'Tonight's the Night' and the power of suggestion
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In navigating the spoils of Christmas, I’ve finally tackled a book I’ve had on my proverbial list for a few months — Neil Young’s ambling, off-the-cuff autobiography Waging Heavy Peace. The book, like some of his best work with Crazy Horse, has a very in-the-moment feel, with less attention paid to details like chronology and vocabulary and more in exploring his ideas and passions.
His actual anecdotes on his recording career are short on specifics, focusing on his relationships and his state of mind at a given time. But, when his thoughts do turn to the actual music he’s made for so long, they’re stunning, albeit it quick.
In chapter 21, he mentions, after rehashing the grief and disappointment of losing Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, the recording of Tonight’s the Night, a record that has long stood as his dark masterpiece and a beautiful example of music chronicling and examining a specific moment in an artist’s career. As Young says on page 160:
“It was a real mess of a recording, with no respect given to technical issues, although it sounds like God when played loud, under the able production of David Briggs.”
Tonight’s the Night has been a good number of things to me through the years. It’s been a source of salvation, a dark place to turn, a way to confuse my friends, a method for delineating who really got it and who didn’t. But I’d never thought of it as a record to just turn up and rip.
So, after coming home, changing into jeans and fixing a little something to eat, I did just that. I pulled my vinyl copy out of the shelf, blotter paper and dutch review and “Waterface” included, dropped it on the turntable, turned it up and let it go.
And it rocked. It rocked with tequila-soaked guitar strings and doom-filled drums and off-tune pianos. Young, Nils Lofgren, Ben Keith and the weary remains of Crazy Horse were the most demented bar band in history, and their grief was pooled and transformed in this moment.
So, sure enough, he was right. The out-of-tune warbling of “Speakin’ Out” went from booze-fueled to a near-party vibe. The bass thump on both versions of “Tonight’s the Night” is tremendous, equal parts anger and terror. For an album I’ve listened to countless times through more than a decade, it felt like quite a revelation.
The second time through, at the volume required by its creator, a simple realization struck: this was not an album I’d ever played that loudly. Neil Young is not short on albums that I’ve blasted out of stereos, either at home, in the car or through headphones. Weld. Zuma. Year of the Horse. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Rust Never Sleeps. And so on. The man enjoys the finer points of deafening volume, and I in turn have enjoyed them immensely in the many hours with my walkmans, record players and iPods.
Tonight’s the Night was an album that I’d always played low, reserved for late nights and troubled moods. This was Young in the middle of the ditch, and I responded as totally as I did in part because I found it when I began making major changes in my life. I was in college, making new friends, losing old ones and slicing through the corresponding experiences as they came. I alternated between isolation and jubilation. It was confusion met with the first real sense of bravery I’d yet known, and Tonight’s the Night was a fitting soundtrack.
But in purposefully turning up the sound and letting the program roll over me, I was hit with a new side of Young’s expression. Beyond the sorrowful dirge of the original record was the wake that Young was trying to reveal, the move from his dying friends to his living ones and attempting to express his views through music, and to keep music as a career.
Backed by volume, the sound of Whitten’s “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” blasting out after “Borrowed Tune” was stunning, which I have to imagine was the desired effect of sliding those two songs next to each other on side one, a haunted tale of loss and regret followed by a rousing track haunted by the ghost of Whitten’s voice. Played back quietly, the effect is merely hearing two great songs back-to-back.
So was it as simple as playing the thing that loud, or was it that I hadn’t listened to Tonight’s the Night properly in so long that I was ready and in a place to appreciate its finer points? As with life, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. There’s a good chance that, in the course of reading this book, I was going to want to listen to most of his catalog, Tonight’s the Night especially, at some point.
In doing so, I simply paid closer attention to Young’s own hearty recommendation and turned it up as loud as the neighbors would tolerate. Next time, I’ll go louder than that. It’s what Neil would want.
Jan. 5, 2013
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com