Neil Young and The Ditch Trilogy: Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night


This is the Second of three parts of a trilogy of articles about the Ditch Trilogy that I originally wrote for the liner notes to my Neil Young DIY Box Set…

Worst follow up albums? There are quite a few acts that have followed up a huge, successful, life changing hit album with an an absolute stinker of an LP that looks and smells like something the cat has left on the carpet. 

Oasis’ “Be Here Now” leads the pack in modern times, but Neil Young also confounded the expectations of his new found audience with the follow up to Harvest. 

Throughout his career, Neil Young had sought success, but also creative freedom. Young got frustrated with Buffalo Springfield when they wouldn’t release his song, Mr Soul, as the next single. Too many compromises. 

The success of Harvest gave Neil Young creative freedom. The record company indulged him.  

This was an error. 

Young took full advantage, deciding to make a difficult to watch art movie called “Journey Through The Past” which literally no-one appears to have a good word to say about, except maybe Neil Young. 

The best bit of the accompanying LP is this quote from Young biographer Johnny Rogan who says,

“One begins to suspect the concept of the album may have been to start off with the worst material ever recorded by Young with the aim of defying the listener’s belief by making each successive side more horrendous.”

It’s one of the earlier signs that Young wasn’t going to be your typical, malleable successful rock star. 

Young was subsequently booked on a ninety city tour in support of Harvest. Audiences clamoured to hear the latest singer-songwriter play his hits. 

But that wasn’t where Neil Young was at… 

Rather than play a set of songs from the hit albums “After The Gold Rush” and “Harvest”, Young decided to write new songs to play on tour. 

Because we all know that feeling in the pit of the stomach when an artist says “Here’s a new song we’d like to play”. Their attempt to do so at Live 8 is one of the reasons we don’t talk about the Scissor Sisters any more. 

Young called up Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten to join his Harvest band in the autumn of 1972. Young had heard Whitten had shrugged off his drug problems and Whitten stayed in a trailer at Young’s home, Broken Arrow ranch, to rehearse some new songs for an album to be called “Time Fades Away”.

But Whitten hadn’t quit drugs. To be fair, he had tried, by only by substituting tequila – not something that doctors typically recommend. Attempting to deal with his addiction by taking a trip to Mexico, when asked if he had anything to declare, Whitten threw up over the customs official. 

It didn’t take long for things to unravel. During rehearsals Whitten was once again nodding off during songs and by all accounts was in a terrible way. 

Eventually, Whiten was fired and given money to fly back to LA.

That very night he was fired Whitten died, having overdosed on alcohol and Valium. 

It was a bitter blow. 

Understandably, Whitten’s death hit Young hard. The day after Whitten’s death he wrote “Don’t Be Denied”, a biographical song encapsulating his disillusionment with success and how dreams can turn sour. 

The rehearsals continued gloomily, and Young’s Harvest band – all crack session musicians – began to argue about money, each demanding $100,000 to tour. They promptly fell out with each other and Young as the tour progressed across America. Egos were bruised. In-fighting and squabbles were the norm. 

Kenny Buttrey the studio drummer was told he didn’t play loudly enough. He tried bigger and bigger sticks until a music store vendor told him “Son, anything bigger than this is gonna have bark on it!” 

Young stayed on a separate floor in the hotel to the rest of the band. The trappings of rock n roll took Young further away from real life. 

It wasn’t all bad, mind you. You can always rely on rock musicians to come up with novel and interesting ways to pass the time. 

Young and his band hired their own jet and built their own hookah pipe with an aquarium pump. This they christened “Big Red” and it filled the plane with reefer smoke. 

There is a downside to filling an aeroplane with marijuana. It reached the point where one of the band, Ben Keith, forgot what key “Don’t Be Denied” was in, despite the fact he had played it every night for three months. There was also a mild concern the pilots might get stoned from the atmosphere, something the Civil Aviation Authority usually – on balance – tends to discourage. 

On the tour Young realised everything he had wanted, all the success, fame and fortune, had brought him unhappiness. His backing group were bickering over money and he was playing huge, soulless venues such as the Oakland Coliseum. 

