Friday, 20 July 2012
Neil Young "Time Fades Away" (1973)
Neil Young “Time Fades Away” (1973)
Time Fades Away/Journey Thru The Past/Yonder Stands The Sinner/L.A./Love In Mind/Don’t Be Denied/The Bridge/Last Dance
“No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no! No no no!”
It’s 1973. Neil Young has just announced the release of a new live LP to follow in the wake of ‘Harvest’ – the second best selling album of 1972 in the UK (after Lindisfarne’s Fog On The Tyne) and speculation has never been higher for a Neil Young album. Will there be more country rock hits like ‘Heart Of Gold’? Sweet warm singalongs like ‘Old Man’? Powerful angry rock like ‘Alabama’?! A return to the mellowness of ‘After The Goldrush’? Or even a return to the guitar pyrotechnics and angry sizzle of ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’? Basically the Neil Young of 1973 had so much of a following and so many options open to him that he could have released virtually anything and it would have been a mega hit. As it turned out, ‘Time Fades Away’ is about the one exception that really couldn’t have been a hit, a wild ragged unprofessional screeching live record with no hits, no known material and a glaring hole where the tunes should be.
Alas what the audience don’t realise, certainly then and not often since, is that the Neil Young of 1973 is a very different beast than the one in 1972. The Neil of 1972 was desperate for a big hit, to become a star by any means possible and actively looking for the hit single to put him on the radio and onto jukeboxes. The Neil of 1973 knows that there’s more to life than hits and fame and is raggedly determined to do things his way, whatever the cost, in the words of one song on this album to ‘not be denied’. For ‘Time Fades Away’, Neil’s first live album, isn’t the eagerly awaited mellow-with-power album Neil’s fans are expecting but an often ragged concert album made up of previously unissued material that seem deliberately designed to provoke a re-action.
So what went wrong? Longterm fans and those who’ve read our review of the first ‘Crazy Horse’ album (see news and views no 48) will know that the answer is Danny Whitten. The ace guitarist with 6” surfing kid looks had spent years struggling in various line-ups of Crazy Horse (then ‘Danny and the Memories’ and later ‘The Rockets’) before bumping into Neil Young and becoming his chief foil. The sudden unexpected rise in stature brought Danny to new heights, enticing extraordinary songs and guitar solos out of Whitten before falling headlong into a heroin addiction that hit both the man and his music. Neil had tried to use Danny for ‘Goldrush’, found him impossible to work with and dropped him, doing the same for ‘Harvest’. When Neil signed up for the gruelling 65 night tour (that became the basis for this record) he’s heard so many positive stories about Danny getting his act together that he tried a third time, only for Danny’s addiction to get the better of him and Neil – never one for confrontations – sadly kicking him out of the band with a note and a cheque to get him home. Danny, distraught at this latest slap on the wrist from his best friend, took the money, scored more heroin and overdosed, leaving behind an almighty hole that Neil is still trying to fill today. The music press were past caring – the Crazy Horse album that Danny had shined on so brightly was getting on for three years old; the collaboration with Neil Young more like five – but from Neil’s personal point of view the event had huge repercussions. Frankly, he was never the same again, with Danny the first person close to Neil he ever lost and of all the quotes in the wake of Danny’s death the one that haunts the most is a recent one that runs simply ‘Every musician’s got one person they can play with like nobody else. They’ve only got one – and mine was Danny’s.’ This album is Neil’s desperate realisation that his soul buddy has gone and with more than a little guilt over the part Neil played unwittingly in his death.
