Saturday, May 12, 2018

Everything's Cheaper Than It Looks – Neil Young's ROXY: Tonight's the Night Live

Neil Young perfoming Tonight's the Night at the Roxy. (Photo: Getty Images)

Any worthy art stands on its own, as a formalized and unitary capture of experience, apart from the facts of how it was created or released into the world. To be overwhelmed by Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, for instance, you needn’t know a thing about the conditions of its making, its first release, its mutilation, or its eventual rediscovery in a janitor’s closet in an Oslo mental hospital. You needn’t have read a single book about Joan herself, or be aware of Dreyer’s other films. But some works – like, in fact, The Passion of Joan of Arc – are so informed by circumstance and so infused with the extraordinary that to regard them in isolation from their histories seems perverse, and not in the fun way. That applies to Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night as much as it does to any rock album. One loved it before ever knowing much about the deaths behind it, or the facts of how it came to be; but over time, as that knowing accumulated, the album inevitably took on whole new dimensions, haunted thoughts that are now inseparable from one’s experience of the music itself.

Released in 1975, the record actually trails a chronology going back six and a half years – to early 1969, when Young recorded his Everybody Knows This is Nowhere album, backed by the US band Crazy Horse. Young got close with guitarist Danny Whitten, also a talented singer and songwriter; Whitten began using heroin during the album sessions, and got deeper into it during the Young-Crazy Horse US tour of early 1970. Almost a year later, Young debuted “The Needle and the Damage Done,” a song inspired by Whitten’s habit (and others’, too); a few months later, that habit got Whitten ejected from Crazy Horse. Throwing a lifeline, Young brought him into the band for his upcoming tour – but Whitten was so messed up in rehearsals, Young too had to fire him. The story is that he gave Whitten $50 and a plane ticket back to Los Angeles; the date was November 18, 1972. That night, Whitten was found dead in LA – not from heroin, but from a combination of alcohol and diazepam, a tranquillizer he’d been taking for arthritis pain, among whose side effects are depression and suicidal thoughts. The tour that Whitten missed yielded an album, Time Fades Away, that was half drunken romp and half despondent haze, and overall as dark as night. 

Then, in June of 1973, came the heroin death of Bruce Berry, a 22-year-old roadie who'd worked for Young. In tribute, Young composed “Tonight’s the Night,” and it became the flagship to a group of songs written over the previous months – songs about the road, drugs, murder, fear, and desperate good times. To play them, Young put Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot, Crazy Horse’s drummer and bassist, together with steel guitarist Ben Keith and, trading off with Young on guitar and piano, Nils Lofgren, who was then closing the book on his own band, Grin. Young and The Santa Monica Flyers, as they called themselves, rehearsed the new songs intensively before recording them, in August and September 1973, at LA’s Studio Instrument Rentals, a nondescript little building owned by Bruce Berry’s brother. These sessions became a legend within the legend of Tonight’s the Night: a hole was punched in a wall to run wires to the same recording console that had absorbed the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, another bleak and woeful work, and the songs sounded as if formed within a perpetual three-in-the-morning fog. (Read Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s 2002 biography of Young, for the full wallow.) After all of which, the resulting album was rejected for release by Young’s label: it would go unheard for almost two years. Tonight’s the Night finally hit shops on June 20, 1975 – featuring a live version of “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” from the Fillmore East in March 1970, with Whitten singing lead at just the moment his addiction had begun to take him under. The gatefold jacket was made of blotter paper, covered with charcoal-black photography, and fitted with giveaway sheets whose written and visual enigmas divert us to this day; the packaging became another legend within the legend.

And so did the concert tour Young undertook to introduce his new work to the public. In late 1973, he and the Flyers played shows in the US and England, shows whose first part comprised almost the whole of the still-unreleased Tonight’s the Night. Older, more familiar songs made up the show’s second part; but by way of hello, Young would confront the audience with songs it didn’t know, couched in a live package unlike anything they’d come to expect from him. The first dates were booked for September 21-23 at the Roxy, a brand-new club on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. And that is the background of ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live (Reprise), the latest release from the Neil Young Archives. 

As if you didn’t know all of this already; as if you weren’t narrating each fact ahead of me.

