“He Tried to Do His Best But He Could Not”: Neil Young, Tonight’s the Night
On 1974’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (a band that was hoovering so much coke at the time they became known as “The Frozen Noses”) cash cow reunion tour, Neil Young fought to include a frenetic tune he’d written about the Manson Family, “Revolution Blues.”
Unfortunately, the song’s incendiary lyrics (“I got the revolution blues/I see bloody fountains/And ten million dune buggies/Comin’ down the mountains/Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers/And I’ll kill them in their cars”) so unnerved counterculture scaredy-cat David “Almost Cut My Nose Hair” Crosby that he was afraid to play it. Thought Squeaky Fromme might come after him. As for the rest of the band, they found it too much of a bummer. As Young himself put it, “They all wanted to put out the light, y’know, make people feel good and happy and everything, and that song was like a wart or something on the perfect beast.”
Neil Young was far from “good and happy and everything” at the time. He had come to regard the success of “Heart of Gold” as a curse–as he famously wrote in the liner notes to greatest hits LP Decade, “[“Heart of Gold”] put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” Worse, he’d lost two close friends, CSN&Y roadie Bruce Berry and Crazy Horse guitarist and vocalist Danny Whitten, to heroin overdoses, and their deaths had hit him hard.
The result, which came at the recommendation of The Band’s Rick Danko, was 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, one of the darkest, sloppiest, most-wasted-sounding and greatest LPs ever made. Indeed, the album–which was recorded by a scratch band Young dubbed The Santa Monica Flyers, who included Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina on bass and drums respectively, Nils “Grin” Lofgren on guitar and piano, and Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar–was so slapdash-sounding, unrepentently out of key, and unremittingly bleak that the mortified execs at Reprise, Young’s record label, not only refused to handle it without gardening gloves, but declined to release it for two years.
Young wasn’t the only one in a despairing mood. The Age of Aquarius had fizzled out in the murderous chaos and mud of Altamont, and the high hopes of Woodstock had long since dissipated into a prolonged hippie hangover. As Young sings in the mid-tempo “Roll Another Number (For The Road),” which features some great pedal steel guitar by Keith and honky-tonk piano by Lofgren, “I’m not goin’ back to Woodstock for a while/Though I long to hear that lonesome hippie… smile?/I’m a million miles away from that helicopter day/No, I don’t believe/I’ll be goin’ back that way.”
Everybody was a million miles away from the idealism of Woodstock, and Young knew there was no way back, just as Hunter S. Thompson knew it in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas–the dream was dead, killed by Kent State, The Manson Family, the Weathermen, Richard M. Nixon, and general paranoia, not to mention the evolution of rock music from “free music for the people” into a high-stakes and very lucrative business, as exemplified by CSN&Y’s 1974 tour and Bob Dylan’s “comeback” tour of that same year.
When the shit comes down, run, has always been my motto, and Young, faced by the cold corpse of the hippie dream and the loss of his friends, does just that in the doleful “Albuquerque.” Slow and boasting some really perty electric and pedal steel guitar work, “Albuquerque” features a Young who sounds exhausted, hopeless and fried. Just listen to the way he drags the city name out to absurd lengths and sings, “So I’ll stop when I can/Find some fried eggs and country ham/I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am.”
Of course, hard drugs also played their part in finally putting paid to that distant memory, the Summer of Love, and Young sings about their human cost in several songs, but most brilliantly in the slow and doleful “Tired Eyes,” which is distinguished by some wonderful pedal steel guitar and begins with Young singing wearily, “Well he shot four men in a cocaine deal/And he left them lying in an open field/Full of bullet holes in the mirrors/He tried to do his best/But he could not.” I love those two final lines as much as I love any rock lyrics ever written, and consider “Tired Eyes” to be the best song about dope since Dion’s “Your Own Backyard,” especially when Young, not even attempting to stay in key, sings, “Open up your tired eyes.” It also includes the wonderfully cynical lines, “Well tell me more, tell me more, tell me more/I mean was he a heavy doper or… was he just a loser?/He was a friend of yours.”
Also on the junkie tip are the bookend versions of title track “Tonight’s the Night”–the quieter take that opens the album and features some great piano by Lofgren, and the slightly faster, funkier, and more frenzied version that closes it. A song about the life and death of Bruce Berry–brother of Jan Berry of Jan and Dean fame–you can hear the pain in Young’s voice as he sings, “If you never heard him sing/I guess you won’t too soon/’Cause people let me tell you/It sent a chill up and down my spine/When I picked up the telephone/And heard that he’d died out on the mainline.”
