Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night
I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you. – Neil Young, in the liner notes to Tonight’s the Night.
Harrowing, boozy, bluesy, scary, druggy, world-weary, cracked, confrontational, emotionally apocalyptic, glorious mess, weirdo genius: This is a sample of some of the words used by music critics over the years to describe the second album recorded in Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy, though it was the final one to be released. The reason for this is because Warner Bros. withheld the album for almost two years in hopes that Young would create something more commercially pleasing and less harrowing, boozy, scary…
Recorded in August and September of 1973 but not released until June of 1975, Tonight’s the Night was the first studio album Neil recorded after the drug-related deaths of friends Bruce Berry and Danny Whitten the year before, and it’s even more jarringly raw than its live predecessor, Time Fades Away, which wasn’t released until the month after the recording of Tonight’s the Night was wrapped up. Confused? Neil’s timeline from these years is almost as sloppy as his music, and that’s just fine with me. This album is a no holds barred perpetuation of his abrasive, unapologetic catharsis. He had money and fame; he could’ve slipped away from the public eye for a spell to deal with his grief in private. Instead, he continued to share the trip into his personal heart of darkness with his fans because that’s what true artists do, take it or leave it.
Critics mostly took it from the day of its release, while his fans were a little slower to catch on to the beauty of its many imperfections. But they did eventually. Tonight’s the Night was recorded mostly live in the studio, primarily during one session in August, with his professional-yet-ragtag group the Santa Monica Flyers, featuring the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot, and a 22-year-old Nils Lofgren on guitar. Right in the middle of the record is a creepy and haunting reminder of what it’s all about: a live recording of Neil with Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East in 1970 with the late Whitten on vocals singing Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown, an upbeat rocker which makes light of the drug scene which ultimately consumed him.
I first delved into Uncle Neil’s catalog at the age of 18 in 1989 upon the release of Freedom. That album, plus Ragged Glory, Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust, After the Gold Rush, Harvest, and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, was in my blood before I took the plunge with Tonight’s the Night. I had picked it up, studied it, and returned it to its slot at Streetside Records on more than one occasion over a period of two or three years in the early 90’s. I listened to it for the first time without a good understanding of what went into it and liked it, but only because I’d steeped myself in those albums listed above. It was still a bit of a shock and an acquired taste for me, but eventually it clicked. By the time it did, it had long been considered one of the best albums in rock history by various music publications.
- Tonight’s the Night
- Speakin’ Out
- World on a String
- Borrowed Tune
- Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown
- Mellow My Mind
- Roll Another Number (For the Road)
- New Mama
- Lookout Joe
- Tired Eyes
- Tonight’s the Night (Part II)