A more caring promoter might have left Neil in private to mourn, but so late in the day did Whitten’s death come in the rehearsals that the juggernaut went on unstopping, with an unremitting 65 nights onstage in the next 90. The pressure did some mighty weird things to Neil’s personality from the reports of the band, causing him to snap at everyone and transform from his usually laidback self into a demon, unhappy at everything from drum parts to stage mixes, with a newly found urgency to get his point across, perhaps because time now seemed so short. The band weren’t helping either. Individually the ‘Stray Gators’ as they were nicknamed were all brilliant musicians from lots of different Neil Young eras who were among the best to ever work with Neil: Jack Nitzsche who’d rescued Neil from the Buffalo Springfield on piano, longtime pedal steel partner Ben Keith (who plays on almost all of Neil’s records until his death a couple of years ago), CSNY and Jefferson Airplane/Starship drummer Johnny Barbata and bassist Tim Drummond (a future CSNY collaborator). Alas though separately great together the band just never quite gelled, representing too wide a collection of genres and styles to fit together. Things weren’t helped by money difficulties, the band on a paltry pay check for playing such supersized arenas and demanding more – at exactly the wrong time, given what Neil’s said since (in the ‘Shakey’ biography among others). ‘I’ll give you $10,000 each, then, but will it make you play better?’ Neil’s meant to have retorted. Add in the fact that Neil’s first and always rocky marriage, to actress Carrie Snodgrass (inspiration for the few love songs in his early solo career) was on the ropes and you can see why this album has the feeling of being under siege, of being betrayed from every corner and wondering where the next blow is going to come from. Nothing on this record is safe, everything about life is twisting and changing and whilst not as harsh as the other ‘Doom Trilogy’ LPs ‘Tonight’s The Night’ and ‘On The Beach’ its still pretty strong stuff for an audience to take.
Had Neil talked about what had happened in between albums then his fans might have understood, offered some sympathy and mourned the loss of Danny Whitten with their hero instead of angrily chanting for hit songs. In the event most were left scratching their heads, thinking that Neil was the one lost on drugs, with the Rolling Stone review for this album (‘Neil Young Fades Away’) re-writing history to suggest that Neil never had any talent anyway and burnt it all making ‘Harvest’. Now that we fans have had a further 40 years and a similar amount of album in-between its release ‘Time Fades Away’ makes a lot more sense, the first detour of many towards the backroads on the mammoth Neil Young journey from A to Z, a path that only occasionally merged with where everyone else was heading. Neil himself has called ‘Time Fades Away’ my worst album, while at the same time calling it ‘the best’ at summing up where his head was at in a particular point in time. Time really does fade away on this album, with the whole album played at breakneck speed as if waiting even a second for a solo might be too late to get the message across. The band don’t help matters much, playing against each other not with each other, trying to drown each other out or head down strange cul-de-sacs of music that aren’t meant to be there. If anything the mixing of the record is even more slapdash and ragged than the recordings, with mournful feedback, guitars drowning out vocals and bits of chatter and cheering left hanging eerily in the mix, like some audio verite record interrupted by songs. For perhaps the only time in his career, Neil was heavy-handed over the arrangements, refusing to let the band augment their playing and sticking to the same arrangement night after night (although in typical Neil Young style what we have here are performances from early in the tour, before the band have quite got it together!), a fact that rankled the band members, who in the past had equated Neil with freedom, no end. It speaks volumes that after this tour only Ben Keith (and Crosby and Nash) will ever play with Neil again.
All you need to do to get the heavy vibes emanating from this record is look at the album cover, taken at one of the dates on the tour. The audience are expectant and they’re huge, filling up the room as far as the eyes can see. One guy at the front is waving his arms in a peace sign. There’s a single red rose carelessly tossed on stage. Seen from Neil’s point of view this audience is a weight he just can’t bear, with everyone having an expectant look in their eyes for ‘Harvest’ type songs he just doesn’t feel in his heart anymore. Looked at casually, at a glance, though, it looks more like the scene of a disaster area than a good-time rock concert, with bodies crushed and herded against each other, all struggling to see anything. It seems to be saying ‘did I really make you pay good money for this?!’, as if Neil’s struggling to make sense of the whole touring experience (it didn’t put Neil off touring but he did play smaller venues – till 1979 at least), wondering why he continues on. The cover’s even been tinted to make it drab and brown and murky, everything that most rock and roll records aren’t but somehow this one is.
