Graded on a Curve:
Neil Young,
Time Fades Away

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.

The Stray Gators were Ben Keith on pedal steel, slide guitar, and vocals; Jack Nitzsche on piano and vocals; Tim Drummond on bass; and ex-Turtle Johnny Barbata on drums, with both David Crosby and Graham Nash making guest appearances. Much of Young’s unhappiness with the Time Fades Away tour had to do with rancor among his band mates; Young himself said he “didn’t have the right band,” and also said, “I felt like a product, and I had this band of all-star musicians that couldn’t even look at each other.”

Time Fades Away didn’t constitute a complete break with the folky ethos of Harvest; “Journey Through the Past” and “Love in Mind” feature Young all by himself on the piano, sounding very down in the mouth, and both would have fit just fine on Harvest. As would “The Bridge,” an optimistic number which strikes a false note on this bummer of an LP, but is pretty enough, and as delicate as gossamer.

For me, things only get great when the Stray Gators kick into high gear, as they do on the raucous rumble in the alley that is the title cut. The song is one of Young’s best ever, thanks to its propulsion, Nitzsche’s honky tonk piano, and Keith’s moaning slide guitar. Young and Keith’s voices blend wonderfully, Young pauses before singing “Eight” in a cracked voice, and the tossed off and cracking voice of Tonight’s the Night is not far off. “Yonder Stands the Sinner” is another fabulous Young tune; Young’s guitar sounds feral, his vocals are raw as can be, and David Crosby contributes on guitar and vocals, which is nothing short of amazing; what the songbird is doing on this savage cut is beyond me.

On the big and blustering “L.A.” Young sings about the destruction of Los Angeles, and he doesn’t sound bothered about it; like “Revolution Blues” off On the Beach, Young is singing about the apocalypse. “Revolution Blues” is a dark vision of a Manson Family-like murder spree directed at the stars of Laurel Canyon; on “L.A.” he calls the City of Angels “uptight” and a “city in the smog,” and asks sardonically, “Don’t you wish that you could be here too?” Why LA has never made this its official theme song is beyond me.

The mid-tempo “Don’t Be Denied” is, to quote another of the songs on the LP, a journey through the past. Young’s singing about growing up in Winnipeg, about getting beat up in the school yard and about beginning to play rock’n’roll, and the message seems to be don’t give up, life is hard but for Christ’s sake don’t give up. Ben Keith’s pedal steel is lovely, as is Nitzsche’s piano, and the combined vocals of Young, Keith, and Nitzsche are ragged and wonderful. As for “Last Dance,” it opens with a big and barbarous guitar riff and features the guitar and vocals of Graham Nash, as well the vocals of David Crosby, and it too seems to boast a surprisingly positive message, to wit, “You can live your own life/Making it happen.” I say “seems” because Young follows this self-help advice with more than just an extended guitar solo; no, he goes into a kind of trance that ends with him repeating, “No, no, no,” over and over and over again.

And it’s with these final nay-sayings that Young leaves us. They may mean nothing, or they may be Young’s final words on everything—a fitful declaration of the sad end of peace, love, and understanding, and his parting farewell to living like a product. And they lead, straight as an arrow, to the heart of darkness that is Tonight’s the Night, where on the song “Tired Eyes” Young sings about a dope deal gone fatally amiss, and delivers a scathing eulogy on hippie brotherhood with the lines, “Well tell me more, tell me more, tell me more/I mean was he a heavy doper or… was he just a loser?/He was a friend of yours?” And follows that with the great line, “He tried to do his best but he could not.”

Young is wrong about Time Fades Away; the guy has put out some really terrible LPs—1986’s Landing on Water, anyone?—but Time Fades Away isn’t one of them. So Neil has unhappy memories of the tour that produced the album. All I can say is his pain is our gain. The guy is an American fucking hero, probably because he’s Canadian, and the bedrock emotions he reveals on Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night are revelatory. Tortured? You betcha. But it’s music as raw and ragged as this that keeps me believing in rock’n’roll as a vital art form. Time fades away, but this live keepsake never will. Rust never sleeps, but then again, vinyl never rusts. Not when it’s as timeless as this LP, anyway.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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