Friday, 4 July 2008
Neil Young "Tonight's The Night" (1975) (Revised Review 2016)
Tonight’s The Night/ Speakin’ Out/ World On A String/ Borrowed Tune/ Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown/ Mellow My Mind// Roll Another Number (For The Road)/ Albuquerque/ New Mama/ Lookout Joe/ Tired Eyes/ Tonight’s The Night – Part II
‘He tried to do his best. But he could not’
Tonight's the night alright, but for what? A funeral? Emotional release? The first day of the rest of your life? A sudden smack of insight into how short life is and how we shouldn't waste it? Or just another kick? Neil's blackest, darkest, moodiest album is a sombre tribute to two comrades in arms who died too soon, CSNY roadie Bruce Berry and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten (whose name is still given on the picture of the old friends performing in the middle, his microphone set up where he should be), Neil’s two separate worlds now joined together in tragedy. Both men died young needlessly through drugs. The whole rock and roll world it seemed was busy taking drugs. However Neil was in an interesting position, in his usual role as an outsider – his epilepsy meant that he was warned off taking drugs as a lifestyle choice early by his doctors and that enabled him to get some perspective on what the people around him were up to and how far through the rabbit-hole of drug-taking they fell. Though Neil has long had the image of being stoned out of his mind the whole time the only albums he ever made on drugs are, ironically, the ‘warning’ records about the dangers of taking them – ‘On The Beach’ and ‘Tonight’s The Night’(he reckons stimulants get in the way; Crazy Horse and CSN however haven't always been as clean!) But then ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is not like other records. It’s not music made to listen to and enjoy. It’s our invitation to a funeral, sending off two friends with music played by the people left behind and still mourning them. Neil slurs his words, sings off-key, misses his cues and the backing performances are the dictionary definition of ‘loose’. Usually that’s the sort of thing that gets in the way of albums, but for once it only helps enhance the mood. ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is a long dark night of the soul and it hasn’t got the time or the energy or the need to clean things up for public consumption. ‘Tonight’s The Night’ isn’t about selling copies, it’s about real life. It’s meant to hurt, because life hurts.
Danny Whitten’s story has been told by us quite a few times already – a lifetime of waiting for a big break that turned to horror when instead of fame and riches came drug addiction. Bruce Berry’s is a similar story: the CSNY roadie was one of the crew, a familiar face as he played everybody’s guitars while tuning them on the 1969-1971 tours. Bruce though couldn’t handle the impending CSNY split and got deeper and deeper into drugs. Like Danny, he became broke and hocked anything he could get his hands on for another fix – including, so legend has it, David Crosby’s favourite guitar. Sacked from a band that wasn’t going to exist much longer anyway, Bruce overdosed his story unknown to the wider rock and roll world. Neil wrote the title track of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ to make sure his story was remembered forever – and even performed it twice just to make sure no one forgot it, one last desperate measure to warn the world and make sure his life wasn’t in vain. Neil, then, was hemmed in by all sides: CSNY and Crazy Horse had once represented very different sides to his ‘art’, but both of them have been struck by similar tragedies. These bands didn't have much in common but both were known as 'druggy' bands, taking anything they could get to excess - how CSN survived without losing anyone across the 1970s is nothing short of a miracle; sadly Berry wasn't as lucky, sucked in by their lifestyle and fame as was Danny by Neil's. Maybe, ponders this album, the whole world is like that now, that everyone is going to be touched by senseless unnecessary death this way. Neil, it must be remembered, was all of twenty-seven when Danny died: the only person in his world who had come even vaguely close to dying till now was himself. It was a shock that two such bigger-than-life people went before him and a cruel reminder that nobody lives forever. This album is their story, Neil leaving a note to his fans on the sleeve that he had to make this album and get it out of his system and that he was 'sorry - these people don't mean anything to you'.
And yet we do - or at least it feels like we do by the end. The brilliance of 'Tonight's The Night' is that it works for anyone grieving - especially those who've lost a friend or family member through their own hand or carelessness, be it through booze, drugs, suicide or aloe vera pyramid scheme overdose. We might not know these people but only the title track is really Bruce's story - the other songs here are everyone's, tales of a life cut short by the great randometer of life that can happen to any of us at any time. Overall it’s a bit like hearing a whole album of  ‘the Needle and The Damage Done’ – albeit a lot less pretty and not even a 10th as in tune. However this album isn't a 'gee life's tough, everyone have a hug!' kind of an album, but a requiem that goes to the darker side of life because life is too short to be pretty and tell everyone that it’s all going to be ok. Because maybe – for the only record in my collection – just maybe it won’t be? (even ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ has Yoko as the one thing linking John to sanity and ‘The Wall’ spends its final three minutes undoing the last eighty of gloom, which isn’t a lot but is somehow enough). On this album though everybody loses. You have to really really want to live to survive and there are far too many obstacles in the way to prevent us making it. Even Neil himself, despite his critical eye of drugs and warnings in song, acknowledges his own darker side as he falls for the glittery lights of fame, the 'Woodstock' dream and enters a dreamworld 'my head in the clouds', so nearly heading gfor the exit door many times himself. The irony isn't lost that all the performers on this album are clearly drunk and out of their minds, suffering from the same demons and mistakes as the people mourned in the songs: this isn't somebody tut-tutting about why we shouldn't do drugs, kids but someone whose been there, done that and has the scars to prove it. Don’t do as Neil does, kids, do as he says – it’s too late for them but maybe it’s not too late for you.
Then there's the other people Neil might or might not know who died before their time and whose pain he clearly feels. There's the drug pusher whose death in a drive-by shooting (a strangely common occurrence in Young songs) on the jaw-dropping 'Tired Eyes' who 'tried to do his best - but he could not', a failure who couldn’t find any other way to make a living and paid for it with his life. There's motorcyclist Lookout Joe who gets sucked into a deadly cycle by peer pressure and one too many late-night parties (even if he’s almost the only character on this album not to die). There's 'New Mama', the one character on this album who comes even vaguely close to being happy but whose happiness is just an illusion from the other end of a spliff and whose escape is only going to be temporary - or permanent if she goes too far. And then there's Danny himself, singing a song from 1971 he co-wrote with Neil, about going downtown to take drugs - weirdly most of the main drug references are Neil's (he admits Danny was 'more subtle' as a writer) but the case for the prosecution of drugs is made even so: Whitten never sounded fitter, healthier or more full of life and the fact that he's singing about a lifestyle that killed him before he really knew what it was yet is a final dark and bitter twisted irony on an album full of such things. Even Neil acknowledges his weaknesses, lethargically moving his way through ‘Speakin’ Out’ and ‘too wasted’ to do what he should be doing – writing – on ‘Borrowed Tune’ with a melody he admits was nicked from The Rolling Stones.
