“Heart of Gold” put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there. – Neil Young, from the liner notes to his 1977 compilation, Decade.
Loss, lament, despair, societal decay, and a general feeling of gloom: These are a few of the elements that can comprise great art. Life isn’t always rosy, and for artists who are able to express these sentiments effectively there will always be an audience. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those whom it touches, it can be very moving. For me, Neil Young’s work hits that nerve. That’s not to say I need to be in a melancholy frame of mind to listen to him, far from it. There’s joy to be had when pressing on through sadness or the mundane, and if there’s one phase of Neil Young’s long career which encapsulates this philosophy, it’s the period from roughly 1973-1975 when he released three albums that came to be known as the Ditch Trilogy: Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night.
While we continue to wait for his Archives, Vol. 2, which will cover this period even more in-depth (if and when it sees the light of day), and with his recent stand-alone archival release from this era, Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live, I thought I’d revisit the glorious doom of Neil’s time in the wilderness. The factors which led Neil in this direction are well-known to his fans: the dark side of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, including the loss of his friends Danny Whitten (band member) and Bruce Berry (roadie) to drug overdoses, as well as national stories including the Manson Family, the Patty Hearst saga, the oil embargo, and Nixon. Generally speaking, it was the overall demise of the hippie dream.
In the midst of all this, Young unexpectedly struck gold with his 4x Platinum Harvest album, released in February of 1972. But his positive feelings about the accomplishment didn’t last long. As Neil told Melody Maker in 1985:
I guess at that point I’d attained a lot of fame and everything that you dream about when you’re a teenager. I was still only 23 or 24, and I realised I had a long way to go and this wasn’t going to be the most satisfying thing, just sittin’ around basking in the glory of having a hit record. It’s really a very shallow experience, it’s actually a very empty experience…So I think subconsciously I set out to destroy that and rip it down, before it surrounded me. I could feel a wall building up around me.
Later in ’72, after a poorly received soundtrack to a documentary about Young that few people saw at the time, both titled Journey Through the Past, Neil would begin to tear down that wall in startling musical fashion. As with his friend and musical peer Bob Dylan, he would unapologetically express where he was at that time through his music, fan base expectations be damned. The feel-good sequel to Harvest wouldn’t arrive for another 20 years. Neil’s journey through the present at that time was so rough that one of the three albums fell out of print and remained there until somewhat recently, with Young not wanting to revisit much of it. However, not only have these three albums held up well over time, they actually continue to gain appreciation from critics and fans alike. But before we look back at Shakey’s dramatic 90-degree turn, here’s a performance of a track from Harvest which hinted at the vibe to come: