When Neil Young Found His Muse in the Ditch, Pt. 1

“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:





April 1968 – Spring Cleaning

Some final musical notes on April 1968 releases:

Ravi Shankar – The Sounds of India

This studio album was the second Ravi Shankar title I owned.  Actually, I burned it from a friend’s cd onto cassette almost 30 years ago, and it’s still out in the garage somewhere as we’re currently a cd-only household (I really need to get my turntable out of mothballs).  It was a bit strange to me at first, not because of the Hindustani classical music I was becoming more interested in, but because of the album’s production:  Shankar gives brief lessons between pieces on the significance of each performance (e.g., a morning raga vs. an evening raga).  He also did this frequently in concerts outside his native India.  I still laugh whenever I hear him address the largely clueless Madison Square Garden audience during the Concert for Bangladesh after their initial polite applause:  “Thank you.  If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”  Ravi was a true cultural ambassador.


Sly and the Family Stone – Dance to the Music

This second album by the group gave us the hit title track and was influential with acts such as the Temptations and the Jackson 5.  Sly and the Family Stone were rising fast.


Tiny TimGod Bless Tiny Tim 

I…I, um, don’t really know what to say about this one.  In my mind, Tiny Tim was in a class of celebrities that included people like Phyllis Diller and Charo (aka María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza).  You know, the kind of entertainers who popped up occasionally anywhere from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to Sesame Street, from Scooby Doo to Match Game, and from Laugh In to The Love Boat.  Then you find out later in life that, unlike today’s celebs who are “famous for being famous,” they were actually very talented people.


The Monkees – The Birds, The Bees, and the Monkees

This is the fifth studio album by the Monkees, released the month after their final TV episode aired.  It was the first to not reach number one on the Billboard charts (!).  The album yielded two hits:  Valleri and chart-topper Daydream Believer.


Archie Bell and the Drells – Single:  Tighten Up

The first I recall hearing this song was not on an oldies radio station, but on VH1’s My Generation hosted by Peter Noone in the late 1980’s.  The song was a hit in Bell’s native Houston before Atlantic Records picked it up for distribution in April 1968, where it subsequently reached number one on Billboard’s R&B and pop charts – while Bell was doing time in Vietnam.  Years later I was lucky enough to hear Tighten Up almost hourly at a retail job, where the song was included on one of those corporate-distributed mixed cd’s played in-store, seemingly on a loop.

On to May…








April 29 – Klaus Voormann at 80

The list of the Beatles’ friends and associates who played significant roles in the band’s lore is a mile long.  Some were shady characters who owned (or were bouncers at) the dank clubs the band played in early on.  Others were music executives and promoters who got the better of manager Brian Epstein in business deals.  The women in their lives would fill volumes, as would the group’s general list of reliable friends and associates.  Klaus Voormann is one of the good guys they knew from their early Hamburg days along with his friends Astrid Kirchherr and Jürgen Vollmer, and he has remained a trusted friend, artist, and session musician throughout the years.  Mr. Voormann turns 80 today.  Let that sink in, Beatle fans.  Alles Gute zum Geburtstag, Klaus!


Voorman’s impressive list of album credits as designer, musician, and producer began in 1966 with his cover design for the Beatles’ Revolver.  Shortly thereafter he became the bassist in Manfred Mann.  He would go on to play on recording sessions for solo Lennon, Harrison, and Starr records, as well as dozens of others including Peter Frampton, Lou Reed, Carly Simon, Howlin’ Wolf, and B.B. King.  Voormann played in Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, as well as the memorial celebration show for his friend, Concert for George, 31 years later.