Nobody succeeds on this album of tragic villains and lovable losers and everybody hurts, especially those facing a future without people there. All characters are mourned, real and imaginary and every loss counts, famous or obscure; none are pitied because this record makes it clear that one day anyone of them could be us, sucked in by lifestyle or an honest mistake. 'Please take my advice' warns Neil, but he knows no one is listening to him and that even his warning comes too late to save his nearest and dearest and painful his realisation that he’s made this album too late – that he should have been making ‘Tonight’s The Night’ instead of ‘Goldrush’ or ‘Harvest’ – is one of the most moving moments in his catalogue. Neil himself called the record - or more specifically his daft rambling note also printed on the album's lyrics sleeve - a 'suicide note without the suicide' but that only adds to the courage of this album which is fiercely un-commercial (every song comes with flat notes, mistakes and several people falling over or walking into microphones - of course, this being a Young record and this record especially, the flaws are actually exaggerated in the final mix so we hear them louder than we should, our mistakes being what drags us down at the final count on most of the song) and nothing like any other rock and roll album every made. Most rock and roll albums are a party set to music; this one is a wake. And it’s a wake that wants to wake us up before it happens all over again.
It's not just the drugs though: people miss it quite often given the high drama of the shootings and the twice-heard title track, but 'Night' is also Neil's angry take on the stupidity of fame. Neil clearly blames the deaths of his friends on the need to live up to a persona and decides to use their deaths as inspiration to tell us that fame isn't what it's cracked up to be: that having more money just means you have more means to kill yourself and being recognised by more people means you lose track of the 'real' you much more easily. Neil has been critical of fame since long before he ever had it, using his second ever precious lead vocal with the Buffalo Springfield to sing ‘Out Of My Mind’ about the ‘screams outside the limousines’ that go to his head and cause him to lose sight of his true purpose.
This album showed that nothing changed once Neil got there in the higher echelons of fame. On 'Speakin' Out' Neil goes back to anonymity, cackling a lyric about trying to do simple ordinary things he used to do and how much he misses them. He remembers how the last time he used to do this he was 'searching' for something he now knows is an illusion and he feels depressed because now he has nothing to aim for. On 'Mellow My Mind' he longs to feel the way he used to when he too was 'innocent' - 'I've been down the road' he sings about his own excesses, but the difference is 'I came back' when so many others didn’t. 'Roll Another Road' laughs at all of Neil's peers (especially, you sense, those with the initials CS and N) who are still living the 'Woodstock' dream and still believe they can change the world. Neil knows how fucked up the world is and that the musicians trying to save it can barely save themselves - even if this song comes with a laughing chorus that has Neil, too, taking part in drug culture and going along with it. 'Borrowed Tune' has Neil unable to write anymore, climbing a star 'ladder' he no longer wants to climb and wanting out without quite knowing how to escape it. Then there's the sadness of 'Alburqueque', one of Neil's most under-rated songs, as Neil just takes off on the road and walks away from everyone to find his 'real' self, 'starving to be alone' and free of everything people think he's become. And of course there's 'World On A String' on which being famous and having power 'doesn't mean a thing' - living is what matters, not competing and being better, because - to quote a fellow CSN-er - time is the final currency, not money or power. Being a star makes too many people think they're invincible when all it does is bring out their worst qualities and surrounds them with the wrong people. Why, Neil asks puzzled, would people like Bruce and Danny gives their lives trying to act the way people think he does when he’s seen through it already?
‘Night’ should, of course, be the ‘middle’ album of the doom trilogy, back when Neil was right in the middle of his misery – the reason it came out third is that Reprise weren’t at all sure about the original version of the record Neil submitted (nine songs released as-live, all linked by spooky rambling chat) as indeed any record company in their right mind would be. The finished version of the album is undoubtedly harrowing - and yet the original nine-song version of the album was reportedly even more so. As originally submitted to Reprise in 1973 'Tonight's The Night' consisted of impenetrable drunken chatter between songs, false starts, hollow laughter and occasional sobs.
Reprise asked Neil to think about it and he did, breaking off for a CSNY world tour (released as 'CSNY'74 on it's 40th birthday) and eventually coming up with 'On The Beach' as a (marginally) more relatable and sober album. 'Tonight's The Night' was all set to be the first entirely abandoned Young album (of many) as Neil recorded two more records across 1974. However then something strange happened: Neil, uncharacteristically, decided to throw a party to celebrate the end of his marriage to wife Carrie and his new freedom as a bachelor. However it was a sombre party - most of the people present weren't in the partying mood and things reportedly turned sour quickly. Neil tried to liven the atmosphere with his new work-in-progress album 'Homegrown', a 'stepping stone' acoustic album that's lighter and more hopeful than the 'Doom Trilogy' but not quite as happy-go-lucky as 1975's 'Zuma'. Neil's party-goers weren't impressed and felt in the mood for something darker; one of them turned the tape over, found an early mix of 'Tonight's The Night' on the other side and raved about it. 'This is real, Neil!' they said (or words to that effect) 'why don't you put this out instead?' Oddly Young, who usually did the opposite of what people told him, agreed and phoned up Reprise to cancel 'Homegrown' and replace it with a record they'd already rejected once. The conversation didn't go well, but Reprise were a lot more supportive of their wayward star than most record labels ever are of theirs and agreed on a few terms and conditions such as a longer running time and that the stoned chat and mistakes would have to go. Neil agreed, reviving two new songs from the 'Homegrown' period that sounded the most miserable, 'Lookout Joe' and 'Borrowed Tune' (odd that he didn't go for 'Mediterranean' or  'Deep Forbidden Lake' whose vibe fits too - one bootleg reckons a re-recording of  'Bad Fog Of Loneliness' was considered for the album) and digging out the 1971 Filmore tapes of Crazy Horse singing 'Downtown' to represent Danny after being reminded that some live Crazy Horse tapes existed in his vaults (the whole shows became the ‘Filmore East’ one, the first release in Neil’s ‘Archive’ series). We've never heard the original (Neil admits he lost the tape for years - luckily manager David Briggs kept a copy) and despite endless promises about an 'Archives II' box set since 2010 containing it, surprise surprise that hasn't appeared officially either (there is an acetate doing the rounds on bootleg but that's missing the song chatter and at best has a couple of extra bum notes left intact at the end of each song). Until we do we can't really compare the two, but unlike most reviewers (and Neil himself) for me the new songs don't 'dilute' the feel at all. We need Danny there, happy and vibrant, to teach us what drugs took away; there's no good having a 'before' and 'after' album without anything to compare it to. And 'Borrowed Tune' may be lighter in performance but in tone it may well be the most harrowing (albeit beautiful) song of the whole Doom Trilogy, with Neil the closest he ever came to fading the same way as his friends, still just about conscious enough to write about his feelings to us. Only 'Lookout Joe' disappoints and even that song's brutal undirected anger kind of makes sense thematically, an account of the extremes people will go to because of peer pressure. In other words, Tonight's The Night sounds good on any night, even when the recordings come from sessions two years apart.
