In 1975, John Ashbery published Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In the collection’s title poem is this passage:
How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you.
Included with early vinyl releases of Tonight’s the Night are a handful of lines written by Neil Young: “I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you.”
I’ve been stalling on writing whatever this is, as though waiting will somehow make something arrive.
If you’ve read Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, you know that during the recording of Tonight’s the Night—most of it taking place on a single day, August 26, 1973—Young and his producer, David Briggs, subsisted on tequila and hamburgers. “That was the input,” Young said.
David Briggs was born and raised in Douglas, Wyoming, 250 miles southeast of Greybull, where I was born, and 135 miles northeast of Laramie, where I now live. Briggs left Wyoming on Christmas Day in 1960 to hitchhike to Los Angeles, then Canada, then back to California. Young was hitchhiking through Topanga Canyon when Briggs stopped to pick him up. The rest, as one is prone to say, is history. Beautiful, fucked up history.
It was July, and it was raining in Morrison, Colorado. I was waiting for Young to take the stage at Red Rocks. The stranger to my left was drunk and asking me about my occupation when Young walked out to the piano, sat down, and started playing “After the Gold Rush.” I think of “I was thinking about what a friend had said / I was hoping it was a lie” as a precursor to Young singing “When I picked up the telephone / And heard that he’d died out on the mainline” about Bruce Berry.
That shining bit of piano at the beginning of Tonight’s the Night is Young. Behind him are muffled voices, a taciturn hi-hat. You can hear the tape rolling. Three people sing “Tonight’s the night,” repeating it until, at 45 seconds and the first mention of Bruce Berry, everything gets loud. There’s slipshod improvisation. The whole progression’s a mess. And there in the middle of it all you know that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that technical grace isn’t on display, doesn’t matter that nothing’s in tune, doesn’t matter that voices enter and leave out of sync with each other. What matters is that you feel something immeasurable making its way to you across some kind of restless transmission. It makes sense, then, that the last word sung in the song is an acute Whoa.
Bruce Berry died of a heroin overdose on June 4, 1973.
Danny Whitten died from a combination of Valium and alcohol on November 18, 1972. He’d been trying to kick his heroin addiction.
I’m sorry. I don’t know these people. This means something to me.
Danny Whitten played guitar and sang with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. He worked on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After the Gold Rush. On November 18, 1972, Young gave Whitten $50 and a plane ticket back to Los Angeles after firing him from the band. That night, Young received a call from a coroner in Los Angeles. Danny Whitten was dead.
The Farmers Almanac archives say the temperature at Los Angeles Municipal Airport was around 65 degrees on November 18, 1972. No rain reported.
Bruce Berry was a working man. He used to load that Econoline van. He was a roadie for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And if Wikipedia is to be believed (I’m sorry), Berry was, for a while, a happy man.
Of the historic events noted for June 4, 1973—and there aren’t many—the most annoying event has to be the patent for the goddamn ATM being issued to some guys named Don, Tom, and George.
There are so many vehicles in Tonight’s the Night.
Think about it.
In “Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown” there’s “Snake eyes, French fries / And I got lots of gas.” Car’s implied. Could be a fart reference too.
In “Roll Another Number” Young sings “It’s too dark to put the keys in my ignition / And the morning sun has yet to climb my hood ornament.”
In “Albuquerque” Young sings about flying down the road, starving to be alone.
In “Lookout Joe” a Cadillac puts a hole in the arm of Bill from up on the hill.
In “Tired Eyes” four dead men are left lying in an open field full of old cars with bullet holes in the mirrors.
And, of course, there’s that Econoline van in “Tonight’s the Night.”
Part of Jonathan Demme’s Journeys, a 2011 concert documentary featuring Young, is spent in a car. Young drives around his hometown, Omemee, Ontario, and talks about his childhood there. At one point, Young drives past a public school named after his father and says, “I tried eating tar off the road. That was the beginning of my close relationship with cars, I think.”
In a 2014 NPR interview about his Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars, Young talks with Ari Shapiro and this exchange happens:
YOUNG: …As a matter of fact, I love listening to music in cars.
SHAPIRO: Why do you prefer to listen to it in the car?
YOUNG: Well, because the scene is always changing. It’s the world’s greatest video. And you’re semi-occupied by, you know, driving the car. So your subconscious is wide open. Your conscious is busy, so you’re not thinking about the music too much. You’re just feeling it.
When I think of me at my worst, I remember months of weeks of days of hours of not remembering, spaces of time I’ll never recover. At the points where going out into the world seemed feasible, I’d leave Seattle and drive around Washington with my music, drive across a state or two before coming back. Often, the music I was listening to was Neil Young’s.
When John Ashbery won the 1975 National Book Award for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, he said this in his acceptance speech: “For as long as I have been publishing poetry, it has been criticized as ‘difficult’ and ‘private,’ though I never meant for it to be. At least, I wanted its privateness to suggest the ways in which all of us are private and alone, in the sense Proust meant when he said, ‘Each of us is truly alone.’ And I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves to something that may change us.”
In his review of Tonight’s the Night, Robert Christgau wrote, “In Boulder, it reportedly gets angry phone calls whenever it’s played on the radio. What better recommendation could you ask?”
For the record, I think Boulder’s ridiculous.
For the record, I’m glad Young ripped off the Rolling Stones.
Young once tried to describe Tonight’s the Night. He said, “When I first started the record, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But I did get into a persona. I have no real idea where the fuck it came from, but there it was. It was part of me. I thought I had gotten into a character—but maybe a character had gotten into me.”
Tonight’s the Night isn’t my favorite Neil Young album. (And does it have to be?) That will always be On the Beach, which was recorded after Tonight’s the Night but released before it. Reprise, Young’s record label, thought the content of Tonight’s the Night was too dark. It took him two years to convince Reprise to release the album.
No matter. The dark makes its way through.