‘The Needle and the Damage Done': Neil Young Plays Two Songs on The Johnny Cash Show, 1971

Here’s a scene from a classic episode of The Johnny Cash Show, with Neil Young singing a pair of deeply personal songs that he had only recently written.

“Johnny Cash on Campus” was a special edition that aired on February 17, 1971.  Cash and his crew visited Vanderbilt University in Nashville to talk with students. In the program, one of them raises the subject of drugs in the music industry, and Cash speaks briefly about his own problem with drugs before introducing Young, who sings “The Needle and the Damage Done” in front of an all-student audience at the Ryman Auditorium. Young then puts down his guitar and moves to a piano to play “Journey Through the Past.”

It was a busy time for Young. While he was in Nashville to appear on the show he was persuaded by a local record producer to record his next album there. He began work almost immediately on what would become his masterpiece, Harvest. On the night of the Johnny Cash Show Young invited two other guests that night, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, to go back to the studio with him afterward. Together the three sang the backing vocals on “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” and Taylor played the distinctive banjo guitar part on “Old Man.”

The February 17, 1971 episode of The Johnny Cash Show is also notable for being the first time Cash performed “Man in Black.” He got the idea for the song from his discussions with the students at Vanderbilt, and finished writing the lyrics on the day of the show. The song was so new he needed cue cards to sing the words.

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