The usual story is that everyone comes out of this story badly -and certainly most people involved do - but actually there are two exceptions. When CSNY parted the first time in 1970 it was with a lot of animosity, with all four vowing never to work with each other again (with the exception of bosom buddies Crosby and Nash). All three had had a difficult time of it in the three years since ‘Deja Vu’, with Crosby losing his girlfriend Christine to a car crash late in 1970 and Graham Nash suffering from hearing that his fiance, Amy Gossage, had just been murdered by her own brother. Like Neil, neither of the two singer-songwriters spoke to the press about the incidents and both went on to make their own ‘difficult’ companions to this album (Crosby’s ethereal ‘If Only I Could Remember My Name’ – review no 45 and Nash’s ‘Wild Tales’, news and views no 75). They could have stayed indoors to weep over their lost loves or gone out on tour to console themselves making big money but no – Neil was in trouble, reached out for his nearest friends by phone to see him through the tour and both Crosby and Nash came a running (we don’t know whether Stills was asked or not – it may be that he declined or that relations between the two were still too sore just then). Many fans, mainly Crazy Horse ones, laugh at their brief contributions to this album, with both men woefully out of tune and the band getting ever more mutinous over sharing the stage with more limelight hoggers (Crosby’s reputation for playing his guitar too loud, which began in his Byrds days, followed him here, causing many more arguments). The pair were less than amused to hear that their raucous singing parts had been recorded for use on a live album without their knowledge. But it remains a source of comfort to know that, whatever the bad blood between them, C and N came to the rescue of Y and eased just a little of the pain and pressure on Young’s shoulders. Out of tune harmonically they may be, but CSNY never seemed more like a band of brothers in tune with each other than here.
You wonder what Crosby and Nash made of some of this material, though. Back in 1973 it was rare for any artist to come out and give the truth about the seamier, nastier side of rock star life (barring the Rolling Stones and they generally dressed it up to sound more fun that it really was). Neil does that over and over again here, with characters that aren’t searching for heart of golds or criticising ‘Southern Men’ from up high on a pulpit – they’re drug addicts, drop outs and losers all questioning everything they’ve ever believed in and searching for escape in the scariest of places. If you’ve come to this album fresh from the even more morbid ‘Tonight’s The Night’, Neil’s most emotionally involved of albums recorded as a requiem for Danny with the rest of Crazy Horse, then it won’t surprise you or haunt you as much. But come to this fresh, after ‘Harvest and ‘Goldrush’ as all of Neil’s fans would have done back in the day, then this is a very different story. Unusually for Young most of these songs are in the first person and only the three solo piano ballads (two of which were written before Danny’s death) offer any solace or consolation amidst the dread and darkness, some of it autobiographical and some of it imagined. The characters in this album are all suffering, they’re all confused and they’ve all lost sight of what they were meant to be doing, with the world shifting uncomfortably under their feet before they had a chance to get acclimatised to the landscape. This is Neil’s riposte to where he was after Harvest, when he should have been on top of the world but instead became increasingly aware that he was stuck in the middle of a road he didn’t want to travel down, however many people had jumped on the bus to make him take them there.
There was a great line in the Telegraph the other week in a review of a book on the music business that was discussing how daft it is to try to shape and shift a music career to make the big bucks. Who in 1973 would have said that releasing a badly recorded hazy drug-referencing live album of all new material would have been a sensible choice? Why not do what audience-friendly artists of the day like the Osmonds and Gilbert O’Sullivan did, releasing the same sort of thing over and over if that’s what people wanted. And yet its Neil Young whose reputation is at its peak of all the 60s and 70s giants (albeit somewhat tarnished over the past decade or so), precisely because of his refusal to give in to audience expectations and risk them getting bored. Can you imagine anyone in their right mind offering this album as a good course for a career though? Indeed it all but killed Neil’s career off, until either 1975 (with Zuma’s slight return to success and sales) or 1979 (when ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ made him a superstar once more), depending on how big a fan of music you were in the 70s (one of my favourite quotes from this period is the one about CSNY re-convening in 1974 specifically to revive Neil’s career and help him shift some records; by the end of the decade they’ll never match him for sales or reputation again). The curious, almost wilful career destruction that’s been so much a part of Neil’s career arguably starts with this record (and its twin sister, the equally ragged film soundtrack ‘Journey Thru The Past’, a quarter of which doesn’t feature Neil Young at all) and if you can appreciate the talent and the occasional brilliance within these grooves then you’ll never want to hear the soppy tones of ‘Harvest’ ever again.
