Counterbalance No. 148: Neil Young's 'Tonight's the Night'
Roll another number for the road—and get ready to listen to the Neil Young’s 1975 classic. The sound of some open-hearted people going down is 148th most acclaimed album of all time, and it's this week’s Counterbalance.
Mendelsohn: Hey, look, it's another Neil Young record. Which is, coincidentally, something you and I will be saying over and over in the coming years as we trudge through the ranks of the Great List. This time around, we get to examine Young's 1975 effort Tonight's the Night. An album that finds Young working with Crazy Horse and ruminating on sadness of loss after losing guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry to drug overdoses in short order. I also understand that this album was recorded mostly in a single day in 1973. The rough, slap-dash nature of the record shows through in some spots, but overall there isn't an unappealing bit to be found. And I'm saying that genuinely. Not just because the alien-implanted chip in my head is telling me I have to.
Klinger: I'd even go so far as to say that the ragtag nature of Tonight's the Night is a feature, not a bug. The demoralized dissipation on display manages to take you right into Neil and the band's darkest places whether you're up for the ride or not. And that's evident from the first notes. That very phrase "Tonight's the Night" can sound like a lot of things—a carnal come-on, an invitation to adventure, a hopeful look forward. Young makes it sound like a menace. Anything can go down tonight, probably something terrible, and who cares. And when he's not pushing you lyrically, he's using the strain of his voice to take a straightforward chord progression and a hippie sentiment ("Mellow My Mind') and defies you to stay with him.
Mendelsohn: The thing that keeps tugging at me, however, is the sheer amount of material Young has on the Great List. There are 15 Neil Young records on the list, not including his two with Crosby, Stills and Nash. So I will return to the question I posed to you two weeks ago while we were discussing CSN&Y's Déjà Vu: Do you think Young's prolific, critically acclaimed output is resulting in vote splitting, thereby keeping any one of his albums, or all of his albums, from gaining better ground on the Great List? To my ears, Tonight's the Night is a better record than Rust Never Sleeps, which is a better record than After the Gold Rush, but not as good as Harvest, which, one might argue, is better than the rest of his albums, but for entirely different reasons.
Klinger: I agree with virtually nothing you just said there, except for your initial statement (I have no idea why this album is even slightly below Rust Never Sleeps—I blame math.). But ultimately our individual rankings don't matter all that much, since Young's status in the canon is pretty much stare decisis. You may be right about the vote splitting, but I'm inclined to believe that it might be a little more complicated than that. I get the sense that the Critical Industrial Complex back in the 1970s found itself pretty well confounded by Neil Young. After Harvest, he famously made his way from the middle of the road to the ditch, and the trilogy of albums he made during that time (the currently unavailable Time Fades Away, Tonight's the Night, and the nearly-as-chilling On the Beach) had to have been a source of consternation. There are times on this album where Young almost seems to be baiting the hippie establishment ("I'm not going back to Woodstock for a while..." he sings on "Roll Another Number"). It had to be hard for critics and fans to hear another one of their standard bearers tell them that the dream was over.
Mendelsohn: A couple of weeks ago you were telling me CSN&Y were viewed as interlopers on the hippie music scene. Did Young shed his interloper status by making After the Gold Rush? Or Harvest? I don't really buy into the whole "end of an era" mentality. Call me a cynic but it seemed to me that it was all part of a marketing plan. I don't think Young was really involved in shaping that plan, but I think his move away from the middle coincided neatly with the music industry's need to push the cycle forward. That said, maybe, on a higher level, it's something I will never understand, much the same way that my children will never understand the difference between pre-9/11 America and post-9/11 America. Just don't ask me to "go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back." I mean, I will, especially if we can wrangle the funds out of the Counterbalance accounting department.
I can't say whether or not Young was trying to make a hit record when he wrote Harvest. Maybe he was just following his muse and when he looked up he found himself in the middle of the road. And standing in the middle of the road is dangerous, Klinger. But who can blame an artist for not wanting to be hemmed in by their own success? I watched Radiohead do the same thing. One day, they are in the middle of the road touring behind OK Computer, the next they are releasing Kid A, straight out of the electronic ditch. I like the ditch. There are a lot of neat things down there that no one wants.
Klinger: I'm with you on the ditch by and large, but I'm not sure what marketing plan would involve the never-ending quagmire of the Vietnam War, a plague of hard drugs, and a general realization that a generation's utopian dream was nothing more than a mirage. (New Coke maybe?) Look, I understand that this stuff has all become the stuff of legend, and we've constructed an easy VH1-style narrative in which A leads to B leads to C, but it clear to me that it wasn't just Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s. You may be on to something in the sense that the cottage industry of rock 'n' roll did become a regular industry, and that was changing the game for everyone. But that doesn't change the central point we're left to deal with, which is that Neil Young's friends were dying.
The sense of real grief Young was feeling comes through in every track here—he clearly felt responsible for guitarist Danny Whitten's death, having fired him from the band the day he died—and I can't see how there was much in the way of calculation on Young's part. (Why he waited so long to release Tonight's the Night might be another story, but it's not as if On the Beach was exactly one last grab for the brass ring, so I reckon he was waiting a while for the wounds to scab over.)
Mendelsohn: I don't think there was any real calculation on Young's part. If anything, On the Beach and Tonight's the Night were a chronicle of Young's cathartic release. But as he was searching for answers, so were the rest of his generation and he was able to provide the soundtrack to everyone else's pain and longing by putting his suffering on wax. As an artist, where is he going to turn, if not to his music? And where are we the listeners going to turn, if not to the music?
There's no doubt that Tonight's the Night is a sad record. It basically opens and closes with a eulogy to his friend Berry and everything in between seems to be for Whitten. I suppose the sadness might be the reason Tonight's the Night follows Rust Never Sleeps on the Great List. By the time Young released Rust Never Sleeps, he had put a couple of years between him and the death of his friends and while the immediate pain may have started to fade, he brought with him that rough, improvisational urgency that drives this record.
Klinger: And, it seems, that also drives just about everything he's done since. Young's need to follow his muse, even when it seems capricious or even baffling to his audience, is the through-line of his career narrative. While he's generally received all due respect for his decisions in the long run, I could see where would have been difficult for critics to see the forest for the trees while they were in the midst of it all. His run of experimental genre exercises in the '80s (the synth-driven Trans, the rockabilly Everybody's Rockin', the straight-ahead country of Old Ways) stymied critics and may have cost him some capital for a time, at least until he was able to reassert himself as the patron saint of grunge in the '90s.
The Ditch Trilogy, with Tonight's the Night at its epicenter, got pretty good reviews from the get-go, but there must have been a sense that they were watching an artist who was hurtling toward self-destruction. The fact that he has endured, and for the most part thrived, in the aftermath of this period has to be seen as a testament to the strength of his convictions. Which explains why we'll be saying "it's another Neil Young record" for a long time to come.