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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

On The Ditch Trilogy, Neil Young’s success collided with personal chaos

Illustration for article titled On The Ditch Trilogy, Neil Young’s success collided with personal chaos

From an outsider’s perspective, it probably looked like Neil Young had it made in the shade in those early months of 1972. In the last few years he entered into serious relationship with Hollywood actress Carrie Snodgress and had a son; he’d raked in a boatload of cash with the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and he had just released the most commercially successful album of his entire career. It seemed like he should have been living it up on cloud nine. But Young was actually on the verge of spiraling out into a private hell that would take over his life for the next three years.

With his fourth solo record, Harvest, Neil Young hit upon the kind of success that every artist dreams of achieving. The multi-platinum best seller—with a No. 1 hit, “Heart Of Gold”—almost perfectly synthesized the popular singer-songwriter movement underway in Southern California. By the time the full scope of that album’s success became apparent, Young wanted to have nothing to do with it. Looking back on it just five years later, he wrote in the liner notes to the Decades box set that the experience “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”

It wasn’t just the newfound fame and the crushing hero worship that sent Young reeling, although that might have been enough for some. His personal life was coming off the rails as well. His relationship to Snodgress was unraveling; his newborn son Zeke was recovering from the aftereffects of a slight brain aneurysm; and he’d been suffering from near debilitating back pain. The kicker of it all, however, was the sudden death of his Crazy Horse guitar player and friend, Danny Whitten.


Whitten looms rather large in Young’s personal history, both for his contributions on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After The Gold Rush and for being the figure most directly responsible for pushing Young off the rails after 1972. To coincide with the release of Harvest, Young and his managers had booked an ambitious 62-date tour of North America. Young was hoping to bring Whitten along with him.

Young was already well aware of Whitten’s heroin addiction and had penned the song “The Needle And The Damage Done” on Harvest with his friend in mind. But by the time rehearsals started for the new tour, the guitarist was struggling. “I had to tell [Whitten] to go back to L.A. ‘It’s not happening, man. You’re not together enough,’” Young recalled to Cameron Crowe in 1975. “He just said, ‘I’ve got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?’ And he split. That night the coroner called me from L.A. and told me he’d ODed. That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible. And from there, I had to go right out on this huge tour of huge arenas.”

Unable to take any time to grieve for the loss of his friend, Young hit the road. Spurning a great deal of the material from the record that he was supposed to be promoting, and that the audience came to hear, Young instead hit the eager crowds with brooding, excessively loud, brand-new electrified originals. As Young’s fans were in the dark about his personal anguish, those who showed up for the shows were left perplexed by his sudden turn away from the expected strumming to hits like “Old Man.”

The disastrous tour was marked by Young’s less-than-stellar guitar playing, erratic behavior, and rough vocals caused by a nagging throat infection that eventually forced him to call Graham Nash and David Crosby in to help carry the musical load. Infighting among his backing band over money heightened the tension backstage, and large quantities of tequila did little to calm anyone’s already-frayed nerves.

In spite of the shambolic nature of many of the shows, Young released a number of new cuts that had been recorded along the way as the live record Time Fades Away. Young knew that this wasn’t a “good album,” or even a record that the public wanted, but felt compelled to put it out it nonetheless. “Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while,” he wrote in the Decade liner notes. “I was becoming more interested in an audio verite approach than satisfying the public demands for a repetition of Harvest.”


Time Fades Away marks the beginning of Young’s so-called Ditch Trilogy and carries all the hallmarks of the kind of music that he would create over the next three years. Songs like “Yonder Stands The Sinner” and “Last Dance” are defiantly ramshackle in their performance and almost seedy in their presentation. The only track that even comes close to Young’s earlier, well-manicured aesthetic is the piano ballad “Journey Through The Past,” where he repeatedly wonders if a lost love might come back to him. Although he’d found his “Heart Of Gold” before, now she’s gone, perhaps never to return.

In “Don’t Be Denied,” Time Fades Away’s centerpiece, Young recounts the events of his life leading up to the point when he finally made it as a musician. He recalls his father leaving, being beaten up as a kid for wearing the wrong shoes, his first band, his move to Hollywood, his discovery, and his ultimate disillusionment with the industry. The song concludes: “Well, all that glitters isn’t gold / I know you’ve heard that story told / And I’m a pauper in a naked disguise / A millionaire through a businessman’s eyes.”

Throughout his career, Young has remained true to whatever internal muse dictated the mood and direction of his songwriting. Audiences were willing to follow him as he sung about love, social justice, and his North Ontario hometown, but this darker turn was a lot to take in. For Young, the release of this unpopular material appeared to satisfy an internal need to get at the truth of his personal feelings and everyday reality. He demanded brutal honesty from himself, and that’s what he ultimately delivered. In this same spirit, he wrote and recorded what many consider to be the best album of his career: Tonight’s The Night, another entry in the Ditch Trilogy.


Bruce Berry, longtime friend and roadie to the individual members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, was considered by everyone to be a charismatic guy, and a reliable hand with the gear. At some point in the early ’70s, Danny Whitten had turned him onto heroin, and it completely changed his personality. Berry transformed from an outgoing and a welcome presence into someone shady and untrustworthy. On June 4, 1973, he died of a drug overdose.

