Sunday, January 20, 2008

Neil Young’s Blue Period, or Why “Tonight’s the Night” is Better Than “Harvest”

I ran into a friend in late 1978, a short time after Neil Young released “Comes a Time”, and we both agreed that it was great that Neil had finally come out with another pretty record. It had been a long time since “Harvest”, and we just didn’t get that other stuff he was doing for a while… I guess I’ve changed my mind since then.

Don’t get me wrong. I like pretty. I’ll even tolerate pretty but dumb, but not pretty and offensively dumb. This is not a philosophical quibble. Who wants to be around the perkiest person in the room? After a while, you want to punch them in the face. The miserable bastard, however, is great to be around when he’s in a good mood. That‘s why my favorite pretty Neil Young record is, well, “Comes a Time”, but later for that.

Neil went from being an FM darling to a hit maker (only one, really – “Heart of Gold”) to an FM darling that everyone was hoping would produce another hit. His fans were extraordinarily patient, and he used to drive them crazy at concerts by playing whatever the hell he felt like – usually brand new or unreleased stuff - to the exclusion of what people may have come to hear.

But are we talking about his CSNY songs? Not really. Buffalo Springfield? As great as they were, most of his fans by now thought that they were the band that Paul McCartney was in before Wings. So that left his solo stuff. His first record was good but the only one people remembered from it was “The Loner”. “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” was sharper, and came out when long guitar solos were still big. It didn’t hurt that the songs were really good. They get even better on “After the Goldrush”. And even though there’s less guitar, it’s still clear as a bell and very, very soulful, even in the quiet parts.

Obviously “Harvest” was very popular, but I wonder how many people loved it. It’s certainly got some good songs (“Old Man”, “Needle and the Damage Done” and “Harvest”) but the rest of it is kind of bland. I just hear a lot of pedal steel, or worse, orchestras. When it wasn’t serious, it was awfully mellow. Okay, that’s enough to make a lot of people happy, and it was such a hit that it would give him the momentum to go off the beaten path for a while without suffering too much commercially.

Without going into the exact order of events, let’s say that life pointed Neil Young the artist towards a darker side, which he explored over several records with no hits on them. People kept buying them because Neil was the Great White Hope before people knew they were looking for one. (What were they going to do, buy Steven Stills records?) Then Springsteen came along, and Neil was off the hook.

But here’s a reminder of what he accomplished while he was off the beaten path:

Time Fades Away

Time Fades Away
A live album of all new material, it’s not quite a great album, but it is quite good. It’s also the first clear indication that Neil was turning his back on slickness. He’s also keeping a firmer grip on rock and roll, which, frankly, was becoming more problematic for those who preferred CSN to Y. By now, Danny Whitten, the guitarist from Crazy Horse, is dead, so Neil uses Ben Keith on pedal steel. But this time around, instead of sentimentality, it conveys chaos and desperation.

 Tonight's the Night

Tonight’s the Night
A dark night of the soul, and not a good place to be for very long, but it’s his best record. “New Mama” is as beautiful as anything he’s ever done. “Albequerque” sums up his take on stardom. “Roll Another Number” disposes of Woodstock in the space of a verse. “Tired Eyes” is the climax, and Neil’s rarely done a record as soulful, even if he and the band don’t hit all the right notes. “Mellow My Mind” is the dark heart of the record. “World on a String” is so primal that it’s hard to believe it was done in the Have a Nice Day Seventies. (Neil wasn’t the only one exploring this territory, though. There’s also Sly Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” and Big Star’s “Third”. Don’t listen to these records all at the same time.) It’s understandable why a lot of people didn’t like Tonight’s the Night when it came out. It definitely wasn’t pretty. Not lazy, either – drunk yes, but lazy no. And in 1975, when most of us were moving away from rock and roll, this record lands squarely in it.

On the Beach

On the Beach
A strange experiment. Nothing here is quite right. A fairly straightforward rocker, like “Walk On” gets a little goose from a slide guitar. “See the Sky About to Rain”, done better both by the Byrds, and Neil himself on solo piano on a very powerful bootlegged live version, is kind of anesthetized here. The rest of side one is not bad. It’s kind of funny, weird and topical. But it’s really side two that gives off the eerie glow. “On the Beach” and “Motion Pictures” are slow, quiet and hypnotic, if you give them a chance. “Ambulance Blues”, on the other hand, doesn’t care if you like it or not, and it’s one of his greatest songs. It’s late night music. Actually recorded after, but released before “Tonight’s the Night”, it’s like the hangover after a particularly nasty binge.


Most of his demon’s exorcized (but not the misogynist one), Neil reforms Crazy Horse and plays it straight, for him, anyway. I prefer “Danger Bird” to “Cortez the Killer”, which is saying something. “Barstool Blues”, “Pardon My Heart”, “Lookin’ for a Love” and “Through My Sails” are all great. As loud as it can sometimes get, it still strikes me as one of his calmest records. Was Neil in rehab? I doubt it.

 American Stars 'N Bars (Reissue)

American Stars and Bars:
Neil seems to be gathering strength here. Half a new album (“Hey Babe”) and half bits and pieces lying around “Like a Hurricane”, “Star of Bethlehem”. Only with Neil will the bits and pieces be better. The other gems are “Bite the Bullet” and the great , strange “Will to Love”.


This is one of the few triple disc sets that I could listen to all the way through. (I think it fits on two CDs though). It skimps a bit on the dark side, but makes up for it with the previously unreleased stuff (“Deep Forbidden Lake”, “Winterlong”, “Campaigner”). Plus it’s got almost all of his best songs from Buffalo Springfield.

 Comes A Time

Comes a Time:
The cover shows a smiling, older and wiser-looking Neil. You know by now that he’s been through hell, so the simple melodic beauty is breathtaking. It’s as though he’s saying You want pretty? I’ll give you pretty. I’m better at it than anyone else! And he’s right.

So it’s a happy ending, if you see “Rust Never Sleeps” as a vindication, which it is. And although the rest of his career is uneven to say the least, it's also very interesting. But we probably agree on that. My point is that you may not appreciate the above records, even though you probably own a lot of them already. So go down to the basement and get them out! I think you’ll find they are like antique furniture that may have not looked as pretty as new furniture at the time. But a lot of that other stuff is looking awfully tacky now, whereas Neil's has stood the test of time.


Anonymous said...

What about Trans? (Is that the title?)

Jaybee said...

Yeah, I love "Trans", but I was looking at a period in Neil's career where he fell off the radar. This is hard to believe now, but at the time everyone was waiting for another "Heart of Gold". Finally, by the time "Rust Never Sleeps" came out, he'd shown that he had been on the right path all along. Then he was gone again, for most of the eighties. I'll leave it to someone more dedicated than me to find the jewels in that period.