#1008: Sugar Mountain/When You Dance I Can Really Love – Neil Young

Peak Month: April 1971
6 weeks on Vancouver’s CKVN chart
Peak Position #7
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ #93

Neil Young was born in Toronto in 1945. His family moved to Omemee, Ontario, and he contracted polio in 1951, two years before the polio vaccine was introduced. He learned guitar and dropped out of high school. He played in the Winnipeg based band called The Squires, who toured parts of Manitoba and northern Ontario. They played instrumental covers of Cliff Richard’s backup band, The Shadows. Young moved to California in 1966 where he was a founding member of the Buffalo Springfield. In 1968 he released his self-titled debut studio album. And in 1969 he became the fourth member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Since then he has released 35 studio albums and more live and compilation albums.


On the day he turned nineteen, Neil Young composed “Sugar Mountain” on November 12, 1964. He was in Fort William, Ontario, at the Victoria Hotel. After his band the Squires had packed it in Young sat down to write 126 verses for”Sugar Mountain”. It would be a four year wait before he would record a few of the verses to “Sugar Mountain” on November 10, 1968. This was as part of a concert in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, at Canterbury House.

Sugar Mountain/When You Dance I Can Really Love - Neil Young

Oh to live on Sugar Mountain,
with the barkers and the colored balloons.
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain,
though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon.
You’re leaving there too soon.

It’s so noisy at the fair,
but all your friends are there,
and the candy floss you had,
and your mother and your dad.

Oh to live on Sugar Mountain,
with the barkers and the colored balloons.
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain.
though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon.
You’re leaving there too soon.

There’s a girl just down the aisle,
oh to turn and see her smile.
You can hear the words she wrote,
as you read the hidden note.

Oh to live on Sugar Mountain….

Now you’re underneath the stairs,
and you’re giving’ back some glares,
to the people that you met,
and it’s your first cigarette.

Oh to live on Sugar Mountain….

Now you say you’re leaving’ home
‘Cause you want to be alone.
Ain’t it funny how you feel,
when you’re finding’ out it’s real?

Oh to live on Sugar Mountain….

Two years later on October 29, 1970, at a concert at The Paris Theatre in London, Ontario, Joni Mitchell referenced “Sugar Mountain”. Mitchell had already established a friendship with Young before he wrote “Sugar Mountain”. She opened her song “Circle Game” providing this back story: “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 21, and that meant he was no longer allowed into his favourite haunt, which was kind of a teeny-bopper club and once you’re over 21 you couldn’t get back 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. ‘Cause 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. (…) And I thought, God, you know, if we get to 21 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. It’s called The Circle Game.” Though Joni Mitchell adds two years to Young’s age when he wrote the song, the  sentiment that you’re all washed up when “you can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain” inspired her to write “Circle Game” as an answer song to Young’s bleak assessment of life after the teen years.

Aside from Joni Mitchell’s take on the song, there were radio listeners who were not yet twenty who sensed that the modern life was hurtling them through their teen years with pressures of school exams, summer jobs, part-time jobs and family expectations for what they were going to be when they grew up. Some of them shared Young’s longing to let youth linger a little while longer “with the barkers and the colored balloons.”

On a bootleg live album of his February 1, 1971, concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion  in Los Angeles, Young told the audience as an introduction to “Sugar Mountain” that he “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.”

“Sugar Mountain” was the B-side to “Cinnamon Girl” in 1970, “When You Dance I Can Really Love” in 1971 and “Heart of Gold” in 1972.

“When You Dance I Can Really Love” was a track composed by Young on his third studio album After The Gold Rush, released in 1970. It was released as a single in 1971, reaching #93 in the Billboard Hot 100. Together, “When You Dance I Can Really Love” and “Sugar Mountain” peaked as a double-sided hit on Vancouver’s CKVN pop charts at #7. “When You Dance I Can Really Love” made it to #4 in Winnipeg, #12 in Boise, Idaho, and #14 in San Jose. Otherwise, it didn’t have any significant chart action. It was a double-sided hit with “Sugar Mountain” in San Jose and Winnipeg, while “Sugar Mountain” made it into the Top 40 on its own in Chicago.

Sugar Mountain/When You Dance I Can Really Love - Neil Young

When you dance, do your senses tingle,
then take a chance?
In a trance, while the lonely mingle
with circumstance?

I’ve got something to tell you, you make it show.
Let me come over, I know you know.
When you dance, I can really love.

I can love, I can really love,
I can really love.
I can love, I can really love,
I can really love.

Like a mountain that’s growing,
a river that rolls,
let me come over,
I know you know.
When you dance, I can really love.

When you dance, do your senses tingle,
then take a chance?
In a trance, while the lonely mingle
with circumstance?

I’ve got something to tell you,
you make it show.
Let me come over,
I know you know.
When you dance, I can really love.

“When You Dance I Can Really Love” is about physical and emotional responses generated when we see someone we’re attracted to move their body on the dance floor. Young knows that not everyone is in touch with their body and so he asks “when you dance, do your senses tingle,
then take a chance?” For many the answer was yes, but for others out of touch with their own bodies cues there was no movement toward another on the dance floor. In the song Young celebrates the gift of desire and arousal as natural and important information to share. Otherwise, how is someone else supposed to know we desire them unless we have “something to tell” them?

After this single Neil Young had his most successful hit, “Heart of Gold“, which climbed to #1 in both Canada and the USA in 1972. Since 1975 Neil Young has received 28 Juno Award nominations and won seven of these. He has also won a Grammy Award for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package for his compilation album Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 (1963–1972). In 1993 his single, “Harvest Moon” climbed to #5 on the Canadian RPM singles chart, but missed the Billboard Hot 100. (It’s chart performance in Vancouver is not known at this time as the last available weekly record charts online are in December 1991).

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