Why Neil Young Once Tried to Drive To Belgium, and How He Nearly Killed Dylan…


The final article (of three) on Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy…

Tonight’s The Night was due to be released in January 1974, but Neil Young continued to work on mixing the rough recordings, and by May 1974 he was playing a solo show at The Bottom Line in New York with a set of new songs, some of which would soon appear on a new album titled “On The Beach”.

Young’s producer David Briggs remains convinced the original tapes of Tonight’s the Night, complete with drunken raps in between songs, are superior to the version eventually released. An Acetate closer to Briggs’ version was one of several proposed but rejected. 

If Tonight’s the Night was “inspired” by tequila, On The Beach was fuelled by honey slides, which consisted of low grade marijuana cooked into honey. These were baked by lap steel and fiddle player Rusty Kershaw and his wife. Kershaw was brought in to the sessions alongside Rick Danko and Levon Helm of The Band. The slides created a grungy, heavy atmosphere which fed into the music. 

Young’s manager Elliott Roberts described the slides as “much worse than heroin” due to their debilitating effect. 

Ben Keith said, “You take a spoonful…and eat it. And in twenty minutes you start forgettin’ where you are…”

The stupefying, mind-numbing effect of this potent mixture can be safely recreated at home by watching any episode of Take Me Out on ITV. 

Rusty Kershaw impressed Young by not wanting to rehearse – decreeing that no-one would hear the songs before Young began to play them. 

On The Beach, released in July 1974, is said to be a “depressing” album, but in fact it appears to show Young coming to terms with his success. “Walk On” is a resigned, yet uplifting song. This is a far less moody album than Tonight’s The Night. 

After the recording of On The Beach it was clear that Young’s marriage was collapsing and despite of this, or perhaps because of it, songs were flowing out of him. He wrote yet another set of songs, for an album to be called “Homegrown”. Sessions took place in Nashville and most of the album was soon in the can. Young played “Homegrown” to Rick Danko back to back with “Tonight’s The Night”. Danko suggested he release “the raw one”…

Young went on tour with CSNY after the On The Beach sessions, taking in Europe including a prestigious September show at Wembley stadium. 

In a turn of events as inevitable as an MP assuming they will, at some point in their life be double crossed by Michael Gove, the relationships in the band deteriorated. 

Young bought a 1934 Rolls Royce after the show, and called it “Wembley” after the gig that paid for it.

There’s no truth to the rumour that Johnny Burrell has a nine year old Robin Reliant he calls “Tour of the East Midlands 2014-2016”.

Not only did Young buy the car, but because the salesman told him the car was so reliable he could drive across the Sahara Desert in it, Young decided to do just that. 

Of course he did. 

Someone needs to tell Neil Young there’s a vacancy amongst the presenters of Top Gear. He’d be perfect for the role, albeit he probably needs to brush up on his casual racism to really get the viewers on his side. The last bloke really wasn’t unpleasant enough on that score. 

Perhaps Young shouldn’t have listened to the salesman, however: he got as far as Belgium before the car broke down…after a brief interlude where he considered setting up a pop-up shop valeting cars (yes, seriously), he gave up the trip. 

Meanwhile, Young’s record company were getting excited about “Homegrown”. It was very much in the style of Harvest – a return to the sensitive singer-songwriter side of Young, containing some of Young’s most personal material (about the collapse of his marriage). Talk of five million units were being spoken of. 

But thinking of what Danko told him before, Young withheld the record, releasing Tonght’s The Night instead, whilst “Homegrown” remains unreleased to this day. 

You can only imagine how depressed the record company were at this news, even before hearing the songs on “Tonight’s The Night”. 

Record executive (chewing fat cigar): “So let me get this straight Neil. You have an album in the can which is the natural follow up to the multi platinum “Harvest” and you want to release some drunken jams of you and your mates?”

Neil Young: “er, would you like a Honey slide?”

Yet just five months later, Young had another album. 

Zuma is something of a more optimistic release than the previous three “Ditch” albums. Probably because it was recorded in sunny Malibu. It’s tricky sounding too glum when it’s sunny outside and you’re a rock star with all manner of distractions to keep you refreshed. 

