Neil Young (with Crazy Horse): Tonight's the Night

Chris Fallon

Neil Young (with Crazy Horse)

Tonight's the Night

Label: with Crazy Horse
US Release Date: 1975-06-28

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.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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