'After The Gold Rush,' Neil Young's Soundtrack Of A Lost Movie: Lyrics And Meaning

Music | September 19, 2020

Neil Young on the cover of 'After The Gold Rush/' Source: Flickr.com

Neil Young's After The Gold Rush is one of the great albums in classic rock, including "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," "Southern Man," and the title track. But it's also one of the great mysteries in music, involving a lost screenplay for a film that was never made. In an era where everyone can know everything with a few keystrokes, there are a few rock n roll mysteries that we're never going to solve, and Neil Young's After The Gold Rush is one of them.

Recorded in the winter of 1969 and into the summer 1970, After The Gold Rush is full of country and rock inspired folk tunes that cemented the the Neil Young sound, but what most people don't know is that the record is inspired by the screenplay of a movie of the same name, a movie that only exists in the minds of its screenwriters, Dean Stockwell and Herb Bermann. Everyone who was involved with this movie is still alive but no one really knows how to describe the script. We'll try to get to the bottom of this lost film and try to figure out just what After The Gold Rush and specifically its title track has to do with it.

It all started with Dennis Hopper

Neil Young and Dennis Hopper. Source: pinterest

Like all good mysteries, this one begins in Peru with Dennis Hopper. Dean Stockwell (known as an actor for Blue VelvetParis, Texas; and the TV show Quantum Leap) was on hand for Hopper's disastrous filming of The Last Movie and Hopper convinced him to write a movie. To hear Stockwell tell it, he was under the impression that Hopper would help him produce whatever he came up with so he went back to California and got to work. Stockwell explained:

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.

The movie is a science fiction fantasy about the end of the world, maybe

Dean Stockwell. Source: wikipedia

With a push from Dennis Hopper to go off and write and script, Stockwell posted up in Topanga Canyon and started writing about the end of the world. Tonally the film sounds incredibly dark, the finale features a tidal wave destroying Los Angeles as a group of hippies hang out at the Corral, a spot made famous by Jim Morrison in "Roadhouse Blues."

A kind of righteous disaster film, After The Goldrush was meant to be a warning about the stripping of California following the folk rock and young Hollywood boom of the 1960s. After following an aging rocker living in a castle, and a character hauling a "tree of life" like crucifix across the Canyon California would sink into the ocean. Stockwell says:

It’s not a linear, regular storytelling kind of film. Really what was in my mind was that the gold rush in effect created California. And the film took place on the day California was supposed to go into the ocean. So that’s what happened after the gold rush.

The script cured Neil Young's writer's block

source: happy mag

As nonlinear as the script may be, it's exactly what Neil Young needed at the time. He was dealing with major writer's block at the time, and while record label Reprise was pestering him for a follow-up to 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, he was doing a lot of sitting around. Unable to finish a musical thought, when he got ahold of Stockwell's script the music began flowing. There was a freedom in writing these songs because they weren't supposed to be for the next Neil Young album, they were supposed to be the soundtrack to a film. In his first autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, Young explains:

The song "After the Gold Rush" was written to go along with the story's main character as he carried the tree of life through Topanga Canyon to the ocean. [The film was] a little off-the-wall and not a normal type of Hollywood story. I was really into it. Apparently the studio wasn't.

Young Tries To Interpret The Theme Of The Film In The Album's Title Track

source: pinterest

The imagery in the album's title track doesn't retell the story in Stockwell's script, but according to Young he interpreted the screenplay's concepts and made them his own. As Young said in Waging Heavy Peace, the main character of the script is carrying the tree of life through Topanga Canyon, but there's also a character living in a castle.

Some descriptions of the character in the castle states that he's an old rock star, but that could be hogwash at worst or a misremembered part of the story at best. The three verses seem to take place in the past, the present and the future. Either way, it looks as if Young interpreted the castle motif for the opening of "After The Gold Rush" where he imagines "knights in armor" and "peasants singing and drummers drumming." It's also likely that he's not talking about the story of the script at all, but rather the screenplay's theme of humans destroying the Earth through technology. Young goes on to sing about an archer splitting a tree, the first moment of ecological destruction of the song, one that leads to the third verse where humans leaving the planet of "silver spaceships" in search of a new home.

The second verse of the song is least mysterious (unless you want to get into it with the commenters on Genius.com). In the middle of the song Young sings that he's lying in a "burned out basement" watching "the sun burst through the sky." If Stockwell's script is about slow heat death of the Earth and California drifting into the Pacific Ocean, this section definitely speaks to that. Of the science fiction nature of the song, Young says:

I recognize in it now this thread that goes through a lotta my songs that’s this time-travel thing… When I look out the window, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way this place looked a hundred years ago.

With Neil Young on board, why didn't the movie get made?

source: morrison hotel gallery

As weird as this sounds it's not like it's any more out there than films like Zardoz or The Holy Mountain, and with Young on board for the soundtrack it sounds like a winner, but there was the Dennis Hopper of it all. At the time, the out-of-control actor (still considered a genius for Easy Rider) had a deal with Universal Pictures, but The Last Movie went so far over budget and he was so hard to deal with that the last thing they wanted to do was work with him on another project even if he was producing.

Young didn't care that Universal was getting cold feet about the project and he went into the studio to start recording anyway. Stockwell says that Young was still interested in working on the film and even invited him to sit in on some the sessions. Even with the record shaping up the movie never came to fruition. In an interview from 2009 Stockwell is shocked that the movie never happened but he thinks it's for the best. He explains:

I had all of that music, and the f**king guys at Universal still wouldn’t make the movie. Pardon my French. But it’s just as well. Now, I look back over at a lot of years, and I don’t know if I was really ready to do a movie that, uh, people could follow. I think I would’ve stepped out a little too far.

Does "After The Gold Rush" stand on its own?

The album cover superimposed over a recent photo at the northwest corner of Sullivan Street and West 3rd Street, in Greenwich Village, New York. Source: thrasher's wheat

Without a film to soundtrack does this Neil Young album work? At the time reviewers thought not. Writing for Rolling Stone Langdon Winner said:

Neil Young devotees will probably spend the next few weeks trying desperately to convince themselves that After The Gold Rush is good music. But they’ll be kidding themselves. For despite the fact that the album contains some potentially first rate material, none of the songs here rise above the uniformly dull surface.

Even so, the album was the first of Young's to make it to the Top 10 in the United States, and it sold two million copies. The success of Young's After The Gold Rush did little for Stockwell and Berrmann's script. It was never produced, and essentially forgotten, though Young and Stockwell remained close and put their heads together to co-direct Human Highway with Dennis Hopper and Devo.

The Lyrics Of 'After The Gold Rush' Offer More To Decipher

source: pinterest

If you want to try and get to the bottom of the After The Gold Rush mystery for yourself take a look at Young's lyrics and see what conclusion you come to.

Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armor comin'
Sayin' something about a queen
There were peasants singin' and drummers drummin'
And the archer split the tree
There was a fanfare blowin' to the sun
That was floating on the breeze

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 1970s
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 1970s

I was lyin' in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes
I was hopin' for replacement
When the sun burst though the sky
There was a band playin' in my head
And I felt like getting high
I was thinkin' about what a friend had said
I was hopin' it was a lie
Thinkin' about what a friend had said
I was hopin' it was a lie

Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flyin'
In the yellow haze of the sun
There were children cryin' and colors flyin'
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loadin' had begun
Flying Mother Nature's silver seed
To a new home in the sun
Flying Mother Nature's silver seed
To a new home

Tags: After The Gold Rush | Neil Young | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | Dean Stockwell

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.