Saturday, September 27, 2014

Forever Young # 36: "Facing the Music"

Song:  Tonight’s the Night
Album:  Tonight’s the Night
Released:  June, 1975 (2 year delayed-release)

One of Neil Young’s most oft quoted statements is one he wrote in the liner notes for ‘Decade’.  In it he states that ‘Heart of Gold’, the acclaimed 1972 album with his only #1 song (the title cut) “put me in the middle of the road.  Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch” (* Side note:  The term “Ditch Trilogy”, coined by Young aficionados in reference to his subsequent 3 morose albums, is tied to this statement).   Young was alluding to the commercial soft-rock success of ‘Heart of Gold’ and the necessity to move on in order to stay fresh.  There were a number of directions Young could have gone, but the direction he chose (or was chosen for him) was straight down.  Down to places most musicians don’t want to go.  I’m not referring to a dark side, as some might think.  I’m referring to facing pain and suffering head on.  And in the early years of the 1970s, Neil Young had plenty of this to confront.

The 3rd album in the trilogy ‘Tonight’s the Night’ (which was actually the 2nd considering when it was produced in comparison to its release) is in the ditch alright; a ditch festooned with barbed wire and cow manure.  I already wrote a Forever Young entry about it (# 14), but at the time, promised to come back, if only to focus on the title track. After all, Tonight’s the Night ( ) rivals a handful of songs in terms of how often I have seen it performed live.  It’s not one of my favorite tunes; not by a long shot.  But as with the Rolling Stones Satisfaction, which I was also apathetic to, yet ended up giving its own Stepping Stone (# 41, September 2012), I’ve grown to respect Tonight’s the Night, if for no other reason than the songwriter’s own fascination for it (as is the case with Satisfaction).  I’ll try to explain why here.    

‘Tonight’s the Night’ was the first of Neil Young’s compositions that had a reprise, that being the title track, which occurs at the beginning and end of the record (the two others that come to mind are My My, Hey Hey {Out of the Blue} / Hey Hey, My My {Into the Black} off 1979s ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and Rockin’ in the Free World - acoustic and electric versions - off of 1989s ‘Freedom’).  This to me had always meant that there was a storyline here.  But for many years I had thought it to simply be a loose affiliation of songs related to the decline and eventual overdose death of two of Young’s close friends, Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, sung from the songwriter’s point of view (with most songs put to tape during one late hazy night jam session in August of 1973, giving the whole product a cohesive sound and feel).

Fine enough.  That works as a storyline.  But after doing some more reading on the subject, it was Young himself who raised the bar a few notches for me, setting the record straight (no pun intended) by hinting in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine that the song sequence may actually be a bit closer to the fatally-flawed sources of his inspiration.  In other words, the album is an attempt to frame the story from Whitten and Berry’s point of view on their downward spiral from troubled to “too far gone” to the grave.  Of course, few if any can self-reflect when they are in such a frame of mind (Dylan Thomas perhaps?).  And so Neil Young and company (Ben Keith, Nils Lofgren, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina) attempt to put themselves in the shoes of their lost friends.  When you listen to it in this context, ‘Tonight’s the Night’ enters a new realm of intensity and clarity, and in the process I believe it significantly helps to propel Young into the single-digit pantheon of rock immortals.

I would like to think there are few in this world who would want to achieve lofty stature upon such a tragedy as the premature loss of two close friends to overdose (this thought brings to mind Jon Krakauer getting flack for writing ‘Into Thin Air’ about his personal account of the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster).  Certainly not Neil Young, since it’s clear that for him the ramifications would be lasting in his writing and reflections on these events throughout his career; and not in a good way (at least for him).  The pain is palpable and it is to Young’s credit that he never really has put this behind him.  Much like Pink Floyd who penned ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, Shine on You Crazy Diamond and ‘The Wall’ with founding member Syd Barrett in mind (after Barrett slipped into LSD-induced madness early in the band’s career).  In both cases, the musicians focused much of their writing on trying to come to grips with what had occurred.  

We the fans heard it all and felt it all, which is ultimately why this focus paid off.  It was a lesson learned for us 2nd generation listeners growing up in the 70s.  Why did I personally get caught up in it?  I mean, my goodness, this material is dour.  Well, why does anyone get caught up in artistic reflection of misstep and misfortune, be it Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare, opera, Don Quixote, or a movie like ‘Saving Private Ryan’.  It all comes down to this:  Good art is truth, no matter the subject matter or forum, and people recognize it as such.

Over the years, Neil Young let go of many of the songs on ‘Tonight’s the Night’ as touring staples (oh, what a treat it would be to see him play Albuquerque, Lookout Joe, Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown or Tired Eyes), but he never let go of the title track no matter who he was touring with.  Why?  I believe it goes back to that concept of using the song as a reprise on the album.  At the beginning of the record it feels like a living, breathing set of three words, sung by Bruce Berry (with Young filling in) in haunting refrain.  At the end of the album the words echo like a ghost around the band and us. 

What this song means most to me is that Berry, who was the roadie for CSNY, was working on his own music, his own songs, playing Neil Young’s guitar late at night (“after the people were gone”) with the hope that he’d break through a mental barrier by repeating the refrain “Tonight’s the night” again and again.  Young found Bruce Berry’s singing “as real as the day was long”, and so lamented that this fledging talent was never realized.  Yet this song feels like a lament for all untapped talent, all unrealized dreams, snuffed out prematurely in one form or another. 

Neil Young never tried to complete Bruce Berry’s song.  He just took the “Tonight’s the Night” refrain and built it into his own song.  It’s fascinating that for all Young has written and all he has covered it’s these 3 words, originally sung by a roadie, that may just be what he, in the end, has repeated most in front of large crowds of people.  It says a lot about the man, and about these life-changing events and the effects they had on him.

Many of us listening were too young and na├»ve to truly realize the intensity of what played out in front of us in our earliest years of attending Neil Young concerts and hearing, Tonight’s the Night.  But life has a way of catching up with you, eventually making such a story all too real.  These are the crossroad moments.  Do you face the music, as Neil Young did, or do you find ways to move on and suppress? 

I vote for facing the music (literally and figuratively), because in the end this is what resonates and gives us pause, hopefully leading to action and ultimately the prevention of similar Berry/Whitten-like consequences.

-          Pete

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