Understandably re-action to this album were mixed, bordering on scathing. A little like now, everything Neil released was dismissed as the ditherings of a once-great artist past his best (one reviewer even got the plot completely wrong and complained that 'Neil has been ruined - by drugs!') - the difference between then and now is that, creatively, Neil's muse was never better. Freed of the need to care about what his fans or record company thought of him after other similarly harrowing albums and determined that telling the truth was far more important than any sense of career, Neil confronts his dark side without caring one iota what anyone else but the people in the room think of this album. Heck, for two years he didn't even care if it was released or not (and just imagine how big this album's reputation would have been if it had never come out and been a 'lost' album!) It's worth pointing out just how rare and valuable that is: every musician in every era has one ear on what their public want to hear no matter what they say. The biggest rebel, the naughtiest rocker, the most outrageous grrrrl singer - they all rise and fall depending on how well their music sells. No so Neil - not the mid-1970s Neil anyway. Even when remixed and ‘tidied up’ most songs on this album still contain cracked voices and mistakes and we've already mentioned whichever clumsy band member kept walking into the microphone stand - but that's what make this album such a spectacularly important, spookily alive album. It's so real. From first note to last note everything is so blisteringly, frustratingly, agonisingly real. This isn't a world where things are cleaned up for public consumption. And it's definitely not a world full of happy endings and salvation. Instead life is a drunken shambles where nobody really knows what's going on and we're all lying to ourselves or making it up as we go along, not just tonight but every night.
Neil didn't care: every bad review, every criticism, every audience walk-out felt like proof that he was onto something 'real' that no one could face. The shows for this album (which took place two years before release, remember, so none of the audience knew the songs) are legendary, with scruffy unshaven Young prowling the stage with menace in his eyes while his band vamped on behind him (one of these shows, a surprisingly sober one actually, was released as ‘Live At The Roxy’ in 2018). Refusing to speak to the audience about the songs or engage in banter or even play a single one of his past hits Neil completely alienated the last of the straggler fans who expected to hear another 'Harvest' (tell a lie, Neil often spoke bits that weren't in the songs but they weren't addressed to the audience but to himself as a way through his pain. 'You took Crosby's guitar and you put in your arm Bruce, how could you!' went the most famous rant). There's an even more famous moment when Neil addresses the couple of people still brave enough to see the hour show through to the finish. 'We're going to do a song you know!' giggles Neil as the audience think that, at last, the artist has come to his senses and it's all been one big test. Instead of a song from ‘Goldrush’ or ‘Harvest’ though the band kick into an aggressive, unwieldy, falling apart reprise of 'Tonight's The Night', a song the audience had already heard twice that day. Though 'night' is a great studio record, it sounds as if might sound even more at home on the stage; hopefully one day, if we're very very good (and very very patient - it took twenty-five years to get 'Archive Volume One!') we might just get to hear a truly drunken show of ‘Night’ one day.
The fact that this album was made for the stage means that Neil needed a band - and what a band. Everyone who played on this record had some connection to Bruce or especially Danny. Unlike the other two-thirds of the Doom Trilogy Neil isn't alone - or wishing he was alone. Their own record contract over and with no label interesting in releasing anything byu them, the rest of Crazy Horse were convinced this goodbye was the last album they would ever make, Ralph and Billy still missing their brother and leader (they aren't to know Frank Sampedro is about to turn up on Malibu beach and ask the band if he can jam one day, impressing Neil enough to work with them again by the end of 1975). Both men play superbly, keeping things simple but soulful, the way Danny would have wanted. Ben Keith, Neil's right-hand-man, plays some aching pedal steel on an album that's never needed it more - he passed Danny like ships in the night on 'Goldrush'. Better yet is Nils Lofgren, making his second appearance on a Young album, wearing special weights in his pin-ups to better feel the 'mood' of the album and in the opposite to his debut on 'After The Goldrush' playing some of the best guitar solos of his life while Neil drunkenly leans on a piano to avoid having to stand up (to this day many fans call this Neil's best album as a guitarist, but it's all Nils - generally one take 'n' little rehearsal Nils, which makes these heartfelt performances all the more astonishing). Nils' playing always comes good when he is playing from the heart as all of us in that small band of Lofgren followers will know - this album is surely his best work for anyone, which will tell you everything you need to know about the commitment levels in the room. Just to make the point even more clear the packaging of the record still includes a credit to Danny Whitten and the empty space above the caption where the guitarist should be gets me every single time I look at it.
