BY the end of 1972, Neil Young was a global superstar. He had found huge success in collaboration with Crosby, Stills and Nash. His third solo album, After The Gold Rush, struck a chord with the world and his fourth, Harvest, included the smash-hit single Heart of Gold. He was rich. But was he happy? Was he heck!
Young (born 1945 in Toronto) described Heart of Gold as ‘the song that put me in the middle of the road’, and added: ‘Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.’
The result being three of his most critically acclaimed LPs, which came to be known as the Ditch Trilogy.
The first, Time Fades Away, was frequently described by Young as ‘my least favourite album’. It was culled from live performances with the Stray Gators, a group of country musicians pulled together at short notice to perform on Harvest.
They went on tour to promote the record but guitarist Danny Whitten, a recent addition to the line-up, had to be fired because his drug abuse made him a liability. Hours afterwards he died of an overdose. In an interview a few years later, Young told Cameron Crowe of Rolling Stone magazine: ‘He just couldn’t cut it. He couldn’t remember anything. He was too out of it. Too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to L.A. “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 L.A. and told me he’d OD’d. That 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.’
This was reflected in Young’s erratic vocal performances, not helped by ridiculous financial demands from some of the backing group. And yet there were songs to enjoy –L.A., the superb Don’t Be Denied and Last Dance to name but three. The album went gold but because Young’s memories of the tour were so bitter, it was unreleased on CD for more than four decades, until 2017.
In 1973, Young formed another touring band, the Santa Monica Flyers. The rhythm section of his long-time collaborators Crazy Horse, Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums, was bolstered by the great Nils Lofgren on guitar and piano, and Ben Keith on pedal steel. By now, Neil had another drug death to contend with, that of roadie Bruce Berry from a heroin overdose.
This led to one of the darkest (and that’s saying something) albums of his career. Tonight’s The Night is a difficult listen, to say the least. It deals with his grief over the loss of Berry (mentioned by name in the title track) and Whitten, whose performance on the rollicking 1970 Crazy Horse song Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown is included.
The death of Danny Whitten haunts Young to this day. In his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, he notes that he has ‘some unfinished business reckoning with Danny’ and that ‘I miss him still’. His wife Pegi, now no longer with us, recorded one of Whitten’s songs, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, as a tribute.
Such was the harrowing nature of Tonight’s The Night that Young’s record company Reprise declined to release it for two years, by which time his next album On The Beach had already appeared.
Now this, in my view, is one of Neil Young’s masterpieces. It opens with the short (sub-three-minutes), rocky Walk On then moves into See The Sky About To Rain, which was written some years earlier but fits with the album’s sombre themes. Revolution Blues is about Charles Manson, whom Young knew before the Family’s atrocities, and is followed by For The Turnstiles, which I would contend is surpassed by the Be Good Tanyas’ version.
The vinyl album’s original side two is sensational. It begins with the brilliant title track, a nod to Nevil Shute’s post-apocalypse novel of the same name, and includes one of Young’s most moving guitar solos. It continues with Motion Pictures, which looks back at his relationship with the Hollywood actress Carrie Snodgress, and concludes with the nine-minute Ambulance Blues, the last verse of which is taken to refer to Richard Nixon:
I never knew a man could tell so many lies
He had a different story for every set of eyes
How can he remember who he’s talking to?
‘Cause I know it ain’t me, and hope it isn’t you.
Young allegedly confessed in an interview for his biography Shakey that he stole the intro for Ambulance Blues from Needle of Death, by the wonderful Bert Jansch.
On The Beach was a commercial disaster on release. It was rapidly deleted from vinyl and failed to return in digital form until the 21st century, following a petition from fans. Thankfully I had a bootleg double CD combining it with American Stars and Bars which kept me going until the official release.
Last year, as part of a torrent of Neil Young product, came Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live, recorded in 1973 at the Roxy Theatre on Sunset Strip, Los Angeles. This, I feel, is an improvement on the original album but still doesn’t cheer me up greatly. And this month brought the release of Tuscaloosa, a live gig from the Time Fades Away tour.
Those couple of years might have represented a low time in Neil Young’s life, but as in so many other cases (see Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan) they paid dividends for us, the fans.
PS: Besides being close friends and fellow Canadians, Young and Mitchell share a bond in that they both had polio as children. While Joni was hospitalised for longer, the virus took a greater toll on Neil and the left side of his body. During the 1970s he occasionally had to wear a back brace while performing on stage. Joni’s weakness was also on her left side, particularly with the hand. She compensated for this by creating open tuning for her songs.
Other musicians to have survived polio include the American Judy Collins and of course our own Ian Dury and Donovan. This led me to wonder whether suffering the devastating physical effects of the virus could actually have helped the creative process, and sure enough I found an interview with Donovan to mark his 70th birthday saying precisely that. He recalls catching polio at the age of three in Glasgow and says: ‘I spent a lot of time in bed while my dad read poetry to me. It made me interested in words, writing and being creative. If I hadn’t had that experience maybe I wouldn’t have gone on to write and sing my own songs for the past half a century.
‘I feel strongly that having a disability in one area makes you explore others instead. That was the case for me after having polio.’
PPS: I am again indebted to the sage of Laurel Canyon, Michael Sentance, for his advice and help in preparing this piece.