The cold front that has struck this week couldn't have come at a worse time. I am aware that I am lucky to be living far enough south to avoid the blizzards, but I typically rely on the nice weather here in the early months of the year to counteract their inherent awfulness. January and February are by far the worst months of the year, and this year more so than usual. I'm prone to getting the blues already, and recent developments in my life have only made that tendency more pronounced.
To counteract these feelings, one can either try to feel better, or just wallow in depression in order to get through it. I find that music is a good tool for either option, and when I want to wallow, nothing beats Neil Young's so-called "ditch trilogy." This is the term for three of his mid-1970s albums: Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight's the Night. He made them all in the aftermath of his mega-successful Harvest album (which, apart from a couple of great songs, is not that all that strong), which had put him in the middle of the road. In his words, he followed it up with some time in "the ditch."
It's some harrowing stuff, reflective of the times, which today seem so much like our own. In the larger world, this was the era of Watergate, stagflation, and the death of the sixties dream. In Young's life, people close to him had died from overdosing on heroin, a drug that represented the degeneracy of hippie mind expansion into 70s numbness and self-absorbtion. It's a soundtrack of malaise, disillusionment, and bitterness, things that are all too real for me and a lot of other people in this country these days.
The first album in the trilogy, 1973's Time Fades Away, is a live album that has been out of print for decades. One of the many reasons that I love my wife is that she managed to track down and buy a vinyl copy for me for Christmas a couple of years ago. I've heard various reasons why it hasn't been re-released, from speculation that it is a document of a time Young would rather forget, that he is dissatisfied with how it sounds, or that he simply thinks it's low quality. The shows are from his post-Harvest tour. The stadium crowds probably expected a mellow-folkie experience intended to evoke a "peaceful, easy feeling." Instead, they got a ramshackle, wasted depressive performing brand new material highly unsettling in nature. The cover is almost a kind of joke: there's a long-haired bearded guy in front of the crowd flashing a peace sign, totally unaware of what he is going to have inflicted on him.
Despite the fact that his distinctive voice cracks and the band sounds stretched to the limit, the music is actually quite lovely. His solo piano rendition of "Journey Through the Past" is the kind of wistful ballad that so many other songwriters have set out and failed to write. The best might be the closer, "Last Dance," a kind of lament for the soul-crushing nature of the workaday world. In the midst of all its thrashing, there's the hope that the painfully banal quotidian rat race can actually be transcended.
No such hope is present on the next album, the harrowing Tonight's the Night. This one might be too depressing even for me to handle. Evidently ol' Neil thought so too, he recorded it in 1973, but it didn't get released until 1975. Despite the fact that it's not three chords and a cloud of dust rock'n'roll, it's one of the most punk rock records ever made before punk. Voices crack and shatter, songs limp to their finish, and all is pervaded by an air of don't-give-a-fuck ennui. ("Albuquerque" is exemplary in this regard.) The album, especially the title track, deals directly with the heroin casualities in Young's circle, roadie Bruce Berry and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. The only song on the album that doesn't rip into the listener's soul is the live rave-up "Come on Baby Let's Go Town," which actually becomes more depressing when you realize it's Whitten on vocals and guitar. Of all the songs on this album, "Tired Eyes" resonates with me most, especially the key lines, "he tried his best but he could not."
The last album in the trilogy, On the Beach, is actually my favorite. Of course, "favorite" is a tricky word to use with something that boasts dark stuff like "Revolution Blues" and "Ambulance Blues," both fitting eulogies to the death of the sixties with the proper level of bitterness attached. After all, the key phrase of the latter song, referring to the counterculture, is "you're all just pissing in the wind." Despite the presence of such sentiments, the listener actually gets a little hope. The opening track, "Walk On," has become a bit of a personal theme recently. Listen to it and you might figure out why, since the first lines are "I hear some people talking me down, bring up my name, pass it 'round."