Album: Tonight’s the Night
Released: June, 1975
When I connect with a song on any given week for this series, one thing I always try to do upfront is put it in the context of the times it was written; and not many songs put me into the moment quite like those that make up the exceptional Neil Young album, ‘Tonight’s the Night’. The 1975 release date of ‘Tonight’s the Night’ is a bit deceiving: All songs were written by mid-1973. The album was actually finished at that time. But it was put on the shelf, because the record company did not see it fit for release and Neil Young was not in the best of shape to defend it. By 1975, however, he was climbing out of a ~ 4-year stretch of haze and turmoil, and became adamant that the record company release it, which they did…. reluctantly.
At first listen, one may be lead to agree with the record company. ‘Tonight’s the Night’ is haphazard and off key and unfiltered and downright morose. But it’s these very qualities that make this album uniquely qualified as an early-70s time capsule, albeit in not-so positive light: there’s lyrics that connect with the struggles of a returning Vietnam veteran, the hopelessness of a junky, the disillusion of the hippie dream, urban decrepitude, rolling another number, and of course death at too young an age (in particular two of Young’s closest friends, bandmate Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, which the album centers itself upon). It’s all here in all its gory glory.
One thing that I have always struggled with is the catch-all attitude I hear or read in regards to the drug culture of those times. To the holy-roller types (and critics in general), a guy like Neil Young could have easily been just another victim. He was lucky to survive and he helped perpetuate the problem that lead to his close friend’s deaths (both drug related). Young and many other survivors personally struggled with all of this, which you can hear in raw, unadulterated form on ‘Tonight’s the Night’ - and to the critic on the outside and looking in, this serves him right.
Fact of the matter is it’s not that easy. A persons character factors into any generation and any culture, be it ‘counter’ or otherwise. As I’ve said before, despite its obvious flaws, I believe the hippie era of the late 60s brought something to the table. Those who came of age during this period had a choice on whether or not to immerse themselves in it. I respect those who resisted the temptation to do so, but I have even more respect for those who took it all in. There was risk in doing this, and like any era, there was plenty of baggage. But if you kept a clear-enough head, there was reward as well, and you were bound to meet some fascinating people who had deep-felt ideas on life’s priorities. And so, a person’s character during these times was not based on whether or not they did drugs (which defines this era as well as anything), but what type of effect they as human beings had on those around them; as is the case with any generation and any culture.
Musicians with character are well positioned to make the most of it, as their personal traits are often revealed in the music. One could say that with his subsequently dubbed ‘Ditch Trilogy’ of back-to-back-to-back early 70s albums (‘Time Fades Away, ‘On the Beach’ and ‘Tonight’s the Night’) that Neil Young spent 4 years mourning the loss of two close friends while in the same context, pointing out the dangers of becoming ‘too far gone’. That’s a long time and a lot of lyrics to stay focused on such dire subject matter. I consider this a strong character trait (as opposed to someone, say, who easily moved on). Young’s character came out in other ways during these hazy times as well. On the CSNY 1974 tour, he refused to travel with the rest of the band, seeing excess and decadence that was too much for his comfort level. Many of his lyrics also point out his retreat from stardom and his attempts to keep it all real.
‘Tonight’s the Night’ is going to take a few of these blogs to fully wrap my mind around over the upcoming months. There’s quite a bit to run with here. A good place to start though is the beginning, and for me, that launch off point was a 1987 Rolling Stone Magazine review of “The Top 100 Albums of the Last 20 Years” (https://www.coastal.edu/library/media/rs100.html ). These reviews helped shape my interest in rock and roll as much as anything that came prior, and to date I still consider it the best summation of the top tier of what the music I love has to offer. ‘Tonight’s the Night’ came in at # 26. The first thing that caught me was a small snapshot of the album cover. Neil Young did not look quite right. He appeared more as a waif of himself, dawning sunglasses on some dark lit night stage, a crooked finger held up in odd exclamation. Later, I would read he was in character of sorts, a seedy Miami Beach entrepreneur of a nightclub (where he would abstractly welcome crowds on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour, no matter the venue or location). After staring at this album cover some, I read the Rolling Stone review and slowly began to understand the story behind this masterpiece.
With each intense listen to this album over the years there’s always a song that ends up hitting me like a ton of bricks in a way that it never did before. This time around it was Lookout Joe. The first brick is Ben Keith’s superb slide guitar bridges (and for the record, I can’t recall better timing than the split second between Neil Young exclaiming “Take it Ben” at the start of the first bridge, and then Ben Keith….taking it). Next for me is the topic: A Vietnam veteran being taken advantage of by assorted gypsies, tramps and thieves. The opening lines bear this out:
a side-walkin' street wheeler,
Comin' down the avenue.
They're all your friends,
you'll come to love 'em
There's a load of 'em
waitin' for you.
I love how Neil Young sings the line “They’re all your friends”. Young sounds just like Lou Reed here, revealing his admiration for Sweet Lou’s understanding of city street creed. It all helps to emphasize the point that this Joe character is naïve and in trouble. Then there’s the title of the song. Without reading the title or lyrics, and instead just listening, you’d think Neil Young is simply stating that Joe has to “look out” for what’s coming. But the ‘look’ and ‘out’ are one word here, and so instead the word is an adjective, describing Joe’s duties in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Ever see the movie ‘Midnight Cowboy’? That’s what comes to mind when I hear Lookout Joe. And then there’s Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) at his low point in ‘Forrest Gump’. And the Tom Cruise character (Ron Kovic) in ‘Born on the 4th of July’. And so much of what Curtis Mayfield sang about in his intense but shortened career. All sad depictions of what must have been a common storyline in the early 70s, which came roaring back while I listened to this song: Despite being a young teenager, I recall those historic times well. One other note about this song… there are lyrics in the 2nd stanza (starting “Remember Millie from down in Philli”) and the refrain (starting “Glory Alleluia”) that appear to tie Neil Young’s personal urban experiences to those of Lookout Joe. I can’t help but think that of all the musicians we know and love, it’s Young that may have sunk the lowest (in terms of homelessness) before making a name for himself.
Another song on this album that hit me hard in the past was Tired Eyes. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash have written songs about decrepit souls (at-first-glance) in apparent empathy to their plight…jailed cop killers and the like. Neil Young does them one better here, singing mournfully about someone who shoots and kills 4 cocaine dealers in vengeance for his brothers slaying. The protagonist in this song is no vigilante, just another lost and addicted joker caught in a tangled web, and the insinuation here is that he’s been caught and is paying for his crimes behind bars (maybe even on death row). It can only be personal here. There’s no other explanation for the intensity of this song.
And finally, there’s this week’s Forever Young entry, Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown, ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfPkmY6HwuI ), the first song to connect with me on this album way back 25 years ago or so. It’s a live track, cut at the Fillmore East several years before most of the songs on ‘Tonight’s the Night were written. The lead singer and cowriter here is Crazy Horse founder, Danny Whitten. The lyrics portray another naiveté of sorts; the reckless abandon of a man diving head long into heroin addiction. But this time the naïve one is the lead-singer himself. Neil Young backs Whitten with his own vocals, but with a bit less conviction than usual. Was he in fear here, witnessing a friend in the midst of a self-induced train wreck? This song is antithetically upbeat, Billy Talbot chipping in with a wonderfully funky bass beat. One thing it reveals to me: If Whitten had remained amongst the living, Neil Young Crazy Horse would have had two great songwriters (case in point, one of Whitten’s most famous tunes is I Don’t Want to Talk About it, made a hit by Rita Coolidge and Rod Stewart).
I wanted to write a bit on the title track, about that other lost friend of Neil Young’s, Bruce Berry…. but I’m not quite there yet. And it deserves its own entry, seeing as Young has likely played this song live more than any other. Yeah, I’ll save that one for later.
On a closing note, as I turned through the pages of the inner sleeve I noticed something interesting: There’s a photo of the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ band on stage (including Billy Talbot, Nils Lofgren, and Ralph Molina), with their names annotated under them. There’s also Danny Whitten’s name annotated underneath an empty space on the stage. I struggled to spot him. Was he perhaps partially hidden behind a speaker? Nope, he’s not there.
… It’s yet another insight to how Neil Young and crew approached this album, this tour, and this period in their lives.
Oh, one last thing…. a correction to an early post: It was Mac who introduced me to the music of Richard Thompson (Jeff retains credit for all the other musicians I mentioned). How could I forget what brought me to hearing Tear Stained Letter for the first time!
And you too, Ben Keith
And you, Danny Whitten
And you, Neil Young