Life. Death. Hard drugs
NEIL YOUNG: The wilderness years
Neil Young Special, Uncut, September 1998
The Edge Of Darkness
by Allen Jones
In 1972, Neil Young's life and career were on the brink of falling apart. Friends were dying around him, burned out on drugs and the excesses of the Sixties. It was a time of humiliation, rage and exorcism, and the so-called Doom Trilogy of Time Fades Away, Tonight's The Night and On The Beach - tortured epics about heroin and death that would change forever the way people thought of him.
"The first thing you have to understand about me," he says, moving closer, the first time we meet, "is that no one tells me what to do. It's just not gonna work. I'm not gonna listen, simple as that."
He's close enough now for me to feel his breath on my face.
"What I'm saying here, I guess," he goes on, fixing me with an eyeball-popping stare, "is that I don't give a damn. Never have. Never will."
He holds the stare for a long, long moment. This is unnerving, to say the least.
"I do what I do," he continues, "and I always have done. It's all I can do. I can't do anything else. And a lot of the time over the last 10 years, I know what I've done hasn't been the kind of thing that people wanted from me. It hasn't been the Neil Young that people wanted to hear. I had to battle every time I went out. It was an uphill battle with every album, from the beginning to the end. I was fighting the record company, I was fighting general reactions to what I was doing that weren't really all that encouraging. Still, what I was doing was what I wanted to do. So I did it. But it wasn't what people wanted from me. And I knew that."
So you have a very clear idea what your audience wants from you?
"Not really," he says, eyes still blazing. "But I knew what I was doing wasn't what people wanted to hear. But I couldn't give them what they wanted."
Why couldn't you give them what they wanted?
"Because I didn't feel like it," he says, no chance of contradiction here. "I didn't want to give it to 'em."
You didn't feel inclined to conform to their expectations?
"Hell, no," he laughs. "I hate that kind of attitude. You don't stop, ever. If you stop, you're dead. I'm not gonna grow if I'm just giving people what they think they want to hear from me. I'm gonna die. And I don't want to do that. So I keep going out there. And I don't care what people think. I just want to keep going.
"I want to keep the blood flowing."
My first impression of Neil Young: he looks like the kind of guy, you get in a fight with him, one of you ends up on hospital food, or worse.
He's standing across the room when we walk in, his back to the door. It's a plush hotel suite - lots of dark wood, thick shag carpets, heavy drapes, lots of brass, furniture you can't move.
He turns, comes stalking towards us. He's wearing a long coat made out of an Indian blanket, ripped jeans. His hair, thinning these days at the back and gray at the sides, is a rat's nest. It gives him a wild appearance, a wildness that's reflected in his eyes, which are burning, restless. He looks like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, dangerous, mad and menacing. My reaction is to back off, fast.
I'm not being fatuous. This is a man, after all, whose entire career has been spent fighting, kicking and scrapping against the rigid conformities of a music business he has usually held in serious contempt. Remember this, too: Neil Young is the only major artist to be sued by his record company (Geffen, at the time) for deliberately making uncommercial records.
It's this legendary truculence, this notorious contrariness, the sheer fuck-you bloodymindedness he shares with Dylan that's kept him on top of the moment through all these long and bewildering years.
From his days as the precocious, psychedelic technician of "Expecting To Fly" and "Broken Arrow", which he recorded with Buffalo Springfield, through the marathon guitar burn of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere ; through his brief heyday as a lachrymose bedsit troubadour on After The Goldrush and Harvest, and on to the dark narcotic abrasions of the so-called Doom Trilogy of Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight's The Night, blasted epitaphs for the ruined and the damned; through the handsome reflections of Comes A Time and the rock'n'roll roar of Rust Never Sleeps, which took him to the end of the Seventies; and on then to the sonic ferocity of Eldorado, the formidable return to the form of Freedom, Ragged Glory and the career-embracing Weld double live album and his "rediscovery" by a new audience, for whom he became The Godfather Of Grunge, idolized by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam, which whom he recorded 1995's Mirror Ball, Young has been a compelling voice, fascinating even in disgrace.
After The Goldrush and Harvest had established him as a perfect voice for the post-Woodstock generation, growing to maturity in the uncertain years of Nixon and Reagan, coming to terms then with the failure of the Utopian daydreams of their youth. After The Goldrush and Harvest were plaintive, melancholic and hugely popular, and they put Young firmly in the popular mainstream, which he immediately resented.
"This song put me in the middle of the road," he famously wrote of "Heart Of Gold" in a sleeve-note for his 1979 triple-album retrospective, Decade.
"Travelling there soon became a bore," he went on, "so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there..."
What follows is the story of part of that ride.
