SING A SONG IN A SHAKEY VOICE

In the late 70s, I loaned a girl a record. It was never returned. And that, I confess with equal parts shame and defiance, was the last LP I ever loaned. Books? No problem. CDs? If you have references and are of good character. Vinyl? Forget it. In psychology it is called ‘one trial learning’.

The album was Neil Young’s Time Fades Away, an anguished, groaning masterpiece that has never been released on CD*. It took over twenty years to locate another copy (in good condition, with the giant lyric sheet) and that was indeed a satisfying day.

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What makes the album so significant? What siren seduced it out of my nascent record collection? What made me think about this abhorrent 70s theft today?

Here are the seeds that germinated this article:

A recent post by Marie on ‘Cortez the Killer’ got the Young juices flowing

A Vinyl Connection comment about Paul Kossoff being killed by drugs

A phone call from my sister

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After the surprising success of the million selling Harvest, Neil Young decided to mount his biggest ever tour. It’s what you do, isn’t it? Tour to promote the new album. Always uncomfortable with mainstream success, Young opted for an unusual strategy for the concert set list and his first ‘live’ album**.

This was the five point plan:

  1. Play a bunch of totally new songs to huge audiences coming to hear the pretty ‘Heart of Gold’.
  2. Tour intensely with a hard-edged band until misery and exhaustion fuck up your voice;
  3. Call buddies Crosby and Nash for support.
  4. Stagger through to the end then release the album.
  5. Promote product with comments such as: “the worst record I ever made”^.

Time Fades Away is not bad, it’s magnificent.

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The opening title track has a country stomp feel, a bit of pedal steel and creaky harmonica, a repetitive piano figure. The lyric harks back to growing up in Canada and you can hear the strain in Young’s voice as he pleads, ‘Son, don’t be home too late’. Junkies being ‘too weak to work’ sends a chill when you know the story. Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten died of an overdose shortly after being sacked from band rehearsals due to drug-induced incompetence. A few days later they were on the road, Young wracked with guilt and grief for his friend.

The melancholic reverie continues with ‘Journey Through The Past’. Just Neil at the piano, ‘going back to Canada’; to innocence of a sort, yearning for connection, searching for succour in a heartless world. Oh how I wanted to be in someone’s heart back then.

Maybe that’s why I loaned Sarah the record. She loved Harvest and hadn’t run a mile when I strummed ‘A Man needs a Maid’ with much more intensity than skill. Surely she’d get the message of yearning I thrust towards her with Time Fades Away. Hm. Perhaps she did; I never saw the record or her again. But back to the music.

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Shaking himself off like a shaggy dog emerging from a cold pond, Young turns his anger outwards, taking a swaggering shot at religion in ‘Yonder Stands the Sinner’. At that time – lost, lonely, confused – I’d sought solace and belonging at a Youth Church. Neil’s impassioned accusations were both disturbing and thrilling. Yet it would be a couple more years before I’d see the light and exit the house of religion permanently.

Two plaintive songs close out the first side. One a conflicted lament for Los Angeles, ‘city in the smog’. The other is more personal. Out of the blue, my sister rang this morning and sang it to me.

“Woke up this morning with love in mind, it was raining outside but my love still shined”

What was that song?

Happily I was able to answer, probably giving much more information than she actually wanted, but that’s what we do, isn’t it?

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Side 2 opens with ‘Don’t be Denied’, another directly autobiographical song that reports on Young’s experience of school-yard bullying, his parents marriage break-up and finding life in music. The simple melodic riff is hypnotic and somehow encouraging. The punches came, his voice is cracked but don’t be denied. Don’t be denied.

‘The Bridge’ has beauty and a yearning for healing. It sings of loss and redemption. Broken things can be mended. Perhaps time has faded the memory, but I may once have wept listening to this song.

Placing ‘The Last Dance’ at the end of the album was a good move. Sprawling, reeling, angst-ridden. Spit rage confusion. Was this one of the songs that captivated Kurt Cobain? Better to burn out than fade away. But emerging, staggering, is hope. ‘Laid back and laughing’ he sings; totally unconvincing but wanting it to be true. We pour the coffee, take a breath. Walk forward even though the path is crumbled and tear-scoured.

There is a famous comment in the liner notes of Harvest about the success of the single ‘Heart of gold’. Young said the song “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.”

At a touch under 35 minutes, it is scarcely a marathon ride, yet by the end of Time Fades Away we’re utterly wrung out yet somehow exhilarated. The artist is exposed, bleeding and vulnerable. He suffers, we get art. We suffer, he offers naked pain. We are each alone but not alone. There’s music, and each other.

Greetings from the ditch.

    CD of dodgy provenance

CD of dodgy provenance

* If you want to hear Time Fades Away, it’s all on YouTube.

** Yep, another ‘live’ album; I just can’t leave ‘em alone. But then, Neil Young has produced numerous excellent live albums. So there.

^ The Wikipedia Neil Young entry is worthwhile. See the section on ‘The Ditch Trilogy” for more about this period.

Sources

Neil Young “Time Fades Away” [Reprise, 1973]

Wikipedia

Billy Pinnell “Neil Young – Time Fades Awayn” Rhythms, February 2013

*

If you have just stumbled across Vinyl Connection, feel free to wander back through the previous articles. Comments are always welcome.

28 comments

  1. Always a pleasure to read your take. Sorry about the siren and the lost 20 years.

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    1. Thanks for your concern Kimberley. Sirens – whether island-based or ambulance – do come and go. Probably forever if our ears didn’t dull with time. As for the album search, that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? The search for the grail.