Voormann’s best known design
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Voormann (left) on bass at the Concert for Bangladesh (1971) with George Harrison and Jesse Ed Davis

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Did you know:

That Voormann produced this infectious ditty by by the German band Trio in 1982?:





April 19 – Like a Zombie: The Album That Wouldn’t Die

The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle

For the Zombies, the road to Odessey was a bit of an odyssey.  The seed was planted in 1958 when schoolboys Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson, and Hugh Grundy began playing music together.  After five years playing small UK gigs as the Mustangs, the group, now including Colin Blunstone and Chris White, changed their name to the Zombies in 1962.  Their only successful singles until 1969 were She’s Not There and Tell Her No, released in 1964 and 1965, respectively.


After the group’s first full album, 1965’s Begin Here, flopped, they signed with CBS Records and recorded Odessey and Oracle, mostly at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, beginning June 1, 1967 and completing it November 7.  Odessey was accidentally misspelled by the album cover designer, but the band would claim it was intentional (psychedelic, man!).  By the time the album was released in the UK on this date in 1968, the group had already split over internal disagreements and a lack of commercial success.

Rod Argent went on to form the band Argent in 1969 while the others found work ranging from music executives to insurance.  CBS did not intend to release the record in the US until staff producer, musician, and jack of all musical trades Al Kooper heard the album and insisted upon its release in the states.  Lo and behold, Time of the Season became a hit single and the slow re-evaluation of the album began.  Today, Odessey can be found in music publications listed among the all-time best albums

From the vantage point of 50 years on, it’s hard to understand why this album wasn’t more of a hit from the get-go.  Perhaps if albums such as Revolver, Pet Sounds, and Sgt. Pepper hadn’t already existed, Odessey would’ve stood out more.  Maybe the record buying public was experiencing a Summer of Love hangover and had moved on to heavier sounds.

Then again, if those albums hadn’t been recorded, Odessey might not have been either.  In no way do I consider Odessey a ripoff, as the album stands on its own merits.  But to my ears these are pop gems crafted in the spirit of McCartney and Wilson.  While it’s a shame the group wasn’t able to revel in the success of its creation in 1968, there would be subsequent well received reunions down the road with Odessey and Oracle played in full.  One of my live music regrets is not seeing them in 2015 when they played nearby.


Side One:

  1. Care of Cell 44
  2. A Rose For Emily
  3. Maybe After He’s Gone
  4. Beechwood Park
  5. Brief Candles
  6. Hung Up On a Dream

Side Two:

  1. Changes
  2. I Want Her She Wants Me
  3. This Will Be Our Year
  4. Butcher’s Tale
  5. Friends of Mine
  6. Time of the Season




April 3 – A Simon & Garfunkel Classic

Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of one of those generation defining albums, Simon and Garfunkel’s sometimes deceptively whimsical Bookends.  Not including the soundtrack to The Graduate released earlier in the year, this was the first studio album by the duo in a year and a half, an eternity for in-demand acts in those days.  Sporadic work on the album began in 1966.  Hazy Shade of Winter was recorded during sessions for the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album, but was released as a single at the time instead.  The following year the duo helped organize the Monterey Pop Festival, where they also performed, while Fakin’ It was released as a single.  Recording proceeded slowly throughout the fall and into 1968, with finishing touches in early March.


As part of their recording contract, Columbia Records picked up the tab for their sessions, giving Simon and Garfunkel free rein to take their time and be as meticulous as they wanted to be, which they were, at least on the conceptual first side of the record.  Side two, other than Mrs. Robinson, is comprised of previously unused tracks recorded for possible inclusion in The Graduate soundtrack.  Surprisingly, Simon seems to have had little regard for those tracks at the time.  Not unlike Sgt. Pepper the year before, the concept portion of Bookends ends rather quickly with the rest being a collection of songs.  But also like Pepper, it works.  In all, the whole thing lasts a very concise 29:51.

This is among the albums that fascinated me during childhood.  It didn’t occur to me then that this was from the same period as some of the other late 60’s music I was familiar with from my brothers’ collection or the radio.  The stark, black and white cover, the turtlenecks, and Simon’s short hair all suggested another time and another sound to me, although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it.  But of course it is a quintessential 1960’s record, as much so as any of its contemporaries.  And, it reached number one in both the US and UK.