Now that you ask, it's November, 1972. Neil Young is at his ranch in La Honda, just south of San Francisco. He is putting together a band for his first tour in nearly two years. There are no immediate surprises in the line-up of musicians he has so far enlisted. The core of the touring band will be The Stray Gators, the Nashville session men who played on his last album, Harvest. They include the veteran drummer, Kenny Buttrey, who appeared on Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, former James Brown bassist. Tim Drummond and pedal steel player Ben Keith. The line-up is completed by keyboardist and longtime collaborator Jack Nitzsche, with whom Young had first worked on his Buffalo Springfield epic, "Expecting To Fly". Young is at the time still recovering from surgery on the severe spinal complaint that had dragged out the sessions for Harvest over almost a year, and has only made one appearance during the last 18 months. With a three-month, 65-date tour now looming, he begins to fret over his own physical condition. For nearly 12 months, he's had to wear a back brace and has barely been able to play guitar. He is afraid he won't be able to carry an entire show on his own. He decides to call his old friend, Danny Whitten, guitarist with his estranged former backing group, Crazy Horse.
Young had first met Whitten during the sessions for the first Buffalo Springfield album. Whitten was playing guitar in a band called The Rockets, alongside drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot. The Rockets were strictly small time, but had enough of a following in Southern California to secure a deal with the Turtles' White Whale label, who released the band's eponymously-titled debut album in March, 1968.
By then, the Springfield were starting to fall apart and Neil was spending more and more of his time hanging out with Whitten and The Rockets at their Laurel Canyon home. By all accounts, Whitten was soulful, introverted, almost painfully sensitive and Neil was irresistibly drawn to him.
And it was to Whitten and The Rockets that Young turned when he began preparing material for his second solo album. After the protracted sessions and hours of endless overdubbing that had gone into his debut album, Young wanted to make a record that was more spontaneous, less confined by studio technology, that would allow the new songs he was writing room to breathe and grow. The only band Young knew who could play the music he had in mind where The Rockets. It wasn't so much their technical proficiency - they were no more than a good bar band.
What Young was after was their simple, uncomplicated spirit, the emotional honesty that he had always enjoyed in their playing. He took them on board, renaming then in the process. From now on, they would be known as Crazy Horse.
Throughout his career, Crazy Horse would be Young's most spectacular musical sparring partners. But because of what eventually happened to Danny Whitten, 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was the only album recorded by the original line-up of the band that Young proudly described as the American Stones. Incredibly, no one seems sure when or why Whitten got turned onto heroin, though there has always been the suspicion that it might have had something to do with the rejection he felt when Neil decided to pursue a dual career, splitting his time between Crazy Horse, with whom he would be successful, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with whom he would be a superstar. Whatever the circumstances, Whitten was soon hooked.
"There was no reason," Billy Talbot later recalled, talking about the guitarist's addiction. "In those days, people just started shooting right up. Didn't snort nothin'. He just shot some speed, the next day some smack, and from then on he was a junkie."
By May, 1970, Whiten was in such bad shape that Young scrapped the tracks he'd been recording with Crazy Horse for the album that would eventually become After The Goldrush, sacked the entire band and went off on tour with CSN&Y. Crazy Horse reconvened briefly for a couple of tracks on the final version of After The Goldrush, but for the moment, as long as Whitten was so conspicuously smacked-out, Young would not be working with the band on even an irregular basis.
In some ways, Young's subsequent invitation to Whitten to join The Stray Gators may have been a belated attempt to throw his old friend a life-line, a way out of drugs and back into music. If this was indeed the plan, it was to have tragic consequences. By the time he turned up at La Honda, Whitten, as he'd promised Neil, was off heroin, but making up for it by consuming vast amounts of whatever else came to hand. He was the last of the musicians to arrive at the ranch, when Young had assembled a huge crew of technicians to prepare for the mammoth tour ahead, and it was immediately obvious to everyone that he was in no shape to play. Young took the painful decision to sack him. Whitten was given 50 dollars and a plane ticket to LA. Once there, he immediately used the money Young had given him to score a dose of pure heroin, shot up and died that night of an overdose. Young was devastated.
"We were rehearsing with him and he just couldn't cut it," he told Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe in 1975. "He couldn't remember anything. He was too out of it. Too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to LA. 'It's not happening, man. You're not together enough.' He just said, 'I've got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?' And he split. That night, the coroner called me from LA and told me he'd OD'd. That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible. And, from there, I had to go right out on this huge tour of huge arenas. I was very nervous and...insecure."
It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that the best thing for everyone concerned might have been to cancel the tour. You can only guess that it was too big, that it was going to make too much money to even think about pulling it. And so, with Young at odds with the world, trying to make sense of Whitten's death, what had been christened the Time Fades Away tour opened on January 5, 1973. According to David Downing's account of the tour in his fastidiously-researched Young biography, A Dreamer Of Pictures (Bloomsbury), early dates were promising. Reviewing the January 23 show of the tour at New York's Carnegie Hall, however, Jon Landau in Rolling Stone was less than enthusiastic. "Young was not especially well received, all things considered," he wrote, complaining about a flat, uninspiring opening acoustic set and bemoaning the lengthy guitar work-outs that occupied a lot of the electric part of the performance, which the reviewer thought "interminable" and "mediocre".
