Capturing a Man on Fire

By Paul Rigg

The first topless girl we get up here gets one of these boots, ladies and gentlemenNeil Young says in his introductory words to the concert; something which seems somewhat inappropriate, particularly in the context of today’s #MeToo movement.       

But in some mitigation, both the place and the time when Neil Young’s concerts (between September 20th and 22nd, 1973, and recently re-released in digitally enhanced versions) were recorded were very different. He and his band were opening a new bar and concert hall on the Sunset strip in Hollywood, which is replete with edgy strip clubs, and the stage was bizarrely littered with a palm tree, women’s boots and hubcaps. Two of Young’s close friends, Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, had recently died because of drug overdoses and in his grief – and to escape his feelings of guilt - he sought to create a burlesque feel to what otherwise might have been a series of heavy and mawkish performances. Despite the fact that these songs are full of despair, desolation and loss, this incredible live album consequently feels like the listener is being drawn wide-eyed into one exhilarating and celebratory night of partying.

Neil Young at the time had recently become one of the biggest acts on the planet. Harvest, packed full of catchy melodies like Heart of Gold, had catapulted Young into superstardom, and he didn’t like it.
"This song put me in the middle of the road”, he said “Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch; a rougher ride but I met more interesting people there".

This ‘ride’ resulted in what became known as the ‘Ditch trilogy’: 1973s Time Fades Away; 1974s On the Beach and this live album, which was recorded before On the Beach but for reasons that are still open to speculation, released after it.

Young appears on the album cover in sunglasses and – unusually for him - holding a Fender Telecaster. He is joined on stage by Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina on drums and Billy Talbot on bass; Ben Keith – who adds grandeur and beauty to many of the songs with his steel guitar; - and legendary guitarist Nils Lofgren.

We really knew the Tonight’s the Night songs after playing them for a month, so we just played them again, the album, top to bottom, without the added songs, two sets a night for a few days. We had a great time”, Young says of the recording.

The ‘added songs’ he refers to are Borrowed Tune, Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown and Lookout Joe, which were added to the studio album, but not part of those original sessions (or the live performance).

Of the songs that remain, many are now viewed as classics. The title track, Tonight’s The Night, is gloriously shambolic, and feels barely held together, in the style of
Lou Reed’s Berlin. It is difficult to know whether Young is still in shock over his friends’ deaths, angry about them, or celebrating their lives; and perhaps all three emotions are churning away in there at once.    

In Albuquerque Young sings that he is "starvin' to be alone, independent from the scene that I've known" and explains that he is longing to "find somewhere where they don't care who I am".

Some relief seems to be coming on the acoustic guitar and piano driven New Mama when the father says he is "living in a dreamland". However the “changing times” soon “turn to lies”, and we find ourselves back in the same old stew.

Roll Another Number (For the Road)
seems to take a shot at those who extol the virtues of peace and love but who then do little more than escape into a world of drink and debauchery - someone not too distant from himself, in fact. “I’m not goin’ back to Woodstock for a while”, he sings. “[I’m] a million miles away, from that helicopter day”.

In Tired Eyes Young tells the story of a guy who “shot four men in a cocaine deal [and] left them lyin' in an open field full of old cars with bullet holes in the mirrors". Even Young’s simple refrain "Please take my advice, open up the tired eyes", does not really offer any sincere hope or relief.

Tonight's the Night
, represents another turn on Young’s road of gentle, melodic albums being followed by a deluge of desolate and angry numbers. It powerfully captures a particular space and moment in time when Young was on fire, and the whole trajectory of rock history would be difficult to conceive of without it.