Neil knew that few would understand this album - and his chosen packaging for the album only confuses the issue. As well as a front cover snapped in black-and-white of Neil on the 'Night' tour and that poignant shot of the band with a space left for Danny we get all sorts of extras. The blurry shot of Roy Orbison was taken from a bootleg album Neil enjoyed - he said later it was a message to Roy to tell him the bootleg was out and he ought to hear it, though, of course there's no mention of that on the sleeve and Roy doesn't seem likely to have rushed out and bought this badly promoted, initially poor selling album anyway (the irony being that 'Night' looks like far more of a rough 'n' ready bootleg anyway!) Then there's the second message to 'Waterface', thought to be Neil himself in a Watergate-style false name, delivering a stoned stream of consciousness rap about what this album means to him and can't possibly mean to anyone else. Then there's a reprise of the just-released back cover for 'On The Beach' with the words to the unreleased song (jam?) 'Florida' printed over the top but in such spiky reading it's impossible to work out. Plus there's a review of the 1973 ‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour - at last you might think, something relevant! But no: it's printed throughout in Dutch, deliberately (Neil was brought the review to sign by a couple of fans and asked what it meant; he was so moved by how accurately the reviewer had guessed his state of mind he wanted it to be his final statement - but speaking in double Dutch kinda suited the mood so he asked for it not to be translated. Sample quote: 'The sound was miserable, the band's co-ordination was miserable and Neil Young's singing was miserable... The death of Neil's friend and discovery Danny Whitten seems to have affected him deeply'). Sadly Reprise baulked at a final idea to include a bag of free glitter inside the sleeve that would ‘explode’ when you first took the disc out of the box and would accidentally cover the starkly black sleeve with it; this was designed so that the 'tinsel' would seem 'annoying' the way fame does on the record (though Neil is convinced to this day that first pressings came with it and speaks about it as one of his better ideas, no one has ever found a copy and fan ;legend has it that Reprise just told Neil they had done it and knew he wouldn’t bother to buy one of his own records himself - if you have a copy that does then sell it on Ebay quick, preferably to me!)
This is not an album for everyone. Some people will prefer the empty pop of The Doobie Brothers or The Spice Girls to help them get up in the mornings. However there’s always a place in my collection for albums that are dark and keep things real. Tonight’s The Night’, more than any other album from Neil’s ridiculously prolific canon, turns raggedness into an art form; a bleak collection of half-baked songs played by drunken musicians, it should by rights sound absolutely awful, but the whole album is infused with so much power, soul and commitment not to mention pure wasted angelic beauty that it’s hard not to applaud its integrity and even its faults are easy to fall in love with. Neil is an expert at keeping things real, and has tried to return to this album’s raged and ragged genius many times over the years, but never again has he ever got quite as ‘real’ as this album again. Needless to say this album is not for everybody and if you’re the sort of fan that loves Harvest this LP might not come all that high on your shopping list, but boy is it moving for Young fans who know its history; one of those magic life-changing records that prevent you from seeing the world in quite the same way ever again. Not all the songs are genius but an awful lot of them are and even the ones that fall short ‘fit’ on this album in such a way that it’s hard to imagine the album without them – even the ‘diluted’ 1975 material. Even for an artist who believed in keeping things 'real', 'Tonight The Night' impresses through its tell-it-like-it-is-and-take-no-prisoners toughness, the clear heartfelt emotion of the performances and the fact that 'Night' is quite unlike any other record in rock and roll, a howl of pain performed by mourning friends late at night and getting wasted, trying to stop the blackness they feel in their hearts taking over completely. The greatest tribute its two departed group-family members could wish for, 'Tonight's The Night' pays tribute to Bruce and Danny not by making them out to be saints or victims but by showing how easily every one of us could have died the same way had we given in to the demons we all carry around with us.
For all its bleakness though, weirdly there's still ultimately hope: of the band members who made this album only Ben Keith has since passed on and he wasn't exactly young - the warning was heeded, the friends were strong and so, by association, is the listener. We know the worst life can throw at us now - we'll be waiting for it and prepared before it gets this bad again. This record is not just a self-indulgent ramble about strangers but an everyman tale of triumph over adversity and a morale about how life has to carry on regardless. Neil has never been braver and his songs have never cut deeper: you're right there with the deaths on 'Tired Eyes' that even narrator Neil can't save; you cringe as the title track unfolds not once but twice; you agonise as Neil reveals his heart in a way he's never done before on 'Borrowed Tune', you cheer as the band finally get it together somewhere about the middle of 'Speakin' Out', you gape at the aching sadness at the heart of the beauty on temporary reprieve 'New Mama'; you laugh at 'Roll Another Number' which might just be the most Neily song of them all and - if you're hearing the album in the right way - you physically cry when Danny comes on right at the heart of it all, foretelling his own death, a brilliant light wiped out for good far before his time. 'I hope that it matters' Neil sighs at one point, confidence gone, as he tries to write a song of comfort to those left behind after trouble, 'I'm having my doubts'. It's the only thing he gets wrong on the entire LP: actually this album of love, loss and life helps one hell of a lot. Neil may have written more famous, more celebrated and more upbeat music than this but he's never again equalled the importance, power and sheer mental strength of 'Tonight's The Night' as he sings in a shaky shaky voice that is as real as the day is long. So what was tonight the night for? Hopefully the rest of your life. But this album stands as a warning that the rest of your life might not be as long as you hoped if you let the darkness get too strong a hold. Remarkable - forget 'Goldrush' and 'Harvest'; this isn't just the best Neil Young album but one of the greatest albums ever made by anybody. Tonight's the night, alright, but it's not just another kick - it's a night for reconsidering life choices, re-assessing mistakes and re-confirming that it's all too easy to slide out of life unknowingly and that working at staying alive and carrying on is actually the hardest thing of all.
