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The guy who curates Neil Young’s archives? He’s from Cheltenham

Joel Bernstein has been one of the few constants in Neil Young's five-decade career

Joel Bernstein, San Francisco, April 9, 2018, photographed by Joshua Ets-Hokin
Joel Bernstein, San Francisco, April 9, 2018, photographed by Joshua Ets-HokinRead moreJoshua Ets-Hokin

Over the the last five decades, Neil Young has regularly changed backup musicians, collaborators, and musical genres. But there has been one constant in the mercurial singer-songwriter’s life: Cheltenham Township native Joel Bernstein.

Since his photograph of the rock icon strolling past a New York City wall appeared on the cover of Young’s seminal 1970 album After the Gold Rush, Bernstein has been by the musician’s side alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) serving as photographer, guitar technician, and archivist.

In addition to the After the Gold Rush cover, Bernstein’s shot from the Spectrum stage looking out at the arena is the cover of Young’s 1973 live album Time Fades Away. And it was Bernstein who spent 19 years (“and one day!” he insisted) assembling 2009’s exhaustive boxed set Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 1963-1972.

Bernstein’s latest project on Young’s behalf is Songs for Judy, an album culled from a series of 1976 concerts that dropped last week. Bernstein, who was that tour’s guitar tech, taped the show simply for his own personal enjoyment, which explains why it remained under official wraps for more than 40 years (bootlegs made from a stolen copy have surfaced). He curated the set with director Cameron Crowe.

Bernstein, 66, began his career while a Cheltenham High School student in the late 1960s. His entree to the rarified world of rockstardom came when he photographed and befriended a then-mostly unknown Joni Mitchell at the Second Fret, a Center City coffeehouse that was among Philly’s earliest counterculture music venues.

His early association with Mitchell led him to meet and photograph such rock deities as Young and his on-again-off-again teammates, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, as well as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, and Frank Zappa. His photos have adorned album covers by the latter three and Mitchell, among others.

A lifelong musician, Bernstein has recorded and gigged with a host of top acts, including Mitchell, Browne, and Tracy Chapman. He has also served as a guitar tech for Bob Dylan (on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour) and Prince, and he was in charge of the guitar tuning for every artist who performed at the Band’s legendary Last Waltz concert in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976, save for Eric Clapton, who brought his own guitar-minder.

Bernstein, who recently received a lifetime achievement award from the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in St. Louis, spoke to the Inquirer from his home in Oakland, Calif.

You were Neil’s guitar tech on the “Songs for Judy” tour. What were the circumstances of your capturing it on tape?

I thought, ‘I really want to have a souvenir of this tour. So, I’m going to bring my Uhr cassette deck and get a PA feed and record these shows. It’s for me. It’s never going to become a bootleg album or something. It’s just so I can remember how cool it was.'

So I recorded 16 shows out of the 25 we did — it was a short tour, all in November.

Some people might assume the “Judy” of the title is Judy Collins. But it turns out it is a far more iconic Judy.

We finished the tour [with two shows] in Atlanta, and Neil and the band were celebrating the end of the tour and had imbibed something and were pretty out there.

Neil hallucinated during the first show. The [spoken segment on the album] is him describing to the audience of the second show what had happened to him on stage during the first show, when he looked down into the orchestra pit and hallucinated Judy Garland standing there looking up at him.

So we decided to call the album Songs for Judy.

What does it say about Neil Young that he allowed that to be released?

What it says about Neil Young is that he doesn’t have a closed mind about where that best performance might be or a quirky, really unusual performance. It was great that he didn’t change my picks. Some artists would be, ‘Absolutely not. I’m not putting out [something like that].’

This project was culled from a specific series of concerts with a relatively limited song list. But Archives Vol. 1 has 104 tracks, not counting full concerts. How does one curate something like that and still hang on to one’s sanity?

You have to be focused and not have your eyes glaze over, because you're looking for gold. You're trying to find gold in tapes that otherwise would [stay] on the shelf and nobody would hear them for 20 or 30 years.

When I was first doing that, it was, ‘Let’s find the very best performance of the best song.’ To find the best performance of a given song … first of all, if it’s been released, it has to be better than the master. It can’t just be, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ It has to have something compelling about it to be the best. And sometimes, the best is a live performance. Sometimes, it’s a demo performance. Sometimes it’s a cassette he sang it onto when he was writing the song.

It’s years of work. A lot of fans would think, ‘That’s what I want to do. I’d love to be Joel Bernstein and do all that.’ But it’s not something everyone can do. Most people would get bored or not be able to tell the difference between the 30 performances [of the same song] on the same tour.

And if you're doing it for Neil, you have to be him in the sense you have to know what he's looking for. He's not looking for perfection. He's looking for feel. So that was a real privilege to be asked to do that for him.

You’ve been a musician longer than you’ve been a professional photographer. With all your connections, why didn’t you pursue a musical career?

I got to a point where I realized, ‘Wow, I know all these musicians.' But I looked around — this was in the early ’70s — and came to the conclusion that because I’m sort of a shy person, I really didn’t want to be a performer. But I found I did enjoy accompanying people, where the spotlight’s not on me; I’m just helping what’s being played on stage.

So, I’ve played with [Nash] and [Young]. I played on [Crosby, Stills and Nash’s single] ‘Wasted on the Way.’ I’ve played with [Mitchell] on stage. That’s fun to do.

But I realized that if it becomes your occupation, if you're paying the rent with the money you make from making music, then it can't help but affect the magic that is why you went to music to begin with.

I consciously decided that I should just focus on my photography and make music fun, not have it be my living.

After almost 50 years in the music world, you must have enough stories to fill at least one book. Have you thought about an autobiography?

There are lot of great stories that I may eventually [want to tell]. But I'm currently working on a book of my best photography of musicians. That will be my first book. I would say I'm close to finishing it.

I have been working on the stories of those. Each of those photos has a story. It’s not my autobiography, but it will be a survey of my best work, and it will hopefully give people glimpses into the kinds of moments I’ve had the good fortune to have with so many of these people.