It’s a run of the mill Saturday evening in May. I aint got a penny to scratch my itch, and the raging sobriety makes it impossible to appease the two choices that dominate my Palookaville bound night. The alternatives are becoming worryingly clear. Will the planet’s most unlikeliest Limerick man, this time in his annual Alan Partridge guise, subdue my senses via the nepotistic glorified parish hall farce that leaves Europe basking in equal measures of pride and shame, or maybe I will finally re-open negotiations with that bleak soulless Neil Young misery fest I discarded to the swampiest recesses of my Oscar Madison approved bedroom after just one laborious listen ten months ago? After the admittedly kinky lure of some Finnish K.I.S.S. tribute act has failed to get my mojo into gear, I have decided to cut my losses and make a split second do or die decision.Tonight’s The Night.
Neil Young’s ‘Affectionately’ titled ‘Ditch Trilogy’ is often mentioned in the same breath as Dylan’s 1965 – 1966, ‘Holy Trinity’, and to a lesser extent with The Who’s 1970 – 1973 hat trick of grand slams, Live At Leeds, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia. Many musicians would cultivate a great feeling of warmth for such comparisons to their own work, but Young, a staunchly independent often cantankerous biological concoction of rabble rouser, adrenalin tripped out folkie, spiritual Godfather of early 1990s disillusionment, man of the world country troubadour, and eight minute hard rock guitar solo messiah, would surely tear swiftly against that grain. After all, he’s Neil Young and what else would you expect?! A strained smile and a half assed handshake? Maybe that’s a two for a cent dish of the day down in Laurel Canyon, but in the darkest murkiest depths of an opium tainted ditch, luvvies and their vapid valium- pumped bed hopping antics would be left gasping for every last breath.
Breathing, by all accounts, was an art Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry excelled in. For Young, a punishing responsibility to filter their very life blood and aura through the oxygen of song became his mission statement of 1973. A new year’s resolution takes on monumental proportions. Guilt, anger, sorrow, exuberance, sarcasm, and wily caution, all flow down the trickling weaving vinyl delta of Tonight’s The Night, leaving it impossible not to be swept away when Whitten’s summer light infused fix of Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown, surrenders to the brewing post traumatic hangover of Albuquerque, where playful Rock ‘n Roll hormones and liberally splashed aftershave aroma reveal their true selves in the blood and vomit splattered back street trash cans.
Our once intrepid, now tepid, heroes suddenly become sluggish and lethargic. A vivid sense of awareness overpowers the all day and all night hootenanny, as they hit the New Mexico state line. The very presence of Whitten and Berry hungrily growl through the disjointed road trip of Albuquerque. Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith haven’t lost sight of the plot in the haze of delirium that encircles the music, creating a black murky congestion of clouds worthy of the album cover itself, and a lingering fear of being completely overcome, when you finally summon up enough courage to slowly tug back the curtains. Sorry boys and girls, cold turkey hasn’t even started yet. Every syllable is drained for its melancholic worth, a sentiment complimented by Young’s hypnotic harp and the loneliest pedal steel guitar you will hear this side of the Pecos. The reverberations are compatible with final remnants of an epileptic seizure. Did this really happen? Why do I feel so empty and cold?
Borrowed Tune acts as musical company to the Raymond Carveresque lyrical nuances Shakey excels in. As the title suggests, a melody heavily influenced by The Stones delicately supports the vulnerable ice skater Young’s distressed mind has so eloquently crafted. One genuinely clings to the edge of the seat in growing concern for her fate as Young hedges his bets on the final outcome. Where we see a little girl in peril, Young’s trauma visualises the reality of two old comrades in arms faltering on an ice-cold lake, toying with their own destiny and completely ignorant to the fatal consequences they are perilously slipping towards. The metaphor arguably stands as the most frightening of anything Neil Young has dared to unnerve and terrify us with. Two distraught soldiers scream for bloody vengeance and beg for absolution as they drown in the misleading simplicity of “Lady Jane“, Neil Young style.
Taking his cue from a cocaine deal gone tragically pear shaped, our master of ceremonies wearily pleads “Open up those tired eyes”, throwing down another gauntlet to the easily titillated lemmings of ‘Heroin Chic’. This is no rite of passage at the crossroads. The overwhelming impression is one of a man equally skilled in the art of anally inserting ice cubes, as he is in rolling off licks in the name of Robert Johnson in less turbulent times.