[76a] Tonight’s The Night is heavy going from the first, with the title track a primitive piano-based rap about much-loved roadie Bruce Berry’s life and all the little details and idiosyncrasies of the man that Neil’s never going to see again. What isn’t said in this moving song is that Neil feels responsible: Danny turned Bruce onto drugs and who brought Danny the stardom that enabled him to get drugs? Neil. This is a tough song, played by a band who are obviously drunken and sluggish yet nevertheless mean every little note they play. Bruce should have gone on to be someone big and important, says Neil, and instead his life got cut short before it properly began and he might never be remembered – hence this song which means he’ll be immortal for as long as this record continues to be known. Stunned by the frailty of human life, Neil seems to be urging all of us listening in to his soliloquy to make each day of our lives count as well, but is so caught up in the emotion of the song that he doesn’t sound like he quite believes his own words anymore. Well may Neil get a chill up and down his spine when he takes the bad news that Bruce has died at the age of just twenty-two; we get chills listening at home too. I mean, he could be any of us (well, spoonie blog writers anyway), playing his music all night, sleeping in till the afternoon. There was a sparkle in his eyes that made him so full of life, but alas ‘his life was in his hands’ and he wasted it and everything he could have been. This is also to the AAA canon what children’s television is to the TV networks: it turns repetition into an art-form, hammering the points home again and again to make sure we truly ‘get’ them. Neil sings the same verse-and-chorus over and over again as if waiting for the truth to settle and each vocal variation seems to be covering the first four stages of denial each time we hear it (anger, despair, rejection and confusion). We never find out what tonight is the night for, either, despite the fact that the band repeats the title so many times it sounds like a desperate mantra of hope – is this the day when Neil finally understood the importance of his friends’ lives and urges us to understand ours? The day we wake up from our own excesses because we have seen the price our bodies pay for them? Is this just the night for a party, the way the lost would want to be remembered? Or the day when, had he still been alive, Bruce Berry would have become successful? Or does success not matter anymore in Neil’s clouded, tired eyes? Perhaps the answer is a bit of all the above. Neil’s tinkling piano interestingly is the only part trying to make light of this song – it’s Nils’ guitar that powerhouses the song and drives it on, pushing everyone on through to the end as they stop to pause along the way. Great as this performance is, I would still nominate the epic one on ‘Bluenote Café’ as the true reading of this song – for now Neil is still singing a little too ‘archly’ for such a terribly ‘real’ composition, as if this is still a game (clue: it won’t be by the time of the reprise). As a side note, this augmented Crazy Horse aren’t playing their own instruments on this album but ones they borrowed from ‘Instrument Rentals’, a shop owned by Bruce’ grieving brother Ken Berry and an attempt to give the family at least some income.
 Speakin’ Out is an off-key ballad that could have become quite a sweet little song on any other Neil Young album, but that’s missing the point – sweetness doesn’t exist in Young’s world anymore and Neil’s going to do his best to make as sure as hell it doesn’t exist in ours. Neil sings about how innocent and naïve his world used to be before the deaths of his friends and all the things he used to do without thinking and how easy it is to fall to drugs. He went to see a good film the night before (the same one in  ‘A Man Needs A Maid’?), enjoying himself and partying, before reaching out for a ‘lifeline’ – he surely means Carrie again (this is a love song, in a very demented sort of a way, as ‘your holding my baby and I’m holding you’ with Neil’s firstborn Zeke born in September 1972) but the hint is that if she hadn’t have been there he might have reached out for another ‘lifeline’, of the narcotics variety. Neil sings in such an I’m-never-going-to-do-that-again-hangover voice that the irony in the song comes over loud and clear (the line ‘I grabbed the lifeline’ is, ironically, one of the most painfully sung of all on this record). Without that irony this is just another knees up mother brown boozing song, but with the irony it’s dark and scary and threatening. Neil acknowledges that he’s ‘been a long time coming to you’ and that its been a long difficult time of waiting – he could so easily have gone the same way as his friends. A puzzling cryptic third verse about looking for an ‘answer’ in the ‘notebook behind your eyes’ is an early hint at domestic rows though (the same as the ones heard on the unfinished-for-twenty-years  ‘You and Me’ perhaps) where he wants to write and rehearse and she just wants to watch TV; by the time they compromise Neil isn’t watching what’s on the screen so much as he’s watching his wife’s reflection glowering, the TV suddenly looking right at him. All Neil can do is speak out, belatedly, telling us not to fall in the same traps as him even though it might have been too late for him in both a marriage and a drug sense. While Neil contents himself learning to play the piano in front of our ears, Nils Lofgren gets his turn to shine adding a staggering guitar solo in the middle of the song that manages to be shoulder-shruggingly careless and proudly defiant all at the same time.
 World On A String is Neil at his angry best, sporting a moody Mr Soul-like down-stepping riff with lyrics about refusing to be fooled by the trivialities of life any longer because he’s experienced fame and power and it is a hollow victory. The song’s refrain ‘only real in the way that I feel from day to day’ has become something of a Young mantra since this song was written, with the singer determined that after Whitten’s death nobody – be it pressure from his audience, record company or his now broken band – is going to stand in the way of his true feelings because life is just too short and precious to waste pleasing others. The real greatest line in the song though is when Neil comforts the rest of the Horse (with Billy squawking alongside him) as he tells us that we are right to be cross when someone dies needlessly, that ‘it’s not alright to say goodbye’. Neil’s been a loser and a winner and its all the same – his life doesn’t really matter that much to anyone but him and is ‘just a game you see me play’, while the power of having the world on a string doesn’t mean a thing and only distracts from the life experiences we are meant to be learning. Neil acknowledges that his ‘search’ for answers from life is what has allowed him to ‘grow’ and finally comes to terms with his guilt with the admission that each of us ‘call for the shape I’m in’, that no one else can live your life for you. Neil’s guitar solo (rare for this record) is a good example of this, being at first glance similarly uncaring in the way it off-handedly throws off a few notes round the chord structure – and yet the slashing chords at the end of the solo hint that Neil is a lot more passionate about his playing than he’s letting on. This song doesn’t mention Whitten or Berry by name by the way, but the Horse guitarist would have been proud of the snarling funky guitar riff that opens the song and the piece is obviously written with the two men in mind. With Nils and Ralph playing the same thrash-heavy chords between them and Neil’s piano and Ben’s pedal-steel offering the only light and shade the song sounds like a prowling wolf ready to get us the minute we get too carried away with our fame and riches and lose sight of who we are. One of the best songs on the album, its punk rock three years early.
