Tonight's the Night, On the Beach, and Rust Never Sleeps. Neil Young's Tonight's the Night, recorded in 1973 but not released until 1975, views the 'left turn' into the abyss at the end of the 60s through the prism of the drug related deaths of his two friends, Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. The brilliance of the album lies largely in Neil's ability to sublimate his grief and depression into a devastatingly raw collection of songs. Tonight's the Night is not a record you put on as background music while you're cleaning the house or doing the laundry (at least I don't), but rather is one you play on a rainy Sunday afternoon when you're feeling pensive and want to contemplate the fragility of the human condition. Although it was recorded some 35 years ago under very different historical circumstances, you will be hard pressed to find an album that sounds more appropriate to the desperate times we are living through today.
Like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young has always had a certain element of dread built into his music. You can hear it on songs he did with Buffalo Springfield ("Mr. Soul", "Nowadays Clancy Can't Sing", "I am a Child"...), and it is pervasive on all his work through the 1970s. Let's face it: Neil may want you to believe he's a peacenick hippy, but he's very much a dark hippy of the Topanga Canyon variety - moody, brooding, and often extremely self centered and selfish, to say nothing of frequently being politically confused. This probably means Neil's not a great guy on an interpersonal level, but the sum total of his personality traits makes for some pretty haunting music.
One of the great things about Tonight's the Night is the way so much of it was recorded live in the studio, imperfections and all. The rough sound of the album, which infuriated the suits at Reprise when Neil first presented them with the finished product, is precisely what the material cries out for. The album vents unrepressed, jagged emotion from start to finish. When Neil sings about his roadie and compadre, Bruce Berry, who 'died out on the mainline,' the cracking of his voice amounts to a plaintive cry of total anguish, not just for the passing of a friend but for the distortion and destruction of everything the 60s were supposed to represent...
Neil has apparently always been drawn to damaged souls like Danny Whitten, the guitarist for Crazy Horse. All accounts I've ever read of their relationship suggest that the two of them had a special intuitive connection. In this respect, the live version of Whitten's "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown" on Tonight's the Night seems to have a double purpose. On the one hand, the performance illuminates just how electrifying Neil and Danny could be when they played together and underscores the utter tragedy of Whitten's loss to 60s excess. On the other hand, the lyrics of the song point to the paranoia and burn out that were so essential to the mood within the counterculture when the 60s started to go sour. 'Pretty bad when you're dealing with the man and the light shines in your eyes.'
From the stoned whine of the pedal steel in "Albuquerque" and "Tired Eyes", to the creaky fury of "World on a String" and "Lookout Joe", Tonight's the Night finds a self-medicated Neil Young confronting the end of the 60s in a way that is simultaneously deeply personal and far reaching in its interpretation of the zeitgeist.
The Manson murders quickly became a lasting symbol for what I've been calling the Great Collapse, and nowhere is this more evident than on "Revolution Blues", one of the more striking songs from Neil Young's On the Beach. '...I hear that Laurel Canyon is filled with famous stars/But I hate 'em worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars...' On the Beach was released before but recorded after Tonight's the Night. The album is quite a bit more patchy and uneven, but also features some of Neil's most tormented reflections on the death of 60s idealism with songs like "On the Beach" and "Ambulance Blues." Now I'm livin' out here on the beach,' Neil sings on the title track, 'but those seagulls are still out of reach.' For me, this is the defining moment on the record and one of the defining moments in Neil's career, a tragic omission of spiritual emptiness from a spokesperson for a generation that had such great potential yet flushed so much of it away.
More on Neil Next Time...