual components.
The box set of released and previously unreleased material begins with Disc 0, Early Years (1963-1965) , which covers Young's days in Winnipeg and Toronto, and includes such things as a folky Sugar Mountain demo from 1965 that sounds like a Woody Guthrie outtake. Disc 03 captures Young at Toronto's Riverboat folk club in 1969; his 1971 Massey Hall show (released in 2007) is the seventh disc. The 1970 album After the Gold Rush is represented by the sixth disc, Topanga 3 (1970) , which also includes Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's protest song Ohio .
For some, the jewel of the package will be the leather-bound treasure trove of archival material. Here are family snapshots, press clippings, the original hand-written (in red ink) lyrics to Ohio , promotional posters and a 1970 Toronto Telegram article by renowned journalist Scott Young, who proudly wrote of his son's show at Carnegie Hall. Everything is extremely annotated.
The collection's lone film, Journey Through the Past , is Disc 09 in the DVD and Blu-ray packages. In it, Young is shown listening to Buffalo Springfield, a few years after the band broke up. "It's weird hearing all those old songs, you know." Young remarks. "You hear yourself in a whole other place."
And now he's at a different place, way down the timeline, tripping back more than 40 years. "It's a journey for all of us, but for him it's a very personal journey," Johnson says. "And, for Neil, he's still taking it."