Thank goodness for the late-addition song  Borrowed Tune, which at last adds some beauty into Neil’s bleak world of chaos and is one of its authors prettiest, most heart-breakingly beautiful songs, even if the pained vocal and worried lyrics are melancholia-on-a-stick. Neil could well be in a drug haze himself as he writes this song, spaced out and ‘wasted’, suddenly struck by how pointless everything feels. Though Neil never actually comes out and says it, surely he is numb from grief instead though, the sadness giving him the same surreal out-of-it blur as any drug could, Neil’s head ‘in the clouds’. Neil is stuck climbing the ladder of fame he no longer wants, but finds he has no way to put his feet back on the ground again. The only way to go is up – but he no longer cares about his fame at all. The line ‘I hope that it matters – I’m having my doubts’ sums up the whole album in one sentence, with Neil questioning everyone whose ever praised his records in the past for being ‘real’ and anyone whose ever offered him a ‘good time’ without showing the receipt for his hard-living. This is a prequel, of sorts, to  ‘Deep Forbidden Lake’ as Neil looks on aghast as everyone around him serenely skates on through life the way he once did, without realising how thin the ice is and how big the drop below them might be. So many friends have fallen through that hole and yet so many people are oblivious to it and the surface that protects us is only man-made and liable to break as something bad happens. Neil dreams of a utopia with ‘no war nearby’ but in one of his best metaphors realises that the world is too far gone for that to happen, imagining a world ‘an ocean of shaking hands that grab at the sky’, through malnutrition and drug fixes. By the end of the song Neil concludes that he’s too far gone to sit down and write this song properly so is just pouring his thoughts and feelings out to us with the first tune that came into his brain – though Neil namechecks ‘The Rolling Stones’ (and somehow avoided giving the notoriously stingy Jagger-Richards a co-credit) he is too wasted to realise the name orf the song (it’s ‘Aftermath’s pretty album track ‘Lady Jane’ – even when out of his skull Neil has great taste). The result may be ‘borrowed’ but it is in no way lazy: Neil’s best singing on the album is well suited to this sleepy song and his piano and harmonica are at their best too, a sad painful cry from someone too worn out from primal screaming but still has oh so very much to tell us.
 (Come On Baby Let’s Go) Downtown is a song well known to fans of the first Crazy Horse album, where Whitten turns in a much more polished version, although this slightly earlier and far more energetic reading is the ‘keeper’ (I’m still mighty fond of Crazy Horse’s unedited ten minute version on the ‘Scratchy’ set though where Nils excels himself with a seven minute guitar solo that never takes a breath). Although much older than anything else on the album, this live version from an otherwise lacklustre Fillmore East gig in 1970 (released in full in 2006) makes perfect sense here in the middle of the record. Unlike Bruce’s song, Neil is too emotional to write a song that’s enough of a tribute to his fallen partner, so it must have been a relief when he remembered that this song, the perfect tribute, already existed (Neil contributed the closing lines ‘sure enough they’ll be selling stuff…’ to the song by the way, interestingly the most drug-filled and least obscure lines of the whole song). One of Danny Whitten’s last and finest songs, with its writer taking a suitably gritty vocal on a catchy song with clever lyrics about the drug underworld, it’s a memorial to what a great talent the world has lost – and what took him. Indeed this song is deeply spooky in places – Danny and Neil are having a great time with the lyric, laughing and joking as they tune into its good time beat and quick-stepping lyrics. What both of them seem to have missed, though, is that this is a song about meeting up with your pusher to get more drugs – though sung with an excited high, Neil knows well all these years on how dangerous this game he and Danny were playing really was. You wonder what went through his mind when he heard this tape back, kept safe all those years in his huge vaults – it must have seemed like it came from another epoch entirely, an innocent time when fleeing the police ‘when the light shines in your eyes’ was a game, not a matter of life and death. Also Danny is too subtle a writer to make it clear, but in the context of its place in this album, the listener knows that it isn’t just the drug dealer’s car headlights that are making the narrator’s head spin and his eyes burn. This song represents an escape from the daily grind, Neil acknowledging how difficult life can be to get through without a fix – but its presence here at the ‘heart’ of this album is no accident. Just look at the ripples songs like this that glorified drug taking cause and the tragedies that unfolded. Drug songs will, however, be a part of rock and roll for time immemorial, a way of cheating the system that’s usually harmless and before it became touched with such symbolism this was always one of the best: fiery, pretty, funky and the closest thing in this entire book to re-capturing the warm glow of love that is  ‘Cinnamon Girl’.
The first side of the record then rounds out with  Mellow My Mind, surely one of the most ragged, off-key performances to ever get a professional release – even some of the raw out-takes on the Beatles’ Anthology project are spruced up better than this! Neil’s voice cracks all over the place as he tries to sing falsetto and he never even comes close to singing at the right pitch for the band’s wayward backing, but all that I’ve written isn’t meant to be criticism, but sheer admiration both at Neil at recording this song in such a powerful way and at the record company for allowing it through (other groups of the period would have killed for the sort of support Neil got from Reprise). I’m glad this performance of the song is on the record because it’s such a fragile and desperate song that it would sound awkward without the ‘realness’ of the recording to match it. ‘Mind’ is another gorgeous ballad that doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the album lyrically; in fact it could be read as a second love song were the ambience of the performance a little bit different. Like ‘Speakin’ Out’ Neil seems to be saying that he could have ended up taking the same dark path had he not met Carrie and her effect on him is like a drug: she ‘mellows’ and calms him, loves him unconditionally without the pressure of the wider world and returns him to a place when he felt safe ‘like a schoolboy juggling nickels and dimes’. However, the song still touches on two of the album’s main themes: the emptiness of fame (the damning line about people satisfied ‘with a fish on a line’ when they have a whole lake to investigate) and proof that Neil has been thinking about his own narrow escapes with the grim reaper on the defiant line ‘I’ve been down the road - but I’ve come back’. Only Neil could write a love song as fucked up s this and only ‘Tonight’s The Night’ could house it, but even so I would say that this is the least intense and therefore the least interesting of all the ‘Tonight’s The Night’ songs.
