Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Mellow My Mind: How Neil Young Escaped the Darkness

on November 10, 2015, 12:00am

Neil Young has bravely and stubbornly waged war against seemingly everyone: record label heads, politicians, and anyone else foolish enough to stand in the way of his artistic freedom and musical vision. But a two- or three-year stretch in the 1970s posed an even more intense challenge to Young and his Crazy Horse bandmates. Fighting others was an uncomfortable task, but never one Young shied away from. By 1973, however, his biggest opponent was inarguably himself.

“Bruce Berry was a working man, he used to load that Econoline van,” Neil Young sings at the outset of “Tonight’s the Night”, the lead track from his pitch-black masterpiece of the same name. The song is a forum for Young to celebrate his roadie and friend, recalling how he handled his guitar after shows and was prone to sleep well into the afternoon. Berry and Young were tighter than tight, the relationship between them built with the kind of steely resolve that could only be cemented by countless hours, days, and weeks spent on the road together.

But there’s a troublesome undercurrent to Young’s warm recollections. How often do we take the time to stop and think about our friends and family when they’re with us? Too often, these are the kinds of thoughts that come to us after it’s already too late. “If you’ve never heard him sing, then I guess you won’t too soon,” Young sings. He’s getting warmer, coming ever so close to spilling his guts for the world to hear, but he’s not quite there yet. When he finally lets it all out, it’s arguably one of the most personal and cathartic lines in all of rock music.

“People let me tell you, it sent a chill up and down my spine,” he sings over a shaggy blues groove. “When I picked up the telephone and heard that he died … out on the mainline.”

Young bellows the last part of this line less as a lyric and more as a cry for help. His voice sounds cracked and worn as if he’s been up and at it all night, and it speaks volumes about the turbulent headspace he was in when making the record in 1973. Neil Young does “pissed off” as well as anyone in the business. But there’s a difference between anger and hurt, and Tonight’s the Night walks that line with almost frightening delicacy.

neil young tonight's the night

Shelved for almost two years, the record was eventually released in June 1975. Young and Crazy Horse wrote and recorded the record in the throes of loss. Both Berry and recently departed Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten overdosed prior to its writing and recording, Berry of heroin and Whitten of a combination of alcohol and Valium. Their deaths largely inform the record, so much so that Tonight’s the Night functions as much as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding as it does a piece of music. There’s no getting away from the desperation, which in the record’s most powerful moments can be almost suffocating. “Borrowed Tune”, which leans on little more than Young’s fragile voice, a harmonica, and a lonesome piano, perhaps captures the record’s heartache at its zero hour. “I’m singing this borrowed tune I took from the Rolling Stones,” he sings. “Alone in this empty room, too wasted to write my own.” It’s a sobering line buoyed only by the negative space between choruses, a powerful sonic trick Young uses to make an isolated-sounding song even more hopeless and bleak. Young has never been cagey about his feelings, but this is the work of a songwriter and his band at their most personal and freaked out.

But Tonight’s the Night isn’t just the work of a songwriter grappling with loss; it’s a document of guilt. Whitten’s escalating heroin problem put him in a tenuous position in Crazy Horse, and Young finally dismissed him from the band shortly before his death in 1972. “I knew that what I had done may have been a catalyst in Danny’s death,” Young wrote in his excellent, if scatterbrained, 2013 memoir, Waging Heavy Peace. “I can never really lose that feeling.”

Young weaves that hurt into a loose and loud musical structure that only adds to the emotional weight of his words. Fans who were used to heavy but catchy tunes like “Ohio”, “Heart of Gold”, and ” Cinnamon Girl” were seeing a whole different side of Young and his band, one that spurned safe pop songcraft in favor of ragged sonic experimentation and lowdown blues rock. “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown”  and “Lookout Joe” are among the earliest seeds planted in what would eventually become the grunge movement, breaking loose with the kind of shaggy abandon that cut sharply against the grain of Young’s mainstream contemporaries. “Speakin’ Out” is the band’s roughshod crack at back-porch blues with a few reeling guitar solos thrown in for good measure. Tonight’s the Night drowns itself in its own pain like a local barfly perched on a corner stool, a safe distance from the rest of the patrons but never more than an arm’s reach from the bottle. In the absence of any light, Young and Crazy Horse jumped headfirst into the abyss. What they never counted on was how their dark turn would eventually help them recapture some piece of mind, even if just a little.

