21 February 2012

#98: Neil Young - Tonight's The Night

Neil Young - Tonight's The Night
from Tonight's The Night, 1975

Tonight's The Night was my introduction to Neil Young -- I'm not sure what that says, but I feel like it should mean something. See, I was a budding music geek when I got to college with a fairly sizable collection for a pre-napster teenager, but it was full of classical music and nu-metal. (Sometimes I still pull out the Rammstein (who do not make this list) to remember that things do in fact get better.) Then I met Lee and Brandon and suddenly had access to all this new music, their tastes as 'refined' as anyone I met, and I quickly expanded my palette.

I'll wait until the top 5 to get to the full conversion story. I'm not sure where this album fits in the story except that it's one of the first albums Brandon introduced me to, and I spent so many hours listening to it.

I feel that this album is great in spite of itself; it surprises me that it's so critically acclaimed (it's one of Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums and one of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and Christgau giving it an extremely rare A). What I mean is, the 10 middle tracks -- excluding the two parts of the title track -- are so understated it feels like none of them can stand on their own, that they all need to be there for any sort of vision to take hold.

Except the magnificent title track. I can honestly say that I would not have given the album more than a passing listen if it didn't lead off with one of the best songs I've ever heard. And in the pre-digital file age, when we still listened to CDs, this meant that to listen to the title track, I was pretty much going to have to listen to the rest of the album.

Tonight's The Night is as bleak as pretty much anything else on this list, and would make the short list for any depressing mixtape. It doesn't sound that way: the riff -- sounds like it's comprised of bass playing single notes -- is fairly upbeat, accented by guitar lines from Nils Lofgren that wouldn't be out of place on any other mid-70s rocker. There's even a piano solo sounding like a slowed down Jerry Lee Lewis piece. I'm surprised it hasn't been sampled multiple times. It's good music, But it's everything else that makes it great.

So, Neil Young releases Harvest in 1972. It eventually goes multi-platinum, becoming the best-selling album of that year, making Young into a bona-fide superstar. It's a fine album, I don't particularly care for it outside of a couple of tracks, but I'm not going to hate on anyone who loves it (unless it's the only Neil Young they like, because c'mon man). Then two friends die of heroin overdoses: Crazy Horse's guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry and, apparently, this kind of mass fame didn't suit Young all that well. So, in 1973, he records Tonight's The Night the album, opening with the title track, which explicitly outs the theme:

Bruce Berry was a working man
He used to load that Econoline van
A sparkle was in his eye
But his life was in his hands.

The record label refused to release it, shelving the album for two years, hoping Young would record something commercially viable, something that would capitalize on the success of Harvest. He didn't. (Young would later be sued by his label for making music that didn't sound like "Neil Young"... which is one of the most badass anecdotes I know of in popular music.)

It's obvious why the label was apprehensive. Just listen. There might be a single or two here, something that could get the masses fired up. But not the lead track.

And that's one of the things that makes it great. I was deliberate when I called the track bleak: this is grief, alright, the darkest before it gets better, where depression gives way to, well... This is one great "fuck it" to everything from one of the great "fuck it" songwriters. This is fatalism as it should be; not quite acceptance because that assumes too much impotence, but the fight against ...whatever, winnable or not, since the fight is all that matters.

The album ends with "Tonight's The Night -- Part II". It's good, more ramshackle and off-key than Part I, but for the most part pretty much the same song. It provides a good counterpoint to the original, inverting just enough to keep the listener unbalanced.


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