Crowley Chronicles: The Ditch Triology
By Andrew Crowley
My name is Andrew and I’ll be your guide this semester through music that is overlooked, out of print or underrated. I’m starting this week by discussing one of my favorite musical trilogies; Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy. Join me next week when I take a look at semi-forgotten L.A. band Love and their masterpiece, Forever Changes.
“Heart of Gold” put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.
- Neil Young, from the liner notes of Decade, 1977.
Young hit it big in 1972 with the release of Harvest. Young was backed up by many talented studio musicians, including backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt on “Heart of Gold.” The polished, California sound of the album was very different from Young’s prior two albums, After The Gold Rush and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The former was an album that struck a balance between the widescreen orchestrations of Young’s self-titled debut and the ragged guitar playing of his sophomore release. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere featured Neil backed by Crazy Horse, a band originally known as The Rockets, hence the title of the track, “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets).”
One track of Harvest touches on a subject that would become the focus of Young’s career for the next three years, “The Needle And The Damage Done.” The song is about Danny Whitten’s addiction to heroin. Whitten was the guitar player for Crazy Horse. He would later die of a heroin overdose.
“I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men.” – Neil Young, from the liner notes of Decade, 1977
Due to the commercial success of Harvest, the tour supporting it was very important, which is why Young was forced to fire Whitten after the guitarist lagged behind in learning his parts and was generally not in sync with the band. Young bought him a bus ticket back to L.A. and gave him $50 to get some help. Whitten used the money to buy heroin on which he overdosed and died. All of Whitten’s belongings, his clothes and a gold record, allegedly fit in a cardboard box.
Neil Young blamed himself for the death of his friend and it took him years to forgive himself.
“Danny just wasn’t happy. It just all came down on him. He was engulfed by this drug. That was too bad. Because Danny had a lot to give, boy. He was really good.” – Neil Young, to his biographer, Jimmy McDonough
Young lost another friend to heroin only a few months after Whitten; CSN&Y roadie Bruce Berry, brother of Jan Berry of the surf rock group, Jan & Dean.
It was under the influence of this dark mood that Young began arguably his most emotionally raw and artistically interesting music.
Time Fades Away is a live album documenting the 1973 tour. Young clashed with his backing band, the Stray Gators and began abusing alcohol, leading to a throat infection near the end of the tour.
The hard, country-rock sound coupled with Young road testing new songs didn’t please the audiences, who were expecting Young to play “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.”
Time Fades Away has yet to be released legally on CD. Young claims that it’s a bad album, but most fans speculate that there are moments and emotions that are still too painful for Young to revisit. It is hoped that Time Fades Away will be included in the next installment of Young’s Archives.
Young released the final part of the Ditch Trilogy in 1974, On The Beach. This album was recorded after Tonight’s The Night, which wouldn’t be released until 1975
So, if one were to play the Ditch Trilogy in the right order, Tonight’s The Night would be the second act.
On The Beach starts out very upbeat, helped no doubt by rhythm section of The Band, Levon Helm and Rich Danko, on several tracks. The album opens with “Walk On” in which Neil addresses the war of songs with Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Southern Man” on After The Gold Rush and “Alabama” on Harvest are both songs that are highly critical of the South. Lynyrd Skynyrd singer, Ronnie Van Zant responded with “Sweet Home Alabama.” Contrary to popular belief Van Zant and Young weren’t rivals and considered collaborating with each other. Young supposedly wrote “Powderfinger” from Rust Never Sleeps about Lynyrd Skynyrd. Van Zant can be seen wearing a Tonight’s The Night t-shirt on the cover of Street Survivors. The Drive-By-Truckers touch on this incident in their song, “Ronnie And Neil” from their 2003 album, Southern Rock Opera.
The music turns darker with the first of the three blues on the album, “Revolution Blues.” The music and lyric continue to grow darker, particularly the second side, which features a song that is often referred to as Young’s “Desolation Row”; “Ambulance Blues.”
Tonight’s The Night was released instead of Homegrown, an album Young deemed too depressing for release. It makes one wonder what Young considers depressing as Tonight’s The Night plays like a dark night of the soul on nearly every track, with the exception of “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” a song written and sung by Danny Whiten about scoring drugs. A few tracks from Homegrown would appear on various other Neil Young albums
“Borrowed Tune” features the melody from The Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Lady Jane.” This wasn’t the first time Young had borrowed from The Stones. Young had essentially inverted the riff for “Satisfaction” on “Mr. Soul”, a track from Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 album Buffalo Springfield Again.
Young would eventually leave the ditch and with reunite with Crazy Horse for his 1975 album, Zuma, a record that was more upbeat and positive than most of what Young had recorded in the previous three years.
It is records that are so soul bearing, like the three albums of the Ditch Trilogy, Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band that are among the most emotionally resonant and interesting albums in all of recorded music.
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