Hear Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy on Pandora.
After the overwhelming success of 1972’s Harvest, Neil Young was poised for superstardom. And since the album topped the Billboard 200, everyone at Reprise Records expected the hits to keep coming. After all, “Heart of Gold” went to number one, and Billboard ranked it as the number 17 song for that year.
But Young seemed cursed with adversity in the wake of Harvest. His marriage was falling apart. His friend and Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten died of an overdose the night Young sent him home from rehearsals for being too strung-out to play. Not long after Whitten’s death, Young’s close friend and roadie Bruce Berry also died from an overdose.
What’s more, Young isn’t the kind of artist who cares much about other people’s expectations. In the liner notes to his 1977 compilation Decade, he wrote, “’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 there.” Young’s next three albums, which reflected some of the singer’s darkest times, would come to be known as the “Ditch Trilogy.”
Young recorded both Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night in 1973 before tracking On the Beach in 1974. He once told an interviewer, “[Time Fades Away] is the worst record I ever made.” To this day, the album has never been released on CD. But its sonic patina has fermented beautifully. An intimate live album, it stands as a sonic documentary of an overwhelmed superstar’s amplified vulnerability. Reprise shelved Tonight’s the Night for almost two years, instead releasing On the Beach out of sequence.
None of these albums yielded anything resembling a radio hit. But all have aged amazingly well, especially Tonight’s the Night. Eschewing any studio magic, Young insisted on rolling tape without rehearsing the songs beforehand. He wouldn’t let anyone overdub mistakes. He purportedly kept his band sleep-deprived and wasted on tequila and “honey slides,” an intense concoction of homemade marijuana edibles. If Young’s goal was to capture a moment of emotional fatigue and spiritual desperation, he succeeded. Listen to “Mellow My Mind,” and you can hear Young at the end of his frayed rope. His voice is haggard and falls apart on the high notes, the sound of a man slowly being crushed by the weight of the times.
And make no mistake: the early 1970s were some heavy times. The nation’s morale was wounded from the Vietnam War and LA was paranoid from the Manson murders. Young mused on the latter in “Revolution Blues,” in which he sings, “Well I heard that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars / But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars.” The Eagles’ Glenn Frey reportedly asked Young, “Why are you doing this to yourself?”
Over four decades later, Young’s darkest and most emotional work still connects. Give this doomed triptych a spin, and it becomes understandable why the palpable emotion and raw desperation running through these three albums remain hauntingly relevant. Young recorded On the Beach in 1973, but listen for the title track’s most timeless lyric: “All my pictures are falling from the wall where I placed them yesterday / The world is turning / I hope it don’t turn away.”