If there’s a message to this album its the one that Neil sings a good couple of dozen times as the title line in ‘Don’t Be Denied’(and the verse line ‘all that glitters is not gold – I’m sure you’ve heard that story told’ – this is, to all intents and purposes, that story spread out to a little over 40 minutes). For all the character’s problems, the deaths and bad trips that surround them, there’s a real stubbornness in most of them that means they get to see the end in some shape or form, not end up the rock casualty that Danny Whitten had so recently become. Many fans and critics, without the back story to this album, got it 180 degrees wrong and assumed that Neil himself was becoming a drug casualty, one unable to sing in tune or finish a decent song. In actual fact ‘Time Fades Away’ might well be the first anti-drug record, making good on the promise of ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ (the last song recorded for ‘Harvest’ and as good a eulogy for Danny as any could wish for). The one song Neil’s completed in the years since that in any way matches up to this record’s power and stubbornness is ‘Hippie Dream’, his equally anguished song about David Crosby’s drug induced fall from grace in the mid-80s – you have to wonder if hearing its revealing lyrics for the first time Crosby was reminded of this tour. Elsewhere ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’ asks what it is to sin and who has the right to judge, ‘L.A.’ asks why with so many beautiful spots to choose from citizens choose to live in the smog-fest of Los Angeles and ‘Last Dance’ is a whopping great kick in the teeth for those working aimless 9-5 jobs for no other purpose than to survive and make fat cats fat. Neil’s just had a wake up call to reality and rather than give us his own story wholesale he tries to wake up his audience with everything he’s got that might apply to them: no wonder he screams ‘No no no!’ a full 22 times at the end of ‘Last Dance’ (the last words of the record the listener gets to hear), unable to take in the sea change in his and our worlds. Given that the empty platform-shoed wearing glam was big in 1973 and that cautionary messages against lifestyles hadn’t been in fashion since Dylan in 1963, ‘Time Fades Away’ is a real anomaly for its age, a record out of time, as bleak as any Pinter play and as serious as death.
But away from the history and beneath the ragged veneer is ‘Time Fades Away’ a good album? That’s a cautious yes, in parts. As we said ‘Time’ doesn’t have the intensity or the sheer emotional punch of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ but unlike most fans I do prefer its almost casual air of desperation and fear to the rather more thoughtful ‘On The Beach’, the third part of Neil’s ‘doom trilogy’. It just seems more real to me, that much closer to the real inner Neil Young he often hides from us (especially during the Geffen years), with at least two classics in side two’s life history ‘Don’t Be Denied’ (which makes oh so much more sense when you realise it was written the day after Danny Whitten died) and ‘Last Dance’, the multi-part tour de force epic that’s too complex for the band of strangers to nail but nevertheless lingers long in the memory. Even the other six songs aren’t bad, each of them unique to Neil’s canon and all of them working to different degrees (certainly compared to ‘Harvest’, where good as songs like ‘Alabama’ and ‘Old Man’ are there are some real howlers like ‘There’s A World’ and ‘Words’). The fact that Neil hates ‘Time Fades Away’ and has prevented it from being released on CD for all but an extremely limited time should not get in the way of the fact that this is one of his most powerful and inventive albums, a real fan favourite that casual purchasers who only vaguely know the Neil Young name won’t understand at all. If its angsty realism and heartbreak you’re after then you’ve found a new favourite album to play. Just be warned that if its radio-friendly fare you’re after you should stay clear and go buy ‘After The Goldrush’.
In some alternate universe where Danny Whitten is alive and well and still touring with Crazy Horse the title track of ‘Time Fades Away’ is one of Neil’s best loved singles. The riff is one of his cleverest, a subtle little hop from one leg to another and a pretty harmonica break that all his audiences singalong to. However, back in the real world and heard here, played live with reckless abandon by a band who patently don’t know the song and are too fed up to care, it sounds an aural mess, the equivalent of the Spice Girls if they ever tried to record a backing track together. The words don’t help matters much either, the tale of a drug addict still living at home, wearily facing yet another day of disappointment and despair down the seamier side of life while his innocent mother meekly reminds him to ‘be back 8’ because ‘you know how time fades away’. A rare instance of a pun in Neil Young’s canon, the joke is that the junkie’s mother is more right than she’d ever realise – time is fading away, but not in the safe, be-home-in-bed-so-I-can-see-you way but in an I-need-help-before-I-die kind of a way (there’s a second less successful one when the junkie replaces ‘main street’ where the ‘ordinary ‘ people walk with ‘pain street’, as if Neil is trying to lighten the load with humour). It’s less emotional and involving than its close cousin ‘Tired Eyes’ (from ‘Tonight’s The Night’) that puts us directly in the addicts shoes during a drive-by shooting, but nevertheless there’s a real concern here from Neil’s performance (especially he’s plea of ‘no no no’ – more on that later in the album), desperately trying to get pathos and vulnerability out of a song that nobody else knows yet and he’s living every word. Even a fairly ramshackle performance doesn’t disguise the rather fine driving, anguished chorus though that immediately is a hundred miles removed from the mellowness of ‘Harvest’, with the feeling that time is running out – as indeed it is for the characters. Listen out especially for the almost casual way the first verse is repeated last but with the very subtle change that ’14 junkies, too weak to work’ has turned into 13 – signs that the price of this way of life comes heavy. There’s then a curious second verse set in ‘Canada’ which doesn’t fit with the rest, with allusions to living ‘through a haze’ (of drug smoke?) and being handcuffed; as far as we know neither is true (Neil’s epileptic seizures meant he kept away from the copious amount of drugs his friends took and was never arrested), the start of a Canadian one-two on this album. Is this perhaps Neil discussing openly what might well have been his fate had he not been ill and found drugs to fill the void that music eventually filled for him? All that’s lacking to make this one of Neil’s stronger songs really is a strong conclusion – we leave the junkie still clinging grimly onto life while his mother pleads with him to come home, although we don’t know whether he’ll survive and thrive or give in to the monkey on his back. Part epic, part singalong, ‘Time Fades Away’ might be too raw for most fans’ taste but its still an impressive start to the album.
‘Journey Thru The Past’, mis-spelling and all, is a much older song than the others here –Neil performed it on the ‘Johnny Cash Show’ in 1972 and the ‘Archives’ box set features a ‘Harvest’ era version that’s as much like that album (all sweetness, sugar-coating and polish) as this bare version is akin to that LP. It’s a sweet song, inspired by a move to a new house in California that Neil took in 1971, the move away from the Topanga Canyon immortalised on ‘After The Goldrush’ setting Neil off thinking about his move away from his ‘real’ home in Winipeg, Canada. It’s a sweet song that sounds somewhat out of place here, with just Neil pounding away at a piano, although thematically the idea about keeping true to your roots is a good fit. Lyrically Neil looks to a past love, wondering if she ever thinks of him the way he thinks of her and promising closer ties next time around (like the ‘fiddler’ said to the ‘drum’). Note the way a journey though the past ‘keeps good time’ that none of this album’s narrators find in the present at all. Neil’s vocal is plaintive and unusually vulnerable, even for Young, although it’s the opening disgruntled snatch of conversation (‘After this song I’m going home’) that tells you everything you need to know about his feelings about a tour he hated (presumably it was left on because Neil does very much take a ‘journey home’ on this song; whether he was aware of the pun at the time is another matter!) Surprisingly the song wasn’t included on the film soundtrack of the same name, a typical piece of Neil Young marketing! It would have sounded lovely dressed up (but not like the yukky version on ‘Archives’) and Neil seems to be fond of this song, the only one from this album that he’s ever played on a tour outside the ‘Time Fades Away’ one.
‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’ is a fascinating song, seemingly Neil pre-empting the criticisms of the ‘Time Fades Away’ tour with the opening line ‘Have you heard about the ‘great pretender’? I went to see him – and he’s not the same’. If anyone’s the great pretender then it must be Neil given the amount of styles and aliases over the years, but if this is Neil then a) it’s curious to hear him sing about himself in the third person and b) why is he shouting ‘yonder stands the sinner’ to all and sundry (is this his legendary temper on the tour coming through?) In fact the tenses are confused all round – it should run ‘Yonder stands the sinner’, he calls my name without a sound, but that’s not what’s printed in the lyric sheet. Whatever the true meaning of the garbled lyric it clearly meant something to Neil at the time who turns his notably hoarse voice into the best vocal of the album here, laughing and poking fun at us all and having great fun as he ‘peeks behind the nearest tree’ trying to hide from the barrage of attacks. One of two songs recorded after Crosby and Nash joined the tour, it’s notably tighter than the rest here and suggests the band were actually grooving by the end of the tour when they knew these songs a little better. Crosby’s gruff vocal is a delight, grungier than anything he was doing on his own tours and records of the day, doing his best to out-squawk Neil at points throughout the song. It remains a curious song, though, ending rather suddenly as if inspiration for Neil simply gave up and ending up right back where it begun, with the lines ‘I went to see him – and he’s not the same’.
‘L.A.’ is kind of the ‘Alburqueque’ of ‘Time Fades Away’, the only song here played largely in tune and a song that, in a less sombre dressing, could have fitted on any other Neil Young album but fits here snugly due to the oppressive weight of the arrangement. Like the forthcoming ‘Fontainebleau’ from the ‘Stills-Young Band’ album in 1976, its a list of complaints about one area that could have been played for laughs but instead sounds like the end of the world. The sarcastic ‘don’t you wish you could be here too?’ is unusual for Young, who was clearly playing with styles across this album and tour, but the rest is Neil all over: ecological lyrics before they were fashionable, the warmth of a friendship compared to the icy detachedness of the surroundings and a sudden, unexpected move to a minor chord that lingers in the brain long after the even more sudden return to the dominant chord in the chorus. There’s a danger and desperation about this song that fits the mood of the album too: After a lengthy final verse ending in ‘...and the valley is sucked into cracks in the earth’ Neil closes with ‘will I still be heard by you?’ Neil’s never spoken about this song but it’s my guess its about his increasingly fractures relationship with first wife Carrie, coupled with his desperate desire to get through to an audience who only see Neil as a small speck in the distance on this tour. Don’t you wish you could be here too? Erm, I’m probably glad I’m not to be honest, with the metaphor of L.A. surely a metaphor for the state Neil was in at the time and a red herring for his real feelings.
‘Love In Mind’ is the second of the two older songs on the album and like ‘Journey Thru The Past’ is another piano ballad. It’s a simple outburst of love, but like most of Neil’s love songs it’s a love that wasn’t born easily, with the narrator waking up and realising that time is running out for him to realise how in love he is and to do something about it. There’s an added moment of excitement when the narrator starts cursing religion for its taboo on sex and making it so hard to get what he wants from a still prudish society, with a middle eight suggesting the narrator has woken up with a prostitute, sadly asking himself ‘what am I doing here?!’ The timing seems to be off though, with an air of melancholic desperation through the song: ‘I’ve got nothing to lose, I can’t get back again’ he sings at one point, left alone and spurned in a hotel room in stark contrast to the first verse’s tale of ‘love keeping me warm’ as he goes off on a plane alone (to tour?) Neil is back to his detached self in the vocal, singing the song with much more care than the others here – perhaps because this song dates from an earlier acoustic tour of 1971 (though weirdly the applause has been left up high, so the few hundreds clapping here seem louder than the thousands on the rest of the record!) It’s a puzzling way to end the record’s first side, with Neil sounding almost like his old self here, even though the feelings of detachment and urgency fit the rest of the album well.
Side two opens with ‘Don’t Be Denied’, an absolutely momentous song in the Neil Young canon, written on tour the day after Neil learnt by phone that Danny had died. Rather than write a straightforward eulogy for his friend, Neil re-assess his life so far, trying to make sense of why so many people fell by the wayside in his life but why the music is to him so strong he has to keep pushing on. ‘Don’t be denied’ may be one of the shortest choruses on this list you’ll ever hear but it’s also one of the best, summing up all of Neil’s stubbornness, desire for change and his ability to overcome some mighty upsetting life events. The song is slow and steady, like a boxer warming up, leaving every corner of this song and arrangement exposed. The verses flow like chapters in an autobiography (perhaps in Neil’s, published this Autumn?), taking Neil’s parent’s divorce, being beaten up by playground bullies, meeting with his first-likeminded friend and ‘sitting on the steps at school, dream of being stars’, the wrench at leaving Canada for America, businessmen bidding to buy up the recording rights of the Buffalo Springfield and then finally Neil’s realisation that for all the money, all the fame, nothing matters like expression. Coming on perhaps the world’s first mainstream but anti-commercial LP (Lennon thought it would be his Lennon/Plastic Ono Band LP which actually sold quite well), it makes perfect sense, the explanation to the question on most people’s lips at the time ‘what the hell are you doing Neil, where did the mellow acoustic hippie go?’ It’s a real tour de force this song, with every squeak of ‘Don’t Be Denied’ sounding as if its being torn directly from the heart, with Neil making sense of his journey so far and recording it for posterity, after seeing what a waste of talent the death of his friend had been. If writing about yourself when your best friend has just died seems callous then, well, you might be right, but by looking deep into his soul and analysing why he took the paths he did this sounds like Neil justifying to himself why his story couldn’t have worked out any other way (after all it wasn’t him that got Whitten hooked on heroin; considering he was a rock stars in the early 70s Neil did precious little drug-taking).
Powerful and uncompromising, with all the incidents in the story true, this song is really clever in the way it makes you pity the lad in the song torn from his childhood home and ‘lying on his back in the schoolyard’ before realising that all these events made him the tough adult he became, able to withstand even this latest death in his life. I particularly love the last verse, Neil (for its clearly not a ‘narrator’ but Young himself), finding out that ‘all that glitters is not gold’ and then admitting that its not a new realisation for other people, just one he’d never experienced at such close range before. The damning of the entertainment business is spot on (after all, it was the lifestyle that killed Whitten) and the fact that its accepted with a shrug of guilt and stupidity, a kind of ‘how did I fall for that?’ mentality makes it all the more powerful. After verses without a flicker, its the line about Neil being a ‘millionaire in a businessman’s eyes’ that finally sees him crack; clearly the idea that Neil could possibly be a success when faced with all this guilt and regret is clearly laughable. If you love Neil and his work as much as I do then you’ll be sobbing by the time of the last ‘Don’t Be Denied’, but its not tears of pity or sadness, its the realisation that this was the story Neil had to live through to become who he was, all set out here like a folk story, without a hint of emotion until the last few ‘Don’t Be Denied’s. One of the greatest of all of Neil’s songs, its nothing short of a travesty how long this song has been out of the public eye. Incidentally, I’ve just been checking up on the lyrics for this song on a Neil Young lyrics database and I’d never noticed how many times Neil has begun a song with the word ‘don’t’ (9), clearly something of a mantra for the guitarist!
‘The Bridge’ is a balm of tonic on the waters for this album, another song curiously unlike anything else Neil ever wrote, perhaps because it was inspired by a poem by Hart Crane. Just as the Dean Stockwell screenplay entitled ‘After The Goldrush’ inspired Neil to write one of his better loved songs, so this complex poem about reaching out to others inspires a rather nifty little piece from Neil. The song is notably skimpy, though, with just two real verses, in stark contrast to the 15 verse poem that inspired it. The bridge – Brooklyn Bridge, New York in the original – is clearly of some special significance for Neil here though, perhaps in the context of this very Canadian Childhood-referenced album the bridge that leads him back to a ‘journey through the past’ as it were. Like many uses of bridges in songs though (*from Simon and Garfunkel down) it’s really a song about love, a last ditch attempt at reconciliation before the narrator finds out that the ‘bridge was falling’ and that he’d missed his last chance at making things work. A simple song of regret that fits perfectly into the album’s theme, Neil could have been singing in the studio rather on tour, so clear for once is the recording. A sadly forgotten song that deserves to have been better known by fans and one that works fine on its own two feet, despite being most famous for ‘bridging’ the two better known songs either side of it.
The album ends with ‘Last Dance’, my favourite song on the album and one of my favourite of Neil’s whole catalogue, even if most fans don’t like or even understand it. There are tapes of this song around in its 1971 incarnation where it sounds like a happy tuneful song about the narrator realising he doesn’t have to life his life on the 9 to 5 circuit and can break out of his pitiful existence. On this version it sounds like a wounded animal being cornered unwillingly into a cage, too tired to fight but still so full of rage. Some critics, when they notice this song at all, think that Neil is being sarcastic, prodding and poking the audience who spend their hard earned wages on tickets for his concerts, but for me this is Neil hurting on their behalf, looking the future in the eye and coming to the conclusion he has to tour, even if he’s in grief and mourning. It’s a brave decision to let this song out on the record in the state its in, complete with looping feedback, out of tune harmonies (it somehow makes perfect sense that even Crosby and Nash can’t sing along to this one) and a performance that lurches to a halt several times before the end (when Neil improvises the end until the band finally catch on and join in). Lines like ‘no time left to say goodbye’ suggest further still that this is Neil’s message to his audience not to waste their time on the things that don’t matter or they too could fall in the trap of Danny Whitten, wasting their talent trying to be someone they’re not. The chorus of ‘oh no no’, which Lindisfarne treated as a joke, sounds like Armageddon here, pulled out from a grieving Neil under torture. Together with the relentless riff, which sounds like one of the many copies of ‘Satisfaction’ the Stones used over the years, there’s just no escape from this song, which lurches from its tired pattern only for the chaotic false ending when Neil picks it up and runs with it again. Many critics too have made fun of the way Crosby and Nash get the audie nce to ‘singalong’, as if they’re doing ‘Suite: Judy Bl;ue Eyes’ or ‘Our House’ and yet that’s exactly what this song wants: the sound of a thousand people standing up to their cage keepers and demanding ‘no, no, no!’ (Shame it doesn’t happen though – the audience are clearly too confused as to what the hell is going on!)
The best passage might well be the guitar solo, Ben Keith playing his pedal steel with his usual aplomb till Neil simply surges past him with his guitar, circling round the riff and trying to find an escape route until, finding none, he limply falls apart where he stands. Neil’s seemingly improvised words near the end, where a Monday morning breakfast routine sounds like the end of the world makes the song sound trapped further still, the tension rising from three straight repeats of the song’s angular riff, a sort of variant on Lennon’s song of obsession ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’. A final chant of ‘You can life your own life, making it happen...’ sounds suddenly more urgent and more possible, not the futile gesture it was six or so minutes before. Neil then refuses to let the song end until everyone listening gets the message he’s been trying to spread since Danny’s death: that you have to live for the moment and get your work done now, not in the future. Neil repeats ‘no, no, no’ an astonishing 22 times before the band finally get what’s playing at and excel themselves with one last instrumental twist and turn round the song’s complex harmonic structure. By this time Neil sounds as if he’s in tears, revealing more of himself in song than at any time before this album’s release. Play this song back to back with ‘Harvest’ and you can see why so many people at the time were shocked – and yet you can also see why ‘Last Dance’ is a much more powerful, lived-in sounding piece of work. Perhaps the most Neil Young moment on any of his records, refusing to compromise anywhere, this is a towering achievement and, like ‘Don’t Be Denied’, the fact that so many fans have been denied the chance to hear it is nothing short of criminal.
‘Time Fades Away’, then, is not for the weak-kneed fan who only enjoys Neil’s acoustic albums. But it is an album as raw and as real as rock music ever got in the 1970s and you can forgive the odd out of tune part and muffed vocal when songs of such brilliance and seriousness are at stake. Neil’s ride from here on in isn’t easy, with ‘Tonight’s The Night’ an even heavier, mournful ride, a wake made for both Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, but this time recorded by the people who know and care for these people. Good as they are, the musicians on this tour really didn’t understand what was happening and played terribly throughout, even though to be fair they’d have been perfect for the ‘Harvest; type songs Neil hired them for. What’s interesting is to compare this album to Neil’s much later album about his own near-death experience, ‘Prairie Wind’ (2005). Whereas this album is full of impatience and urgency, desperate to come to terms with grief and make the most of the present, on ‘Wind’ Neil seems to shrug off the fact he nearly died from a brain aneurysm with an ‘oh well, I’ve said most of the things I wanted to say anyway’. It’s nice to know that, to date at least, this album has a happy ending, with Neil having achieved what he wanted to do with a remarkable string of uncommercial albums starting with this one (its not until he marries second wife Pegi in the late 70s that his life – and his music – get back on track). But even when this album is heavy-going in the extreme you have to applaud the artistry and the integrity of this album, which mourns for a great talent lost to the music business with decorum, taste, anger and sadness in equal measure. I understand why Neil doesn’t want to see this album re-released: it sounds like hell to live through and its not easy to listen to and yet by preventing its release Neil is losing his chance to offer this song’s key important words to his fans: don’t be denied and don’t let anything get in the way of the story that you need to tell.