Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
After the huge success of his Harvest LP and the “Heart Of Gold” single, both of which reached #1 on the US Pop charts, Neil Young should have been basking in the glow of superstardom. Instead, recoiling from the notoriety and frustrated by the drug addictions that claimed the lives of his Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten and one of his roadies, he worked through these various emotions on a series of albums that would later earn the nickname “The Ditch Trilogy.” This referred to a comment he made in the liner notes for his 1977 Decade compilation about being in the middle of the road after Harvest, and how “traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” The first release in this so-called trilogy was Time Fades Away, a live album that’s never been officially released on CD. Since I never found a copy of the vinyl LP, it’s one of only a few Neil Young albums I won’t be able to revisit in this series. Hopefully I’ll stumble on a copy one day.
The next “ditch” album, On The Beach (1974), was actually recorded after its follow-up but released first. Over the years it’s earned a reputation as a dark, moody masterpiece, and after playing it a number of times this past week I have to agree with that appraisal. Musically it’s a very enjoyable listen, but with the word “blues” included in three out of eight song titles and lyrics that bemoan the end of ‘60s idealism, the subject matter probably scared off a lot of his fair weather fans. Album opener “Walk On” has a raw, almost unmastered sound that compliments the jazzy rhythm and raucous guitar riff. I love the great walking groove and the way the guitar weaves in & out of the other instruments, as well as the slowdown during the pre-chorus (“Ooh baby that’s hard to change”). “See The Sky About To Rain” is a lovely, tender ballad with vibrato-laden organ and a melancholy country feel. The Band’s Levon Helm adds his inimitable drumming style, notably at “Signals curling on an open plain, rollin’ down the track again…” The lyrics may be downcast, but musically & vocally he’s attempting to release the negativity. “Revolution Blues” once again features Helm on drums with his Band-mate Rick Danko on bass. It’s a driving tune that’s equal parts swampy & funky, with an ominous undertone. Who is he railing against with lyrics like, “I hope you get the connection, ‘cause I can’t take the rejection, I won’t deceive you, I just don’t believe you”? This song also includes a stellar yet understated guitar solo.
“For The Turnstiles” is a musical duet between Neil on dobro and Ben Keith on banjo (who also adds nice tight harmonies). Neil’s vocals are a bit ragged, but most likely that was intentional to convey lyrics like, “You can really learn a lot that way, it will change you in the middle of the day. Though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn’t matter.” “Vampire Blues” is a true blues tune, both musically as well as structurally (where a line is repeated twice at the start of each verse). It’s clearly a commentary on the oil industry (“Well I’m a vampire, babe, sell you twenty barrels worth”) with stinging & emotive guitar playing. It also includes great lines like, “Good times are comin’ but they sure are comin’ slow.”
“On The Beach” is a moody, super slow song with a dark intensity. Over the course of 7 minutes, he’s working through depression with harrowing lines like, “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.” It’s bleak, emotive & powerful, and his single-note-at-a-time guitar solo sounds like BB King on downers. “Motion Pictures (For Carrie)” is the most minor song here, dedicated to his then-girlfriend, actress Carrie Snodgress. It’s a very pretty acoustic guitar song, but it gets lost among the towering tracks that bookend it. Album closer “Ambulance Blues” is the longest song at 9 minutes. It’s acoustic folk with great finger-plucked guitar, and the moody fiddle might have influenced Bob Dylan on his Desire album in 1976. Dylan’s influence on Neil can be heard as well, most notably in his harmonica playing. It features great lines like, “An ambulance can only go so fast, it’s easy to get buried in the past when you try to make a good thing last,” and I think the final verse (“I never knew a man could tell so many lies”) was aimed at then-President Richard Nixon. There may be no radio staples to be found on this album, but it delivers the goods and improves with each successive listen. There’s a reason why every song was worth a mention, while most albums have at least some forgettable filler. This is one of those records that I expect to continue climbing up my list of favorite Neil Young albums over the years.
