Tonight, I will go and see Neil Young & Crazy Horse in Bergen. It is the first, and probably last, time I see Neil Young together with Crazy Horse. A strange horse that has been limping its entire life but somehow still is around. But the cowboy riding it is no less strange.
Anyway, to celebrate the event (Neil Young is one of my absolute favorite artists), I thought I pull out one of my favorite passages from Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young biography Shakey. The passage concerns the album Tonight’s the Night, ironically enough not a Crazy Horse record, but in my view, Neil Young is Neil Young, no matter who he plays with.
The music recorded at [Studio Instrument Rentals, LA] is some of the top-drawer, big-time, hot-shit greatest rock and roll ever made. You could write a book on the bit of piano that opens Tonight’s the Night. Just an offhand, uncertain tinkling of the ivories, but so ominous, so full of dread. It sets the tone for the onslaught to come—out-of-tune singing, bum notes, mike hits and some of the best, most beautiful noise ever.
These are dispatches from the other side—sublime, stream-of-consciousness poetryset to drunken Jimmy Reed rhythms; “Speakin’ Out” is half Kahlil Gibran, half Fats Domino. “Oh tell me where the answer lies / Is it in the notebook behind you eyes?” croons Young, propelled by his chunky honky tonk piano and Lofgren’s quicksilver blues guitar. “All right, Nils, play it!”—one of the only times Young will ever invite a musician to solo on record.
The unearthly “World on a String” sports lyrics that evoke all sorts of thoughts on success, purpose and mortality, and one couplet in particular could be tattooed on Young’s heart: “It’s just a game you see me play / Only real in the way that I feel from day to day.” The doomed, resigned opening rumble of guitar tells you no happy face came up with this riff.
In the sly, soulful “Roll Another Number”—written on the spot in the studio—a well-oiled Young fumbled with the key to his ignition, then tells us he’s “a million miles away from that helicopter day” of Woodstock and goes on to mourn those who didn’t go the distance (“Though my feet aren’t on the ground / I been standin’ on the sound / Of some openhearted people goin’ down”). At once funny and profound, the music is exquisite—loose, liquid and just short of falling apart.
Perhaps the most luminous playing is by Ben Keith, whose otherworldy steel lends just the right lonesome-prairie feel to songs like “Albuquerque.” “I couldn’t belive all that weird slide in Tonight’s the Night,” said Lofgren. “All those shades of melancholy that were in us…it’s almost Middle-Eastern, like ‘Ben Keith Goes to East Cairo.’ ”
“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn,” Charlie Parker once proclaimed. Young was in the thick of it. Surrounded by friends, his subconscious unhinged, he had tuned in to the cosmos. Halfway through “Mellow My Mind,” Young’s ravaged voice cracks with emotion. “I still get chills when it gets to that fuckin’ note,” said Molina. “It’s so real. I’ll tell ya, man, Neil was right there with us. He was wide open.” [Pp. 416-417, First Anchor Books ed. 2003].
Neil Young himself:
See, Tonight’s the Night was the closest to art that I’ve come. But you really have to be detached. The whole thing was just me and it. You can’t struggle to get there. It’s just gotta happen—a set of circumstances that make those things take place, and if the circumstances ever come together for me again to do something like that, I’ll do it [p. 433].
McDonough describes the feeling:
You know how it is when you’ve been up too long, the apartment’s trashed, everything is silent, the sun’s about to come up and you’re feeling like some germ stuck to a big cold rock hurtling through space—and somehow you don’t mind? Here is a record that induces that state automatically [pp. 433-434].