Inspired (if that’s the right word) by the drug-induced deaths of Danny Whitten and another friend, roadie Bruce Berry, Neil actually recorded Tonight’s The Night in 1973 but the album never came out (accounts differ as to why). After On The Beach, Neil set about recording an album of largely acoustic songs called Homegrown, but when he and several friends (including members of The Band) listened to that album side by side with this one it was all too apparent which one was stronger, so he decided to release this previously shelved album instead.
The liner notes state that “this album was made for Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, who lived and died for rock n’ roll,” and in many ways this album is Neil’s heartbroken response to their sad passing. Bashed out with his buddies (Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, Ben Keith, and Nils Lofgren) through many drunken late night sessions in which they shared in each other’s grief, this bleak, unflinchingly honest record is deliberately under produced, with sloppy playing (replete with bum notes) and cracked, off-key vocals commonplace.
Yet somehow this works in the album’s favor, as it has a real ambiance to it (one that’s best appreciated late at night) that transcends individual songs, several of which are excellent, anyway. For example, there’s the two differing versions of the title track that bookend the album (he would repeat this strategy on future albums) and which so baffled audiences when he played multiple versions of the then-unknown song on the tour that launched the “Ditch Trilogy.” The first one is spare, the second louder and more forceful, but both are powerful tributes to Berry.
Elsewhere, the wonderfully weary “Tired Eyes” and a scorching performance of “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” captured live at the Fillmore with Whitten on lead vocals (note: this song also appears on Crazy Horse’s criminally overlooked and quite excellent first album, as well as on the archive live release Live At The Fillmore East) are about scoring drugs and shooting up, with tragic consequences on the former: “well it wasn’t supposed to go down that way.” Although much of the album sounds like a drunken wake, in direct contrast to On The Beach’s stoned vibe (though the albums have much in common as well, mostly a nice mix of rockers and ballads and feelings of anger, desperation, and disillusionment), other familiar themes also appear.
Neil again laments the shallowness of fame on “World On A String” (“the world on a string doesn’t mean a thing”) and suffers self-doubt on “Borrowed Tune” (“I hope that it matters, I’m having my doubts”), but it’s not all doom and gloom, as “Speakin’ Out” and “New Mama” are paeans to parenthood. Perhaps the playing is too off-the-cuff and obviously banged-out-on-the-spot at times, and sometimes his influences are all too apparent (“Borrowed Tune” is based on The Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane,” “Speakin Out” on Bob Dylan’s “Pledging My Time”). These are minor complaints, however, as the album has a cathartic overall intensity and is often quite pretty (“Borrowed Time” and “Tired Eyes” in particular, though I also really like the soulful sing along “Roll Another Number (for the Road)”).
Interestingly, during this dark phase of his career Young renounced the hippy ideals he once trumpeted (and would later again embrace), and though some songs here probably could’ve been further enhanced were it not for the tossed off nature of this project, this flawed, fatalistic album’s gripping despair nevertheless resonates quite deeply.
Tonight’s the Night finds Neil Young on his knees at the top of the heap, struggling to get back on his feet. The musical difficulties of last year’s On the Beach have been resolved as directly as possible by a return to recording with Crazy Horse and Nils Lofgren, with whom Young recorded his 1970 masterpiece, After the Gold Rush.
Yet even Crazy Horse isn’t what it once was: Lead guitarist Danny Whitten died last year of a drug overdose. The track on which he appears, “Come on Baby, Let’s Go Downtown,” recorded at Fillmore East four years ago, serves as a metaphor for the album’s haunted, frightened emotional themes. Musically, Whitten’s guitar and voice compliment, challenge and inspire Young. The rest of the album strains to keep up.
It does so only occasionally but the effort is almost quixotically exhilarating. The successes — the ironic “Tired Eyes,” the deceptively sweet “Albuquerque,” the thunderous “Lookout Joe” and the two versions of the title song — are Young’s best music since Gold Rush. Lofgren’s guitar and piano are forceful and direct, Ralph Molina’s drumming apt on both the rockers and the weepers (the latter driven by Ben Keith’s steel guitar). Young’s playing, on piano, harp and guitar, is simple but constantly charged.
Still, the album shares with On the Beach a fully developed sense of despair: The stargazer of “Helpless” finds no solace here. The music has a feeling of offhand, first-take crudity matched recently only by Blood on the Tracks, almost as though Young wanted us to miss its ultimate majesty in order to emphasize its ragged edge of desolation. “Borrowed Tune,” for example, is set against Young’s stark harp and piano. The tandem guitar and bass on the opening version of the title song sounds like the crack of doom itself and Young’s singing — especially on the concluding version — alternates between sheer panic and awful Old Testament threat. “Tonight’s the night,” he shouts, threats, begs, moans and curses, telling the story of roadie Bruce Berry, who ODed “out on the mainline.” Sometimes it feels as though Young is still absorbing the shock of his friend’s death, sometimes as though he is railing against mortality itself, sometimes as though he’s accepted it. But never as though he believes it.
More than any of Young’s earlier songs and albums — even on the despondent On the Beach and the mordant, rancorous Time Fades Away — Tonight’s the Night is preoccupied with death and disaster. Dedicated to the dead Berry and Whitten, its cover, liner and label are starkly black and white. The characters of the songs are shell-shocked, losers, wasted, insane, homeless — except for the ones who are already corpses. The happiest man in any of them, the father in “New Mama,” acknowledges that he’s “living in a dreamland.” Ultimately, he too is tracked down by the ghosts from outside as he sits staring out at his frozen lake.
Young is simultaneously terrified by this pernicious landscape and fascinated by the disgust and lust it evokes. The only resolution seems to be ennui and the ritual of the music, which pounds incessantly, until the sanity of everything, including (or maybe especially) the singer and the listener, is called into question. Tonight’s the night, all right, but for what? Just another kick?
Searching for a way to make sense of it, a lost Raymond Chandler story, “Red Wind,” offers a clue: “it was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” This is desert music, for certain, and the roughest part of the desert at that.
What finally happens, in “Tired Eyes,” is material for a novel; in fact, as Bud Scoppa has pointed out elsewhere, the similarity to the plot of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers — a novel which shares Young’s obsession with heroin and the refuse of the war — is startling. “Well, he shot four men in a cocaine deal,” Young sings matter-of-factly. “He left ’em lyin’ in an open field/ Full of old cars with bullet holes in the mirrors.”
The whole album has pointed to this, song after song building the tightness with the endless repetition of phrases — musical and lyric — until the rasp of the guitars on the rockers and the sweetness of the singing on the weepers begins to grate, aching for release. Young’s whole career may have been spent in pursuit of this story — remember the sinister black limousines lurking in the shadows of “Mr. Soul” and “Broken Arrow”? — but it is only now that he has found a way to tell the tale so directly.
Much has been made of Young’s turn from pretty melodies on the last three albums. On this album, there are hints of the same kind of beauty that, overused, finally bloated Harvest with its own saccharine excesses. “World on a String” and “Roll Another Number” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on that album, expect that they would have exploded its pretensions.
If the songs here aren’t pretty, they are tough and powerful, with a metallic guitar sound more akin to the abrasiveness of the Rolling Stones than the placid harmonies of CSNY. The melodies haven’t disappeared (as they seemed to on On the Beach), but they are only sketched in, hints of what could be.
There is no sense of retreat, no apology, no excuses offered and no quarter given. If anything, these are the old ideas with a new sense of aggressiveness. The jitteriness of the music, its sloppy, unarranged (but decidedly structured) feeling is clearly calculated. The music draws us in, with the wonderful guitar line crashing through the ominous “Lookout Joe,” with the steel guitar on “Albuquerque,” the almost folkish suggestion of melody that drives “Tired Eyes” but — and here is where it is new — it also spits us back out again, makes us look at the ugliness on the surface and beneath it.
Yet the musical change doesn’t reflect a similar toughening of subject matter, though that is what the casual listener might think. The tensions have always been there, only they are now unrelieved. To suggest, as some have, that Young’s current music is an apology for the sweetness of his success — much less to suggest that he has only recently discovered a world in opposition to the rock scene — is to ignore the bulk of his work. The titles alone tell the story: “Broken Arrow,” “Out of My Mind,” “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (with no hint that anything can mend it again), even “Helpless,” “Ohio,” Young’s other great CSNY contribution, speaks explicitly of the same horrors: “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground/ How can you run when you know?” Finally, those four dead in “Ohio” equate directly with the four dead coke dealers in “Tired Eyes”: casualties in different battles of the same war.
All of this is half incoherent because all of the names Young could put to it are clichés. It is the measure of Young’s achievement that when he sings, so calmly it’s spooky, “Please take my advice/ Open up the tired eyes,” it brings this message home to us in a new way. Suddenly the evil is no longer banal but awful and ironic, in simultaneous recognition that the advice is silly, or that if taken, it might not help or it might only aid in enlarging the wounds.
Crying over the death of his real and imagined friends, Neil Young seems at once heroic and mock heroic, brave and absurd. Like the best of both, he leaves us as he found us, ravaged but rocking.