The final “ditch” album, Tonight’s The Night (1975), was actually recorded two years before its release but was held back, probably due to the mostly uncommercial music and subject matter. Like its predecessor, this album has a great reputation among fans & critics, and has continued to grow in stature as the years pass. It’s not as dark and dreary as its reputation might have you believe, but it’s also not always easy listening. “Tonight’s The Night,” which appears in two versions at the start & end of the album, is a haunting meditation on drug addiction and the pain it causes to the addicts and everyone around them. I prefer the first version, which is stark and haunting, with a memorable descending bass line and high harmonies (provided by Ben Keith and Ralph Molina). Dedicated to Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry (the aforementioned roadie who gets name-checked in the song), Neil sounds heartbroken when he sings, “People let me tell you it sent a chill up and down my spine, when I picked up the telephone and heard that he’s died…out on the mainline.” Things pick up a bit on “Speakin’ Out,” a midtempo blues with Neil on piano and Nils Lofgren providing some biting lead guitar (including a solo where Neil rightfully shouts out his name). The lyrics are seemingly simple, but I couldn’t wrap my head around “You’re holding my baby and I’m holding you” or “I’ll be watching my TV and it’ll be watching you.” “Roll Another Number (For The Road)” is a weepy country ballad that conveys the feeling of being at a bar for last call after a long night of drinking. Keith delivers a straight-up country steel guitar solo while Lofgren plays some nice barrelhouse piano. Neil seems to be putting his superstar CSNY days behind him (“I’m not going back to Woodstock for a while”).
“Albuquerque” has a slow, loping rhythm with a lighter touch than the typical Crazy Horse performance (the two surviving band members play throughout the album along with other musicians, so it’s not strictly a Crazy Horse record). I like the balance between the aggressive electric and high-pitched steel guitars. Neil obviously is trying to get away from it all (“I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am”). At just over 2 minutes, “New Mama” is the shortest song, but this simple & upbeat tune with Neil on guitar & vibes and Lofgren on piano (with some tight CSNY-worthy harmonies) gives the feeling of clouds lifting after a bad storm. The a capella chorus at the end is simply gorgeous. “Tired Eyes” is another harrowing song that’s also somehow uplifting. I love how Neil goes from speaking to singing the line “Please take my advice” followed by “Open up the tired eyes.” I think The Rolling Stones had this song on their record player when they were writing “Far Away Eyes” a couple of years later.
The songs I’ve already mentioned were the highlights for me, but there’s really not a bad song on the album, and a couple of others deserve a brief mention. “World On A String” has a bit of a bounce to it, as he lets us know that stardom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (“No, the world on a string doesn’t mean a thing, it’s only real in the way that I feel from day to day”). A similar theme pops up in “Borrowed Tune,” with only Neil on piano and harmonica, singing lines like “I’m climbin’ this ladder, my head in the clouds. I hope that it matters, I’m havin’ my doubts.” “Come On Baby Let’s Go Down” was recorded live with Danny Whitten (who co-wrote it with Neil) on vocals. There’s nothing groundbreaking about it; it’s a bouncy rocker with a swinging groove, but featuring such a strong performance from Whitten here was an important statement of what was lost when he died. This record definitely isn’t for everyone, and you really need to be in a particular mood to fully enjoy it, but when that mood strikes it feels like the best thing he’s ever recorded.
With Zuma (1975), Neil seemed to be emerging from his world-weary shell, although the theme of post-breakup blues permeates a number of the songs as his relationship with Carrie Snodgress had recently ended. This is the first album to feature the revamped lineup of Crazy Horse, which now included rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro. “Don’t Cry No Tears” is a great album opener: a bouncy, Faces-esque melodic country-rock song that introduces the breakup theme as he imagines her with another man (“There’s nothing I can say to make him go away”). Although I had probably heard Neil’s original first, this song initially made an impression on me via a cover version by Scottish band Del Amitri (one of my favorite artists of the last 20 years) on one of their b-sides in the ‘90s. It’s a faithful rendition that’s worth checking out. “Danger Bird” is slow as molasses, and his voice in the chorus sounds like it’s nearly beyond his range. I love the lead guitar figure after the verse (“There you are and here I am”) that moves into the first of two killer guitar solos, as well as the alternating vocals between Neil and the Crazy Horse guys. “Pardon My Heart” features some nice guitar work, alternating between strumming, fingerpicking & an atmospheric lead. There are cool vocals by Ralph Molina & Billy Talbot (“You brought it all on”) as Neil continues to get over the breakup (“It’s a sad communication with little reason to believe, when one isn’t giving and one pretends to receive”).
