(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
By now, every fan should know the story behind Tonight’s the Night, but since some may not, here it is: Following the tragic deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, who both overdosed on heroin, Neil gathered a group of like-minded souls (Ben Keith, Nils Lofgren, and Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina) he dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers at Studio Instrument Rentals in Santa Monica, and set out to eulogize his late friends.
As Neil explained in a recent post to the Neil Young Archives, “We played starting at midnight, through the night, and drove home just before dawn to our hotel every night for a month. Visitors came by late at night. One of these nights we practically nailed the whole album, and that is what we wanted to do…keep it real. We drank tequila and smoked weed. Teenagers, don’t do what we did. We didn’t fix the mistakes. The whole album and why we made it and I wrote those songs was all a mistake. It won’t be repeated again. Some say it’s the best thing we ever did.”
In my estimation, Neil and band tapped into and channeled the collective unconscious, crafting a set that is guaranteed, no matter how often one hears it, to send shivers up the spine. Decades ago, for my old website, I wrote: Neil’s eulogy to fallen comrades Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, this album is his most intense—and one of his best, too. In addition to the harrowing title song, it includes the equally haunting “Borrowed Tune,” a song with a stolen melody that best sums Neil’s strengths even as it wallows in admitted “weaknesses” [i.e., drugs and booze]. (A+)
This is how much I treasure it: Through the years, I’ve purchased it on vinyl, cassette, CD, high-resolution FLAC, and the 2016 vinyl reissue. (Truth be told, however, nowadays I usually stream it – and all other Neil stuff – via his Archives site.)
Here are a few highlights:
Although recorded in 1973, the album was held back until 1975. Reprise apparently didn’t think it would make a great followup to Time Fades Away. As I’ve noted in other posts, great art doesn’t necessarily equate with great sales, and this would be a good example of just that – although a critically acclaimed album, it never rose higher than No. 25 on the Billboard charts.
A purported acetate of the original Tonight’s the Night did surface years ago, but – honestly – this is the version to crank up. Play it if you got it. (And if you don’t have it, get it!)