Frankly speaking, clichéd Faustian pacts leading to untold earthly riches and the scornful peering eyes of elderly neighbours under a false cloak of moral indignation have always bored the tits off me. Forget about hocus pocus or cockamamie rituals. In this brand of mortal exchange at the crossroads, or more to the point at the ditch, Mephistopheles is just another face in a greasy denim jacket mingling amongst the sleazy pushers and desperate junkies adhering to Shakey’s own ‘Setting Sun’ analogy. And this particular sundown grows evermore stodgier into an overwhelming sense of eternal blackness.
There is a sickening feeling of urgency that Neil Young has stamped all over this album like the stomach wrenching emotions of a child in a crowded computer game store, in a state of joy and discovery, who turns around to find his mother has inadvertently abandoned him. Young takes on both the persona of mother and child, leaving Tonight’s The Night as an often harrowing experience for both the womb and the offspring. Whereas the top notch Time Fades Away buoyantly led from the front by Don’t BeDenied, acted in many ways as a precursor to the sonic rage and bewilderment of Rust Never Sleeps, and arguably his finest achievement of all On The Beach, could be viewed as a documentary of the schizophrenic personal and social turbulence of post flower power 1974, with equal parts isolated cynicism and effortless elegance, as displayed in Motion Pictures (For Carrie) and See The Sky About To Rain, this particular mother and child separation was perhaps cursed in it’s genesis by Young’s record company’s disenchantment and his own personal upheavals, which led to the entire project being put on ice until 1975, adding to already increasing gloom.
Winter often displays a valiant air of clinging to it’s very survival as Spring returns to take it’s throne, and a reprise of the title track after an emotionally taxing journey for listener and band alike leaves us in no doubt that Shakey wasn’t about to let Bruce Berry simply ‘fade away’. References to Berry as a “working man” shows Young as a holder of the same blue collar ethics and passport as Bruce Springsteen, in an up-tempo jam that The E Street Band could have easily joined in on at any stage in the listener’s imagination.
It isn’t just the sway, but the intensity also of Tonight’s The Night that takes one by the scruff of the collar. A ruthless epiphany, it could easily act as an anti A Love Supreme, the other heroin inspired (of sorts) masterpiece that one can rightfully bring into the equation. For Coltrane’s “ELATION – ELEGANCE – EXALTATION”, read Young still searching for a non toxic recipe that will ultimately mellow his mind in the wake of all the ungodliness and ultimately offer him the stimulus of spiritual harmony. So many that had gone before had found everlasting peace or fallen headlong into a pit of horror. And while John Coltrane had found a brilliant white light reaching towards him in his self conceived den of destructive iniquity, Neil Young had decided to allow cautious cynicism in its most startling format to rule the long cold days and lonely strung out nights.
But it would be a mistake to observe this man as a perfectly willing transporter of doom. It felt like he owed Danny and Bruce. They were a band of brothers light years removed from the politically correct tree hugging that had started to rear its ugly head within 1970s culture. These men were owed a true Rock n’ Roll acquittal from the sins that cost them the very right to exist.
Please open up those tired eyes.
The troubles that had plagued the album’s development both in a technical and corporate sense as well the grief stricken air of loss, meant that it would arrive as the final piece in the arduous ‘Ditch trilogy’. The jigsaw of grey and black mid 1970s America was now complete. The melting pot had now reached critical mass to create a million more in it’s aftermath. America and Americana were meeting at the halfway house where Heart Of Gold unwillingly filtered out of a jukebox staunchly defended by Rolling Rock drinking white-collar casualties. The trilogy had become caught up in the America of Patty Hearst, where Jim Rockford offered competition to the rising heat with his fetish for sunny taco breakfasts. This was an America where would be revolutionaries had failed to eliminate Gerald Ford, a man whose “Simpson’s” parody actually had done him a favour. Where the superhuman empowerment of Lindsay Wagner merged with the fabled underground call to arms of George Jackson’s acolytes, as all judged by the same blazing sun. Within the rays of this same sun, all the guitar man wanted was his two commancheros to share in the light that had emerged from the black. Something that just could not be.
A complete sea change shaped Zuma, the follow up album to this melting pot of stateside madness in November 1975. This time Spring had taken the liberty to arrive in Winter, but Neil Young the Canadian who had chronicled America in a manner vastly superior to many of his adopted counterparts, could never truly wash his hands of those barely noticeable things that go on when crowds contently shuffle out of arenas and stadiums, dressing room doors slam parties begin and working men begin to tackle Marshall stacks in the sanitised venues of New Mexico and Ohio. It doesn’t have to be tonight, it could be any night. Just turn back and glimpse the rhythm guitarist in the eyes, and watch the roadie crack a few jokes as the feedback turns to static.
“If they’re big they’re here. Even if they’re sick, they have to show, for players and hustlers, tonight’s the night”.