Just for the record: Neil Young takes a walk on the dark side
Your fortnightly guide to music on vinyl
After the extraordinary success of his 1972 album, Harvest, Neil Young decided to push the envelope a bit. As he put it, “Heart of Gold [the single off Harvest] put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.”
The albums that followed, 1973’s Time Fades Away, 1974’s On The Beach and 1975’s Tonight’s The Night, the so-called “doom trilogy”, were everything the consumer-friendly Harvest wasn’t and alienated fans by the truckload. Here, indeed, was a profound disillusionment with the hippy dream. All three have however aged remarkably well and are now considered among the highlights of Young’s lengthy and productive career.
Best of the three is Tonight’s The Night, a bleak, desperate and emotionally cathartic masterpiece, one of the most honest and harrowing albums in all of rock. At the time, though, Young’s record label, Reprise, hated it so much that it took two years for it to be finally released.Nine of its 12 tracks were recorded in two late-night, tequila-steeped recording sessions in August 1973 that doubled as wakes for colleagues who’d died of drug overdoses, roadie Bruce Berry and guitarist Danny Whitten. The latter’s death had hit Young rather hard; Whitten bought the heroin that killed him with the $50 Young had given him when he fired him from his band.
Young later told Rolling Stone that they wanted to capture their late friends’ states of mind by getting wasted “right out on the edge, where we knew we were so screwed up that we could easily just fall on our faces” and waiting “until the middle of the night until the vibe hit us and just did it”.The production was ragged, Young’s vocals were cracked and weary, his lyrics hostile and confused, and the playing loose and dishevelled, but it somehow gelled into a poignant, at times furious collection bookended by the title track, a paean to Berry which opened and closed the album.
The record company may have stopped its initial release, but they couldn’t stop Young from playing the songs and, in September 1973, he launched the Tonight’s The Night tour at the Roxy in Los Angeles.
Guitarist Nils Lofgren later told Mojo: “We knew this tour would be different because audiences expected Neil to play their favourite songs, which we weren’t going to do, and they hadn’t heard the Tonight’s The Night songs before.
“The diabolical twist at the end of every show was Neil saying: ‘We’ll play something you’ve heard before.’ The place would go bananas, and we’d play [the song] Tonight’s The Night a second time.”
There were times, Lofgren added, when audience members “really were affronted, and understandably so”.
A new two LP set documenting the tour, Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live (Reprise), will be released later this month.Other recent Neil Young releases (he is, if anything, a busy guy) include 2017’s excellent Hitchhiker (Reprise), a solo acoustic collection of songs recorded over the course of a single stoned day in Malibu in 1976, and Paradox (Reprise), an album recorded with Promise of the Real and released last month.
The latter is the soundtrack to Paradox, the loopy, alternative “western” directed by his girlfriend, Daryl Hannah. It’s currently streaming on Netflix, but approach with a degree of caution.
Young’s one-time compadre, David Crosby, has also hit a productive purple patch in recent years. His last two releases, 2016’s Lighthouse (Groundup) and last year’s Sky Trails (BMG), were warmly received by critics and fans alike.
The essential Crosby, though, is his debut solo outing, If I Could Only Remember My Name (Atlantic), an experimental and controversial “mood suite” he released back in 1971.It had been recorded a year earlier when the post-Woodstock sense of community still flourished; Crosby had wanted his album to be some sort of “tribal gathering” to celebrate a bit of peace, love and harmony and so invited the cream of California’s music scene to be part of his hippy trip. They included Young, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, most of the Grateful Dead and most of Jefferson Airplane.
On paper, it appeared to be another bloated superstar indulgence, but the results were both unexpected and rather extraordinary.
As expected, the album has a sort of stoned beatitude, but it is shot through with an air of extreme sadness and grief. Just before recording began, Crosby’s girlfriend, Christine Hinton, had been killed in a car accident, leaving the singer utterly distraught. “Crosby went to see her body and he’s never been the same since,” Graham Nash has said.It is something of a miracle that Crosby is still with us. In 1982, after being convicted of several drugs and weapons crimes, Crosby spent nine months in a Texas state prison. The drug charges stemmed from his addiction to crack. In 1985, he was arrested for drunken driving and fleeing the scene of an accident after driving into a fence. Officers found a concealed pistol and cocaine in his car.
All of which and no doubt more will feature in the “raw and moving” documentary Cameron Crowe is said to be making on Crosby, a man who, by all accounts, remains something of an insufferable egomaniac.
He recently announced that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young may reunite over a shared hatred for US President Donald Trump. This despite the fact that the rest of the group can’t stand Crosby.
“They’re all mad at me,” he reportedly said. “But they all dislike Donald Trump very much, the same way I do. We dislike him intensely because he’s a spoiled child who can’t do his job. So a reunion is possible. We don’t like each other, but we like Trump a whole lot less.”
THE ESSENTIAL LIBRARY
The Indestructible Beat of Soweto: Various artists (Earthworks EWV14, 1985)Released some months before Paul Simon dropped Graceland on an unsuspecting world, this was a touch of the real stuff: hardcore township jives and indigenous grooves that blew apart rock audiences in the northern hemisphere. It was world music before there was even such a thing as “world music”; unsurprisingly, Rolling Stone voted it one of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s. The US folk and roots label, Shanachie, rereleased it on vinyl in 2016.
A follow-up, Thunder Before Dawn: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto Volume Two (Earthworks EWV 1) was released in 1987. It is just as essential, but has yet to be reissued on vinyl, so is something of a rarity.THE CRATE DIVER
Half Alive: Roger Lucey (WEA International WIC 8000, 1980)
It’s difficult to comprehend the lengths to which the state took in stifling the singer-songwriter Lucey’s folk-rock career. In addition to security police threatening venue owners who hired him and then actually teargassing those venues, the record companies that had anything to do with him were targeted as well.
Lucey’s music was certainly uncompromisingly political in its opposition to apartheid. Academics wrote papers on him that were perhaps unintentionally humorous. “Lucey’s revelations,” read one such ponderous treatise, “are indicative of Gramsci’s idea of dual-consciousness, whereby subjects’ experiences of injustices contradict state propaganda and thereby create the basis for potential resistance.” But he was deadly serious in his music. And thus a threat to the state.His first album, 1979’s The Road Is Much Longer (3rd Ear Music, 3EE 7004), was heavily censored and released to little fanfare by a small independent record company. Half Alive, which featured material recorded in a studio on one side and, on the other, live songs captured at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, was meant to be his major label breakthrough. Instead, it was criminally ignored and allowed to quietly die. It’s fairly rare, and near-mint copies are going for about R1,000.