      Like

  2. What a great, insightful, interesting post. My, my – how I love Mr. Young, and I loved reading about your personal connection to this album. I will be listening to this on YouTube tonight. Oh, and Sarah must have been one silly siren. A guy plays “A Man Needs A Maid” for me – he’s going to get his record back. At the very least, I would’ve used it as an excuse to come back around and hear more, haha! Thanks for mentioning me too – that was nice of you. 🙂

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  3. Bron_adams@hotmail.com · · Reply

    Wow Bro…. you well know the love affair I have had for Neil. So many times I made you play his music and then there was your ultimate gift to me; a whole Video Tape of his songs carefully and lovingly crafted with the best of the best!! Thanks for it all then and now! And as for Sarah.. you weren’t Helpless, you did Carry On and now you Teach your Children.

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  4. I am warmed and humbled by these lovely responses. Thank you very much.
    Maybe I’ll only write about Neil Young from now on. 😉

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  5. Weighing in from a Northern Hemisphere ditch; Good stuff! I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about Young as you and your other commenters are and am not familiar with Time Fades Away; based on your piece, though, I’ll check it out on YouTube. (I wonder why some recordings never make it to CD?) I first discovered Young via a friend’s Decade and recall liking The Needle and the Damage Done, Old Man, and A Man Needs A Maid most of all.

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    1. Thanks JDB. ‘Decade’ is an excellent Neil Young collection. A triple-LP set as I recall. And in this case, the reason for the non-release of Time Fades Away is that implied above: Neil does not like it. I do wonder if the reason may be that this album evokes complex and upsetting memories too profoundly. The fantasist in me wants to say, ‘Shakey, it’s precious to some of us’.

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  6. Quite brilliant post Bruce, you’re a complete muppet for lending out vinyl to a chick – my father cautioned me against it as a child.

    I’m more of a Ragged Glory / Weld sort of fella, with a chunk of Rust thrown in.

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    1. Thanks 15 (if I can be that informal). I was an innocent (idiot?) abroad. Later, of course, I made mix tapes (a la ‘High Fidelity’). And yes, I’d probably picked you as a Weld/Crazy Horse sorta guy.

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      1. I own Decade in all it’s triple brilliance and I love the Rust era too, as well as the CSNY stuff (too sugary without him). With the exception of the ‘let’s Impeach the President’ tune, I lost interest after Weld.

        I did also spend an unholy sum of money buying ‘Mirrorball’ last year. Ho-hum.

        I really love the packaging and the outsize lyric sheet too.

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  7. The Prudent Groove · · Reply

    For reasons unknown, I’ve shied away from Mr. Young… but not anymore. Great article, and thanks for opening, what I anticipate will be, a fascinating new door!

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    1. My great pleasure. For artists with dauntingly massive catalogues, it’s nice to have a place to start and something to push off from. ‘That was great’ or ‘That was crap’, doesn’t really matter. Good luck with Mr Young and remember, anything involving Crazy Horse will have a bit of grunge sticking to it.

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  8. Perfect example of the power of a good narrative…

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  9. Enjoyed reading the review very much even though I’ve never heard the album. I’ve developed a Neil Young obsession in the past few months, and with each new album of his I hear I’m starting to believe that he can do no wrong (though I admit I haven’t explored his 80’s stuff yet). Now it looks like I should get this one too.

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    1. Hi Mr O Boar and Welcome.
      Most of Neil Young’s 70s output is worthwhile. Can’t say I’ve collected everything after that – it’s a big catalogue when having 24 titles only makes you a moderate fan!
      Good luck tracking down Time Fades Away. Not having had a CD release it’s rather scarce… but worth the hunt.

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  10. […] “Sing a Song in a Shakey Voice” […]

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  11. The ditch trilogy – love the name. With the 1001 book, 2 of the 3 are included (alas not this one but Tonight’s the night & On the Beach). Sort of like Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, Low & Heroes are in but Lodger was left outside looking in.
    This one sounds well worth further exploration!

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    1. It’s Neil in all his ragged glory, so worth seeking out for sure. But be warned, TFA s not easy to come by!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So nice to revisit this with some context after hearing Tonight’s the Night – 1/3 of the way through the trilogy.
        And strumming with more intensity than skill, that’s the only way I play guitar!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Wonderful piece, Bruce (if I may call you that) – really pretty wonderful. Although a fan, I’m not at all familiar with this one due to the difficulties getting hold of a copy back in the CD days. It’s on my Discogs ‘want list’ and reading this has pushed it up a few places. As much as I’m tempted to listen via YouTube, this seems like one I really need to listen to with the full experience. That ritual of holding and flipping of the record. Again, great stuff …

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    1. Thanks J. Good luck in getting a vinyl copy – an absolutely worthwhile goal! If the lyric sheet is included too then you can play the ever popular ‘decipher Neil’s scrawl’ game.

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  13. I’ll most certainly be looking for one with the lyric sheet – decipher Neil’s scrawl is a game I very much look forward to when picking up an LP copy of one of his albums. No scrawl, no deal!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Ouch!! On the lent album. I’ve been on both sides of that coin. But have made amends on the over dues. Great album! Good concept for a film. Tracking down old, lent out records.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great idea for a film. Will you write it or will I?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Collaboration. I’m half assed serious. Using the Outback as the backdrop.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Dodgy provenance may be the way I’ll have to go on this one because it sounds too good to not own. As for Sarah, she probably takes the LP in hand once or twice a year and loses herself in melancholy “might have beens.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s something we can all relate to, eh?

      Like

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