Ditch Digging: Neil Young’s Time Fades Away

“‘Heart of Gold’ 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…”

Written for the sleeve notes to 1977’s retrospective compilation Decade, this has become perhaps the most over-quoted comment Neil Young ever made about his own music. But, while heading into the murk of the first album in what has been dubbed his “Ditch Trilogy,” it’s worth rolling it out again.

What strikes you most about the statement is its certainty, the way Young, in hindsight, casts what happened after Harvest as a conscious, calculated move: a purposeful rejection of mainstream success, a deliberate dive out of the limelight into grungy obscurity.

Listening to Time Fades Away, though, a live album such as no one ever made before, what strikes you most is how uncertain it sounds. Not hesitant, because it thumps, howls and rages, when it isn’t whispering and crying. But undefined, unrehearsed, undecided, unspooling out of control, as the singer and his beleaguered band try to catch up with what they’re playing and work out what it’s supposed to be, or whether or not they even like it. It doesn’t sound the result of premeditated planning. It sounds like it’s coming out the way it is because no one can do anything about it.

The facts are these. Toward the end of 1972, Young was preparing to tour, and the stakes were high. For one thing, it was to be something of a comeback, his first time on the road in nearly two years. For another, it was the biggest tour of his life so far. After The Goldrush and the plaintive acoustic reveries of Harvest had made him a radio mainstay,  figurehead for a generation looking for a voice. Young was booked to play 65 huge arena dates across America over 90 gruelling days.

Prior to hitting the road, two things happened that would establish the mood for the three months to come. Assembling a band to rehearse at his ranch, Young called Danny Whitten, the Crazy Horse guitarist with whom he had once found a symbiotic partnership, but whose heroin habit had caused an estrangement. It soon became clear Whitten’s drug problems remained as bad as ever. He was in no shape to play. Young sacked him, sent him packing back to LA. When his plane touched down, the desperate Whitten binged on downers and booze, and died that same night on a bathroom floor.

Stunned by grief and feeling guilt, Young’s spirit blackened further when, on the eve of the tour, his band suddenly demanded vastly increased wages. By the first date, January 5, 1973, he was barely speaking to them, and not saying comradely things when he was. By midway, original drummer Kenny Buttrey was gone, either fired, or folding under the nightly pressure of Young screaming he wasn’t playing loud enough.

Loud became one of the tour’s defining characteristics. Crowds arriving expecting Harvest’s balms were bewildered to find Young, wrestling with an unaccustomed Flying V guitar, devoting large chunks of the sets to new, heavier, darker rock songs. Audiences grew restive, and the antagonism between the musicians was soon shared between performer and fans, too. By the tour’s latter stages, Young’s voice was in danger of packing up, shredded equally from feverish singing, and from berating his band and his audiences. CSN&Y comrades David Crosby and Graham Nash were eventually drafted in to provide vocal support as the tour crawled to an end.

Culled from tapes of these shows (plus, bizarrely, a single, gorgeous, song, “Love In Mind,” recorded two years previously), Time Fades Away was a bewildering proposition. Live albums were traditionally stop-gap-filling, contract-fulfilling affairs, hits workouts, generally buffed up by studio overdubbing. Here, though, came this warts-and-all recording of a man playing sloppy versions of unfriendly new songs nobody knew – including, apparently half his band – to audiences whose muted reactions were further buried in the mix, as if to underline the distance he felt from them. The album’s cover shot of a crowd seen from the footlights is spectacularly unflattering: an ugly, frozen moment, viewed through a bilious green haze.

The more you listen to this album Young pulled from the murk, though, the more it asserts itself. The title track sets the pace: a gleeful, slovenly parody of Johnny Cash’s boomchicka beat, dragging in a tale introduced with the heart-warming image of “14 junkies, too weak to work…” If you like rock’n’roll chaotic, messy, poisonous, barely hanging together, it’s here, especially “Yonder Stands The Sinner,” a wilfully moronic sermon that suggests “Sedan Delivery” at half-speed, Young’s voice cracking in hysteria.

But there’s more going on. A theme, of memory, time passing and fading, emerges. Both the title track and the song that follows, “Journey Through The Past” – one of three exquisite, fragile piano ballads, introduced as “a song without a home” – see Young invoking his early years in Canada. Then it happens again, most intensely, on “Don’t Be Denied,” a song Young wrote the morning after he heard about Danny Whitten’s death. A great, blunt, autobiographical sketch – see Neil’s parents splitting, see Neil’s father leaving, see Neil as the lonely new kid in school, getting punched to the ground – this circling, wracked and raw performance is the heart of the album that documents the tour Whitten could never join.

Whitten’s ghost also seems to haunt the closing “Last Dance.” Written from a place of smug, stern, hippy millionaire haughtiness, it offers terrible lyrics about rejecting the straight life to live some counter-cultural self-sufficient woolly idyll: “You can live your own life, making it happen…”

But Young’s delivery undermines the message. He doesn’t sound as if he believes a word of it. Whitten couldn’t make it. Hearing Crosby pitch in, encouraging the audience to, “Come on, sing with us!” while Young, strained and barely in tune, croaks out a late, endlessly negative “No, no, no” refrain is one of Time Fades Away’s most bleakly hilarious moments. Crosby sounds like he’s trying to get a groovy communal love-in happening. Young sounds like a man drowning in poison. Lost.

Famously, Time Fades Away was long-lost itself, long out of print. He named his Bridge School organisation after its most plainly gorgeous song, but, for decades, Young would not allow it to be released on CD (it finally appeared in 2017, as part of the Official Release Series box set). Just why is mysterious.

“It’s the worst record I ever made,” Young said once. “But as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record.” He’s wrong about the first part.