"Sugar Mountain" is a song by Canadian folk rock singer and composer Neil Young. Young composed the song on November 12, 1964—his 19th birthday—at the Victoria Hotel in Fort William, Ontario (now Thunder Bay), where he had been touring with his Winnipeg band the Squires. Its lyrics are reminiscences about his youth in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Young first recorded the song on November 10, 1968, as part of a live performance at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This recording was released as the B-side of Young's 1969 single "The Loner" (and again as the B-side of the "Cinnamon Girl" single later that year), but was not collected on an album until the 3-record compilation Decade was released in 1977. A CD/DVD release of recordings from the Canterbury House performance, Sugar Mountain - Live at Canterbury House 1968, was released November 25, 2008 as part of Young's ongoing Archives Performance Series; this release includes the first-ever stereo mix of "Sugar Mountain" itself.
Young recorded the song again in February 1969, as part of a series of live shows at the Riverboat in Toronto; this version is included in the 2009 Archives Performance Series release Live at the Riverboat 1969. Still another live rendition is included as the first track of Young's 1979 album Live Rust.
In a concert at the Albert Hall in London on October 29, 1970, Joni Mitchell, who was already friends with Neil Young by the time he wrote this song, opened her song "Circle Game" with this speech:
Mitchell: "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."
On the bootleg album Live on Sugar Mountain, released just days after the concert at which it was recorded (on February 1, 1971, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles), Young talks at length about the lyrics. He says that when he first wrote the song, 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."
Then he sings this verse:Now you're underneath the stairs
And you're givin' back some glares
To the people who you met
And it's your first cigarette