Malibu sounds like it was a brilliant place in the mid seventies. You couldn’t throw a frisbee in a room in Malibu in the early seventies without it hitting a successful rocker. 

Dylan was one such character. Young’s childhood friend Sandy Mazzeo remembers driving Young’s hearse one day, only to hear a banging on the divider. Was it a cadaver come back to life? No, it was Bob Dylan, complete with turban, (naturally) who had found the hearse and taken a nap, (presumably to shelter from a storm…?)

Well, it’s happened to us all, I’m sure. 

What had sparked this creativity was Danny Whitten’s successor, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. 

Billy Talbot introduced Sampedro to Young at Chess Studios in Chicago in December 1974, which lit a spark in Young’s head. 

Sampedro had met Billy Talbot in 1973 and they went on a trip to Mexico together. After Whitten died Talbot got in touch and asked him to jam with Crazy Horse. Immediately Young saw there was a chance to reignite Crazy Horse. Young went to Mexico with Sampedro to get to know him. 

Well, you know how these things can turn out. They got so drunk Young could hardly walk and he set his hair on fire.

Sampedro was in. He wasn’t the greatest player, but he had something, mainly an ability to set Young’s hair on fire it would seem, but that’s an often overlooked quality in a guitarist. 

Dylan continued to pop by from time to time, not always sleeping in hearses, and on one occasion the two stars played at a benefit gig. There aren’t many times when you can say the atmosphere was electric, but it was that day. 

Literally. 

During the rehearsal, Dylan and Young appeared nervous, each in awe of the other. So much so that they electrocuted each other twice whilst switching guitars, forgetting to let go. 

Even legends look up to other legends, it seems. 

In November 1975 Zuma was released. It was perhaps Young’s finest rock album to date. 

Finally, Young had his band. He had a great album. They played great together. He was ready to crawl out of the ditch. Young and the refreshed Crazy Horse toured together across Europe in April 1976.

The funny thing is, even though he had found his band, Young then ditched Crazy Horse to go on tour with Stephen Stills. This after having dumped Crosby and Nash – in June 1976. This time the tour lasted just eighteen nights of the forty-plus booked after (again, inevitably) Young fell out with Stills, having realising his error in dumping Crazy Horse. Young quit the tour halfway to a show in Atlanta and sent a telegram famously telling Stills to “Eat a peach”, which remains one of the best fruit-based put-downs out there. 

Young and Crazy Horse were reunited again in November 1976, and on the 25 November 1976 Young played for The Band’s final concert: The Last Waltz, a show famous for there being what some described as two grams of cocaine in a rock visible in his nose, like a white M&M. The whole coke-bogey allegedly had to be painstakingly removed from the final film, frame by frame. 

The story doesn’t stop. 

Young went on to record Chrome Dreams, another album he never released. American Stars ‘n Bars came out instead, a lesser piece of work, followed by Comes A Time and Rust Never Sleeps, both classics.  

Young didn’t slow down in the seventies, producing an impressive body of work second only perhaps to Bowie that decade. 

Even when he had found his band, Young was still restless, but he left behind his “Ditch Trilogy” and, in Zuma, a worthy follow up. 

The ditch trilogy – and Zuma – represented a special body of work in Young’s career. It represents perhaps the toughest period of his life and in the case of Tonight’s The Night, arguably his finest hour. 



Categories: Rock Music

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7 replies

  1. I’ve really enjoyed this journey through the ditch, also what happened to the homemade box did it sell was the buyer happy?

    Like

    • Thank you. I am pleased to report my eBay feedback remains unblemished and I received a lovely note from the successful bidder telling me how much he was enjoying listening to the albums on the original vinyl – he even confessed to enjoying reading my liner notes (his were a little longer believe it or not than the slightly edited version I have posted up here).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent stuff – really enjoyed this trilogy. I’m a fan of all the albums covered (though I’m not familiar with Time Fades Away) and while American Stars N’ Bars may not be considered a great Neil Young album, I reckon it’s underrated. Anyhoo, a great post …

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really enjoyed reading all of these. wonder if it was Sampedro who started a fire in a Glasgow hotel as reported here http://www.openculture.com/2012/02/neil_young_busking_in_glasgow_1976_the_story_behind_the_footage.html

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim, I’ll get some files to you re Time Fades Away.

    Like

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