Home Music Neil Young: Neil Young Archives Volume II: 1972-1976

Neil Young: Neil Young Archives Volume II: 1972-1976

There are a number of reasons why rock bands don’t make music as quickly as they used to. In the ‘10s, it wasn’t unusual for established names (U2, Radiohead) and “indie” acts (St. Vincent, Arcade Fire) alike to take three and a half years or more between albums; at the dawn of the album era, artists like the Beatles, Bob Dylan and David Bowie would put out three or four albums in that same span of time, sometimes dropping two or more in the same calendar year. Even by those metrics, Neil Young’s run from late 1972 to early 1976 stands as one of the most phenomenal in the history of popular music. He released Harvest in February 1972 and it became the year’s best-selling album, and over the next several years Young followed it up with four records that equaled or even surpassed it in greatness. He recorded even more, with several of his unfinished works from this period—the fabled Homegrown, a few live albums—recently coming to light as part of the Neil Young Archives project. The second box set in the series, Volume II: 1972-1976, contains 10 discs worth of previously-released and unreleased material—featuring Crazy Horse, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and more—chronicling what’s arguably the peak of Neil’s career.

It was also a time of crushing lows in Young’s personal life. Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten was in the throes of heroin addiction and had been fired from the band as a result. Young had written “The Needle and the Damage Done,” a standout from Harvest, with his friend in mind, and even when Whitten was alive the track felt like an elegy, a farewell to someone already gone. Young invited Whitten to join his new backing band, the Stray Gators, for the Harvest tour but dismissed him in November 1972 when he couldn’t keep up in rehearsals, and he was found dead that very night. (For years afterward, Young blamed himself for Whitten’s death.) Seven months later, another associate, CSNY roadie Bruce Berry, would also succumb to heroin addiction. Young was further drained by the success of Harvest and the grueling tour schedule that followed—including a debauched reunion with Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1974—and his time on the road took a toll on his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, the mother of his young son.

Whitten’s death and Young’s discomfort with his sudden stardom laid the foundation for what’s often referred to as his “Ditch Trilogy”—so named for Young’s claim in the liner notes of his 1977 compilation Decade that Harvest and its #1 single “Heart of Gold” “put me in the middle of the road…so I headed for the ditch.” He once called its first installment, 1973’s Time Fades Away, “a documentary of what was happening to me” and “the worst record I ever made” in the same breath: He’d achieved a level of popularity most other songwriters could only dream of, and he marked the occasion with a live album full of songs about how fucking miserable he was, performed by a band whose mutual contempt was amplified by gallons of tequila. (Drummer Kenny Buttrey demanded a $100,000 salary, prompting the rest of the group to do the same, before quitting partway through the tour; David Crosby and Graham Nash were brought aboard when Young developed a throat infection, and they started squabbling almost immediately.) It wasn’t until seven years ago that Young first reissued Time Fades Away, and to this day you get the sense that it’s an album he’d rather forget, having left it out of this box set.

Instead, Volume II features the previously-released Tuscaloosa as a memento from the ill-fated tour. Capturing a single show as opposed to collecting unreleased songs across multiple dates, Tuscaloosa is the more cohesive—and arguably more enjoyable—listening experience, and it’s fascinating to consider how it would have been regarded, not least by Young, had it been released back in 1973. It also challenges the cranky, contrarian image of Young that Time Fades Away helped create: Neil cuts a warm stage presence, cracking a joke about licensing “Heart of Gold” for a burger commercial and, on the Harvest-heavy first half of the set, giving his fans what they wanted to hear. It’s in the second half that Young plugs in his electric guitar and the Stray Gators start making some noise, treating the audience to unreleased songs like “Time Fades Away” and the semi-autobiographical “Don’t Be Denied,” as well as “New Mama” and “Lookout Joe,” which would later turn up on Tonight’s the Night.