Whatever the muted critical response, the tour was big news at the box office. In fact, it was raking in so much money that both the band and the road crew suddenly came up with a demand for a higher basic wage and a cut of the profits. Young was appalled. These people weren't being badly paid. As far as he was concerned, they were just being greedy. These people were supposed to be his friends, but they were acting like mercenaries. Although he gave in to their financial demands, the atmosphere of the tour was fatally poisoned. It was all too much for Buttrey, who quit under the stress, to be replaced by Johnny Barbata, who had latterly been drumming with CSN&Y.
Isolated from his own band, increasingly morose and paranoid, Young started drinking excessively, trying to obliterate the accumulating pressure via protracted tequila binges. His performances became increasingly erratic, prone to hysteria. He was unhappy, too, at the reactions of the crowds. They were too loud and restless during the acoustic parts of the show, too damn quiet during the electric section. He took to berating them, yelling at them to wake the fuck up. There was still a third of the tour to go, but real fears that Young would be unable to see it through. Linda Ronstadt signed up in March as the opening act, which eased some of the burden on Young, who then sent out an SOS to David Crosby and Graham Nash for moral and musical support.
It's a curiosity, I suppose, but at the same time some kind of testament to CSN&Y's beleaguered sense of community, that whenever one of them sent up a distress flare, a luminous call for help, one, two, or all three of the others, Musketeer-like, would respond. And so Crosby and Nash joined up for the last three weeks of the tour. What they could possibly have done to relieve the daily sourness of what by now was a grueling, unhappy slog is unimaginable. Crosby's mother was dying, and Nash's girlfriend had just been murdered by her brother in a drugs-related killing.
You can't in the circumstances imagine them, red-nosed and baggy-trousered, bursting into Young's dressing room in a clownish attempt to cheer him up.
Back at the ranch, the tour over, Young continued to brood. Whitten's death was still the main focus of his disconsolation. But other things conspired to blacken his mood. In March, when he was still out on tour, Warners had released the soundtrack album for his rarely-seen film, Journey Through The Past, a self-financed project he'd been working on for two years that marked his debut as a director.
The soundtrack was a rag-bag of old tracks, studio out-takes, a couple of live cuts from gigs by CSN&Y and Crazy Horse, bits of Handel's Messiah and The Beach Boys' instrumental, "Let's Go Away For Awhile", and only one new song, the inauspicious "Soldier".
Young hadn't really wanted it released in any form at all, but Warners said they'd distribute his movie if he gave them the album. Warners took the soundtrack, but dumped the film. Not only that, they promoted Journey Through The Past as a new Neil young album, the official follow-up to Harvest. It was reviewed as such, and crucified. Young was mortified, but helpless. On the domestic front, things weren't much better. His relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, with whom he'd had a son, Zeke, the previous September, was cooling. An attempted reunion with CSN&Y was aborted after a series of typically trivial arguments.
"For the first time in my life," he later recalled, "I couldn't get anything to turn out the way I wanted." The old certainties started to unravel and Whitten's death began to assume a symbolic significance.
"It just seemed like it really stood for a lot of what was going on," Young told Melody Maker's Adam Sweeting in 1985. "It was like the freedom of the Sixties and free love and drugs and everything... it was the price tag. This is your bill. Friends, young guys dying, kids that didn't even know what they were doing, didn't know what they were fucking around with. It hit me pretty hard, a lot of those things, so at that time I did sort of exorcise myself."
Young was part of a generation that had believed it could change the world, that had championed peace, individual freedoms, sexual liberation and drugs. And for a moment in the collective euphoria that followed Woodstock in August, 1969, everything seemed possible. The moment didn't last. In fact, it was almost immediately extinguished when Manson's hippie stormtroopers went on their murderous rampage in Beverly Hills, and at Altmont, from which CSN&Y made an undignified exit as soon as things turned ugly.
"Four lay dead in Ohio!" he had screamed in protest at the Kent State shootings, when four anti-war demonstrators were shot dead by the local National Guard, accusing the American president of murder. But Nixon was still in the White House, though Watergate was looming, and the establishment had not fallen. Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam rumbled bloodily on; was spreading, in fact, into Laos and Cambodia.
"Love is coming, live is coming to us all," CSN&Y had trilled on Deja Vu. Skulking in his La Honda fastness, those sentiments must have seemed increasingly fatuous to Young. He might have guessed from the popularity of Harvest that what a lot of people wanted from him was reassurance, fireside homilies, the mutual glow of heartaches shared. The thing was, he wasn't sure of anything any more, and he was too wracked with self-doubt to offer anyone reassurance. And it might have occurred to him then that if his music was to survive and grow, not settle into the stale and irrelevant, he would have to make a dramatic and irrevocable break with his own past. He would not be confined by the expectations of his audience. He would not allow his music to become safe, complacent, homespun. What was required was a clearing of the decks for future action, a kind of artistic vandalisation.
Whatever he did next would have to reflect that.
