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A dark sonic artefact excavated from Neil Young’s archives

Welcome to the wake. There’s food and drink, tequila mostly, and weed, lots of it, and there’s a band on stage. The band leader says he’s Glenn Miller, but he says he feels like Perry Como. He’s joking. Maybe he believes he needs to, after all, if he didn’t laugh, he’d cry. It’s a wake, after all. Two of his friends have died from heroin overdoses.

One of them he had sacked from the band because he was beyond playing anymore from drug and alcohol use. He had been with him as a guitarist for some of his classic songs – Cinnamon Girl, Down by the River and Cowgirl in the Sand. When the news came through that the other friend, a roadie, had died, “out on the mainline”, a chill ran up and down his spine. A year ago, he had been sitting on top of the world. He had hits and fame; his record company was planning world domination. But then, life, death and art intervened.

Welcome to the world of Neil Young, 1973.

Roxy Tonight’s the Night Live is a live recording direct from the stage, warts and wonders all. As it was played, so is it now delivered.

In the wider world of 1973, Elvis Presley is still alive. Richard Nixon is sworn in for his second term (soon to be gone courtesy of Watergate), the Vietnam War ends. The World Trade Centre in New York is dedicated. Pablo Picasso dies. The Everly Brothers break up. Tubular Bells is released, as is Dark Side of the Moon, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Mind Games and Band on the Run.

This world of Young’s has been known and written about in great detail, but now a sonic artefact has come to light, excavated no doubt from the songwriter’s cavernous archives. It is Roxy Tonight’s the Night Live. As rough-edged a diamond as was the studio version of Tonight’s the Night, this live recording is direct from the stage, warts and wonders all. Nothing has been smoothed out. As it was played, so is it now delivered.

The Roxy club was in West Hollywood. Neil Young and band were the first act, playing on September 20 to 22, 1973. Death was within his circle and on the rim: Gram Parsons had died on the 19thfrom drug and alcohol abuse and Jim Croce had died in a plane crash on the 20th.

Richie Havens, Cheech and Chong, Joe Walsh and Poco would also play there in following days. Frank Zappa and Bob Marley recorded live albums there. Young’s band, the Santa Monica Flyers, comprised Ben Keith, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Nils Lofgren. Mel Brooks and friends were in the audience one night. Before the three nights, Young and band had spent a month in the studio drinking tequila and getting the songs if not coherent then cohesive. Says Young in the liner notes: “We drank a lot of tequila and I wrote Tonight’s the Night’s songs somewhere around the beginning. We had nine songs and played them twice every night for a long time until we thought we had them.”

This is a musical diary of grief and its aftermath. It’s the negotiating of darkness through art.

The wake was for the loss of former bandmate Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. Young recently told Rolling Stone that listening to it now felt like he was there. “I remember the vibe. We felt very confident because we knew the songs really well. We’d been playing them for a month in the studio, just doing Tonight’s the Night every night, drinking until the middle of the night. We’d play the whole album then we would stop and have a drink and do it again. That’s how we got that vibe.”

But, now he doesn’t recognise himself. “I don’t even know that guy. If we could talk to him, we could find out. But we can’t. You have to listen to the record to get that.”

Fans of Harvest and After the Goldrush didn’t recognise Young in the space of a couple of years. After the hits, came the ditch, the term known in his career when he deliberately turned off the highway of bright lights and into the gutter. He was being lined up to be up there with John Denver, he told Rolling Stone. As a misapprehension of an artist this must surely be the pinnacle.

The “Ditch trilogy” comprised Time Fades Away, a live album of a shambolic tour of new songs, that until last year had never been released on CD (“The worst record I ever made”, Young says, though critics differ), Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach. Times Fades Away was merely the presage into nightfall. Such was the darkness of Tonight’s the Night that Reprise baulked at releasing it. It did not surface until 1975, after On the Beach.

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Young was already on the shoreline in 1973. During the Roxy shows, the stage was adorned with a large palm tree. He welcomes the crowd to “Miami Beach, where everything is cheaper than it looks”.

He is close to everyone. It’s a small place, small stage. You can talk and joke to people. “Ten big years in the business folks, sometimes I feel like Perry Como.’’ “First topless girl up here gets one of these boots.” “We’re doing OK in the ’70s, Spiro (Agnew) says it’s all right. I wonder if he’s sleeping all right tonight?” (Agnew would resign in disgrace as US vice president a few weeks later for corruption.  “It’s party time at the Roxy folks.”

In Borrowed Tune, he sings: “I’m singing this borrowed tune/I took from the Rolling Stones/Alone in this empty room/too wasted to write my own.”

And so the wake begins. Straight into the eulogy: “Bruce Berry was a working man he used to load that Econoline van/A sparkle was in his eye but his life was in his hands.”

So let’s drink to the dearly departed, and so the band breaks into the Beer Barrel Polka (more commonly called Roll out the Barrel) by that well-known rocker Czech composer Jaromir Vejvoda.

But there is no light in these songs. This is a musical diary of grief and its aftermath. It’s the negotiating of darkness through art. Young’s voice comes up hoarse, he misses the high notes, there’s weird noises and notes in the background, the harmonies, rather than being silken, are roughly hewn. It’s entertainment, but not as it is generally been known and accepted.

This is no better illustrated than in Tired Eyes. Young introduces it, somewhat understatedly as a “sad song”, then follows a long melancholic instrumental intro, similar to what would come on Zuma’s Cortez the Killer, and then Young speaks/sings: “Well, he shot four men in a cocaine deal/left them in an open field.”

There is no upside from this reality only glimpses into dream times. In Borrowed Tune, he sings: “I’m singing this borrowed tune/I took from the Rolling Stones/Alone in this empty room/too wasted to write my own.”

But after the reprise of Tonight’s the Night, Young clears his head enough to issue a defence and retort of himself and the direction of his music. He sings:

“I hear some people
been talkin’ me down,
Bring up my name,
pass it ’round.
They don’t mention
happy times
They do their thing,
I’ll do mine.”

The song is Walk On, and it leads off the next album On the Beach. As a couplet to a career, the last lines are forever Young’s.

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4 responses to “A dark sonic artefact excavated from Neil Young’s archives

  1. Never mind the album, I just want to play this article. Fucking brilliant words, my dear. Set it to a dark kind of 1 / 5 thing probably in E.

    1. Just had the wake for my son 32 died from heroin overdose [the man said Heroin/ Alcohol toxicity ].He played guitar he loved Cortez,I loved him.Great article but made me cry again

      1. John, My thoughts are with you..I understand loss and I love Neil. He speaks eloquently of many of our most difficult times. All the best to you and yours.
        Jim in Australia (via Beserkley, CA…)

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