Side two begins with a song that on most albums would be the joker in the pack, as there’s usually one in there somewhere on a Neil Young album of any vintage. Yes,  Roll Another Number is a singalong piece of satire, poking fun at all the musicians who’ve artistically stood still since the halcyon days of
in August 1969 and telling us exactly why Neil felt the need to escape his
image straightjacket. Neil’s dark humour at its blackest, this is an audibly
inebriated Neil telling us all to get high to take away the pain of…losing
people from getting high. In the context
of this album these lyrics sound downright nasty, almost as if it’s willing
every drug-abusing fun-loving hippie into an early grave. Here Neil stops
blaming himself for the deaths of his friends for once and blames the hippie
dream that sucked everybody in despite being impossible. Everyone else can fly serenely
by on the lake if they want to, but Neil can’t go back to that goody-goody-
sugary hippie nonsense now that he’s seen how dark life truly is (although it’s
worth pointing out that Neil will change his mind later, with songs like 
‘Walk Like A Giant’ wishing that CSNY had followed through on their status and
influence). Neil feels ‘a million miles
away from those helicopter days’, remembering both the method of transport that
took the bands into the gig over the heads of the audience and the fact that he
was once high, on a pedestal. Neil starts the song in blackness. He can’t see
to put his car keys in his ignition (a metaphor surely for how bleak the world
suddenly seems and his reluctance to go back to his career) and Neil basically
decides to bunk off work. All that’s left to do – in one of this album’s very
mixed messages – is to get high, falling into the same trap that killed his
friends as he takes a high to get through the sheer misery of it and ‘feels
able to get under any load’. Goodness knows what CSNY made of this song, which
is almost a spoof of their hippie utopias – characteristically it was one Neil
decided to sing it on stage with them when they reunited in 1974 and he was
still singing with them even as late as the 1990s. Woodstock
Again, just when you feel the album’s going a bit too far Neil sticks in another song to lighten the mood – but again, only slightly. Everybody’s suddenly singing in key for  Albuquerque and its tale of leaving a town for better things should be the happiest thing on the album – but the weary tune and slowing-to-a-stop tempo make this another chilling and under-rated highlight of the record. Neil is alone on tour in a strange place he’s never been to before. In past Neil Young songs the name of a place is often sung as representing the character of the people who live there – songs like  ‘Alabama’ and  ‘L.A.’ that are ugly and smoggy because of the people who live there as much as the pollution. Here, though, this song takes that template and breaks the song in two – Neil may be singing about the misery of this new town but he’s really singing about himself and how depressed he feels. Neil is ‘starving’ to be alone, desperate to escape daily chit-chat and dreams of running away ‘to somewhere where they don’t know who I am’. Neil’s narrator also talks again of wanting to be ‘independent from the scene that I’ve known’, with all of the usual music-loving hangers-on wanting a piece of him suddenly in the way now that he wants to be alone to mourn for the deaths of his two friends. Most songs about the road are about community and togetherness but not this one – ‘Albuquerque’ is about being alone and lost, no matter how many band members, tour managers and itineraries you might have. The song’s title sounds like a whole song in itself when drawn out over about ten seconds, representing perhaps the hope of a new town with new beginnings becoming nothing short of a religious hymn in the narrator’s mind, in his desperate attempt to leave his past mistakes behind and start again. Again, though, this album is giving us mixed messages, being the third song to explicitly mention taking drugs in a positive sense, even when the rest of the album tells us that is part of the problem and not the solution. The Crazy Horse ragged harmonies are at their best here, no longer acting as a fake CSNY pastiche but as a soulful, passionate ‘choir’ in their own right, raw and powerful. The result is one of ‘Tonight’s best songs, powerful and moving with an agonisingly beautiful melody that would have been a hit single had it sped up and got happier – but Neil is just not in the mood. Someone also blatantly walks into a microphone about two-and-a-half minutes into this track – far from ducking it in the mix like most artists would, Neil seems to have mixed it even louder to make it sound more obvious, a rare mistake on the most ‘together’ recording on the album! Incidentally Neil is right when he sings that ‘Santa Fe is less than ninety miles away’ but by quite a lot – the difference is more like sixty-five.
 New Mama is the album’s most beautiful moment and the oldest of Neil’s songs first performed on the ‘Time Fades Away’ tour but perhaps a little too new to the oven to be fully baked back then. This is a beautiful fragment of a song on which Crazy Horse’s harmonies are virtually all there is. This quiet under-stated song features some of Neil’s best and most poetic lyrics, reflecting on how the title character’s only escape from stumbling through a life she doesn’t understand is to retreat to her own dreamland. Though the lyric doesn’t come out and say it, ‘New Mama’ is surely taking drugs, so haunted by the mess she has made of her life that she escapes it the only way she knows how. This song feels like Neil’s defence to anyone who argues that all junkies have it coming by playing with fire. Drugs are an addiction, a sickness and we are all susceptible to it through our need to escape our lives. ‘Changing times, ancient reasons’ are given as the reason she took to the needle and in the short-term it works: there are no clouds in the ‘changing skies’ of drug trips going on under her eye-lids and ‘each morning’ she wakes up somewhere beautiful and new. What’s unsaid in this song – though hinted at by the monk-like harmonies – is that every time she takes drugs she’s gambling with death and one day she isn’t going to wake up at all, trapped in her ‘dreamland’ permanently. The song is disorientating in the extreme, with Neil’s narrator hopping from the first person to the third person on seemingly every line, but the performance is one of the most heartfelt and committed on this most heartfelt and committed of albums – especially Talbot and Molina who excel themselves with their faltering yet exquisite harmonies here. Chilling in its under-statedness (just compare this version to Stephen Stills’ cover of the track on his ‘Stills’ album of 1975; at the time he didn’t know Neil hjad revived this album and was covering a song he wanted the public to hear), this is another album highlight, one of the most beautiful and certainly the one of the most poetic tracks to ever grace a Neil Young record.
 Lookout Joe is a final track included to lighten the mood but, well, only by comparison – its slashing guitar work and grating vocal would make it heavy-going on any other Neil Young release of the 1970s. The song is credited to ‘The Stray Gators’ interestingly, which suggests that it is an outtake from the ‘Harvest’ period, although the song feels as if it fits with those recordings even less than this album. Perhaps that’s fitting: poor ‘Lookout Joe’ is a man whose doomed to always be out of place. Though yet again the song is ambiguous in the extreme its generally reckoned to be the tale of a Vietnam veteran coming home and not understanding how he used to live the way he did, surrounded by people who are still innocent while his own life has clearly changed. You can see why Neil included it here given his state of mind and yet you can tell that this song is easily the weakest here. It’s story-song, full of characters we never get to know that well and is more interested in what Joe is coming home to than what he’s been through. The chorus ‘old times were good times’ is clearly meant to be half ironic – these don’t sound good times at all but early warnings that were never heeded, from the friend called Bill where ‘a Cadillac put a hole in his arm’ (by money via drugs or an accident?) to a girlfriend called Millie who ‘took my brain’ (that doesn’t sound like a fun night to me). The result is like going to a school reunion and realising how much you’ve changed when everyone around you hasn’t. However what should on paper work well just gets our back up: Neil plays not Joe but his un-named friend welcoming him back to an old way of life as if nothing has changed, his angry slashes of guitar pure ugliness without the grace and beauty of the rest of this album and this character is deeply irritating, repeating himself over and over. Indeed, the sympathy we’re urged to feel for the characters in this song seems fake in the context of the other 11 all-too-real tracks, even though the war imagery and the hook-line mourning ‘old times, but good times’ fits in well with this record’s overall message of what to do when you lose somebody dear.