Early in 1971, a double live album had been announced, there was even a tracklisting. It had never appeared. Now, however, the idea of a live album was revived. His next album would be assembled from tapes of the Time Fades Away tour, after which it would be named. Then, as now, live albums were more often than not an indulgence, contract-fillers, cash-ins, something to plug the gap while an artist prepares new material, musically worthless. Time Fades Away would be different, however. It would have a documentary roughness, a teeming rawness. Young and his co-producer, Elliot Mazer, would resist the temptation to clean up the tracks with overdubs and studio cosmetics. The record would feature versions of only new or at least previously unreleased songs, and as much as possible reflect the strains, tensions and conflict of the tour. It wouldn't be a flattering portrait, but it would be true, it would be honest, it would be uncomfortable. It would be real.
And it was. Over 20 years on from its original release in November, 1973, Time Fades Away still comes as much of a shock to the senses as being suddenly plugged into the mains. At first, it sounds merely mangy, unbelievably ragged, untogether, ramshackle. It takes a while for it to assume anything you'd care to call a shape or purpose. The warm, lapping melodies of Harvest have been mostly replaced by an exclamatory urgency that veers towards the gap-toothed, dribbling, eyeball-rolling hysteria of some hillbilly revivalist meeting. Whole chunks of the album, in fact, are like a mad, unhinged sermon on mortality, greed and distress. The stage is Young's pulpit, in a church without a god.
The album opens with the six-minute title track, a feverish, gibbering narrative about junkies and politicians and the military, counterpointed lyrically by a running dialogue between a wayward son and his weak, pleading father. Musically, you can only imagine it was meant to resemble something like the lean, whistling howl of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. Instead, it's noisy, cantankerous. Nitzsche's frantic piano is absurdly high in the lop-sided mix, at times drowning out Young's neurotic lead guitar and Ben Keith's viperish pedal steel. Half-way through, there's a wheezing harmonica solo, mercifully brief. Barbata's drums should be driving all this along at a suitable brisk pace, but he spends the entire number hammering away in the background like someone building a shed. "Yonder Stands The Sinner" is similarly incomprehensible, a demented 12-bar thrash with Young barking the lyric like someone's who's learned English from a phrase book. Young's sense of right and wrong has always been elemental, which occasionally makes him sound self-righteous. Here, on a track called "LA", this self-righteousness is taken to almost absurd lengths. "When the suburbs are bombed and the freeways are crammed / And the mountains erupt and the valley is sucked / Into cracks in the earth / Will I finally be heard by you?" he rages, casting himself, as Bud Scoppa observed in Rolling Stone, "as some new-Israelite prophet warning the unhearing masses of the inevitable apocalypse".
There are three lovely, touching ballads - "Journey Through The Past", introduced as "a song without a home", the gorgeous "Love In Mind" and "The Bridge" - which Young performs alone at the piano. They are brief moments of solitary beauty on a record that is otherwise more notable for its clamorous derangement, elements of its battered psychology that are most vividly represented by the two long tacks that open and close its second side.
"Don't Be Denied", the first of them is a direct descendent of "Helpless", whose graphic autobiographical outpourings it takes to stark, unadomed extremes. The four verses here are like chapters from a private diary and cover Young's childhood in Canada, his parents' divorce, his troubled adolescence ("The punches came fast and hard / Laying on my back in the schoolyard"), his dreams of rock'n'roll glory and the inevitable corruption of those dreams. It's one of Young's great songs, although the band don't seem immediately alert to its significance. They are plodding for much of its length, distracted, like they've got one eye on the clock. About five minutes in, however, the naked, mad sincerity of Young's performance belatedly catches their attention and the music shifts into another gear, ragged but valiant, and there is something close to glorious stirring here.
"Last Dance", meanwhile, opens with an abrupt feedback snarl and, over the following 10 minutes, proceeds into territories of mind-boggling mayhem unequalled by anything Young has done before. The song has been criticized for being arrogant, foolish and patronizing, And there is something condescending about its bullying, hippie admonishment of a "straight" lifestyle, the nine-to-five routine of dull normality. "You can make it on your own time / Laid back and laughing," Young howls, but he doesn't sound terribly convinced that whatever he's proposing as an alternative is any better than what he's criticizing. In fact, it sounds positively cheerless, empty. And Young's sudden acknowledgment of that fact is startling. The track has been limping towards a predictable climax and the band sound like they're packing up for the night when he gets a second wind and starts ranting even more ferociously. His rejection of everything the song has ostensibly stood for is traumatic. "No, no, no," he sings hoarsely. 'No...No..No...," he goes on, and he's screaming now. "No! No! No!" Feedback roars through buckling speakers, the band seem utterly confused. "NONONO!!!!" Young continues screeching, massing up something like 76 consecutive triple negatives. He sounds completely out of control. "Sing with us, c'mon!" somebody shouts, possibly Crosby, although it's not clear who he's talking to - the audience or the rest of the band. Barbata, awake for once, comes pounding back in about now, dragging everyone else behind him. The song ends in exhausted chaos, leaving behind it an unsettled, ominous silence, the disgruntled murmur of adoration turning to discontent.
The chances are that if you'd stopped anyone who'd seen one of these shows on the Time Fades Away tour and told them that a lot of what they'd just heard - especially the bits that had most freaked them out - would soon be released as a live album, Young's first record of new material, that is, since Harvest had made him the most commercially successful solo performer in the world, they would probably have been utterly fucking aghast. The majority of the crowds who'd flocked to these bizarre and eccentric concerts had gone expecting a comfortable, tuneful evening. They had been shocked by Young's evidently frazzled mood, his bristling impatience with their own smug expectations. For these people, and there were a fuck of a lot of them, what they had witnessed was something they preferred to think of as a temporary aberration, not a career move. They were sure that Young would soon come to his senses. He couldn't stay this mad for long, could he?
The answer, of course, was yes.
What happened next in Young's career only became fully clear a couple of years later, in the summer of 1975, with what by then it was abundantly clear - where there had been confusion before - was the belated appearance of the astonishing Tonight's The Night, a record that until then Reprise had refused to release. This, however, is the basic chronology of events.
When the Time Fades Away tour finally ground to a halt after three grueling tempestuous months, Young had retreated again to Broken Arrow ranch in La Honda, disenchanted and demoralized, nothing much resolved by the extremes he'd driven himself to on the Time Fades Away tour.
There were rumors of a Buffalo Springfield reunion, but Young wasn't interested. Other rumors, reported in Rolling Stone that August, that CSN&Y were getting back together to make a new album proved more substantial. That June found all four principals in Hawaii, rehearsing on Crosby's boat and at a house Nash had rented on Maui. They all had new songs they wanted the group to record, and there seemed a genuine eagerness to put an end to the interminable squabbling between themselves that seemed an inevitable consequence of any attempt they made to work together and, this time, get something done. A new album didn't seem beyond them, out there in the islands, the four of them kicking back, enjoying each other's company. They even had a name for it - Human Highway after one of the songs Young had recently written.
By August, they were all at La Honda for more rehearsals and recording sessions, with Tim Drummond and Johnny Barbata from The Stray Gators on board as the rhythm section. Four songs into the sessions, however, the mood between them darkened and the old divisions were once more manifest and looming.
It was too much for Young, this petty bickering. It may even be that, against the background of Whitten's death and the grim realities it had forced him to confront, Young thought the small-minded squabbling of these pampered superstars were simply diminishing to be even associated with. He decided to split.
On his way to meet the rest of the band, he took a detour, and ended up at the home of his friend and producer, David Briggs, who had just moved back to northern California after two years in Canada.
There was a knock on his door, Briggs later told Young's father, Scott, in a conversation recalled in the latter's book, Neil And Me. He opened it, and there was Neil. He was on his way to a CSN&Y session, he told Briggs, but he wasn't up to it.
"Let's go make some rock'n'roll," he said.
"So we packed our bags," Briggs told Scott Young, "and came down to LA, and wound up with Tonight's The Night."
In some dark corner of Young's head, what he had started with Time Fades Away wasn't over yet. But who knows what he was thinking about doing, on his way down to LA from La Honda? He would, after all, later describe his mood as vague, bleak, uncertain.
There seems to have been an imperative, however, to escape the clutches of the cosseted world of CSN&Y. Much as the Time Fades Away album and tour, rowdy and unconventional, had signaled a break from his own recent past, what he would do now would put an even greater distance between himself and what everyone wanted him to be, which was something he could no longer accommodate. He'd already gone too far for that. Was ready, in fact, to take it even further.
In the parlance of the time, he no doubt wanted to get back in touch with himself, and be part again of the one musical collective in which he had always seemed most at home: Crazy Horse. Calls were made to Talbot and Molina, cast adrift earlier with Danny Whitten. Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith were also recruited. They christened themselves The Santa Monica Flyers, under which name they played two shows at the Corral Club in Topanga Canyon on August 11 and 12, with Joni Mitchell and The Eagles, and then set about the sessions that would produce Tonight's The Night.
Bruce Berry, an old friend as well as a guitar roadie for CSN&Y, was also dead by now, another heroin victim, and the record that was taking shape in Young's mind would be a requiem of sorts for both Berry and Whitten, whose death Young had still clearly not got over. The record would be even more raw and livid even than Time Fades Away - there was no other way it could have sounded, as far as he was concerned. He hired a rehearsal hall at LA's Studio Instrument Rentals - owned, ironically, by Berry's brother, Ken - and a mobile recording truck was brought in. They started to play, and the sessions turned into what he would later describe to me as a wake for Whitten and Berry, whose death was described in a song Young wrote quickly one night after an early rehearsal, and which would become the title track for the album they were working on in circumstances that were quickly becoming harrowing and bizarre.
Typically, the band would get together in the late afternoon, drink beer and tequila, smoke a lot of weed, get high and wasted and weird. Then they'd start to play, and when Young felt they'd reached the space he was looking for, some twilight zone of the soul, the tapes would start running, everything recorded live - voices, instruments, drunken fumblings and stoned mutterings. Whatever happened, happened, and it was all intended to be heard.
