Saturday, January 19, 2013

Neil Young's Ditch Trilogy and the return of The Rascals

You know, I was a kid in the 70s. For the most part I have to admit to having had a pretty happy childhood overall. Some weirdness here and there, some typical growing up stuff, some a-typical growing up stuff – par for the course I’d reckon. I’ll say this though- what a weird decade to have been born into. America in the 70s was a mixture of real gut-churning frustrations (Watergate?) countered with plucky American-style resolve (1976 – the Bicentennial year optimism). One of my early childhood memories is being in New York City on the Fourth of July watching fireworks on the Bicentennial – the sheer masses of people out on a warm summer night, the blinding flashes of fireworks, the noise, the smoke from the charges seemingly going off all around me. It was surreal and exhilarating. I loved the celebratory mood of the summer of 1976. I can close my eyes and recall the sights, sounds, smells……….

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.
The second album in the revered Ditch Trilogy to see its way to the marketplace was On The Beach. It too was MIA on compact disc until about 2003. While Time Fades Away is raw in a shocking way, On the Beach is raw in a charming way. This album is probably my favorite Neil Young platter of all time. It sounds like Neil coming to grips with the debacle of his popular appeal, but it’s a chillout session in more ways than one. Although it was the next LP release after Time Fades Away, it’s recording was preceded by another project that Neil had spent a lot of time on – including a pretty theatrical series of live shows developing a bunch of songs he recorded and shelved just before starting sessions for On the Beach. Neil wasn’t sure if he ought to release the project and was prodded into it by several interested parties including producer David Briggs and Rick Danko of The Band. So, slightly out of order, the third part of the “ditch trilogy” came out in 1975 – almost two years after its completion. Although the chronology was skewed, Tonight’s the Night represented the sonic BOTTOM of the ditch with nowhere to go but up. I really wonder if Neil considered how the mood in the country was poised to improve with the impending Bicentennial in ’76 and figured he’d better toss his most tortured creation out on the scene before people got too happy to really relate to it…….
Why tortured? Tonight’s the Night was Neil Young’s answer to the deaths of two close associates – his bandmate in Crazy Horse Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry – both OD’s from heroin abuse. Danny Whitten was the great second guitar foil for Neil in Crazy Horse. Bruce Berry was, among other things, the brother to legendary (and tragic) Jan Berry from Jan and Dean fame. Both deaths hit Neil Young hard and Tonight’s the Night became what one critic described as the “Irish Wake”. Perhaps not a very politically correct statement, but emphasis on tossing back a few in honor of the departed took on a near-obsessive aesthetic for Tonight’s the Night. This record must stand alone as the first – if not ONLY – major release by a major artist who is audibly PICKLED IN ALCOHOL for at least 85% of the proceedings. Neil Young is not buzzed or high on this record – he is without question BLIND DRUNK and sounds it. Yet, somehow – the character he morphs into for this project manages to deliver such a powerful performance of the material it would be hard to imagine hearing him try to sing it sober. The whole album is a ragged, slovenly, smelly mess. People are bumping into microphones – nobody cares. Neil can’t even be bothered with writing his own melody for one of the songs, for crying out loud – so he steals one from the Rolling Stones and admits it right in the lyrics of the song! Agonizingly pathetic and wallowing in pain, pity and pathos. Tonight’s the Night is the work of a wounded animal whimpering in its lair and refusing to come out because it doesn’t trust the outside world right now. Or ever. Did I mention this album is DARK?
In fact, it is literally BLACK – even the record label. The original album cover material was this thick, dark blotter paper -  prone to crumbling – like my copy that I found used at a yard sale for 50 cents a bunch of years ago. This was the last of the ditch trilogy albums I heard and, to tell the truth, I was not enamored with this record on first listen. I was in a pretty happy place in my life, in spite of suffering some tough losses that I was only beginning to process properly. I lost two close family members under pretty harrowing circumstances within a year of each other. Luckily my support system (family / friends) had been pulling me through (and they still are). Maybe I just didn’t want to look into the deep, dark pool Neil Young was showing me at that point.

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……….
About a month ago I got the chance to see a dream happen for real. I went to see The (not so young, but authentic) RASCALS in a wonderful reunion show at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. When it comes to The Rascals, I am a frothing-at-the-mouth obnoxious BELIEVER of the worst kind. To me, The Rascals represent HOPE MUSIC. I grew up hearing their songs on the radio as a kid – it was just a part of the sounds still echoing through the 70s from the 60s. Plus – they were from my neck of the woods – maybe Little Steven likes to say they were from New Joisey, but I know Felix was from New York and they’re just as much of a NEW YAWK band to me. When I bought The Rascals Greatest Hits as a teenager – hearing that music was like going home  - it made me feel good! I obsessed over tracking down all the records – mono & stereo LPs, 45s and even some 8-tracks. And don’t even get me started on Dino Danelli. What a MONSTER drummer, man. I still don’t really understand why these guys did not achieve the same heights of fame as the Beatles, etc…..

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…………
Two years later – the announcement comes: THE REUNION SHOWS at the Capitol Theater – December 2012. OHMYFRIGGINGODDDDD! I am so happy I lived long enough to see that day – actually I ended up going twice. If I had the scratch I would have gone every night. These guys represented everything I ever respected about music and they got me through many, many hard times. Little Steven put together an amazing show for the group and the fans. I hope they keep it going as long as they can (next scheduled performances during Memorial Day weekend in sunny Florida).  But even if they fizzle out (and I hope they don’t), I was given a great gift to see a living, musical miracle happen right in front of my very eyes and ears. And I got the T-Shirt to prove it. Heh!
Music can be powerful. Sometimes the sad songs hit the spot – other times those positive vibrations are the best medicine. I still have some musical dreams – and other dreams – I’d love to see happen. I have seen some very unlikely musical miracles come to pass so far on my earthly journey and I’m keeping my eye on the horizon to spot more. If you’ve taken this journey with me so far……thanks for sticking around! I’ll keep reporting the good stuff from the crow’s nest up here. Steady as she goes………………..and a very Happy New Year!

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