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One of my college roommates was a guy named Dave whom I had two things in common with: We were from small towns (“the sticks,” as the guys from New York City always reminded us), and we loved music.

Back then, my favorite artists were Zappa, Jefferson Airplane, Jethro Tull, the Doors, Mountain, and Cream. Arnie was into mellower stuff: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Moody Blues, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and—dig this—the Eagles. Arnie was the first person I knew who listened to the Eagles. This was 1972-73. He was way ahead of the fan curve for that particular band.

I had a copy of CSNY’s first album, Déja Vu, in my record collection, but Arnie had the different band members’ solo albums, too. Of the four, I liked Neil Young best. My teenage angst dovetailed nicely with songs like “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down by the River,” and “Heart of Gold.”

I lost touch with Arnie after two years of school, when I parachuted out of college to—in the parlance of the times—get my head together. That decision left me living at home and working a cul-de-sac job. The circumstances weren’t ideal, but they gave me lots of disposable income, much of which was spent on records.

By then I had lost touch with Young’s music and was listening instead to some of the time’s better-known acts (David Bowie, Lou Reed, Roxy Music) and some second-tier bands (Mott the Hoople among them). What I liked most, though, was discovering acts nobody had heard of. It helped that I developed a musical friendship with the guy who ran the local record store. Between the two of us, we found artists and bands like Brian Eno, Be-Bop Deluxe, City Boy, and Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel.

But early in 1975, I picked up a copy of Young’s new album, Tonight’s the Night, to see if his music still resonated with me.

At first listen, the album was a train wreck. Young’s voice, never the sweetest or supplest to begin with, sounded like he’d gargled with Drano. And the lyrics? You be the judge. From the title song, a track about Bruce Berry, who was a roadie for Young who overdosed on heroin and died:

Early in the mornin' at the break of day
He used to sleep until the afternoon.

Apparently Neil had forgotten how to tell time.

How about lyrics that rhyme—in this case, from “Speakin’ Out”?

I went to the movie
The other night,
The plot was groovy,
It was out of sight.

Far out, Neil.

The lyrics weren’t the only half-hearted aspect of the album. The melodies seemed unfinished or like bad ideas that the songwriter pressed forward with because he had nothing better. In fact, in “Borrowed Tune,” Young steals outright the melody from the Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane,” from their 1966 album Aftermath. And he admits it in the lyrics:

I'm singin' this borrowed tune
I took from the Rolling Stones
Alone in this empty room
Too wasted to write my own.

Saying that “Young sometimes sounds so depressed it's a wonder he managed to tune his guitar,” Christian Hoard wrote in Rolling Stone that the album was “Young's most hauntingly powerful album, full of cracked folkie ballads, ferocious rockers and bleak reveries inspired by the heroin deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry.”
(Here’s the review)

And Dave Marsh, a star among critics at the time, wrote, “The characters of the songs are shell-shocked, losers, wasted, insane, homeless — except for the ones who are already corpses.”
(What Marsh said.)

Marsh’s description could be applied just as well to Lou Reed’s Berlin, from 1973, but there’s one difference: You only need to listen to Berlin once or twice before you have mined from it all the emotions that apply to you as well as the artist. Lester Bangs, who had several go-rounds with Reed in Creem magazine, once described Berlin as “a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor that may well be the most depressed album ever made.” (I don’t know what it says about me that I have that quotation memorized.) And Reed never was shy about letting everybody know he was a genius. The raw, forlorn sound of Tonight’s the Night, though, makes Berlin look like a comic strip.

For all of its shortcomings, Tonight’s the Night is an earworm of an album. Songs like the brilliant “World on a String,” “Roll Another Number (for the Road),” “New Mama” and “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” (which features Danny Whitten) can’t be easily dismissed from my musical memory. In fact, the album’s title song and “Borrowed Tune” are in their own way compelling.

You’ll go a long time before hearing a song as desolate as “Borrowed Tune.” It is reminiscent of the third fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the fall of 1975, a fight Ali won after Frazier’s manager refused to let his fighter come out for the final round because of the terrible beating he’d absorbed. But Frazier gave as good as he got. Ali later said that he was on the verge of quitting after the 14th round because he felt close to death—and although he won that classic bout, he never was the same.

“Borrowed Tune” finds Young as the musical equivalent of Ali after round 14—struggling to cope with his friends’ deaths, his voice nearly shot, the muse mockingly just out of reach. Given the album cover’s black-and-white imagery, it’s easy to imagine Young sitting not in the corner of a boxing ring, but at a piano in a dim room, his piano playing defining the word “rudimentary” and his harmonica licks delivered in a manner best described as “asthmatic.” As desolate as the song sounds, though, it is beautiful in its own way, like a bouquet of dead roses.

Although it’s easy to make fun of the title song’s lyrics, the ridicule seems a little cheap in light of the song’s topic. He’s writing about a friend:

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.

Young then tells us how Berry would pick up Young’s guitar when no one was around and “sing a song in a shaky voice / that was real as the day was long.” But here come the guts of the song:

'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

Singing in an album’s first song about a friend who died of a heroin overdose doesn’t exactly prompt fuzzy and warm expectations from listeners. Indeed, some Young fans may find the record to be too raw, too unfinished—or maybe just flat-out too harrowing—and it’s certainly not a disc to throw into the car to listen to on a road trip. But there are times, plenty of them, when it helps to know that at least one other human being is even more down and out than you are. That’s the universal and eternal appeal of the blues, to name one genre.

Here we find Young with his soul’s fire sputtering, his emotions trampled, his will crumbled—but we also find him fighting to answer the bell for the next round. There are no happy endings on this album, but in retrospect, we can admire Young for showing the guts to keep fighting.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 18th, 2011 01:03 am (UTC)
Well, huh. Never knowing him to listen to Neil Young before, I came home today to hear surly youth #2 singing along with "Heart of Gold."

Lots of stuff I never knew. Nice review, pjv.
Aug. 18th, 2011 01:17 am (UTC)
Thanks. I recommend SY2 listen not to this record but instead to Young's second album from 1975, "Zuma." He'll like it better.
Aug. 18th, 2011 10:31 pm (UTC)
I can't bring myself to like Neil Young at all, despite the fact that everyone I know with taste in music does (and I've tried) and I fundamentally disagree with some of your points here.... but I think it is because of rather than despite these things that I so enjoyed reading this :) Thanks.
Aug. 18th, 2011 11:09 pm (UTC)
Hey, what's the fun of discussing music if everybody agrees on anything?

Thanks for reading and commenting.
Aug. 19th, 2011 03:20 pm (UTC)
Love Neil, and never really thought of this album in quite this way. I do agree that I would never take it as traveling music for a road trip, but I do love many of the songs. I'll be putting it on at some point this weekend and give it the really close listen that it deserves.
Aug. 20th, 2011 03:02 am (UTC)
As my music collection began migrating from vinyl and tape to mp3, songs from this album kept popping up on my brain jukebox. It took me a long time to realize just how good this album is. But I don't have any Young in my collection after Zuma.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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