They worked quickly. On a single night, they recorded five songs - "Tonight's The Night", "World On A String", "Mellow My Mind", "Speakin' Out" and "Tired Eyes". On other nights, they got "Roll Another Number For The Road", "Albuquerque", "New Mama" and another version of "Tonight's The Night". By the time they finished, they had nine songs, plus a lot of apparently disconnected ramblings and musings, and a record as grim as anything ever recorded, before or since.
When the people at his record company heard it, they were appalled. It sounded terrible. To their ears, it was mostly tuneless, the most dreadful excuse for a record they'd ever heard, a hopelessly depressing collection of songs about death and heroin. What they had wanted from Young was another After The Goldrush - or, even better, another Harvest. What they didn't want was this festering exorcism. They refused point-blank to even consider releasing it.
"At the time," Young told me, "I was 'advised' that if I put out Tonight's The Night, it would be suicidal for my commercial career."
Reprise could stop Tonight's The Night from being released, but there was nothing they could do to stop Young from touring the songs.
And so, on September 20, Young embarked on the notorious Tonight's The Night tour, with four sold-out nights at the Roxy Theatre, a new club in on Sunset Strip in LA owned by David Geffen and Loud Adler, Neil being their stellar opening attraction. The first show prompted a famously snippy review by Judith Sims in Rolling Stone. "Young finally emerged, wearing dark glasses, and an ill-fitting white sport coat over untucked T-shirt," she began huffily, after complaining about the go-go dancers whose routine had prefaced his appearance. "Still, his presence is powerful. Young the man is always interesting; unfortunately, Young the songwriter is often banal. He performed only new tunes (except for the encore), in two of which he used the same line, 'Think I'll roll another number.' The best of the bunch was 'Tonight's The Night', about former CSNY roadie Bruce Berry, who died recently of a heroin overdose.
"Young was backed," Sims added, informatively, "by Nils Lofrgen on guitar and off-key harmonies; Ben Keith on pedal steel; Ralph Molina on drums and Billy Talbot on bass, the latter two of Crazy Horse. The stage was set with a small spindly tree, a wooden Indian, a glittery platform shoe, and lots of boots hanging from the grand piano."
The disgruntled Sims wasn't the only one aghast at Young's increasingly lary behaviour. People were watching him now with some wariness, and no little concern. He'd started drinking heavily again - wine glasses full of tequila being knocked back on stage with some gusto - and, one night at the Roxy, he ordered a round of drinks for the entire audience. On the house. Geffen and Adler were suitable horrified. Neil was simply amused.
In October, there were three gigs in Ontario. Scott Young recalls a show at McMaster University in Hamilton: "Finally, late, the lights went up on the sleazy set featuring a small mangy palm tree and a fake moon. Neil, in black shades, very long hair, whiskers uncut for weeks, moustache, and the general appearance of someone caught in a round-up of the usual suspects, strolled centre stage and drawled, 'Welcome to Miami Beach. It's cheaper than it looks."
The audience was slack-jawed with bemusement, as they were in the UK the next month, when Young and The Santa Monica Flyers arrived for concerts in Bristol, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester and London.
By now, Young on stage was constantly "in character"; a slippery MC fronting what to many long-time fans sounded like the most ramshackle noisy din they'd ever heard. To these people, it looked like Young had simply lost the fucking plot. His bedraggled appearance was bad enough, and the habit he'd developed of playing parts of the set wearing a Richard Nixon mask was disconcerting.
But more worrying still were the long, apparently drunken monologues that now took up large chunks of the concerts. Young rambled on, tediously to anyone unfamiliar with the story behind Tonight's The Night, which was just about everybody, since the album was still in the Reprise vaults, gathering dust. Not that Neil was much bothered anyway by their lack of familiarity with the new songs he was intent on playing at the expense of his old, expected, crowd-pleasers.
The sense of dislocation was immense, the crowds dumbstruck at the spectacle Young seemed to be making of himself. A lot of people who saw these shows walked away from them convinced he was heading for some kind of burn-out, on his way to oblivion, or thereabouts. The feeling was that if he didn't pull himself together, he wouldn't be singing about casualties like Whitten and Berry, he'd be joining them.
Scott Young recalls a wire-service news story, date-lined Paris, that claimed that Neil had died there of a drugs overdose. He called his son immediately.
"Are you dead?" he asked.
"Not that I know of," Neil replied.
Contrary to widespread expectation, Neil Young did not crash and burn. By the spring of 1974, in fact, he'd completed another new album, recorded in LA with a small group of musicians, including Rick Danko and Levon Helm from The Band, the ever-dependable Ben Keith, and fiddle-player Rusty Kershaw. It also featured David Crosby on a track called "Revolution Blues", inspired by Charles Manson.
