[22 October 2003]
It has been said that a drunken man is an honest man. Neil Young personifies this claim in his 1975 album Tonight’s the Night, notable, among many qualities, for its straightforward grieving commentary on the rock and roll life. If one were to judge this book by its cover alone, the deduction might still be the same as after having given it a good listening. The sleeve displays a hazy black and white photograph of an intoxicated Young donning a white suit, Elvis Presley sunglasses, and a harmonica around his neck—a goofy image considering that most of the record is actually quite melancholy. But this is precisely the image he wants to project. Rock and roll culture is often goofy, absurd, and even, dare I say, inane. This picture of him, caught in mid-sentence, draws you into the experience of the music, all without yet having heard a thing.
The moment the needle hits the vinyl (my preferred format for all music, but especially for grooving on Neil), I am powerless to Young’s allure and now the Neil Young on the cover is directing the phrase at me through his scraggle of hair, with an alcohol-induced slur: “Tonight’s the night”—it always is when you hear this record. The title track starts out with a bass line courtesy of Billy Talbot from Crazy Horse that leads into Young’s melodic opening lyrics and sets the mood for the entire album, which is book-ended by another version of the same song: “Tonight’s the Night Part 2”. The real-life protagonist of the song is Bruce Berry, a roadie for Neil Young who died of a heroin overdose. Hearing of Berry’s death, as Young says, “sent a chill up and down [his] spine”. This theme is re-evoked in “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” which is certainly the liveliest song on the album and largely about reveling in the downtown nightlife, which aptly juxtaposes its underlying content. The song was recorded two years prior to the release of this album and features Danny Whitten, guitarist for Crazy Horse who also overdosed on heroin. It’s Whitten’s song, and he sings lead on it, thus constructing the perfect irony. The songs put together tell a story, the downside of drug use playing a large part in the narrative. “Tired Eyes” furthers this commentary while “World on a String” derides the life of the contractually obligated rock star. Young is angry and rightly so. His past with CSNY was far from idyllic, owing primarily to their clashing egos and massive drug intake. Young has lived this life and he wants to wash his hands of it all.
One of the reasons I find his defiance of the rock and roll beast so compelling is that it quells my own burning desire to become a rock star—something I now bitterly know will never, ever, ever come to pass (I guess I can end the search for silver Iggy Pop pants). Young’s convincing argument wipes away those unrealistic aspirations off the windshield of my future and supplants them with a yet stronger hankering for the attainable: a simple life, far removed from the vain distractions of fame, fortune, and the unmitigated bliss of wailing away on a guitar to the heated screams of thousands of adoring fans. Okay, so maybe the desire isn’t fully wiped away, but at least I’ve been given some perspective. Thank you, Neil, for having walked through the fire so that I might learn from your mistakes rather than my own (I don’t even believe myself when I say it, but I reluctantly know it to be true).
With “Albuquerque”, Young most directly expresses a longing for anonymity and indifference to his persona. He’s “been starving to be alone” and wants to “find somewhere where they don’t care who I am”. The melancholic steel guitar, with each measured chord keeping me hanging on from one strum to the next, gives me little choice but to continue the journey. Maybe I’m driving a beat-up ‘74 black Chevy El Camino with my dog in the front seat, all my belongings packed into the back, the cab illuminated only by a faint green light emitted by the radio dial. The highway stretches out ahead as I traverse a dusky Southwestern landscape. Neil filters through the slight buzz of the car speakers and I contemplate the next chapter in my newly eradicated existence. A clichéd American fantasy indeed—made even more unrealistic by the fact that this gruffer, dustier vision of myself only just recently got a learner’s permit and is in actuality a resident of New York City, where El Caminos are scarce and having a dog is impractical. As for Young, alone on the road, heading towards a simpler place with nothing but a freshly rolled “number” and a strong desire to leave behind the frivolity of a past life, he expresses his frustrations but he also puts forward a more positive, optimistic view with the songs “New Mama”, “Mellow My Mind”, and “Roll Another Number (For the Road)”. In the latter Young says he feels “able to get under any load”. “New Mama” conveys the joy of a new mother who’s “got a son in her eyes” and even Young’s got “no clouds in [his] changing skies”. Although I realize his tone during these sunnier moments is slightly sardonic, choosing to take the optimism at face value best suits my motives.
The rough-around-the-edges quality of the album as a whole is a considerable contrast to most of Young’s previous solo efforts, as well as his forays with Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Buffalo Springfield, which all presented a more lustrous Neil Young incarnation. This album’s coarseness complements the deep honesty with which he has imbued these songs. Young has an uncanny ability to convincingly set a specific mood and Tonight’s the Night, with all its atmospheric amp-buzz, crackles, somber themes, and full-tilt rockers is his finest achievement in this regard. It implores you to get out your bottle of whiskey, roll another number, pull up a stool, regret the loss of friends, exult the dawn of life, revel in anonymity and envisage a life that, perhaps, you were initially not meant to have. Unfortunately for Neil Young he never really escaped the clutches of fame—thank God for us, though, that he didn’t.
Tonight’s the Night is that one rare record I will never tire of. The soundtrack to a good many high-riding late evenings and just as many less indulgent moments in my life, it has always managed to connect on a very deep level with nearly every cell in my body, whatever my mood. It evokes the sound, feel, taste, smell, and vision of a physically unknown yet somehow familiar future. The beauty, for me, of buying into Young’s romantic ideal, is that it ultimately doesn’t seem so remote a reality. The specific details may change—the El Camino replaced by a ‘93 Toyota or any other such post-style efficiency sedan and perhaps it won’t all happen as soon as I’d like it to or even in the setting I imagine—but the possibilities are always there, waiting for me to scrape off the proverbial city soot and take to the road.