The Meaning of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”

Neil Young live in 1971. Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot.

Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” is a classic song about the search for true love and companionship in life, with the acknowledgement that the search truly begins within the self. Released in February 1972 as a single from Neil’s fourth album, Harvest, “Heart of Gold” was an instant hit, and became the Canadian artist’s only chart-topping single in the United States.

While it’s easy to assume that Neil is simply singing about the quest for a lover with a “Heart of Gold,” the real meaning of the song goes a bit deeper than that. Neil flips the idea on its head to suggest that while he is certainly looking for a companion, he is looking to turn himself into a good person prior to that, so that he can properly love this other person.

In this way, the idea of having a “Heart of Gold” would mean that you possess qualities such as caring, loving, openness, and acceptance towards others.

The song is sung in three parts, with each verse leading into a repeated chorus that Young blends with the end of the verse, truly making them one.

“Heart of Gold” single cover art.

For most of the song, Neil sings in the first person:

I want to live
I want to give
I’ve been a miner
For a heart of gold
It’s these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching
For a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keep me searching
For a heart of gold
And I’m getting old

First section of lyrics to “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young.

Here, Neil sings about how he wants to live and give, and by this he means give himself to others. These are qualities that one with a golden heart within them would possess, and that’s precisely what he’s mining for within himself.

When he sings of expressions that he never gives, he is referring to his own flaws, and how he feels that he doesn’t express these qualities enough to have found that heart of gold within himself yet.

Neil feels that he’s getting too old, and running out of time to correct his own path. For reference, he was just 26 years old when he wrote this song. Hardly an old man, yet here he is singing about the passing of time. We all realize that our youth will inevitably slip away from us, and perhaps Neil was facing this within his own life at the time.

Neil Young in 1972.

In the next verse, Neil sings of some things that he has done on his quest for this heart of gold, and considers again that he may be running out of time:

I’ve been to Hollywood
I’ve been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean
For a heart of gold
I’ve been in my mind
It’s such a fine line
That keeps me searching
For a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keeps me searching
For a heart of gold
And I’m getting old

Second section of lyrics to “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young.

Traveling around and searching both outside and within the self for the answers, as well as for this special person that he can share his life with. He finds himself toeing a fine line between giving up and continuing the search, and between good and bad, perhaps, and this keeps him motivated.

Still, he’s getting older each day, and he has yet to find what he’s looking for. This brings to mind the idea of settling for less than perfect for the sake of companionship, or comfort. Perhaps, one might consider whether or not a true heart of gold can even exist, and find something close enough instead.

In the closing lyrics, Neil brings another person into the picture, revealing that there is perhaps a certain person that has inspired him to achieve this in the first place:

Keep me searching
For a heart of gold
You keep me searching
And I’m growing old
Keep me searching
For a heart of gold
I’ve been a miner
For a heart of gold

Final lyrics to “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young.

With these lyrics, Neil suggests that he wants to have a heart of gold within himself so that he can find companionship with another person who has achieved the same for themselves.

This is the only instance in the song where he uses “you” instead of “I”, and it adds a layer of depth that makes you ponder whether this pair have both inspired one another in a similar way.

Many of us can relate to the quest for the ideal partner, as well as the quest for self-realization, and thus this song has become a timeless love song. It is perhaps the most well-known and well-liked song in his entire catalog, which is saying something considering he has had a long career wit more than 40 studio albums released to date.

The song’s title was also used for a 2006 concert film and documentary, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which was used to promote his 2005 album Prairie Wind.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold movie promo from 2010.

One person who didn’t like “Heart of Gold”, however, is Bob Dylan, who talked about the song with Spin in 1985:

The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was “Heart of Gold.” I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to “Heart of Gold.” I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, “Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.”

Bob Dylan on “Heart of Gold,” 1985.

“Heart of Gold” features backup vocals from James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. While it was released in 1972, Young had been playing it as early as January 1971, and a solo acoustic version appears on the 2007 release Live at Massey Hall 1971. That’s a fantastic live album that I highly recommend, and not just for the early version of “Heart of Gold”.

Listen to the album version of “Heart of Gold” below, and watch the Live at Massey Hall version below that.

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