Reprise whistled with relief when they heard the new record, which Young had called On The Beach. I wasn't exactly what they'd been hoping for - but compared to the unlistenable Tonight's The Night, it at least sounded something like a Neil Young album, which they desperately needed right then, because that summer, against the odds, CSN&Y were back together and going out on a massive tour, one of the biggest-ever staged. They needed something new by Neil in the shops to coincide, and On The Beach would be it.
When it came out in July, 1974, however, On The Beach was written off as gloomy, disconsolate, bitter, lacklustre, full of self-pity and superstar whingeing, depressing in the extreme. "Corpse-rock!" guffawed a headline above a review of the album by Steve Clarke in NME, the review going on to dismiss the LP as just about the worse thing Young had ever produced, a calamitous piece of work that underlined his waning-to-the-point-of-extinction creative powers. It was a commonly-held view, echoed in MM by Rob Partridge, for whom On The Beach was dreary and inauspicious and not worth much more than a cursory listen.
There was one dissenting critical voice in the middle of all this castigation. Ian MacDonald, then assistant editor at NME, wasn't a fan, but something about the vitriol being poured all over On The Beach made him want to listen to it. His hasty reassessment of what is now considered to be one of Young's greatest albums was a revelation. Applying the forensic intelligence he would later bring to bear on The Beatles in Revolution In The Head, MacDonald brought entirely fresh perspectives and insights to his reading of the record.
Ian's re-review of On The Beach is re-printed in full on pages 66-99 of this issue of Uncut, and it speaks to us eloquently down the years. A few points, however. There is an understandable speculative tone to some of MacDonald's comments, which can be attributed to the rumors and counter-rumors that surrounded the making of On The Beach and which had surfaced a couple of weeks earlier in Steve Clarke's original review. This explains the confusion over the album's several proposed titles - both Tonight's The Night and Homegrown are separate albums, the latter, still unreleased.
And while MacDonald correctly identifies some of the major players in the songs - Manson, especially, and the revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), then waging an undeclared war against the American government that ended in a ferocious gun-battle with the FBI in LA that left most of them dead, shot to pieces or burned alive - he wouldn't necessarily have known that the "Isabella" mentioned in "Ambulance Blues" is a street in Toronto where Young used to hang out in his early days there, and that the Riverboat was the name of a folk club where he used to play.
Nor did he pick up on the fact that the kidnapping mentioned in the song is a reference to the abduction of heiress Patty Hearst by the SLA. He also interprets the final verse - "I never knew a man could tell so many lies..."- as something confessional by Young about himself, which is intriguing, although Young meant it as a parting shot in the direction of the disgraced and venal Richard Nixon.
Otherwise, what MacDonald has to say about On The Beach hits the target every time, and remains one of the most perceptive pieces ever written about Young and his music.
This time when he went to Reprise and told them he wanted to put out Tonight's The Night, he got what he asked for. He'd just completed another new album - the still unreleased Homegrown - but he was now insistent that Tonight's The Night should finally, nearly two years after it had been recorded, be released.
It was the spring of 1975, and you can only wonder what made him so determined now to get the record out. There's a hoary old story that has him playing a tape of the Homegrown album to some friends at his home on Zuma beach. At the end of the Homegrown reel - lo and behold! - there was TTN, which blew everyone's minds. The assembled company cheered Neil and encouraged him to march into the Reprise building to demand its release, with Neil acting on not much more than their enthusiasm.
What might also have contributed to his decision to make sure TTN was finally given a proper airing was his not-altogether ecstatic reaction to the long tour he'd completed towards the end of the previous year with the reconstituted CSN&Y.
As David Downing reports in Dreamer Of Pictures, for all their populist rhetoric, CSN&Y were a mass of contradictions, and, when they went on the road, they expected to be treated like the kings they obviously thought they were. And so, in each hotel, there would be custom-made pillow cases, each one with a silk-screened tour logo designed by Joni Mitchell. "There were hookers on the payroll," Downing continues, "presumably not bearing Joni Mitchell logos, for anyone in need of sexual snacks, and a suite would be open round the clock for the dispensing of the other necessities of life on the road: champagne, iced shrimp and capsules of cocaine."
Young tried to distance himself from all this by travelling separately from the rest of the vast touring entourage. He may still have felt contaminated by the worse of the band's excesses, and he may have felt that he was somehow betraying the memories of Whitten and Berry. To honour them as he felt they should be honoured, he would have to do whatever it took now to see TTN out there in the world - not on a record company shelf where no one could hear it.
At first, Reprise, typically, baulked. They asked him to think again, but he wouldn't. They asked him to remix it.
"I told them to shove it up their ass," he said later. "They could take it the way it was or they would never hear from me again."
Twenty-three months after it was originally recorded, Tonight's The Night was finally released in June, 1975.
Tonight's The Night opens and closes with two different versions of the title track, a device Young would use again on Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom. But where those albums were book-ended by songs that rang in the ear like anthems, the smack of iron on a shield, "Tonight's The Night" in both versions is fraught, tentative, full of nervous tics and tremors. The opening take has Young repeating the song's title line, his voice never more fragile and vulnerable. "Tonight's The Night", he sings, once, twice, three times, then again; and again; and again; eight times in all, but it sounds like more, his delivery shot through with a muted panic, a dread of what might follow, which is a descent into some of the darkest places rock music has ever been.
