Yet, my 70s childhood would not be complete without connections to the burgeoning mass culture created by television. The constant parade of characters, images, rhetoric and general surrealism dished out by television formed the sonic and visual backdrop to lots of formative experiences for me, as I’m sure it did for many in my age group. For example, when I was growing up, my folks reminded me of Archie and Edith Bunker (okay so my mother also had a Brooklyn accent – that certainly sped the comparison along for me). This two-dimensional view would eventually give way to a more realistic and three-dimensional complexity when I discovered, “Hey – they’re just human after all!” many years later. Yet I was inevitably part of the TV generation – television characters provided interesting foils to measure my real-world characters against. To this day my father still reminds me of Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek – loyal, dependable and heroic with a touch of wackiness just to keep everyone a little off kilter. I have no idea how the older generations processed the world around them growing up, but TV was this constant window to a decidedly bizarro version of the so-called “real world”. Or so it seemed to my young, impressionable mind.
What does any of this have to do with Neil Young? Maybe nothing directly. Except maybe to illustrate why the 70s strike me as an odd decade to grow up in. Though, I suppose life always has its ups and downs with the 70s being no exception, but I think Neil had a good finger on the pulse of the times in which he lived. And the ups and downs of the 70s certainly provided a rich backdrop for some of his most enduring art. I can’t say if the ebb and flow of optimism and pessimism motivated his art, but there is a fascinating synergy between the times and the tunes.
Neil Young also managed to carve out for himself a unique position in rock music culture – the loner as the popular hero. He blazed a path to popularity in the early 70s with the “Harvest” album only to run the gravy train of success right into the ditch – on purpose – just to show everybody they had him all wrong- especially if they thought the guy with the shaky voice who sang “Heart of Gold” was the same guy who sang “A Horse With No Name”. The demythologizing process began about as quickly as the myth-building process had begun. The tour to support the “Harvest” album quickly devolved into a disillusioned mess, brilliantly documented on the Time Fades Away album (brilliant yes, but it still must be a sore memory for Neil since he has yet to sanction it’s re-issue on CD). This record is known as the first album in what fans have come to label Neil’s 70s triptych of misery: The Ditch Trilogy. Time Fades Away clearly shows the loner hero unraveling onstage in front of uncomprehending fans. There’s still some good music on that record so hopefully Neil will make peace with it someday to bless its re-release. For the moment, Time Fades Away is a missing piece of the official Neil Young story – or at least a shadowy piece.
Then about a week ago – it hit me. I started playing Tonight’s the Night a few times a night. Once wouldn’t cut it. I could feel the sorrow, the frustration, the angst and bitterness of the unfairness of death upon the unsuspecting. The suffering of those left behind in the wake of terrible loss. But I also heard the humor – am I twisted to find myself laughing out loud as Neil Young admits he’s unable to get the keys in his ignition (probably saved his life and others’ too that he couldn’t!)? Tonight’s the Night is dark AND funny. And full of good advice – please take my advice, please take my advice – open up the tired eyes……….open up the tired eyes. Like a mantra. Like a drunken person saying the same thing over and over in some vain attempt to emphasize a point already made. Just so you KNOW what they mean. Do you know what I mean? Tonight’s the Night is that drunken idiot friend you know who got plastered with you because they didn’t want to see you doing that alone and they’re leaning on your shoulder and being smelly and way too close for comfort, but you know their heart is in the right place ‘cause they’re telling you – get it together. Yep – life sure isn’t fair. It can be downright sucky. But it’s better to have some kind of faith for a better day because a better day just might come along when you least expect it and, quite frankly, wouldn’t it be nicer if you were there to greet it and claim it as your reward for toughing out the bad times?
You don’t have to take my advice. Or Neil’s. Yet, it might be worth putting a copy of Tonight’s the Night in your collection for safe keeping. Could come in handy. For those times when you’re drunken idiot friend isn’t around to give you beer-aroma advice to keep fighting the good fight and to hell with THOSE A-HOLES. Yeah. We know who THEY are. Yeah. Only your true friends will tell ya’ when you’re just pissing in the wind. Just like the old guy at the farmer’s market in Neil’s song on side two of On the Beach.
Neil would emerge from the fog on the next album – ZUMA. Tellingly, that album cover is all white with a black ink illustration on it – the opposite of its predecessor. There’s a renewed sense of being happy to have survived the bad times to witness a new day on that album. Now, not everybody likes Neil Young and that’s normal. But those that don’t are kinda missing out on some useful art – good for what ails ya’. Anyway, life can toss some wicked curveballs and most folks can relate to that no matter what their status might be. Sometimes its just days, sometimes weeks – heaven help us when its months and years. Nobody escapes having their mettle tested. But there are things worth having some faith for……….
To me – The Rascals are music I can hear anytime and if I’m feeling down – they pull me through. Now, when I learned about all the funky vibes between band members over the years since their breakup it broke my heart to consider that A) these guys were so awesome at one time B) they’re all still alive and healthy and (worst of all) C) there was so much bad blood, you can pretty much cross them off the “reunion” list for good. Then…..a miracle. Heard through the net that a one-off reunion show was being broadcast live on the Sirius radio thingy from a club in New York. A benefit concert. Gadzooks! I hadn’t been so excited to listen to a radio broadcast in SO LOOONG! I even taped it on cassette (just like the old days). As great as they were, I understood this was a special event and not likely to turn into something else…………even interviews with the band members were tentative at best and evasive (as usual) at worst. Then…………