Dark, depressing, and brilliant
Tonight’s the Night is one the most shambolic albums I’ve ever heard. It is also one of Neil Young’s best. How that is so I cannot say. Some records can impress you on first listen, while others take time. This LP falls into the latter category, where for years I struggled to understand why so many fans and critics preferred this to say, Harvest, or even After the Gold Rush. Now I’m no elitist when it comes to music (well, maybe just a little), but I just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. That was some twenty years ago – not anymore. Perhaps its middle age, who knows, but nowadays I am very pleased to say that I finally get it. So without further ado, let’s roll another number, turn on the old Marantz, and delve into this unique and dysfunctional document.
Things start with the bleak and pessimistic title track, where Neil seems to emerge from the shadows like some Vampyre who’s downed a few dozen Bloody Mary’s. The rest of the band sound fairly tanked as well. Neil’s vocal’s are painfully out of tune, and yet somehow, it all seems to coalesce. The same goes with “Speakin’ Out”, another drunken out of tune number (especially the piano), to the extent that it almost makes me feel queasy just listening to it. But then maybe that was the effect Neil was hoping for.
“World on a String” is sloppily played, with weeping pedal steel and more of those intoxicated vocals. The song itself is rather good, and chugs along quite nicely. On “Borrowed Tune” Neil comes across as a broken man, just him alone with his piano, falling under the weight of the world and all its worries. And when he sings “I’m singin’ this borrowed tune/I took from The Rolling Stones/Alone in this empty room/Too wasted to write my own”, it only heightens the sense of despair which permeates throughout this record.
“Come on Baby, Let’s Go Downtown”, recorded live at Fillmore East in 1970 with Crazy Horse, is a dedication to guitarist Danny Whitten who died of a drug overdose in 1972. Neil somehow felt responsible for his death, as he had fired him from the band and sent him away. It was on that very night he was informed that Whitten had taken a fatal mixture of Valium and alcohol. But whatever the reason behind its inclusion, this recording is an excellent example of just how potent Young and Crazy Horse are as a creative unit.
Side one ends with “Mellow My Mind”, a song which could have been off Harvest. Neil’s strained voice is especially heartrending, while the rest of the band provides appropriately mournful backing.
“Roll Another Number (For the Road)” is a desert country tune, where everyone sounds stoned to high heaven. Young even reflects on a particularly famous event in the lines “I’m not goin’ back to Woodstock for a while/Though I long to hear that lonesome hippie smile/I’m a million miles away from that helicopter day/No I don’t believe I’ll be going back that way”. The deceptively charming “Albuquerque” follows, where Young only wants to “Stop when I can/Find some fried eggs/And country ham/I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am.”
“New Mama” is a heavy roarer in the vein of Stephen Stills, while “Lookout Joe” is one of the best song’s on here, which finds Neil looking back on “old times” with a degree of wearied fondness. The sleepy “Tired Eyes” is another reflective piece where Neil and Co. come across as exhausted, maybe not so much from drink and drugs, but possibly life itself. The hippie dream had long since faded and most of its protagonists had been absorbed into the corporate machine. And while the Vietnam War was over (at least for America and its allies), an aspect of fatigue had set in for many of those who had trail blazed their way through the 1960’s only to find themselves lost in a miasma of disillusion and regret.
A reprise of the title track bookends the album, and draws a curtain on what is one of the most exceptional and distinctive statements of the decade. Tonight’s the Night is not just a dirge for Danny Whitten, but a requiem for the counter-culture itself, and all it represented and was trying to achieve. I like to describe this record as Neil’s mid-life crises period, along with Time Fades Away and On the Beach. That most of it was recorded on the same day gives the LP an increasing sense of purpose and clarity, for in all its crudeness and honesty, there remains a beauty within these songs that nevertheless manages to shine through the bleakness and gloom.
This is one of Neil’s most dense and darkest of statements, and is probably not for everyone. But that’s OK, because that’s what disco was for, offering vacuous saccharine ditties for the masses. Young on the other hand, well, he was offering something else entirely. Even if it wasn’t always what the mob were wanting.