At which point, Young still repeating this one line, you wonder for a moment if this is going to be it - is anything else going to happen? - and it's a sudden shock when he finally lurches into the first verse, his voice more confident now, the decision taken to walk into the fire and the fury and the infernal narcotic night. The lyric is plain, descriptive, no frills, a note pinned to the door of hell. There's a flash of guitar that suddenly lights up the dank festering gloom like a muzzle-flash, dry lightning on a forsaken horizon. And if we have had any illusions about how naked and harrowing what we are going to be listening to for the next 45 minutes is going to be, they are shattered now. There' no respite on Tonight's The Night, no quarter, no balmy resolutions or reassuring homilies. Tonight's The Night is the sound of calamity, a rock'n'roll Galgotha: a place of death and skulls.
The track ends with an agonized groan, mere music not enough to convey what is intended to be an anguish beyond understanding. And what is somehow inferred here is this inarticulation, this grasping for an expression so primal it speaks to the darkest places inside us, is that what we are looking at is more than a lament for two people - Whitten and Berry - for whom the album was meant to be a swan-song fuelled by feedback and tequila.
No, the wider view demands the admission that Tonight's The Night is an epitaph for all the American dead of that time - from the dead in the jungles mud and mayhem of Vietnam to the dead in the ghettos, tenements, ditches, backwoods and barrios of the United States. In the world the album describes, the old determinations and co-ordinates have gone bleak and awry, former certainties not much more now than nothing much at all. In the America in which Tonight's The Night was written, played and recorded, madness crackled in every circuit, in ways it is now easy to forget.
It's no accident, then, that the album seems forever on the point of collapse, unsteady, staggering. It slips in and out of focus, moments of piercing clarity giving way to longer moments of blurred and bleary incoherence. Some of it is painful to listen to, genuinely. There is more to it, too, than desolation. There is rancour, disgust, the keening edge of dismal times made real and inescapable. The record's rawness is vivid and wild, uncluttered by second takes and overdubs. It has the hiss of extremes being first approached and then gone beyond. It is ramshackle in every way possible. On "Mellow My Mind", which was originally to have been recorded by CSN&Y, Young's voice cracks and strains, breaks, is often tuneless, off-key and by any technical terms an embarrassment. It's hard, however, to think of many vocal performances this sincerely moving. Ditto "Borrowed Tune" and "Albuquerque" and "New Mama", moments of rare frazzled beauty. "Roll Another Number (For The Road)" is droll - "I'm not going back to Woodstock for a while, though I long to hear that lonesome hippy smile / I'm a million miles away from that helicopter day and I don't think I'll be going back that way" - stoned and sardonic. "Lookout Joe" - a close relative of Tim Buckley's "Nighthawkin'" - is simply nightmarish.
The inclusion of "Come On, Baby, Let's Go Downtown", a live track from a concert with the original Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East in 1970, is a conceptual masterstroke, Whitten on vocals on a song he wrote about the thrills and desperation of being a junkie recorded two years before the dope finally killed him. The sulphuric strum of the guitars here - Young and Whitten playing out of their skins - is staggering. Listening to them, you feel cuffed and buffeted by their bare-knuckled crunch.
The album's penultimate cut is a ballad about drugs and murder, "Well, he shot four men in a cocaine deal,"Young sings, no big deal, the information passed on with an off-handedness that's startling. "He left them lyin' in an open field / Full of old cars with bullet holes in the mirrors..." This is the territory of Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, a novel about heroin and Vietnam and what happens when the war comes home that was made into a brilliant film by Karel Reisz. This could have been done as something dramatic like John Cale's "Gun" - brooding, dense and noisy. Instead, it's drained of drama and tension and exists in the end as something close to pure atmosphere, set to one of those melodies Young seems able to conjure out of next to nothing and which have come to him throughout his career as naturally as breathing. "Well, they burned his brother, you know, and they left him lying in the driveway," Young goes on, and the song seems just to hang there, like a mist or a fine drizzle of blood.
And from this moment of spaced-out fatigue - this wide-eyed white-out, the world's end just a wink away - we are into the reprise of the title track. The guitars are set on shriek, Young's exclamatory vocals are all over the place in the mix, hysteria setting in here before a final crashing flourish.
The rest is silence - finally, at last - the exorcism over, the dead honoured and left to rot in peace.
Just over 20 years after he recorded Tonight's The Night, Neil Young, in a hotel room in London, looked back at the album and told me this.
"It was an extreme time. A really extreme time. But we got it out, we kinda went right out there and we did it. We did it for Danny and Bruce Berry and those guys, all the others like them that never got through. We did it for them.
"That's what it was all about, and that's all there is to say about it."
I asked him if he wold ever think of going back to that place that had inspired the music we had been talking about, and he laughed.
"Not in a hurry, that's for sure," he said. "But if I had to, yeah."
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