No doubts about  Tired Eyes though which is one of Neil’s most original and brilliant songs. The more I listen to Neil’s sprawling back catalogue en masse the more I realise that there is nobody to touch Neil for writing songs about death and loss.  ‘The Old Laughing Lady’,  ‘Dangerbird’, much of ‘Prairie Wind’ – there’s something about quivering voice and favourite chord changes that allow Neil to get away with real authentic drama that in other hands would sound over the top. ‘Tired Eyes’ is my favourite though and it’s a song not about a president, not about a family member, not even Danny Whitten, but just a random somebody whose life led to nothing. No one else would have even noticed the death of this ‘loser’, most would have said his drug-addled death was ‘good riddance’, but Neil can see so much life that got taken away by so much death and he hates the fact it ended up this way. No wonder he keeps vainly trying to advise the corpse to rise – something that’s clearly an act of utter pointlessness – because every life has a chance at a happy ending and Neil’s so frustrated that we ended up here, the tired eyes that have seen too much overcoming a life that should have had more to give. Crazy Horse weep big buckets for a men they had never met and whom they would probably cross the road to avoid, but they mourn him anyway because it’s the humane thing to do. A half-spoken half-sung, pleading conversation with someone we can’t hear, reflecting on someone’s wasted life and urging their corpse to wake up from their self-inflicted stupor one last time, this song is for one of the many millions who die every day and who no one even notices. We don’t even learn the name of the man in the song who dies at a drive-by shooting, a drug peddler whose client decided to shoot instead of pay and it may well be that Neil did his usual ‘Ohio’ trick here and read about this incident in the papers rather than knew anyone who went through it firsthand. It feels real though, painfully so even for this album, as Neil imagines himself cradling his friend and trying to wake him up. This song could have got very cliched very quickly but what impresses so is how detached everyone is: Neil sings the song as if in a daze, his voice cracking emotionally only when he urges the corpse to ‘open up the tired eyes’. With its mentions of drug deals gone wrong and of gun-wielding mafia men who put bullet holes in the mirrors of the dead character’s car, Neil does everything he can to strip away the glory and glamour of drugs and ends up creating a Tarantino film in the process. This song is far more moving with it, though, with Neil’s soliloquy too late to do any good but one he feels he has to pass on anyway. Neil does wonders with the lyric, summing up someone who everyone else would have dismissed: ‘was he just a loser? What do you mean his car had bullet-holes in the mirrors?’ The line that will haunt everyone forever though is the simple truth at the heart of this song: like Danny, like Bruce, this victim ‘tried to do his best – but he could not’. The title phrase is also a very invocative one, a precursor to Art Garfunkel’s hit Bright Eyes in the way it struggles to comprehend how somebody who was so full of life could be gone so suddenly, with eyes a person’s ‘window to the soul’ – Neil doesn’t just mean waking them up and making them alive again but waking them up to reality, to see that their life was always going to end up this way if they didn’t do something to stop it first. Neil sounds drunk, both on booze and on emotion and the recording of the song is as loose as a recording can get without falling apart altogether (and even this one goes over the edge on occasions). Horrifically, worryingly, brutally real, this a song where even the guilty are really innocent and where even murderers and drug-pushers deserve redemption because they weren’t in control of their lives. Neil has seen it happened and the moment when he tries to offer his advice to someone he knows won’t take it and is doomed will haunt me to my grave. ‘If he was a friend of yours…’ spits Neil at one point, never quite ending a sentence which would surely end ‘you would make a record like Tonight’s The Night’ too. ‘Tired Eyes’ is a rare song that tells it like it is, where nobody wins and everybody loses.
All that’s left is for a reprise of the title track [76b] 'Tonight's The Night' and unbelievably this second version is even looser and more ragged than the first. Neil’s used this trick of bookending an album with two different versions of the same song a few times now (‘Freedom’ and ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ for two), but back in 1975 it was a daring, original move as Neil takes up precious vinyl to drive the point home about his comrade’s pointless deaths just one more time. Less well known than the earlier version (included on ‘Decade’), this reprise makes for an interesting alternative without ever quite matching its better known cousin, being taken at a faster lick and sounding more like a conventional pop song than a drunken tribute, despite the fact that the musicians seem to be learning it as they go along. Leaving it here seems to be asking the listener ‘what have you learnt?’ It is easy to dismiss Bruce’s story as if he had it coming to him – he was, after all, a drug addict who knew that drugs could kill him. But by the end of the album hopefully the listener has greater empathy over how he wasn’t fully in control of his life choices and how bad things can happen to good people without warning for no apparent reason. We could be the next Bruce Berry if the dark side gets too much for us and we go too far. Tonight might be our night to go too soon too.
In all, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ feels like a journey. One we didn’t want to take most of the time, but one we had to. At other times it feels like an AA meeting: Neil speaks to us not from up high but as one of us, acknowledging the hard struggles of life that make us do foolish things and opening up about his own experiences. It is, of course, not the sort of album you want to play if you want something cute, light and silly. It was designed to make the few surviving Neil collectors run for the hills (although it is a misnomer that this album didn’t sell; oddly enough its #25 US chart peak puts it equal with prettier comeback album ‘Zuma’). However it is an album perfect for AAA meetings too, with lots to discuss and a bravery and courage like few other albums. Where my family and neighbours hear a drunken mess I hear an album that’s so desperate to keep it real it can’t help but mess up sometimes because ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is, after all, an album about acknowledging mistakes and the fact that everyone makes them, even if people don’t often pay the high price that Danny and Bruce once did. A glorious send-off, full of high emotion and spirit (in both meanings of the word) ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is the perfect goodbye to dear departed friends. All that’s left is for Neil to find his way slowly back to full health and recover from the storms of the past few years. His next album will find him ‘on the beach’ – and, weirdly, that description works whether you are reading these albums in the order they were recorded or the order they were released…