The album has always made me imagine bleak 1960’s winters in New York City, of tiny apartments there with clanking radiators blasting out heat, of a bottle of milk and a bruised apple in the fridge and not much else, of hanging on to that one remaining friend in old age, of loneliness.  But in my young person’s mind, that was someone else’s reality, not mine.  When I would hear Voices of Old People as a child, I was always relieved to know that I would never grow old and never be so sad and grumpy.  If there was ever any doubt, it would be erased by the more lively side two which winds up at the zoo, where it was all happening and always would be.

But before visiting the skeptical orangutans, the album’s journey detoured out of the city and into America.  As I’ve grown to middle age, this song remains a bit of a personal lament for that road trip out west I never took as a 20-year-old, with a best buddy along the Pacific coast.   Or wherever.  I guess that’s what Kerouac and Steinbeck are for, to fill in those gaps.  Them, and albums such as this.


Side One:

  1. Bookends Theme
  2. Save the Life of My Child
  3. America
  4. Overs
  5. Voices of Old People
  6. Old Friends
  7. Bookends Theme

Side Two:

  1. Fakin’ It
  2. Punky’s Dilemma
  3. Mrs. Robinson
  4. A Hazy Shade of Winter
  5. At the Zoo




March 1968: A Union, A Departure, & Odds ‘n Ends

We close out March of 1968 by tidying up with some notable items which didn’t receive dedicated posts:

3/1/68:  Johnny Cash and June Carter marry


3/8/68:  The Fillmore East opens

Bill Graham’s 2,654 seat New York sibling to his Fillmore West opened fifty years ago in the Lower East Side and remained open under his ownership until June 27, 1971.  Originally a Yiddish theater when constructed in 1925, The Fillmore East hosted many major names in rock and jazz during its brief existence.  Dozens of live recordings from the Fillmore made their way to vinyl, the Allman Bros. being arguably the most well-known.  Today, what used to be the Fillmore lobby is now a bank, and the auditorium was demolished and replaced with apartments.


The moment of impact for Pete Townshend’s guitar at the Fillmore East
The queue outside the Fillmore East

3/25/68:  The final episode of The Monkees aires on NBC


Other Noteworthy Releases from March 1968:

The Electric Flag – A Long Time Comin’

The debut album and probably the peak for the Flag, formed by Mike Bloomfield after his time with the Butterfield Blues Band.  The music is blues, rock, and soul, and has a big sound that features a horn section.


The International Submarine Band – Safe at Home

The sole release by Gram Parsons’ first country rock group.  Parsons had been a folkie while pretending to be a student at Harvard, but switched to a heavy country flavor with the ISB, which he maintained for the rest of his too brief career and life.  By the time this album was released, Parsons had already quit the band to join the Byrds on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo sessions (who he would soon leave to form the Flying Burrito Bros.).


Miles Davis – Nefertiti

The album is significant for being Davis’s final acoustic album.


Joni Mitchell – Song to a Seagull

Joni’s debut, produced by David Crosby.  These were Mitchell’s brief salad days; her fortunes improved greatly one year later.


Tommy James and the Shondells – Single:  Mony Mony

A great track still.


And while I try to keep the politics to a minimum in these pages, it feels silly to write about this period and avoid the topic, as well as Vietnam.  As such, March was quite a volatile month on the political home front as Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated the sitting president from his own party, Lyndon B. Johnson, in the New Hampshire Primary.  Four days later, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy.  And on March 31, 1968, fifty years ago today, Johnson went before a national TV audience to announce that he wouldn’t seek re-election, and also to proclaim that steps would be taken to limit the war in Vietnam.  It was a respectable thing to do at a time when there was still a hint of honor in the White House.  As shocking as all of this was, the headlines were about to get crazier.  And more tragic.