In November 1972, Neil Young was gearing to go on the road for what should have been a celebratory tour – Harvest, his studio set from February, had topped the album charts earlier in the year and “Heart of Gold,” its first single, had hit No. 1, as well. And it wasn’t just any tour, but his first non-CSNY headlining arena tour.
The band he built to support him included Ben Keith, Jack Nitzche, Tim Drummond and Kenny Buttrey, and was to have also included Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who’d provided incendiary backing on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and the tours that preceded and followed that essential LP. “Backing” is a bit of a misnomer, however. At their zenith, their guitars intertwined to the point that they seemed and sounded almost as if they were one; and Whitten’s vocals provided a warm bed for Neil’s oft-reedy lead.
Danny was a junkie, however, and it quickly became apparent during rehearsals that he couldn’t keep up with the rest of the band. Neil sent him packing, reportedly giving him $50 and a plane ticket home. As Neil told Cameron Crowe in 1975, “He was too out of it. Too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to L.A. ‘It’s not happening, man. You’re not together enough.’ He just said, ‘I’ve got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?’ And he split. That night the coroner called me from L.A. and told me he’d ODed. That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible.”
As documented by the Time Fades Away album, and a myriad of unofficial recordings, the tour that followed wasn’t Neil’s best. Some performances were good if not great, of course, but by and large most shows were perfunctory, if not pallid, affairs. It wasn’t just that he was grieving a friend. He blamed himself for what happened: if he hadn’t fired him, maybe Whitten would’ve lived. That guilt – misplaced though it was – weighed on him. (The reality is that the only person responsible for Danny’s death was Danny.) Fast-forward to June 1973, when another cohort – CSNY roadie Bruce Berry – died from a heroin overdose.
A few months later, Neil gathered a group of like-minded souls, aka the Santa Monica Flyers (Ben Keith, Nils Lofgren, and Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina), at Studio Instrument Rentals, aka SIR, which was owned by Bruce’s brother Ken, and set out to eulogize his late friends while simultaneously exorcising his grief and guilt. Neil recalled in the Times-Contrarian, “We had nine songs and played them twice a night for a long time until we thought we had them.” Those tracks formed the heart of what became Neil’s most intense album, Tonight’s the Night, which was released in 1975. As he also told Crowe, “If you’re gonna put a record on at 11:00 in the morning, don’t put on Tonight’s the Night. Put on the Doobie Brothers.”
Which leads to ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live. Neil explains in the liner notes that “We had finished recording and decided to celebrate with a gig at a new club opening on the Sunset Strip, the ROXY. We went there and recorded for a few nights, opening the ROXY. We really knew the Tonight’s the Night songs after playing them for a month, so we just played them again, the album, top to bottom, two sets a night for a few days. We had a great time.”
ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live isn’t as intense as the harrowing Tonight’s the Night album that many fans, including me, know like the back of our hands. It’s still a wake of sorts, still celebratory and sad, and still loose – but not quite as loose. (The tequila likely wasn’t flowing as freely.) “The faster you drink, the better we play,” quips someone – Nils Lofgren, maybe? – just prior to the band introductions, but it’s a misdirection. The band reaches for and hits every note and chord it’s supposed to, and does so with practiced precision.
One example: The opening “Tonight’s the Night.”
Another: “Speakin’ Out,” which features a great guitar solo from Nils Logren. The song is about seeking solace in the arms of another, and in a new life: “I’ve been a searcher/I’ve been a fool/But I’ve been a long time coming to you/I’m hoping for your love to carry me through/You’re holding my baby and I’m holding you/and it’s alright.”
“Albuquerque” is another highlight. The performance is less woozy and more meticulous than the TTN rendition, but no less powerful. Neil explains in the intro that he wrote it while on the Time Fades Away tour: “I’ve been flyin’/down the road/and I’ve been starvin’ to be alone/and independent from the scene/I’ve known.”
If you listened to any of those (official) YouTube clips, you’ll have heard the stellar audio of the recording. As someone who whiled away more time than I care to recall listening to umpteenth-generation tapes and audience recordings of shows from the Tonight’s the Night tour (including some that this set is drawn from) – wow. It’s astonishing how crystal clear everything is.
The set’s power also comes from Neil and the Santa Monica Flyers performing for an audience. At SIR, in a sense, they turned some songs into seances. But at the ROXY, they’re no longer trying to contact the dead. Instead, they’re doing what Neil sings about in “Speakin’ Out” – connecting with others. Sharing one’s grief helps to lessen one’s grief, oddly.
Anyway, if you’re a hardcore Neil fan, ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live is a no-brainer. If you’re a casual fan who maybe found the boozy atmospherics of the Tonight’s the Night album a tad off-putting…give this one a go on Apple Music or Spotify, or even YouTube. It’s not as woozy. It’s less a wake, now that I think about it, and more an acceptance of life in all its many facets – the good, the bad, and the in-betweens.