Neil Young’s years spent “in the ditch” (his words) remain, for me, the most vital of his entire career. As the hippie dream fell apart so did Young, and on albums such as 1975’s Tonight’s the Night (a “howling facedown with heroin and death itself,” in the critic Robert Christgau’s words) and 1973’s live Time Fades Away Young proceeded to disintegrate, sick unto death with the deaths of his junkie friends and dissatisfied with the folk-rock box he’d put himself in with 1972’s mellow Harvest, the LP that made him a superstar.
On Tonight’s the Night the songs bear an almost unbearable weight of sorrow, and Young’s mournful wildcat yowl is a million miles away from the peaceful vibes of Harvest; one can only imagine what Harvest’s diehard fans must have thought of it, just as it’s hard to imagine what his concert-going fans made of the never-before heard songs on Time Fades Away, on which Young and his Stray Gators ripped into such raw, electrified (and electrifying) numbers as the title track, the great “Yonder Stands the Sinner,” and “Last Dance.”
Me, I’ll always think Tonight’s the Night is the greatest LP ever made about the demise of the Age of Aquarius, but Time Fades Away has its pleasures as well, even if Young himself has dismissed it on multiple occasions, saying in 1987 that it was “the worst record I ever made—but as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record.” And on the original, unreleased liner notes to 1977’s Decade, he again expressed his unhappiness with the tour and ensuing record, before saying, “… but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while.”
So what we have here is as sort of rock version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, with Neil coming to pieces in the spotlight, as it were. Fortunately Young is hardly the best critic of his own work, because despite his bad memories of the tour that brought us Time Fades Away, the resulting LP is tremendous—not nearly as chilling as Tonight’s the Night, for sure, but a howl of pain and disaffection nonetheless.