A photo from these performances adorns the inner sleeve of Tonight’s the Night, with each band member identified in Young’s handwriting – including, off at the end, under an empty piece of stage, “Danny Whitten.” Behind and around the players, barely discernible in the shadows, are the components of a freaky stage set: fake palm tree, wooden Indian, and several silver platform boots affixed to a piano with masking tape. (Some boots have fallen loose, their strips of tape dangling like empty hands over a cliff.) “Welcome to Miami Beach, ladies and gentlemen. Everything’s cheaper than it looks,” Young will say to his audience, setting the tone of glamour gone to seed, seventies rock as a postmodern circle-jerk. The props, the patter, the fake sun that shines on the fake palm: these are signifiers of sleaze, gestures at irony. But there’s a Brechtian thing going on, a distancing: the irony itself is ironized, so that it outflanks itself, becomes something absurd, unreadable, and therefore inexhaustible as cliché. The same is true of the music, which in its commitment, its lack of the remotest cuteness or shamefaced pull-back, renders a word like “postmodern” meager, a word like “Brechtian” merely academic. The music that on Tonight’s the Night snaked out and slammed down, sun-shy and all but airless, on ROXY expands and breathes. If the original album was the ragged end of a weekend wake that had gone on several hours too long, ROXY is the wake at its beginning, fresh and almost festive, with communal singing, laughing, and boozing. (“Thanks for the drinks!” someone shouts. “The faster you drink, the better we play,” says Lofgren.) The sadness, if the audience is even yet aware of it, is an overhang, something held in abeyance.

Pretend you haven’t heard this music before. Clear out your memory long enough to imagine you are in the front row. It isn’t impossible: the music is that immediate, the mixing of the raw tapes that attentive to audience response. “Gonna have a few new songs for you tonight,” Young deadpans, and there’s enough novelty and difference in the performance to make this familiar repertoire a new experience, despite its being the honed result of months of rehearsing and recording, and despite its following the same sequence as the eventual album that many of us know so well. (That’s except for “Come On Baby,” which is, of course, absent; “Lookout Joe,” recorded in late 1972 with Young’s previous band, The Stray Gators; and “Borrowed Tune,” recorded later in ’73, after the Flyers sessions). That sequencing means that “Tonight’s the Night” both opens and closes the set. A couple of verses in, Young’s voice cuts upward into the image that removes all symbols and mediators, that lays it on the table: And heard that he’d died out on the mainline. Imagine being in the audience that heard that for the first time. There are many points – Lofgren’s expansive, weblike guitar work in “Speakin’ Out,” “Mellow My Mind” in its entirety – that may outdo the album in aliveness, moment-to-momentness. “Albuquerque” is just as mournful and soulful as the album version, maybe more so; “New Mama,” the album’s weakest number (like a CSNY castoff), here peeks out upon the prospect of hope like a hermit peering through a crack in the door. “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” has, like some of Grin’s faux-country tunes, some dazzling offhand piano work from Lofgren, plus a nice suspension in stop-time: the audience doesn’t rush to fill the silence with applause, it knows enough to wait for Young’s comeback. That good-time drug song leads into “Tired Eyes,” with its cocaine corpses and bullet holes: not as good as the album, but close enough. And finally “Tonight’s the Night (Pt. II),” which, as in the opening round, is urged on the audience as a singalong: Tonight’s the night over and over and over, Lofgren’s high harmony like a string of stars over Young’s slithering, dreaming, deranged voicing, again and again, of the three words, which signify nothing and say everything. 

These guilt-ridden songs show Young’s customary attributes: basic chords and classic structures brought to life by band dynamics, simple if oblique lyrics queered into complexity by a voice as vulnerable as a deserted child’s, as hungry and exposed as a vein. Like the weird stage props, the lyrics that are delivered from the Roxy stage wreathe feelings of loss and squalor in a presentation that is not exactly elegiac, nor ironic in a way quite comparable to anything else. Ensemble playing of great power and refinement is disguised in a group instinct, a communal mask or collective persona in sound, that suggests a drunkard sunk in a disorientation so extreme that it achieves clarity. Everything about the drama Young is staging with this music as he plays it for its first audience – sound, words, the aliveness of the night – is vaguely familiar to us: it has echoes in some other music, some other movie, some conventional feeling or statement. But every noise, lyrical image, between-song rap lurches or wanders in from its own strange angle, and the angles don’t square or round off. They make a trapezoid of comedy and drama, of wallow and escape, something unseemly, ungainly, yet quite absolute. 

This album’s closing track, “Walk On,” eventually released on the 1974 On the Beach album, is a good song but an anticlimactic performance, out of phase with the mind and mood of the rest. But really, so what? Here on the stage of the Roxy in 1973 – just as The New York Dolls are playing the Mercer Arts Center in Greenwich Village, in a year which a character in the current FX series Trust calls “that mousy-haired, in-between girlfriend of a year, too old for the swinging sixties, too young for disco” – we witness one aspect of the birth of punk. ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live is so good that you may wonder, as I did, if the original album will now seem diminished. If it will sound too contained within the walls of Studio Instrument Rentals, notwithstanding that hole someone punched in the wall. If, in comparison to the raucous night at the Roxy, with these shut-in songs of darkness and death released to the open air of a live crowd and historical moment, the foundational music itself will sound somehow safe, tame, caged in by its own legend. Well, I just listened: it doesn’t. There’s the album, and now there’s ROXY. Either way, tonight’s the night. 

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College(2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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