Recorded in 1973, Neil Young's 'Tonight’s The Night' didn’t actually see the light of day until two years later. Much delayed, it's the culmination, rather than the centrepiece, of his famed 'Ditch Trilogy' - a set which contains the spectacular musical results of some of the darkest moments in his life.
It should have all been otherwise. As 1972 made way for 1973, Young was among the biggest rock stars on the planet as a result of the chart-topping 'Harvest' album a year before. A massive stadium tour was booked, he was living the high life with actress Carrie Snodgress and their son on his California ranch, and his popularity stretched across the globe. Neil Young, once discouraged from singing by Stephen Stills in their Buffalo Springfield days, had well and truly arrived.
But then tragedy after disaster struck: guitarist Danny Whitten, his alter ego in hard-rocking backing band Crazy Horse, died of an overdose, having just been sacked from the aforementioned tour for his drugs use; Young’s relationship with Snodgress was disintegrating whilst son Zeke struggled with cerebral palsy; and another drug death, this time of beloved roadie Bruce Berry, threatened to pitch Young’s world into a deep abyss. He embarked on the tour anyway, promptly fell out with his band and then alienated audiences by swapping the pastoral elegance of 'Harvest' for ragged, drunken rock songs no-one had ever heard before.
The tour was immortalised on his first solo live album, 'Time Fades Away' (1973), a ramshackle barrage of tequila-infused anger and grief that sold miserably, was panned, and hasn’t seen an official re-issue since. A truly powerful slab of unfettered proto-punk that was about as bold a move as any mainstream artist could make, Neil Young then went on and topped it twice over.
With the harrowing reality of the Time Fades Away tour behind him, Young drew the surviving members of Crazy Horse (drummer Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot on bass) and close friends Ben Keith (who would remain a close musical companion until his tragic passing in 2010), Nils Lofgren (who’d played with Crazy Horse on parts of 'After the Goldrush') and producer David Briggs to exorcise once and for all the sadness and anger at Whitten and Berry’s all-too-early demises. The sessions were nocturnal and fuelled by industrial quantities of José Cuervo Gold tequila, and yet somehow this only made the emotions involved more potent both in the recording and on the album they would eventually produce.
In 1990, a resurrected Crazy Horse would join Neil Young for their fifth studio album together and call it 'Ragged Glory', a title that would have been even more fitting for 'Tonight’s The Night'. The first part of the title track opens the album with a tinkling of piano from Young , a minor detail that becomes a major portent of things to come, such is the subtle menace he somehow imbues these few notes with. His voice, when it appears, is weak and trembling, straining to stay in key as it crawls into the high notes.
With his band mates adding muted guitar and moody rhythm, Young leaps into the story of doomed roadie Bruce Berry, whose story not only resurrects the ghost of Danny Whitten as well, but serves as a parable for every heroin tragedy one can imagine. When Young’s voice stretches to breaking point on the line “When I picked up the telephone/And heard that he died/Out on the mainline!” it’s enough to send shivers down just about any body part imaginable.
'Tonight’s The Night' is the blueprint for the rest of the album, as Young and band plunge into deeper and deeper depths. “I’m singing this borrowed tune/I took from The Rolling Stones” he moans on the solo piano piece 'Borrowed Tune', coming on like a faded rock 'n' roll Phantom Of The Opera. The lyrics are starker than anyone of a similar standing (even Lou Reed) was daring at the time, with performances to match; Talbot and Molina’s rhythm is more plod than back-beat, Ben Keith’s lap steel notes ache with tangible sorrow, and Young and Lofgren dispense with solos in favour of minimalist riffs and motifs on piano and guitar.
The Canadian’s voice actually breaks apart on 'Mellow My Mind', straining and failing to match the melody yet coming up trumps nonetheless. 'Tired Eyes', a half-spoken word piece recounts a cocaine deal gone murderous with the kind of gravitas that Nick Cave would pick up and run with in years to come; whilst Ben Keith shines and soars on the strangely melodic and desperately haunting 'Albuquerque'.
There are gems aplenty on 'Tonight’s The Night', displaying some of Neil Young’s most daring and extreme compositions, with Briggs imperious behind the production desk, capturing the performances in all their stripped-down, off-kilter glory. The sucker punch comes almost midway through, with a live performance from 1970 of Neil Young and Crazy Horse singing 'Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown', a Danny Whitten song that the guitarist sings lead on. Hearing his soulful, plaintive voice echoing from beyond the grave is an emotional kick in the heart, and one which perfectly encapsulates the unique, desperate potency of this album.
It's a symbol of the strange maelstrom Neil Young found himself in during the mid-seventies that 'Tonight’s The Night' wouldn’t see the light of day until 1975; by which time he’d added to the beautiful unease with another masterpiece, 'On The Beach', Crazy Horse had been resurrected and his mental state was back on the up. It may have started life as the centrepoint - and high water mark - of the 'Ditch Trilogy', but in many ways it’s more satisfying to experience it as the closing chapter of a beautifully macabre and unique phase in the career of a beautiful, often macabre and unique rock star.
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Words: Joseph Burnett