In “Tonight’s the Night” Young refers to Berry’s “shaky voice,” and one can’t help but wonder whether Young–who has never been renowned for his singing voice anyway–decided to totally throw caution to the winds on Tonight’s the Night as a kind of tribute to Berry. Perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on my part, but the fact is Young’s voice reaches unparalleled heights of tunelessness on the LP. His voice cracks, breaks, goes flat, and generally sounds like somebody’s really bad karaoke night, especially on “Mellow My Mind,” a pleasant mid-tempo tune on which he plays some lonesome harmonica and invents a new word when he sings, “A situation which can casualize your mind.”
Me, I love his fucked-up vocals, especially when he sings, “Ain’t got nothin’/On those feelin’s that I ha…a…a…a…blah blah…d, ohhhh.” The world’s full of good singers who couldn’t express half as much as emotion as Young does in that beautifully out-of-key moment, which just goes to show you that sometimes not trying is better than trying, which philosophy I adopted as my own, and is probably the cause of my second divorce.
As for the sad and slow “Borrowed Tune” (the tune being borrowed was The Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane”), Young practically whispers, that is when he isn’t playing harmonica to the accompaniment of some pretty but basic piano by Lofgren. It sounds more like a Harvest or After the Gold Rush Young tune than anything else on Tonight’s the Night besides “New Mama,” and Young follows it with a relic–-namely, a raucous 1970 live version of “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” by Crazy Horse featuring Whitten singing and playing guitar. It’s both an homage and a frenetic rocker, and its inclusion on Tonight’s the Night is a stroke of genius.
“Here is what we’ve lost,” Young seems to be saying, and it’s both very touching and ironic as “Come on Baby” also happens to be yet another tune about the harsh consequences of toying with hard drugs, what with Young and Whitten singing, “Sure enough/They’ll be sellin’ stuff/When the moon begins to rise/Pretty bad when you’re dealin’ with the man/And the light shines in your eyes.”
“World on a String” is another rocker, with some so-simple-its-brilliant drumming (including some nice brushwork), gut-bucket primal guitars (including a cool solo), more happening piano by Lofgren, and some really ragged Band-like vocal interplay, not to mention more “I just had nine shots of tequila” vocals by Young. I have no idea what it’s about, which isn’t so unusual with Young’s songs, but it makes me happy, as does the rocker “Lookout Joe,” with its primitive power chords, Dylanesque lyrics about a simpler time (“Remember Bill from up on the hill?/A Cadillac put a hole in his arm/But old Bill, he’s up there still/Havin’ a ball rollin’ to the bottom”), and Young’s “Take it, Ben,” which is followed by a great pedal steel guitar solo.
As for the slow but rollicking blues “Speakin’ Out,” which opens with honky-tonk piano which is then joined by some brief Muddy Waters (a name I picked out of a hat; I might as soon have said Booba Barnes or Putzi “The King of Nazi Swing” Hanfstaengl) guitar licks, it’s about, well, Young going to the movies (“The plot was groovy, it was out of sight/I sat with my popcorn, out lookin’ for good times/Lost in the cartoon, I grabbed the lifeline”). In addition to some absurdist lyrics, such as “I’ll be watchin’ my TV/And it’ll be watchin’ you” and “You’ll be holding my baby/And I’ll be holding you,” the song includes a great Lofgren guitar solo introduced by Young’s “Alright, Nils, hold up.”
Finally there’s “New Mama,” the only track I’m not wild about, and not so much because Young sounds like he’s trying to sing, but (far worse) its lush harmonies remind me of CSN&Y, a band I despise so much I’d sooner read Hitler’s Table Talk–which just as it sounds provides extremely tedious recapitulations of what Hitler, a very dull conversationalist, had to say while slurping his vegetarian soup (funny how both Hitler and Manson were veggies) each night–in its entirety than listen to even one of CSN&Y’s tunes, the horrifying “Guinnnevere for instance, or the loathsome “Teach Your Children.” Or God help us “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” that 420-part song so lethal I wouldn’t recommend listening to it unless you’re wearing a Level 4 biocontainment suit.
Tonight’s the Night captures the bleak mood of the early seventies better than any album recorded by anybody with the possible exception of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and of course failed miserably on a commercial level. Folks just couldn’t handle its dark message–they were too busy trying to mellow out to the soothing sounds of James Taylor and Carole King–just as they couldn’t handle the saturnine insights of Lou Reed’s Berlin.
Yet Young had the last laugh. Plenty of people–those who aren’t in permanent thrall to the mellow yellow “Heart of Gold” Neil anyway–consider Tonight’s the Night Young’s masterpiece, and as tattered and nakedly honest an obituary of hippie idealism ever to be put on vinyl. Sorrow and despair fired Young, and the album’s ragged glory is his wart on the perfect beast, which was a counterculture so stoned it didn’t even know it was dead. Samuel “I can’t go on. I’ll go on” Beckett, who knew a few things about despair, once said, “When you’re in the ditch, there’s nothing left but to sing.” Which is what Young did, with a shaky-voiced pathos that just might break your heart, the way it never fails to break mine.
GRADED ON A CURVE: