The most exciting cultural news I’ve heard this infant year is that Neil Young is finally recording again with his longtime backing band, Crazy Horse. This is the first they've played together since the uneven 2003 concept album Greendale. Listen to the direction of Young’s recent music and it's clear that he’s driving back to the domain of the “spook” he gets with the Horse’s Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro.
His last studio album, Le Noise, was a reckoning of his decades in the spotlight. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it catapults Young into uncharted sonic territory, as he plays solo with Lanois blasting every electric shred and lick into widely discordant streaks. The lyrics to “Walk With Me,” “Love And War,” “Hitchhiker,” “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” all hear like scrawls an unsettled, insomniac Young jotted down on napkin paper in the middle of the night. Le Noise isn’t sentimental like 2000’s Silver And Gold, or elegiac like 2005’s Prairie Wind. The record is terrified at the prospect that life is closer to ending than it was before, and all the accomplishments of a great artist may not have been enough. That’s why it is so damn loud. Le Noise is Crazy Horse music without Crazy Horse, except with prayers finally answered that’s all about to change.
I’m playing a bootleg recording of a concert Young performed in Albany on May 18th, 2010. Musicians work in perpetual regeneration that artists in other mediums don’t experience because their paint is dried. As Young re-enters “Tell Me Why,” or “Down By The River,” it’s like John Cheever rebuilding his short story “The Enormous Radio” from the ground up, night after night. There are a few pauses and false starts-it appears Young isn’t crazy about the venue’s sound system-but the new and old songs merge in a seamless tapestry of a united life’s work (“isn’t it all just one song,” Young asks at one point, echoing his Into-The-Breach credo at the beginning of the 1997 double live Year Of The Horse), and yet we feel his sense of incompleteness at playing “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” by himself.
There’s a laid-bare finality to Le Noise. Young confesses that while he tried to write songs about love and war, he might have “hit a bad chord”-possibly referring to his 2006 screed Living With War or “Bernard Shakey’s” flaky activist films Greendale and CSNY Déjà Vu. On the epic, autobiographical “Hitchhiker,” he borrows the melody from “Like An Inca,” a song from his criminally underrated electro-sci fi-Hawaii-rock record Trans to recount how far he has come despite battles with relationships, paranoia, cocaine, and himself. “I’m trying to escape my past but its catching up to me,” he sings. Two albums with The Horse have been announced for release this year-be still/heart-but this union is clearly a part of Young’s past he is always willing to make present. I’ve decided to revisit a selection of releases by Neil Young and Crazy Horse while this news is still warm. Young said that he has never played a bad night with them. I don’t think he’s made a bad album with them, either.
The Ditch Trilogy
To get one thing out of the way: Young’s crowning achievement wasn’t officially made with The Horse. After the enormous mainstream success of 1972’s Harvest, which contains the Neil Young songs most people know the best (“Old Man,” “Heart Of Gold,” “The Needle And The Damage Done”), Young felt like he had ended up in “the middle of the road.” To get out of this artistic stagnation, there was only one gritty place to go.
The Ditch Trilogy is the unofficial, fan-branded moniker for 1973’s Time Fades Away, ‘74’s On The Beach, and the following year’s Tonight’s The Night. Barring Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Updike’s Rabbit At Rest, Jean-Luc Godard’s entire filmography and Morrissey’s “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” this triptych is probably my personal favorite work of popular art. Time Fades Away is comprised of eight soundboard recordings from a tour so draining that Young has yet to release the record on CD. It is out of print, and he’s rarely played the songs since, which is an enormous loss, considering just how essential “Don’t Be Denied” and “Last Dance” truly are.
David Briggs, Young’s late, great longtime producer, hated the unpolished blitzkrieg of the album. I’m reminded of the myths accusing Robert Altman of deliberately distorting McCabe’s picture and sound to its bare muddiness. Really, for a follow-up release to one of 1972’s most successful records, Time Fades Away first demonstrated Young’s sheer power of gut-will. He had to put out Time Fades Away, no matter the dozens of factors explicitly telling him he shouldn’t. The sonic mange only adds resonance to “Denied,” a rags-to-riches story tangled in the rags, and the where-I’m-calling-from “L.A.” where Young tells us, as if over the phone, “Don’t you wish that you could be here to?” Does he want to switch places?
Time Fades Away is a gloomy title for a wracked, uncompromised work. If an album by a major success (remember, before his rise as a solo artist, Young was a former member of the classic rock band Buffalo Springfield and on-off “N” of CSNY) reaches the ear with such spotty rawness, what does that say about its maker’s vision of that success? Young doesn’t even believe it, proclaiming himself as “A pauper in a naked disguise/A millionaire in a businessman’s eyes.”
The next two installments are both introspective and expansive, peering into the soul of a desiccated artist and outward at the crime and dope-soaked world that artist lives in. Tonight’s The Night was inspired by the deaths of Bruce Berry, one of Young’s roadies, and guitarist Danny Whitten, an initial member of Crazy Horse. Both fatalities were drug related.
Harvest’s “Needle” is the ideal NY anti-drug ditty for radio play and Greatest Hits canonization, poetic and sad enough to move the casually moveable before they move on. Tonight’s The Night is the unmitigated exploration of substances eroding talent, soil, light and hope. The opening title track mentions Berry by name, and Young’s voice has never sounded more parched and decimated than the moment he chokes, “I heard that he died, out on the mainline.” Rock critic Cormac McCarthy’s description in The Road of his jet-black, post-apocalyptic American skyline resembling “some cold Glaucoma dimming away the world,” is as good as any summing up of the experience of listening. Nothing can survive in the space of this album, from Young’s creativity (“Borrowed Tune”) to the lives of dope dealers killed before morning’s first light (“Tired Eyes”), as if Berry’s fate in that inaugural track formed the black roots of an immense dying tree. When his behavior couldn’t be tolerated any longer, Young fired Whitten, giving him the 50 dollars he would later use to purchase his climactic hit. Whitten is reanimated on the live recording “Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown,” but the track ends, and he goes away, back into the dark bloom. Tonight’s the final night, the final hit, the final show, the final breath. Enjoy it. There won’t be any more.
On The Beach’s California death trip cuts from Young’s lost-soul diary to view in longshot the Mansonlike cult in “Revolution Blues,” who hate celebrities worse than lepers and want nothing more than to kill them in their fucking cars; afterwards we dissolve to the somber eco pollution of "Vampire Blues," and the whole thing started so jauntily with “Walk On,” an up-tempo birdflip to Young’s critics. The production gets more and more nonexistent, until we can practically see the hemp smoke rising from “On The Beach,” “Motion Pictures,” and “Ambulance Blues” like the evident haze of Honey Slides, the Grass and sweet honey combination Young and his personnel consumed while recording.
This trilogy is a manifestation of a state of mind, especially side B of On The Beach, which is a place we might all go after the deal cracks up. As listeners, we don’t have to be Neil Young to empathize with the three lengthy cuts, we just have to be people who know what he means when he sings, “I’m deep inside myself but I’ll get out somehow.”
On The Beach. If we’ve survived the night that for the less fortunate was The Night, we walk on the beach, our bodies emoted to the furthest point of endurance, and we flop near the shoreline, wondering why we’re still here. Time fades away. Tide fades away. We’re Barton Fink: we’ve failed, even if we have just completed the best work of our lives. Young sees “motion pictures on my TV screen,” creating a perfect metaphor for human beings living at half of their capacity, relegated to grains of suicidal thought and self-doubt, just as the mighty Panavision movies they used to make in California become chopped, cropped, cut, and broadcast on television in the age before VHS tapes made the hatchet jobs collectable. The Beach can be a bedroom where it has been decided by the inhabitant that the inhabitant no longer wants to be alive, or a car ride when you feel like a passenger, even though you’re driving and there’s nobody else on the highway.
“The seagulls are still out of reach.” We swim inside the song and use the projection power the blues can enable to make those gulls a person so much like ourselves that we can’t possibly stay in touch with them, or the shores of previous years hollowed like landmine impact, empty like tubes of toothpaste, and we can’t get back because we’re lying here, kneading sand.
The Ditch Trilogy is a chronicle of the loss of time, friends, well being. Demure, redheaded B-Movie actress Monique Parent said something in an interview I read years ago that I’ve never been able to forget. Commenting on the tonic effect sultry, erotic softcore movies like Playtime have had on the sleepless viewers who come to them on the late-night Cinemax slipstream and find endearing, hot, whatever, the fussed-over simulacrum of sex our species wants to prefer to tell itself it has, in a great rush of motherly compassion, in a quote that probably came from somewhere else but that I’ll forever associate with her, she said: “I comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
Monique’s delicious performances and Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy are best inhaled at nighttime, when the comfortable-who are really disturbed but won’t admit it, or admit that sometimes they need Monique’s help-have turned in, leaving here the wretches and the demonic untouched.
Comforting the disturbed is noble work. The disturbed switch on a pay-cable channel, or play an album years older than they are, and the healing can begin. The only way to escape the ditch, to reclaim time, to get to the next morning and find a way off the beach is to meet a fellow traveler, a pilgrim, who has remained, waiting for a disturbed individual to guide.
Why devote so much space to The Ditch Trilogy in a piece ostensibly covering Young’s work with “The 3rd greatest garage band of all time?” Because nearly every time he makes a record with them, or plays with Crazy Horse live, he’s back in the Ditch Trilogy zone, where the characters Young sometimes plays are brought novelistically to life, material about war (“Mideast Vacation,” “Around The World,”) and urban squalor (“Drive By,” “Safeway Cart,”) actually transport us to diseased locations both home and abroad, instead of being merely the sung lyrics of the more popular Freedom’s “Crime In The City.” He passes the roadblock, buries himself back on the beach like the submerged vehicle on the album cover, isn’t content, isn’t domesticated, isn’t “Neil Young” but “Neil Young” and a whinnying stallion defying the orb of the moon. They allow Young to sound like shit because he lets them allow him to sound like shit and dig to a given song’s marrow until he transcends the marrow and isn’t playing a song but is just one of four men, playing long into art’s night.
Reading Jimmy McDonough’s essential Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography while listening to the music is a tremendous experience, almost like entering another country. At close to a thousand pages, there isn’t an exit visa. Take the trip, and you sometimes forgot where you are. Hopefully, you might forget who you are.
McDonough is an odd sort, a hipster narcissist who periodically inserts himself and his own encounters with the work of those he’s profiling. (You’ll probably never find another biography where the author gets so close to his subject he ends up wiping his ass, like McDonough did with ramshackle horror director Andy Milligan.) I think I’m youthful, egocentric and full of piss enough to admire his autobiographical digressions into the sensual feel of the Tonight’s The Night LP, or staring into the soul of a girl at the other side of a party room while Young’s “Like A Hurricane” claims the air. Even though Jimmy’s relationship with the girl “went to hell in a handbasket,” he still possesses that almighty song and the sparkle in her eyes. I wish I had his chutzpa. I can only write obliquely about the people with whom I’d had a connection and subsequently drove away, and I’m not doing it while being entrusted with the only authorized biography of one of the world’s most popular musicians. If you’re a flawed human and have at least dug a single Young track, you have got to read it, especially with the body of work close at hand. The experience will change your life.
Luckily, McDonough is a Crazy Horse fan. He writes that even though The Horse aren’t taken seriously by much of the professional musicalratti, he would listen to hours upon hours of their roughest playing over, say, the cleaner guitar work of Sting. One of the things I love about them is their unadulterated thrashy fuckall, Poncho and Talbot’s guitar support and Molina’s tinny, relentless backbeat. The form and content of their records with Young are endlessly fascinating to me, and I get more catharsis out of them than I do “better” bands like The Clash, The Rolling Stones, New York Dolls. The only comparable sensatory power arrives to my neophyte ears in the bliss of Sleater-Kinney. While Carrie Brownstein is a first-rate guitarist and Poncho isn’t, her only comparable disadvantage is that she is not playing with someone who uses every session with The Horse as a chance to burn out and fade away at the same insane instant.