I’ve been listening to a lot of Neil Young lately, specifically to his “Ditch Trilogy” and its dark masterpiece ‘Tonight’s The Night’.
For all you NY newbies, the Ditch Trilogy were the three albums that Young released after his 1972 breakthrough ‘Harvest’. That album was such a runaway hit (it would become the best-selling album of 1972) that Young, jaded by the mainstream success of the album and of its signature song “Hart of Gold”, withdrew from the spotlight and for the next couple of decades, with a few exceptions, intentionally avoided the AM-folksinger persona that everyone wanted him to uphold by releasing, among others, grunge, synth-pop, and really bad rockability albums.
In the liner notes of the 1977 compilation album ‘Decade’, Young writes: “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road, traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch,” and thus the term “Ditch” is born to describe the moody and complex albums released between ‘Harvest’ and his 1975 radio-friendly collaboration with Crazy Horse ‘Zuma’.
The trilogy is made up of ‘Time Fades Away’ (1973), ‘On The Beach’ (1974), and ‘Tonight’s The Night’ (1975), though ‘Time Fades Away’ has long been out of print and has not been rereleased, which is strange considering how giving Young is with his unreleased material. However, the two Ditch albums that we do have access to are considered by many critics and fans to be his best albums. This was the time when the notoriously inconsistent Young was finally able to channel his many songwriting styles, which ranged from soft folk to distorted guitar rock, into making engaging albums that married his ability to write simple yet emotionally compelling songs with his desire to let his electric guitar do most of the talking. None of these albums produced any hits, but they’re his best albums because you can listen to them from start to finish in one setting, which for a Neil Young record is quite the achievement.
The Ditch Trilogy albums are also infamous for being Young’s darkest works. A lot of this had to do with his tremulous state of mind at the time. Along with the sudden fame and fortune, Young was grieving over the loss of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, both of whom died of heroin overdoses (to make matters worse, Whitten was found dead the night when, earlier that day, Young had fired him from Crazy Horse). Young, consumed by guilt and grief, was able to pour his frustration and anger across a whole series of albums all confronting how fragile and twisted life is when you see it end right before your eyes and what you try and make of it when you’re left standing, alive yet alone.
My favorite Neil Young album is ‘On The Beach’ (to me it’s his most essential album and it has my favorite NY song, “Ambulance Blues”), but I’ve been listening to ‘Tonight’s The Night’ a lot more since I’ve moved to New York City. It’s not an easy album to listen to, but sometimes it’s a welcoming soundtrack to a lonely late-night subway ride. Young had never been an overly confessional or personal songwriter, yet ‘Tonight’s The Night’ finds Young at his most naked and vulnerable, singing about specific people and places and, without relying too much on metaphors, sings of his pain and sorry that, in the brilliant way that only great musicians can do, feels familiar and relatable.
One song in particular that stood out to me on my first listen was “Borrowed Tune”, a quite piano ballad in which Young sings someone else’s song, because he’s “too wasted to write my own.”
It’s a beautiful song, but when I first heard it, all I could think of was how much it sounded like a certain Rolling Stones song:
Later in the song, Young confirms that his borrowed tune was taken from the Rolling Stones, and I recognized that it was “Lady Jane”, a somewhat obscure ballad from 1966’s ‘Aftermath’.
Why did Young pick this specific song? It’s hard to say. Neither Young nor any of the Stones have come forward to acknowledge each other’s involvement or history during this time and how it influenced this album. Maybe this was Young’s favorite Stones song at the time, or maybe it was Danny Whitten’s or Bruce Berry’s favorite song. Who knows. Even on his most personal album, Young is still a man shrouded in mystery.