Graded on a Curve:
Neil Young,
Roxy: Tonight’s the
Night Live

When the legendary LA Roxy Theatre opened its doors on July 20, 1973, it was another legend who greeted the club’s first customers. Neil Young, who was then, as he put it, down in the ditch in the wake of the drug-related deaths of two close friends, played a triumphant bummer of a set with a band calling themselves the Stray Gators. And at long last the show (or three of them actually) are available on vinyl in the form of 2018’s Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live.

The studio versions of the songs Neil plays on the live disc wouldn’t see the light of day until 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, but Young more or less runs through them all here, omitting only “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” (which was actually recorded live at the Fillmore East in 1970 with Crazy Horse guitarist and drug casualty and Danny Whitten and adding “Walk On” from 1974’s On the Beach.

On both the live and studio LPs Young sounds like a man trying to come to terms with the anguish he was feeling after the drug-related deaths of both Whitten and roadie pal Bruce Berry. Don’t let the Vegas-style stage patter Young engages in between songs on Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live fool you; Young was one hurting individual.

And it wasn’t just Neil who was feeling gloomy; America’s youth were suffering a collective bring down from the loss of the idealism that marked the psychedelic sixties. On both LPs Young puts paid to the crystal visions of the Age of Aquarius, and channels the pain and disillusionment of a generation of innocents ravaged by hard drugs, Altamont, and the Manson family.

This loss of hope is best spelled out on LP standouts “Tired Eyes” and “Roll Another Number for the Road,” the latter of which offers up a perfect expression of post-Altamont cynicism and despair:

“I’m not goin’ back to Woodstock for a while / Though I long to hear that lonesome hippie smile / I’m a million miles away from that helicopter day / No I don’t believe I’ll be goin’ back that way.”

And things take an ever darker turn on the mostly spoken word “Tired Eyes,” a chilling tale of a dope deal gone horribly awry:

“Well he shot four men in a cocaine deal / And he left them lying in an open field / Full of old cars with bullet holes in the mirrors / He tried to do his best but he could not.”

Young then channels the cold-blooded callousness born of watching friends succumb to a seemingly epidemic of hard drugs and violence; instead of compassion, the speaker points the finger:

“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…“

Not all of these songs strike a mournful note. “Mellow My Mind” even offers some levity, in so far as Young makes no effort to sing the damn thing. On both the studio and live LPs he sounds like a cat being strangled, breaking words on the wheel and straining in vain to hit the high notes. It’s the single worst vocal performance I’ve ever heard, and I love Neil for it. And he even coins a new word, “casualize.” Is that wonderful or what? It’s Casualize Friday, everybody!

Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live is Young’s shambolic attempt to turn grief into art; on it he stares into the abyss and the abyss blinks first. It’s Neil’s journey to the end of night, and the miracle is he returned at all. Asked about Tonight’s the Night Live, Young replied, “I have no idea where the fuck it came from, but there it was.”

And here it is, in all it’s ragged glory, the flag hanging above Young’s Fort Sumter.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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