There is something extraordinary about listening to a legendary artist hit their absolute creative peak, pumping out quality music seamlessly, in a manner that makes it seem almost too easy. It’s not easy, however.
Neil Young has had a long and eventful career. He’s achieved fantastic success and experienced significant lows, professionally and personally. Yet Neil Young is a man who may also be at his best in times of turmoil, particularly during times of personal crisis. With that in mind, I wanted to focus on one of the most fascinating periods of Neil Young’s career: a time of tremendous unrest in his life, which eventually manifested in what is known as the “Ditch Trilogy.”
Consisting of a trio of albums, Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night, Young’s time in the ditch is now steeped in infamy, defined by three consecutive massive critical and commercial failures. At the time, they were seen as more challenging expressions of Young’s inner conflicts on achieving success, while also expressing his struggles of losing friends and himself and reflecting on the general decay of his generation in post-Vietnam War America.
The first of the Ditch Trilogy was Time Fades Away, released in 1973. It was an album of all-new material that Young had oddly chosen to take on the road with a completely new and unfamiliar band without recording any of it in the studio first. Following the success of Harvest, which reached Number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and is his best-selling album, Young became highly disillusioned with the music industry and the world in general.
He set out on tour with his new band, The Stray Gators. The tour was an unmitigated disaster from the start, with confused audiences expecting to hear Young play his hits, but instead, they were subjected to loud and depressing songs played by a band who barely knew one another. In the midst of this, his good friend and long-time collaborator Danny Whitten died of a drug overdose. Shortly after that, on the same tour, friend and roadie Bruce Berry also died of an overdose.
At the same time, Young was battling his demons of depression, substance abuse, and physical issues with his singing voice. Time Fades Away was recorded during this tour, with the new music being premiered live in this extremely convoluted context. Fans, as they had been during the tour, came away confused by the record, and it flopped.
Young was so profoundly affected by the drug-induced deaths of his friends that he proceeded to record an album to specifically chronicle and deal with the incidents in his classic roundabout way. The result was Tonight’s the Night, which was eventually released in 1975 but recorded in late 1973 into early 1974. The extremely dark tone of the album led Young’s record label, Reprise Records, to shelve it in hopes that Young would find himself and record something more positive, or at least something that had selling potential.
Young’s response to this was two-fold. First, he recorded and proceeded to release what would become the second album in the Ditch Trilogy, On the Beach, in 1974. While On the Beach on the surface sounded like a more melodic and sweetly acoustic album, the record dealt with the same dark themes as his previous failed records, centering around the collapse of the 1960’s flower power ideology, his downward spiral in the wake of success, the dark underbelly of the seedy L.A. lifestyle, and more death and despair. It goes without saying that, like Time Fades Away, On the Beach was a commercial failure.
Young remained in the ditch.
After the release of On the Beach, Young’s record label was still stalling the release of the depressing Tonight’s the Night, so Young went back into the studio and recorded an album called Homegrown. If you know anything about Neil Young, you know he is a man of his own principles, an artist who will fight tooth and nail to do things his way and maintain absolute artistic integrity. And so Neil Young once again stuck his middle finger in the face of Reprise Records and the record-consuming public and recorded yet another depressing album.
Homegrown focused on Young’s failed relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, but it was comparatively sunny compared to Tonight’s the Night. After the recording of Homegrown was complete, Young held a listening party at his home in California. During the party, Young played both Homegrown and the still unreleased Tonight’s the Night with the intent to hand Homegrown over to Reprise and release it as his next album.
After the playback of both albums had finished, Young had a sudden change of heart and instead insisted that Reprise finally release Tonight’s the Night. At the time, Young stated his reasons were that after listening to Tonight’s the Night again, he found “Its overall strength in performance and feeling trumped that of Homegrown.”
Retrospectively, Young admitted with regard to Homegrown, “It was a little too personal…it scared me.” Regardless of his reasons, Young did have his way, and in 1975 Tonight’s the Night finally got the wide release it deserved. And just as had been the case with his previous two records; it flopped. At the time, Young said that the album was “the closest I ever came to art.” As for Homegrown, the reel-to-reel was canned and stuck in a vault for 45 years.
There are a lot of Neil Young fans. Some love him for his longstanding “f*ck you” attitude and desire to follow his muse. Others love him for his music. Some, for both. Those who aren’t Neil Young fans, and probably some who are, may be extremely confused as to why I’ve called the trio of cascading mega-failures I’ve just chronicled one of the best and most fascinating times in his career.
Well, perspective is everything, and sometimes, time does heal all wounds. As the years wore on, Neil Young continued to do what Neil Young does: release music on his terms. Whenever he felt like it. In whichever way he felt like it. Some of it was successful. Some of it wasn’t. I can tell you this, undoubtedly – all of it is good. Damn good.
Music journalists and fans alike began to revisit the Ditch Trilogy, and began to change their tune. The albums started to garner five-star reviews and developed a devout cult-like following. By the turn of the century, the Ditch Trilogy went from being regarded as the proverbial sewer of Young’s work to being revered as among his best.
This begs the question: what is that all worth? These albums were just as good then as they are now. What changed? The answer is twofold. Once you do something a certain way, people expect you to keep doing it the same way over and over and over ad nauseam. Secondly, there is an over-reliance on critics to tell us what’s “good” and “bad.” People don’t always think for themselves, instead choosing to be sheep to be herded about. It was that way in 1975, and still that way in 2022.
Regardless, Neil Young doesn’t pay attention to any of that. He didn’t in 1975, and he doesn’t in 2022. I know what you may be thinking at this point: “what about Homegrown?” Well, Neil Young had yet another “f*ck you” up his sleeve. Just when critics and fans alike began to revere the Ditch Trilogy and see it as the masterwork it always was, Young decided to pull Homegrown out of the vault, dust it off, and drop it on the unsuspecting public in 2020, just as it was in 1975. Completely untouched.
So, what now? The Ditch Quadrilogy? The Ditch Tetralogy?
Neil Young doesn’t do gimmicks. I don’t think he cares if you like him, or mind whether you listen to his music or not. He would probably be the first to tell Rolling Stone, Spin, or Pitchfork to take their reviews and stuff them. Sure, it’s true that at any given point in the last 47 years, Young could have released Homegrown, but he chose not to. He even once opined that the songs on the album were “great songs that I can live without.”
Given that fact, in listening to the album you cannot help but revel in how great it truly is. It’s the work of a seminal artist at the height of his creativity while at the same time being mired in the worst possible headspace a human being could find themselves in. This entire period of Young’s uber-interesting career is a fascinating case study on success, excess, life, death, and, most importantly, artistic integrity.
The funny thing is, though, Homegrown may be the best of the bunch recorded during Young’s Ditch era. Listening to Homegrown, one feels like the missing puzzle piece has been found. A puzzle we didn’t even know was incomplete. It’s a true “a-ha!” moment. After hearing these songs 47 years on, we finally hear Young running the gamut of his emotional turmoil between these four albums. We see the vividly complete picture of his depressing yet grand artistic vision.
One cannot help but wonder how things might have been different for Young during that time had he chosen to release Homegrown instead of Tonight’s the Night, or even alongside it. However, that is not what happened, and that is by Neil Young’s design. Neil Young only plays by one set of rules, his own. What other artist can hold a truly great album in their hands, spit on it, and instead choose to release an album they knew would fail?
Perhaps in 2022, things all played out precisely as Young intended. Perhaps his intent can be summed up by his cryptic message included in the liner notes of the original vinyl release of Tonight’s the Night: “I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you.”
47 years on, we get it, Neil. We finally get it.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Mark Estabrook.