Archive for the ‘1973’ Category

(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!)

Side I:

Side II:

 

(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.)

Following the success of the Harvest album and “Heart of Gold” single in 1972, Neil seemed sure to ascend to superstardom then and there. But, for reasons I partially covered on ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live, it wasn’t to be – just yet. The self-mythologizing Journey Through the Past movie and soundtrack in late ‘72, and the ramshackle arena tour that followed in early ’73, left the MOR fans he’d just won over scratching their heads. And after those same fans plopped the rough-around-the-edges Time Fades Away LP, released on October 15, 1973, on their turntables? They probably didn’t buy another Neil album until he released the polished Harvest Moon some 20 years later, if at all.

Their loss.

Time Fades Away features eight “new” songs, and is relatively short at 35 minutes. (I put new in quotes because, although seven songs are drawn from the ’73 tour, “Love in Mind” dates to early ’71.) While the album lacks the polished sheen, and practiced precision, of Harvest, it packs a punch that, in some respects, is more powerful. It’s his primal-scream moment. It’s raw, ragged, and emotive. What else can be said about “Yonder Stands the Sinner” and the apocalyptic-themed “L.A.”?

Or the potent “Don’t Be Denied?”

Another high point: the nostalgic “Journey Through the Past.”

Both rate among his greatest songs – and among his most unknown. One reason: Most of the million-plus folks who bought the LP, cassette or 8-track tape in the early ‘70s likely listened to it once, maybe twice, and then moved on. It was too raw, too ragged. Another: His memories of the tour colored his opinion of the music. He didn’t include any TFA material on the Decade anthology, for example. And, after the music industry transitioned to shiny platters in the 1980s, he refused to reissue it on CD until 2017, when compact discs were all but anachronisms – and then only as part of a box set with Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach and Zuma.

No matter. It’s a great set. Shaky? Yes. If you go back to ’73, the odds seemed stacked against him – unknown songs performed in front of large audiences that would rather hear the known, and a backing band that’s not hitting on all cylinders. He pushes himself to the edge, time and again, and never falls into the abyss. It’s powerful stuff.

Anyway, I bought it on cassette about a decade after its release, on November 14, 1983, when I was a freshman in college. I played it to death that winter, and for the next few years. I even played “Journey Through the Past” on my old radio show, as the station had the LP in its massive library. Life being what it is, and like many other music fans, I eventually moved from analog to the aforementioned shiny platters. (It helped that I worked in a CD store for a time, and got an employee discount. My collection grew, and grew, and grew.) Fast forward a few decades and, perhaps as a Christmas gift to devoted fans, in late 2014 Neil released the album as a high-resolution FLAC download on his Pono store. While I haven’t played it to death in the years since – as my blog shows, I have a myriad of music interests – I’ve played it a lot.

It’s an essential. (And it’s also available to be streamed over at the Neil Young Archives.)

Side 1: 

  1. Time Fades Away
  2. Journey Through the Past
  3. Yonder Stands the Sinner
  4. L.A.
  5. Love in Mind

Side 2:

  1. Don’t Be Denied
  2. The Bridge
  3. Last Dance

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 hit No. 1 on the album charts and “Heart of Gold,” its first single, went to 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 Tonight’s the Night acetate or the 1975 album that many fans, including me, know like the back of our hands. It’s still a wake, still celebratory and sad at once, 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 boozy, or 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.

In preparation for my forthcoming review of Neil’s latest archival release, Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live, I’ve been digging through my own archives with a few reviews from the original Old Grey Cat website. (For the first entry, go here.) This one is for a bootleg CD called Sunset Strip on a label called Rough Kut Trax – and an appropriate label name it is. As I explain in the review below, the sound is decidedly rough…

(The review itself dates from sometime in the late ’90s. I can’t narrow it down any more than that, unfortunately – the files themselves are dated from when I archived the website in 2005, not when I wrote them.)

Track List: 9/22/1973: Tonight’s the Night, Mellow My Mind, World on a String, Speakin’ Out, Albuquerque, New Mama, Roll Another Number, Tired Eyes, Tonight’s the Night, The Losing End 3/17/1973: Tell Me Why, L.A., Lookout Joe, Don’t Be Denied, Yonder Stands the Sinner, Last Dance

The Review: “Don’t fuck around. Get drunk…I’m actually staying very straight for this show because I don’t want to get too loose, you know.” In a nutshell, that’s 1973, one of the – if not the – decisive years in Neil’s career. Neil definitely had a yin-yang thang going…sloppy renditions of great songs, right? Maybe. Maybe not. In fact, the Old Grey Cat is of the opinion that the “sloppy” playing actually reinforces the songs. It’s part of a larger whole. There’s more to the picture than meets the eye, in other words, and in this instance that means “mood.”

Taken from what’s said to be the late show on Sept. 22, 1973, the third night of a four-night, eight-show run at the then-brand spanking new Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, it presents Neil’s “Miami Beach” vision in its nascence, he and the Santa Monica Flyers performing a solid and oft-inspiring set that, like Rock ‘n’ Roll Can Never Die, is stronger than the Tonight’s the Night acetate found on the Broken Arrow boot. One high: Nils Lofgren’s solo on “Speakin’ Out.” Another: the mellow “New Mama,” which is part and parcel of the yin-yang theme that permeates the entire Tonight’s the Night acetate, tour and eventual album. Life and death go hand-in-hand, you know.

Unfortunately, as a CD, Sunset Strip does suffer from some serious flaws. First and foremost, the sound is not what most neophytes would term acceptable. At times, the music crackles and threatens to break up – well, it does break up but, still, it’s listenable…maybe only for someone like me who thrives on Tonight’s the Night-tour sets, though. Let’s put it this way: I’ve heard much worse recordings from that tour and enjoyed them, too. Another major flaw: You know the sound some cassette players make when you fast-forward a tape? That squeaky, squished sound that radiates from the speakers like a high-pitched wheeze? You’ll hear that between some of the songs. Neil’s patter isn’t presented in its entirety, in other words, thus stealing from the impact of the performance. In fact, the choppy and incompetent editing is what most mars the CD.

As far as the bonus material, it’s taken from the Time Fades Away tour – March 17, 1973 in Seattle, to be exact, which featured the debut of “Yonder Stands the Sinner.” The performance here of that classic should be familiar, as it’s the same performance which was used for the Time Fades Away album. Soundwise, there is an improvement – but not a drastic one.

This disc is really for those seeking to complement other boots that document the same era. 

Grade: (C+)

My thoughts circa tonight (4/26/2018): I’m either a tad generous above regarding sound quality or my standards have substantially increased. I plugged the CD into the CD player and…wow. Just wow. The sound is absolutely atrocious.