Tonight’s the Night was more than two years old by the time the band followed up with Zuma in November 1975, but only four months separated their release dates. As such, the records work as great companion pieces. Zuma shares its predecessor’s love for shaggy rock and roll, its pre-grunge guitar sounds still a good 15 years ahead of his friends far up the opposite end of the coast in Seattle. It too is also a tough pill to swallow thematically. Young isn’t out of the emotional woods quite yet, but the famed “ditch trilogy” that began in 1974 with On the Beach and hit new heights of despondence on Tonight’s the Night was coming to a close. Zuma suffers its share of heartache, but it’s a more measured and controlled hurt, less a fractured emotional mess and more of a healthy meditation on the things Young is still trying to get his arms around — love, family, the whole lot. There’s pain there, but there’s also some inkling of inner peace at play as well.

neil young zuma

As time has shown, Young is too tough and bullheaded to let anyone or anything keep him down too long, and Zuma is the record where he and Crazy Horse fight to get a hold of themselves again. The major chords on “Don’t Cry No Tears” in and of themselves feel like a weight being lifted off their shoulders. It’s also one of a few Zuma cuts defined by a sense of empowerment. Young might be lamenting a love lost, but he also has the backbone to live with it.

Well I wonder who’s with her tonight
And I wonder who’s holding her tight
But there’s nothing I can say to make him go away 
No true love ain’t too hard to see

Those words alone speak to the healthier space Young is inhabiting. “Drive Back”, one of the few tracks on the record where Young and Crazy Horse truly sound like they’re letting loose and having fun, also sounds like a band getting its shit back together. Young once again assumes a take-no-shit emotional stance when he sings, “Drive back to your old town, I wanna wake up with no one around.” He’s not a complete hard-ass on the emotional front, though. As far as themes go, “Lookin’ for a Love” is about as relatable as it gets. Young’s keeping his eye open for that one true love, but he’s not stressing or obsessing over it. Instead, he approaches the easy mid-tempo rocker with a sense of excitement. Who is this person? Where will she come from? “I’ve been looking for a lover, but I haven’t found her yet,” he sings in his distinctive croon. “She’ll be nothing like I picture her to be.” He sings not with regret, but a sense of wonder and curiosity about the unknown.

But Zuma isn’t one big summer breeze. Young has stepped out with one foot into the sunlight, but there are still shadows. The fragile acoustics of “Pardon My Heart”, one of the most delicate songs in the Neil Young cannon, still suffers the emotional pangs of lost love. “Danger Bird”, at just under seven minutes, returns to some of the wonderful raggedness of Tonight’s the Night, complete with Young’s wounded vocals. Then there’s the giant sonic elephant in the room. The lyrics of “Cortez the Killer”, inspired by the exploits of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, read almost like a novella, the story of a powerful man and the people who followed his tragic lead, but it’s the epic, freewheeling nature of the music that gives the song its dark power. If Young had steadily been building up his guitar hero credentials in the preceding years, this is the song where he scaled his way atop the throne.

Those heavier moments aside, Zuma still feels very much like the calm after the storm. There might be some mess left to clean up, but there’s hope and reason to believe he can pick up the pieces. Young would come back full circle to the warmth of his CSNY and Buffalo Springfield days in 1976 with Long May You Run, while 1978’s Comes a Time also operates from a similarly peaceful place. Forty years later, Tonight’s the Night and Zuma aren’t the easiest records to look back on, but they’re undoubtedly among Young’s most important ones. Both have their place, a dark one where Young needed to take a turn for the better in order to see through the rest of his career. It’s a miracle he made it out, but it’s easy to feel grateful that he did.