Tonight's the Night
Released: June 1975
Chart Peak: #25
Weeks Charted: 12
"I'm sorry. You don't know these people. This means nothing to you." - Neil Young, in the liner notes.
Tonight's the Night finds Neil Young on his knees at the top of the heap, struggling to get back on his feet. The musical difficulties of last year's On the Beach have been resolved as directly as possible by a return to recording with Crazy Horse and Nils Lofgren, with whom Young recorded his 1970 masterpiece, After the Gold Rush.
Yet even Crazy Horse isn't what it once was: Lead guitarist Danny Whitten died last year of a drug overdose. The track on which he appears, "Come on Baby, Let's Go Downtown," recorded at Fillmore East four years ago, serves as a metaphor for the album's haunted, frightened emotional themes. Musically, Whitten's guitar and voice compliment, challenge and inspire Young. The rest of the album strains to keep up.
Still, the album shares with On the Beach a fully developed sense of despair: The stargazer of "Helpless" finds no solace here. The music has a feeling of offhand, first-take crudity matched recently only by Blood on the Tracks, almost as though Young wanted us to miss its ultimate majesty in order to emphasize its ragged edge of desolation. "Borrowed Tune," for example, is set against Young's stark harp and piano. The tandem guitar and bass on the opening version of the title song sounds like the crack of doom itself and Young's singing -- especially on the concluding version -- alternates between sheer panic and awful Old Testament threat. "Tonight's the night," he shouts, threats, begs, moans and curses, telling the story of roadie Bruce Berry, who ODed "out on the mainline." Sometimes it feels as though Young is still absorbing the shock of his friend's death, sometimes as though he is railing against mortality itself, sometimes as though he's accepted it. But never as though he believes it.
More than any of Young's earlier songs and albums -- even on the despondent On the Beach and the mordant, rancorous Time Fades Away -- Tonight's the Night is preoccupied with death and disaster. Dedicated to the dead Berry and Whitten, its cover, liner and label are starkly black and white. The characters of the songs are shell-shocked, losers, wasted, insane, homeless -- except for the ones who are already corpses. The happiest man in any of them, the father in "New Mama," acknowledges that he's "living in a dreamland." Ultimately, he too is tracked down by the ghosts from outside as he sits staring out at his frozen lake.
Young is simultaneously terrified by this pernicious landscape and fascinated by the disgust and lust it evokes. The only resolution seems to be ennui and the ritual of the music, which pounds incessantly, until the sanity of everything, including (or maybe especially) the singer and the listener, is called into question. Tonight's the night, all right, but for what? Just another kick?
What finally happens, in "Tired Eyes," is material for a novel; in fact, as Bud Scoppa has pointed out elsewhere, the similarity to the plot of Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers -- a novel which shares Young's obsession with heroin and the refuse of the war -- is startling. "Well, he shot four men in a cocaine deal," Young sings matter-of-factly. "He left 'em lyin' in an open field/ Full of old cars with bullet holes in the mirrors."
The whole album has pointed to this, song after song building the tightness with the endless repetition of phrases -- musical and lyric -- until the rasp of the guitars on the rockers and the sweetness of the singing on the weepers begins to grate, aching for release. Young's whole career may have been spent in pursuit of this story -- remember the sinister black limousines lurking in the shadows of "Mr. Soul" and "Broken Arrow"? -- but it is only now that he has found a way to tell the tale so directly.
Much has been made of Young's turn from pretty melodies on the last three albums. On this album, there are hints of the same kind of beauty that, overused, finally bloated Harvest with its own saccharine excesses. "World on a String" and "Roll Another Number" wouldn't have sounded out of place on that album, expect that they would have exploded its pretensions.
If the songs here aren't pretty, they are tough and powerful, with a metallic guitar sound more akin to the abrasiveness of the Rolling Stones than the placid harmonies of CSNY. The melodies haven't disappeared (as they seemed to on On the Beach), but they are only sketched in, hints of what could be.
There is no sense of retreat, no apology, no excuses offered and no quarter given. If anything, these are the old ideas with a new sense of aggressiveness. The jitteriness of the music, its sloppy, unarranged (but decidedly structured) feeling is clearly calculated. The music draws us in, with the wonderful guitar line crashing through the ominous "Lookout Joe," with the steel guitar on "Albuquerque," the almost folkish suggestion of melody that drives "Tired Eyes" but -- and here is where it is new -- it also spits us back out again, makes us look at the ugliness on the surface and beneath it.
