IGNORED OBSCURED RESTORED
Between February 1972 and April 1973 Neil Young recorded three of his darkest and most misunderstood albums. Coming off the success of his work with Crosby, Stills and Nash, then his blockbuster country rock album Harvest (1972), he had the music world eating out of his hand. He even had a #1 hit with Harvest’s “Heart of Gold.”
But Young famously wrote in the liner notes to his Decades compilation: “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” This quote is responsible for the next three albums – Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach – to become known as “The Ditch Trilogy.”
When Time Fades Away was released, fans expecting the follow up to Harvest to contain more material in the singer/songwriter vein were caught by surprise. Was Young intentionally trying to sabotage his own career? Clearly, they weren’t aware of the anguish Young was facing at the time – the first hint of which he tossed out on Harvest’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” – a song that bore his observations of the effects of bandmate Danny Whitten’s heroin addiction.
In fact, Young and his band were rehearsing for a tour to promote Harvest at his ranch south of San Francisco when Whitten’s substance abuse caused him to struggle to learn and play his parts. Though Young tried to help him out, he was finally persuaded it wasn’t going to work out. He gave Whitten $50 bucks and a ticket back to LA. That night Whitten ODed and died. Young felt responsible.
But the tour was about to begin, so Young headed out on the road with no time to grieve. Instead, he dropped the material he was supposed to promote and instead played a set of loud, menacing, new songs that were a better reflection of his mood. That became the live album Time Fades Away.
The signature song from Time Fades Away is “Don’t Be Denied”, penned the day after Whitten died.
Its autobiographical lyrics cover Young’s journey from his father’s abandonment to schoolyard bullying, to rock and roll stardom. But he ruefully concludes:
Well, all that glitters isn’t gold
I know you’ve heard that story told.
And I’m a pauper in a naked disguise
A millionaire through a business man’s eyes.
Part 2 of the trilogy – Tonight’s the Night – is coming next week.
Enjoy… until next week.