It was at this venue that on 31st March 1973 a fan had been beaten up by cops whilst Young played “Southern Man”. Young stopped right there and then, mid song, and walked off stage. Show over. 

What’s more, the one band he really wanted to play with had lost their spiritual leader, and all this was a consequence of Young’s stardom. 

“I was finding out it wasn’t me who made the records” said Young. It turned out that Young needed Crazy Horse, he just didn’t know it until the Time Fades Away tour. 

The tour finished, and the album Time Fades Away was released that August. The first in what would become The Ditch Trilogy. It is Young’s least favourite album, featuring those squabbling session musicians, plus Crosby and Nash in vocals, and no Danny Whitten. As a snapshot of the tour and of the songs Young wrote and recorded whilst dealing with fame however, it is remarkable. 

Aside from the haunting piano ballad “Journey Through The Past” (omitted from the album of the same name, natch) Time Fades Away is rough, and couldn’t be further from the polished, orchestrated soft rock of Harvest. 

An attempt to record more songs with Crosby Stills and Nash in Hawaii was fruitful, but unfinished…and whilst they were in Hawaii, there was another death, this time of CSNY roadie Bruce Berry, also hooked on heroin and who accidentally OD’d. 

All this was brewing in Young’s head as the CSNY sessions moved back to California and got stuck in treacle. So one day, instead of going to the CSNY sessions, Young went to the house of David Briggs, his producer, knocked on the door and uttered the immortal words:

“I’m ready to make a rock n roll record”.

If ever someone makes a Neil Young biopic, I think that moment goes in the trailer…

That rock n roll record would become “Tonight’s The Night”. The bickering session musicians were ditched, and Crazy Horse were back, whilst Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith stood in for Whitten. 

Whilst Tonight’s The Night was the last of the “Ditch Trilogy” to be released, it was recorded in the aftermath of those deaths of Whitten and Berry. Young’s mood had also been affected by a 1972 drug-deal-related double murder near his home, an incident referred to in the song “Tired Eyes”.

These tragedies framed the mood of the album. 

A recording session in Sunset Sound studios had gone nowhere, so Young rented a rehearsal room and – as we all would, I’m sure – used a sledgehammer to batter a hole in the wall to allow cables to go through to a mobile recording truck. 

The band drank tequila, playing in the dark on the rehearsal stage and created an atmosphere in which to honour Berry and Whitten. They were performing as if onstage in a darkened room to a non-existent audience. Young waited until they were sufficiently drunk or stoned before recording, usually in the middle of the night when the vibe would hit them. On the title track Young sings directly about Berry. “Bruce Berry was a working man….a sparkle was in his eye. Late at night when the people were gone, he used to pick up my guitar, and sing a song in a shaky voice that was real as the night was long.” 

It is painfully raw and hauntingly beautiful. 

How down was Young? Listen to “Borrowed Tune”. 

“I’m singing this borrowed tune / I took from the Rolling Stones” he sings to the melody of The Stones’ Lady Jane, “Too wasted to write my own“. It’s heartbreaking self-pity. 

The recording was mostly one take, no fixes, with drunken raps in between. Five of the songs were recorded all in a row in one night without any break between them. 

Whitten was a gifted guitarist and songwriter. He had written “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”, later a huge hit for Rod Stewart. Whitten’s voice appears during the track “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” a song he wrote with Young about scoring drugs. When the album was released he’d been dead more than two years and this was Young’s third release since that time. Hearing his voice midway through an album mourning his passing is like hearing a ghost.

“What we were doing was playing those guys on the way” said Young in 1975. 

Part 3 will follow next week….



Categories: Rock Music

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2 replies

  1. Tonight’s the Night is incredible, easily my favorite Neil album. The morbid circumstances, plus his usual spontaneous and “real” approach to music-making resulted in something truly original. I find that the weirder Neil gets, the more I enjoy him. Harvest I find rather dull and boring, Tonight’s the Night keeps me on my toes for all of its duration.

    Liked by 1 person

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