Yet the musical change doesn't reflect a similar toughening of subject matter, though that is what the casual listener might think. The tensions have always been there, only they are now unrelieved. To suggest, as some have, that Young's current music is an apology for the sweetness of his success -- much less to suggest that he has only recently discovered a world in opposition to the rock scene -- is to ignore the bulk of his work. The titles alone tell the story: "Broken Arrow," "Out of My Mind," "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" (with no hint that anything can mend it again), even "Helpless," "Ohio," Young's other great CSNY contribution, speaks explicitly of the same horrors: "What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground/ How can you run when you know?" Finally, those four dead in "Ohio" equate directly with the four dead coke dealers in "Tired Eyes": casualties in different battles of the same war.
All of this is half incoherent because all of the names Young could put to it are clichés. It is the measure of Young's achievement that when he sings, so calmly it's spooky, "Please take my advice/ Open up the tired eyes," it brings this message home to us in a new way. Suddenly the evil is no longer banal but awful and ironic, in simultaneous recognition that the advice is silly, or that if taken, it might not help or it might only aid in enlarging the wounds.
Crying over the death of his real and imagined friends, Neil Young seems at once heroic and mock heroic, brave and absurd. Like the best of both, he leaves us as he found us, ravaged but rocking.
- Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone, 8/28/75.
Certainly the most varied LP Young has come up with in some time, with the changes most noticeable in the excellent mix of music ranging from rock to blues to country to almost MOR ballads, courtesy of top musicians Nils Lofgren, Ben Keith, Jack Nitzsche, Ralph Molina, and Billy Talbot, among others. The key is a bit more energy in the music than heard on the last several Young LPs, while the one disappointment centers around the lyrics, which are excellent at times and seem just plain meaningless at others. Nevertheless, the more interesting vocal efforts from Young (he changes his style to handle the mood of the tune), the better music, and the overall unified feel of the LP make it his strongest effort in several years. Set is dedicated to Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, two rockers who passed away recently. Best cuts: "Tonight's The Night," "Speakin' Out," "World On A String," "Come On Baby, Let's Go Downtown," "Roll Another Number (For The Road)." "Lookout Joe."
- Billboard, 1975.
This should end any lingering doubts as to whether Neil Young is the desperate recluse who released two albums in the late '60s or the sweet eccentric who became a superstar shortly thereafter. Better carpentered than Time Fades Away and less cranky than On the Beach, it extends their basic weirdness into a howling facedown with heroin and death itself. It's far from metal machine music -- just simple, powerful rock and roll. But there's lots of pain with the pleasure, as after all is only "natural." In Boulder, it reportedly gets angry phone calls whenever it's played on the radio. What better recommendation could you ask? A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Young is an acquired taste, primarily because the nasal whine that he uses for a voice; also because of his propensity for employing distortion as an element of his sound tapestry. His vision and wide roving intensity, however, cannot be doubted. Written in part as a response to the drug-related deaths of two members of his musical touring aggregation, Tonight's the Night is a dark, rough, less than pleasant experience which Young's record company held for two years before offering it to the market. With this release, Young may have been motivated by very personal losses, but the end result is a conceptual elegy to the youth and dreams that buoyed the great sixties myths. This isn't easy music to listen to, but it is redemptive -- it is pure rock & roll in the fullest sense. Or, as Young himself has said, "I probably feel this more than anything else I've ever done." The sound, whic features continuous, obvious hiss, is a bit more dynamic and defined than the LP, but the digital conversion is murky, dirty and distorted which may, in this case, represent perfect reproduction. A+
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
In the liner notes to his brilliant and slightly misleading collection Decade, Neil Young wrote about his massive hit single "Heart of Gold": "This song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there." That's his career in a nutshell. Bravely, he threw away a certain career as a folk-rock/country-rock heartthrob for a more treacherous mixture of hard rock and hard turns. On the other hand, would you want to hang out with James Taylor? David Crosby?
Young drags fans through the wilderness sometimes for years between good albums (as I write this, Young has released five supportable LPs in a row, an all-time record for him), but that's primarily because he expects his legions to be as restless as he. His first turnaround, and still his most radical, was the aforementioned move to the ditch after Harvest. Young recorded Tonight's the Night in 1973, and it took him nearly two years (or so the legend goes) to talk Warner Brothers into releasing the harsh, off-kilter work that alienated fans of "Heart of Gold" as surely as Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On scared off buyers of their earlier, lighter hits. All Young had to do was plug in his electric guitar, play his modal, minor-key solos, and watch 'em scatter.
As with some other major Young albums (Rust Never Sleeps, Freedom), two versions of one song on Tonight's the Night bookend the record. The take of the title track that starts the record is loose, the slightly longer one that ends it is fundamentally dissolute. The song, as well as a few others on the record, takes on the deaths of two people close to Young in the early seventies, both due to heroin. Young's singing is wobbly, his accompaniment is bloody, everybody's prospects seem bleak.
Young has acknowledged that the band was high when they cut Tonight's the Night, an irony that emphasizes Young's closeness to his material. But Tonight's the Night isn't about drugs, in spite of songs like "Tired Eyes" that explicitly tackle the horrors of dealing and shooting up; it's about determination. Young sounds out of it throughout this record -- "Speakin' Out," a blues based on Dylan's "Pledging My Time," is full of random details that add up to all-encompassing weirdness -- more specifically, he sounds like he's coming out of a dream. Tonight's the Night is a belated trip to reality, and it's hard to blame the recovering Young for not liking what he saw there.
- Jimmy Guterman, The Best Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time, 1992.
This belatedly released masterpiece (part two of the trilogy) is one of the scariest records ever released. It names names and spares no one in its depiction of the ravages of the druggy life of rock & roll. Least of all spared is the author, who often sounds like he's about to nod out himself. Probably the best album Neil Young will ever make, and not listed as his pick only because it's not the place to start. * * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Tonight's the Night, with its harrowing images of violence and drug addiction after losing two close friends -- including original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten -- is one of rock's scariest albums ever. * * * * *
- Alan Paul, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Young made this album as a tribute to two friends who died from drugs, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Young sounds like he's on the edge of a breakdown in the mournful ballads "Tired Eyes" and "Speakin' Out," recorded with a loose, heavily emotional sound.
Tonight's the Night was chosen as the 331st greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
In 1973, Neil Young should have been the happiest man in California. His last album Harvest had topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, and critics were calling him the finest singer-songwriter of his generation. But Young was depressed and despondent; in the past year he had lost two close friends -- Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry -- to heroin overdoses, and his commercial success had left him feeling trapped and isolated.
Tonight's The Night was Young's attempt to escape this past. Recorded in L.A.'s SIR studio, the album saw Young reinvent himself as a boozy, bar room troubadour. Gone were the note-perfect country-rockers and gentle folk tracks of Harvest; in their place were bluesy musings on fame and death. The album's title track, littered with gutter-sweeping ruitar from Nils Lofgren, tackles Bruce Berry's sad and wasted life. "Tired Eyes" invokes Whitten's drug struggles with the world-weary chorus. "He tried to do his best, but he could not." "World On A String," featuring ethereal pedal steel from Ben Keith, is a beautifully cynical rejection of Young's celebrity status. The cover artwork was as confrontational as the music.
Although recorded in 1973, Reprise held Tonight's The Night back in the vain hope that Young would record a more commercial album. Finally released in 1975, the album was praised by critics, but failed to match the sales of previous releases. Its true influence would not become apparent until more than a decade later, when grunge and alt.country acts alike would mimic its raw and emotionally apocalyptic sound.
- Theunis Bates, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
Part of the genius of Neil Young's dark masterpiece Tonight's the Night is that it could really have sounded like shit: The soused bar-band stomp of Young's backing outfit Crazy Horse constantly threatens to careen out of control, and Young sometimes sounds so depressed it's a wonder he managed to tune his guitar. Recorded in 1973 but not released till 1975, Tonight is Young's most hauntingly powerful album, full of cracked folkie ballads, ferocious rockers and bleak reveries inspired by the heroin deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. It's a glorious mess, with Young and Crazy Horse thrashing through the wilderness and giving death the finger.
More than most Young albums, Tonight is an uncanny blend of light and dark, delicate and heavy: Even when he mourns the death of the Sixties on the vicious "Roll Another Number," his folk-schooled sense of melody and the heart-rending empathy in his thin voice shine through. The twin comedowns "Albuquerque" and "Tired Eyes" rank among Young's most beautiful songs, with slo-mo choruses and cascading harmonies keeping his head above water. "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown" plays like a creepy joke. It's a rollicking live cut from 1970, with Whitten singing about good times not long before they killed him.
By 1975, Young had been well recognized as a talented eccentric, but his early-Seventies output had been fairly clean-cut -- long on straight-ahead jams and tidy country rock. With Tonight's the Night, Young was becoming the weirdo genius he is today -- a world-weary guitar poet following his whims, dreaming of a distant paradise and steadfastly refusing to go gently into that good night. * * * * *
- Christian Hoard, Rolling Stone, 6/16/05.
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