The centerpiece of the album, and one of the cornerstones of his entire recorded output, is “Cortez The Killer,” a historical song about a 16th century Spanish conquistador who conquered Mexico, which also references Mexican emperor Montezuma (presumably an inspiration for the album title). This is a true epic with perfect dynamics that moves along at a glacial pace, and features incredible guitar solos from Neil. The restraint shown by Crazy Horse is incredible, as the space between notes is just as valuable as the notes themselves. Every musician should play this song at least once to learn the meaning of the phrase “less is more.”
The remainder of the album contains some very enjoyable songs. “Lookin’ For A Love” is a peppy country-ish tune with hints of The Eagles, especially in the chorus (“Lookin’ for a love that’s right for me, I don’t know how long it’s going to be”). “Barstool Blues” has a chiming, Byrds-like sound with fuzzy guitar and deep bass added to the mix. I love his super-straining vocals at “Burn off all the fog and let the sun through to the snow.” The album ends with “Through My Sails,” a simple moody & acoustic Crosby Stills Nash & Young song that features typically great harmonies. Sequenced immediately after “Cortez…” it’s like a peaceful Sunday morning following a crazy Saturday night. Had Zuma merely consisted of “Cortez…” and a bunch of forgettable numbers it would still be an essential purchase, but there are enough excellent songs to make this a great addition to his catalog, even if it doesn’t have the cohesiveness & consistency of the previous two albums.
His next album, American Stars ‘N Bars (1977), is a schizophrenic hodgepodge that includes songs recorded by several different lineups at four sessions between 1974 & 1977. The members of Crazy Horse feature prominently, often augmented by other musicians & singers, most notably Linda Ronstadt and 25-year-old newcomer Nicolette Larson (who would have a huge hit with Neil’s “Lotta Love” a year later). “The Old Country Waltz” is exactly as the title suggests. No surprises there, but it’s still an enjoyably sad song (“Well I loved and I lost and I cried, the day that the two of us died”). “Saddle Up The Palomino” combines country & celtic together in a blend that recalls Fairport Convention, especially the guitar riff during the instrumental breaks. “Hey Babe” is a nice upbeat country tune that finds him actually sounding optimistic (“Let’s try to make this last”). There’s a great subtle hook at “Oh, oh, can you see my love shining for you” with those wonderful female vocals. Ronstadt & Larson are also featured in “Hold Back The Tears” with a big memorable chorus (“Hold back the tears that you’ve been cryin’, push off the fears when they come around…just around the corner may be waiting your true love”). “Bite The Bullet” is more ramshackle than the previous songs, which sets it apart. I love those female vocals as they shout out the title after each line of the verse, as well as the silly but fun lyrics (“Carolina queen, she’s like a walking love machine”). It’s nice to hear him loosening up and having a blast.
“Star Of Bethlehem” is noteworthy as a duet with Emmylou Harris. It wasn’t my favorite song here, but I like the muted production and Neil’s harmonica solo. “Will To Love” is a wonderful new discovery for me. Neil plays and sings everything, so it comes across more as a home demo than a fully-produced track, but that works to its advantage. His tight multi-tracked vocals, which are tender & soft, create a haunting atmosphere. There are interesting textures throughout, between what sounds like leg smacking, an organ that replicates a vibraphone and the gently picked & tapped acoustic guitar. The lyrics are enigmatic (“I can be like a fire in the night, always warm and giving off light, but there comes a time when I shine too bright”), and various underwater references which equate him with a fish swimming in a sea of love. At over 7 minutes it might be too long for some listeners, but I got hooked (no pun intended). The most famous track from this album is “Like A Hurricane,” a classic Crazy Horse blaring rock song that reminds me of Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” (it must be those soaring guitars). The album ends with a simple, fun ditty: “Homegrown.” At first it comes across as a throwaway song, but the catchy vocals, biting guitars and the stomping blues feel in the last line of each verse won me over. I would consider American Stars ‘N Bars to be at the same level as Zuma, each with one all-time great epic and several other excellent songs.
The most impressive thing about this batch of albums is that there’s really no filler to be found. Even the lesser tracks are all worth hearing and there’s nothing I would skip when revisiting them in the future. It also proved to me that, even though Crazy Horse has a reputation for being this monolithic, sludgy behemoth (which is certainly one side of their personality), they’re also capable of delivering subtle accompaniment to Neil’s most intimate & heartbreaking songs. Throughout this past week I’ve found myself humming more than a dozen of these songs hours after I had played the CDs. It’s always a good sign when songs stick with you and you’re not eager to get them out of your head. I hope I’ll be that lucky with the next set of albums, which I’ll start listening to tomorrow.