Tequila and hamburgers. That was the input – Neil Young*
After Time Fades Away (1973), Young’s chronicle of how an ill-advised arena-rock tour turned into a bad trip for all involved, he had little desire to course correct. Still having a visibly adverse reaction to the fame brought on by Harvest (1972), Young had another death in his inner circle, roadie Bruce Berry. Berry died of a heroin overdose while Young was mourning the loss of band member Danny Whitten, who, despite equaling Young in the intensity of his singing and guitar playing, had to be fired because of a serious heroin addiction. Whitten died of an overdose of valium mixed with alcohol days before the tour that inspired Time Fades Away.
Tonight’s the Night started when his long-time producer David Briggs knocked a hole through the wall of a cheap LA rehearsal space, where Young and his band were sequestered, to run cables from a mobile recording truck to capture what Young was conjuring out of a prolonged wake for Whitten and Berry. For anyone of Young’s caliber, making a record with such a raw sound was, at the time, pushing close to the bounds of acceptability.
This unusual, to say the least, artistic project, carried out through a nightly ritual of tequila and hamburgers lasting into the dawn, would, of course, not have a straightforward route to completion. At first, the musicians’ getting completely wasted and then simultaneously learning and recording brand-new songs was a spectacle in itself – Mel Brooks (!) was especially dumbfounded when he was invited one night to watch.
Briggs, though, was elated at what he was getting on tape. Young’s profanely funny banter between songs heightened the downer celebration.
Young, on the other hand, was having second thoughts about Tonight’s the Night, scheduled for a January 1974 release, that was going to require a fair amount of explaining to any number of people, and the first in line was his manager Elliot Roberts, as notorious of a hard-ass as Briggs. Caught between the opposing views of Roberts and Briggs, Young shelved the record.
To bring Young even further down, all of these pressures were imploding his relationship with Carrie Snodgress. Her Oscar-nominated leading performance in Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) had infatuated Young, but she kept piling more drama onto his life that he certainly didn’t need.** Young recorded two albums about his heartbreak: On the Beach (1974) ventured way out into the psychic hinterlands, while Homegrown generated music-biz buzz over his return to the commercially-friendly, singer-songwriter mode of Harvest.
Then a weirdly synergistic moment solved Young’s Tonight’s the Night problem. Roberts floated the idea of turning the record into a Broadway show. He gave Young a 24-page treatment by an esteemed show writer (and husband of Roberts’s secretary). Young was underwhelmed – and based on the summary that I read, rightfully so – but took interest in three older songs, two from the Time Fades Away sessions, included in the treatment. These songs would be added to Tonight’s the Night.
To say that Briggs was eternally resentful of what he regarded as Young’s artistic compromise is to put it mildly. In Young’s defense, the final version of Tonight’s the Night, although it edited out the between-songs banter, expanded the emotional timeline of the story being told.
From the opening title track onwards, I must conclude that – not having been one of the chosen few to have heard Briggs’s mix of the record – if the final version of Tonight’s the Night hit any harder, the feeling might be, well, too close to home. You lose multiple people dear to you, and you just want to let it all hang out? Hell yeah!
There’s certainly a time to experience this feeling. Young said to Cameron Crowe in 1975, “If you’re gonna put a record on at eleven in the morning, don’t put on Tonight’s the Night. Put on the Doobie Brothers.”
Tonight’s the Night sure doesn’t resemble the slick commercial product put out by bands like the Doobies. Not only is there a lack of overdubs to thicken the tracks; Young and Nils Lofgren play Fender guitars (Young usually played a Gibson Les Paul) and rarely at the same time during one song, instead alternating between guitar and piano. This twangy, honky-tonkin’ sound is topped off by Ben Keith’s pedal steel guitar, which takes country music to another place, maybe to another country, maybe to another planet.
On the title track, repeating in a different version on the final track, Young’s ravaged voice takes on a preacherly cadence upon hearing the news of Berry’s death:
‘Cause people let me tell you
It sent a chill up and down my spine
When I picked up the telephone
And heard that he’d died out on the mainline
Young never seems to doubt that you’ll feel what he’s feeling, even as the songs get spookier. Nearly halfway through the record, we go back in time to hear Whitten sing about scoring drugs on the riotous “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” a live 1970 performance (the third song in the proposed Broadway show that was added to the album).
Well aware of the moral calculus of hard drug use, Young saw no need to spell it out. The penultimate track, “Tired Eyes,” shifts into a spectrally-slow gear – as only drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbott could pull off – while Young delivers a down-home recitation about a real-life botched cocaine deal turned double murder in Topanga Canyon (in close proximity to Young’s ranch). Not there at the crime scene, nor connected with the deal, Young made the dealer’s story a benediction for those around Young who lost the fight to stay above the rising tide of darkness: “He tried to do his best but he could not.”
Tonight’s the Night remained in the back of Young’s mind, until, one wasted night at the Chateau Marmont, he was playing Molina, Talbott, and Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of the Band a tape of Homegrown, which he was planning to release.*** Afterwards Tonight’s the Night, on the same reel of tape, came on, and Danko insisted that he put Tonight’s the Night out, instead of Homegrown, which was finally made available last year.
Having listened to both records, there’s no question in my mind that Young did the right thing. Homegrown is a solid record, for sure. Tonight’s the Night, however, is something else: held together by the gravity of the times and the sheer force of Young’s commitment to paying his friends the tribute he felt they damn well deserved.
*As always, I can’t recommend enough Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (2002). The book goes into more detail about what I’ve only been able to briefly address, such as the proposed Broadway show, Briggs’s priceless comments about Young’s changes to the record, and the drug deal in “Tired Eyes.”
**In “A Man Needs a Maid,” a perennially-controversial (just that title alone!) track from Harvest, Young refers to Snodgress: “I fell in love with the actress/She was playin’ a part that I could understand.”
***Bobby Charles, whose s/t record (1972) is an underrated country-funk gem, was also present, as well as possibly others. Everyone has, at best, vague memories of that night.