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Consequence‘s review series Dusting ‘Em Off examines classic albums that have established an enduring place in pop culture. Today, Neil Young leaves the “middle of the road” with the “Ditch Trilogy.”
In 1972, Neil Young released Harvest: a commercial titan that launched his solo career and provided him with enough cultural cachet to be able to tell his old CSN buddies to “eat a peach.” Even 50 years later, thanks to the staying power of songs like “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold,” it stands as his best-known work. Which is all well and good — unless you’re Neil Young in 1973, doped-up, rebellious, and looking for excitement anywhere that wasn’t the mainstream.
“[Heart of Gold] put me in the middle of the road,” he wrote of the sweet-as-honey acoustic tune in the liner notes for the 1977 compilation Decade. “Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.”
And head for the ditch he did, following the soft, folky, best-selling Harvest with a run of three increasingly dark albums that, while now canonized, failed to move nearly as many units as Harvest: Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night. Recorded and released between 1973 and 1975, the trilogy of records finds Young at his emotional lowest and artistic peak, grappling with inner turmoil, his extravagant (and dangerous) lifestyle, and his role as a burgeoning rock star. Ultimately, it’d be the run of albums that defined Young’s uncompromising and revolutionary artistic spirit.
Time Fades Away, released in October 1973, was the first of the so-called “Ditch Trilogy.” In retrospect, it serves as the jarring bridge between Young as the traveling, Dylan-eqsue folk hero and Young as the sprawling, boundary-pushing rock ‘n’ roller. A live album documenting his post-Harvest tour, it’s also, as it turns out, an effort Young isn’t particularly proud of.
“I think it’s the worst record I ever made,” he said in a 1987 radio interview with Dave Ferrin. “But as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record. I was onstage, and I was playing all these songs that nobody had heard before, recording them, and I didn’t have the right band. It was just an uncomfortable tour. It was supposed to be this big deal — I just had Harvest out, and they booked me into ninety cities. I felt like a product, and I had this band of all-star musicians that couldn’t even look at each other. It was a total joke.”
By all accounts, Young took out his frustration with the plastic, processed nature of commercialism on stage, playing loose, hard-edged sets to audiences who bought tickets to hear, well, “Heart of Gold.” Listen to the drunken shuffle of the title track, the sprawled-out jamming of “Last Dance,” or the energized and electric blues of “Yonder Stands the Sinner” (which begins with a member of the band remarking, “This will be kind of experimental”), and it’s easy to understand why audiences felt as if they had had the rug pulled out from under them. They came to sing “Old Man,” not to hear Young abuse his guitar in front of a backing band who sounded like they were barely managing to hold onto the tune.
Which is not to paint Time Fades Away as purely a document of chaos. Select tracks manage to reign in the wildness, with Young taking to the piano or picking up the harmonica. Rather than ooze with poetic beauty like the ballads of Harvest, however, “Love in Mind” and “The Bridge” instead come across with a deep, crushing sense of melancholy. “Journey Through the Past” is the closest Young gets to his pre-ditch days, though notably was the lone track recorded at a show in 1971 — i.e. before Harvest became the best-performing album of the following year.
Sure, it’s rough around the edges and doesn’t quite live up to the heights of Young’s following two releases, but it was perhaps the first taste fans got of Neil Young as a musical antagonist, a role he continues to play to this day.
What comes next depends on who you ask. Technically, according to release dates, On the Beach arrived as the first studio album of the “Ditch Trilogy.” And yet, purists will point out that Tonight’s the Night was actually recorded first, being held by Young’s label until he insisted upon its release in 1975.
But, to follow the path that the average listener would have back in the ’70s, On the Beach landed as Young’s official follow-up to Harvest. Despite its title and the sunny scene depicted in the album art, the record is far darker, heavier, and more disillusioned than any of Young’s first few studio efforts.
As if he was playing a cruel meta-joke on his fanbase, however, Young hides that fact by opening the album with “Walk On,” a bouncy rock tune about perseverance. Following the relative high of “Walk On,” though, are seven tracks that fully embrace the ditch; three of which explicitly have “blues” in the title (for the statisticians out there, that’s a whopping 37.5% of the tracklist). Over gloomy, brooding rock instrumentals and sparse, depressive cooldowns, Young tackles themes of existential breaks, paranoia, and lost love.
The blues triplets — “Revolution Blues,” “Vampire Blues,” and “Ambulance Blues” — each bite in their own way, with the first two landing open chords like gut punches and “Ambulance Blues” closing the album with a defeated, understated sigh. Elsewhere, “On the Beach,” complete with bongo embellishments, reads almost as Young’s version of “Comfortably Numb” done five years before Floyd even wrote that song, and “Motion Pictures (For Carrie)” is devastation incarnate, a simple and stripped-back folk tune framed by darkness.
While these songs are an obvious response to his success, they aren’t expressly uncommercial. The melodies are too pretty and the songs too compelling for that to be the case. Rather, it’s the crushing angst of the album that rebelled against Young’s previous work, which is thanks in no small part to Rusty Kershaw’s contributions — both musical and extra-musical. Kershaw contributed slide guitar, fiddle, and, perhaps most importantly to Young’s next few decades, a new vice: honey slides, a combination of honey and marijuana that’s supposed to induce heroin-like euphoria. If Bob Dylan introducing The Beatles to weed made them artsier and more experimental, Kershaw’s honey slides put Young in touch with his most depressive self.
Finally, rounding out the “Ditch Trilogy” (at least in chronological release order), comes Tonight’s the Night, a record steeped in grief, drug culture, and alienation. Mere months before the writing and recording of the album’s 12 songs, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and Young’s longtime friend/roadie Bruce Berry both died of drug overdoses. Their passing, understandably, loomed over the album’s creation.
“Tonight’s the Night is like an OD letter. The whole thing is about life, dope and death,” he told Cameron Crow in a 1975 interview with Rolling Stone. “The Tonight’s the Night sessions were the first time what was left of Crazy Horse had gotten together since Danny died. It was up to us to get the strength together among us to fill the hole he left.”
“There was a lot of spirit in the music we made. It’s funny, I remember the whole experience in black and white. We’d go down to [the studio] about 5:00 in the afternoon and start getting high, drinking tequila and playing pool. About midnight, we’d start playing,” he continued. “And we played Bruce and Danny on their way all through the night. I’m not a junkie and I won’t even try it out to check out what it’s like . . . but we all got high enough, right out there on the edge where we felt wide-open to the whole mood. It was spooky. I probably feel this album more than anything else I’ve ever done.”
Listening to Tonight’s the Night, and the mournful, tipsy vibes are tangible. From the plotting but dejected “Mellow My Mind” to the wobbly, communal “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” to the pleading, sorrowful “Tired Eyes,” the record is constantly attempting to drown out its inner darkness through friends and substances.
Together with Time Fades Away and On the Beach, Young revealed his true self. It’s with these records he established his sonic edge, a path he’d further explore with records with Crazy Horse like Zuma (particularly on “Cortez the Killer”) and Rust Never Sleeps (which eventually nabbed Young the title of the ‘godfather of grunge’). More than that, the one-two-three punch of the “Ditch Trilogy” established his artistic edge — his staunchness, stubbornness, and refusal to do anything that deviated from his own personal interests. It continued in the ’70s with his infamous and abrupt departure from his tour with Steven Stills, in the ’80s with records so obtuse and uncommercial that his own label sued him, and today, as any Spotify user knows all too well.
But that’s Neil Young: a difficult, brilliant rock star who drifted into the ditches as soon as he got a taste of the spotlight. Fortunately for music fans everywhere, it just so happened to result in some of the best songs of his career — scratch that, some of the best songs in the pantheon of rock music.