Time Fades Away saw Young starting to scrape against the traffic barrier, and Tonight’s the Night is the sound of him breaking through it and leaving the road entirely. Danny Whitten’s death was still an open wound when Bruce Berry overdosed in June 1973, and rather than retreat from the spotlight, Young corralled a group he named the Santa Monica Flyers—Crazy Horse rhythm section Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren, pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith—into the practice space and started rolling the tape. Tonight’s the Night is a record that half feels like the product of a long night of drinking and mourning, and that’s because about half of it is. The title track, one of five songs recorded in the morning hours of Aug. 26, 1973, calls out Berry by name and is brutally frank in how it presents his death: “If you never heard him sing/ I guess you won’t too soon,” Young sings. Later, on “Mellow My Mind,” you can actually pinpoint the exact second when his heart—and from the sound of it, his vocal cords, too—rips in half as he declares that “Lonesome whistle on the railroad track/ Ain’t got nothing on those feelings that I had.

So Tonight’s the Night is a bleak and fucked-up record, but at the same time it’s full of messy, visceral rock ‘n’ roll that’s not only fun to listen to, but suggests that Young might’ve even had some fun making it. “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” is as elegantly wasted as its title implies, while the inclusion of Whitten’s own “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown”—recorded live in 1970—functions as a séance between Young and his dead friend. The latter is a crucial piece of the Tonight’s the Night, but it predates the window that Volume II covers. The shuffled and incomplete version of Tonight’s the Night that appears in the box set shakes off some of the myth that surrounds the record itself. If you thought the master take of “Speakin’ Out” wasn’t woozy enough, there’s a “Speakin’ Out Jam” that’s so loose that it’s almost it practically threatens to fall apart in real time. And then there are a couple of new songs: Young wrote “Everybody’s Alone” in 1969 but never released it on an album, and it’s hard to think of one where it would’ve fit better than Tonight’s the Night, while Joni Mitchell stops by for a rollicking cover of her own “Raised on Robbery.” These aren’t throwaways, but they feel like something of a gag reel, reminding you that Tonight’s the Night isn’t a documentary so much as it’s a carefully arranged—yet disheveled—mood piece.

Likewise, Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live is actually a composite of three shows, conveying the experience of a live show while also cutting it to fit a narrative. The brief Tonight’s the Night tour, which included dates in Canada and the U.K., was steeped in artifice, with fake palm trees and Young welcoming the audience night after night to “Miami Beach.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not a great live album. Recorded eight and a half months after Tuscaloosa, Young and the band sound much more comfortable onstage even as they’re singing songs of doom and gloom: “First topless girl we get up here gets one of these boots,” he slurs at the start of “Tonight’s the Night,” performing the song not as an onstage exorcism, but as something slower and slinkier. He intersperses these songs with asides about Candy Barr and Perry Como and future label boss David Geffen, and at one point even leads the Santa Monica Flyers in a brief snippet of the “Beer Barrel Polka.” They’re presumably as drunk as the Stray Gators were on Time Fades Away, but they’re not at war with each other, and they’re capable of joyous rock ‘n’ roll as well as achingly beautiful moments like “Albuquerque” and “Tired Eyes.”

Reprise Records was understandably apprehensive about Tonight’s the Night’s commercial prospects, and while they sat on it, Young went back into the studio and began work on an entirely new set of songs. Released before Tonight’s the Night but recorded after it, On the Beach is generally thought of as the second installment in the Ditch Trilogy but it makes much more sense to think of it as its finale—Neil’s still grappling with loss here, but he’s made it past the other stages of grief and is stumbling toward acceptance. “I hear some people been talking me down/ …They do their thing, I do mine,” Young sings on opener “Walk On,” an ode to keepin’ on keepin’ on. But it’s still a decidedly sullen album, with three of its eight songs featuring the word “blues” in their titles, like the Charles Manson-inspired fever dream of “Revolution Blues” (“I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/ But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars”) and the oil industry-skewering “Vampire Blues.” On the Beach’s side B is possibly Young’s greatest single side of an album: There’s the title track—one of the most downbeat meditations on fame ever recorded—and Neil’s “American Pie,” “Ambulance Blues,” in which he reflects on everything from his career origins “in the old folky days” to the state of CSNY to his hatred of Richard Nixon.

Sandwiched between them is “Motion Pictures,” which for 46 years was Young’s final recorded word on Carrie Snodgress. If the couple hadn’t broken up by the time the song was recorded, their romance was beyond saving, marred by infidelities on both sides as well as Young’s life on the road. Many of the songs he wrote in the latter half of 1974 were candidly about their separation, and he collected several of them on Homegrown, which he intended to release in 1975 before shelving in favor of Tonight’s the Night. The long-lost Homegrown took on an almost mythic quality—it was never bootlegged in full, and its track listing wasn’t even confirmed until last year—and for the most part, the album lives up to what fans hoped it would be. A few weedy detours keep it out of Neil’s top five—“We Don’t Smoke It No More” is a goofy jam that would be better suited for a concept album about marijuana than a breakup album, while the spoken-word “Florida” is a baffling misfire—but when Young levels with his heartbreak, it yields some of the most affecting songs of his career. “Separate Ways” is a tender and mature acknowledgement that the end of a romance doesn’t necessarily mean the end of another kind of meaningful relationship: “Happiness is never through/ It’s only a change of ways/ And that is nothing new,” Young croons, only to slur a plea to Snodgress on the very next track, “Try,” that “the door is open/ To my heart.

In addition to Homegrown, Volume II also contains a disc’s worth of session outtakes that at their best are as good as the album’s highlights. You can trace the progression of “Love/Art Blues” over three recordings from stark, solo demo to a more fleshed-out country lament, complete with Ben Keith’s weeping pedal steel guitar. There are a couple of songs, like “Give Me Strength” and “Bad News Comes to Town,” that have been unearthed on other projects, but have never sounded better than they do in the forms they take on Volume II. And then there are the songs heard for the very first time in any studio form, like “Frozen Man,” “Daughters” and “Homefires,” which are as vulnerable as Young has ever allowed himself to be on record. As with the many bootlegs from the Beach Boys’ Smile sessions, you can create your own, er, homegrown Homegrown track listing from all the songs that were recorded for the album; take the best dozen or so tracks and you’ve got not just his Blood on the Tracks but the best album he never made.

Ultimately, it was Zuma that served as Young’s return from the ditch, and to Crazy Horse. The addition of new guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro made for Young’s most upbeat record in years, featuring some of his greatest guitar workouts (“Cortez the Killer,” “Danger Bird”) and melodic country rock cuts (“Don’t Cry No Tears,” “Lookin’ for a Love”). As great as it is to hear Young and Crazy Horse sowing their wild oats again after years in the ditch, it’s got the same patchwork quality that has kept many of Young’s good albums from being truly great: “Pardon My Heart” is another song that should’ve made the cut for Homegrown, while “Drive Back” just kind of plods along without aspiring to the intensity of “Cortez the Killer” or “Danger Bird.” Nevertheless, it scratched an itch that had been bothering many of Young’s fans since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and it made it emphatically clear that Neil and his loyal steed were back from the brink.

And, from the sound of it, better than ever. Volume II concludes with Odeon Budokan, a live album collecting dates from both London’s Hammersmith Odeon and Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan in March 1976. Just like Rust Never Sleeps three years later, Odeon Budokan is divided between solo acoustic songs in its first half and full band performances in its second half. As always, “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Cortez the Killer” are barnburners onstage, with Sampedro and Young engaging in the kind of dueling guitar interplay that was missing from much of Young’s output since Whitten’s death. But it’s the recordings from the Odeon that may be the most affecting, hearing Young sing “The Old Laughing Lady” and “Old Man” from a place of experience that he couldn’t have fathomed when he first wrote the songs. The last song we hear from him at this show is “Stringman,” another of the dozens of brilliant tunes that Young has wrote but never put on a studio album. Like many of his greatest songs, it reckons with the failures of his generation, Young turning the burned-out idealism of hippies on its head—singing about the military man and the bohemians who “Tore down everything/ That he was fighting for,” the flower children “kissed by the sun” who went to seed, and the titular figure, for whom free love and music just weren’t enough. Listening to him sing it, you wonder if the stringman was based on anyone he knew, like Danny Whitten or Bruce Berry, or even himself. Then the song ends and the crowd erupts into applause, and you remember why Neil Young has remained one of the most fiercely beloved songwriters of the last 50 years. It almost doesn’t matter who his songs are about as much as it does how many people see themselves in them.

Ten discs worth of previously-released and unreleased material—featuring Crazy Horse, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and more—chronicle what’s arguably the peak of Neil’s career.
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