The news hit Young hard so close after Whitten’s death. Instead of retreating from the spotlight, however, he decided to exorcise his demons on tape, much in the same way he did just a few months earlier in front of thousands of people night after night on the Time Fades Away tour. “It was as if Neil had gathered his friends around him and from 6 p.m. to midnight, we drank, played pool and partied,” guitarist Nils Lofgren recalled. “We were a group of friends hanging, and from midnight to dawn, we’d record off and on. Neil was showing us new music. He was trying to record with a remote truck, and he said, ‘Listen, we’re not going to polish this up. We’re going to play passionately, kind of live and record it as we go. I want people to see it how it is.’”


Even for an artist with a reputation of preferring immediacy to sonic perfection, the recording of the album Tonight’s The Night was particularly slapdash. “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” was recorded live during a Crazy Horse tour in 1970, with Danny Whitten on vocals and guitar; “Lookout Joe” and “Borrowed Tune,” were done at Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch. The rest of the record was laid down between August and September at Studio Instrument Rentals, a facility owned by Berry’s older brother Jan. The title track, “Tired Eyes,” “Mellow My Mind,” “Speakin’ Out,” and “World On A String” were all essentially completed in a single day in August 1973.

The album was framed by the opening and closing title tracks, which served as boozy, loosely played renditions about the life and demise of Bruce Berry. He was described as a “working man who used to load that Econoline Van.” He had a “sparkle in his eyes / But his life was in his hands.” When he receives news that his friend is gone, Young’s pain drifts into the realm of primal when he screams the inevitable words: “I picked up the telephone and heard that he died / Out on the main line.” It’s a simple phrase delivered cataclysmically.

In between the near-apocalyptic intro and coda exist an array of songs that reveal the mind of a man hanging on by a thread. “Albuquerque” matches the forlorn guitar tones of the Young classics like “Down By The River” or “Cortez the Killer,” but goes into a far darker and more personal direction than either. Young reveals, in a voice that sounds near tears, his naked desire to just vanish from the scene entirely. He comes unhinged in “Mellow My Mind,” where he sounds more like a guy loaded up on tequila crooning away to a no-name track, in a nowhere bar, than one of the most accomplished singers of his time.


After recording was finished, Tonight’s The Night went through a torturous mixing process and was shelved for two years. Given the psychic heft of the material, it’s possible that Young was dragging his feet about releasing it. In the end, The Band’s bassist Rick Danko urged Young to dust off the original rough mix and finish the record. “The album was risky and real,” Young wrote in his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. “It was a real mess of a recording, with no respect given to technical issues, although it sounds like God when played loud.”

With Tonight’s The Night in the can, but still without a foreseeable release date, Young set out on a tour to push the record (backed by his new outfit the Santa Monica Flyers) that kicked off in October 1973. It was an alcohol-fueled train wreck of a tour, replete with poorly illuminated palm trees, Hawaiian shirts, and packed with songs the audience had never heard before.


When it finally concluded two months later, Young immediately retreated to Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood to work on his next record, which rounds out the Ditch Trilogy. On The Beach, while not nearly as dark as Tonight’s The Night, captures a vision of Neil Young at the tail end of his nearly two-year long spiral of broken relationships, personal loss, and drug-fueled paranoia. He comes across as an artist dead-set on sinking himself as far as he could go, perhaps in the vain hope of finally unburdening his mind from the weight of his many legitimate worries. “He was smoking two packs a day to get a late-night, frog-in-his-throat voice,” bassist Tim Drummond recalled in Jimmy McDonough’s 2003 Young biography, Shakey. “That’s when Neil got the downest he could.”

One word can define most of the tracks on On The Beach: loose. The title track rambles on aimlessly, like a drunk veering back and forth across a sidewalk, while “Vampire Blues” takes the repeated-phrase form of the blues to the most outstretched limits imaginable. On The Beach’s songs aren’t necessarily long, but they take their time to make their point.


Album closer “Ambulance Blues” is a solo acoustic stream-of-consciousness rap: a purge of all the ills Young had stored up over the previous few years. Much of it comes across as indecipherable nonsense of half-brained imagery mixed with unfinished thoughts, but Young takes discernible shots at the critical elite, his parents, and his stilted relationship. Given what was to come, the song works as a parting middle-finger salute to his past on his way toward a more positive future.

On The Beach hit the shelves in July 1974. That same month, Young embarked on a reunion tour of packed stadiums across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. with Crosby, Stills & Nash. This effort has been subsequently been dubbed the “Doom Tour.” Even by the hedonistic standards of rock ’n’ roll touring in the 1970s, it’s a trek noteworthy for its excess of drugs and debauchery. For his part, Young kept himself separate from much of the excesses of the road, traveling in his own bus with his son Zeke.


As that tour ended, so did his relationship to Carrie Snodgress. Young recorded an acoustic album titled Homegrown about his teetering relationship, but to this day, it has yet to see an official release.

As 1975 dawned, it finally seemed as if the tide was turning for Neil Young. He put his group Crazy Horse back together—with future E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren taking over for Whitten—and created the much-heralded album Zuma. In an interview that year with Cameron Crowe, Young’s healthier frame of mind is apparent: “Today, even as I’m talking, the songs are running through my head. I’m excited. I think everything I’ve done is valid or else I wouldn’t have released it, but I do realize the last three albums have been a certain way. I know I’ve gotten a lot of bad publicity for them. Somehow I feel like I’ve surfaced out of some kind of murk.”


Neil Young had the dubious distinction of enduring some of the most difficult moments of his life at the same time that the public expected him to take a victory lap in the wake of true massive commercial success. They thought they had him pegged, but in reality, they didn’t have a clue.

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