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.
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
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:
- Play a bunch of totally new songs to huge audiences coming to hear the pretty ‘Heart of Gold’.
- Tour intensely with a hard-edged band until misery and exhaustion fuck up your voice;
- Call buddies Crosby and Nash for support.
- Stagger through to the end then release the album.
- Promote product with comments such as: “the worst record I ever made”^.
Time Fades Away is not bad, it’s magnificent.
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.
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?
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.
* 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.
Neil Young “Time Fades Away” [Reprise, 1973]
Billy Pinnell “Neil Young – Time Fades Awayn” Rhythms, February 2013
UPDATE: ‘TIME FADES AWAY’ WAS OFFICIALLY RE-ISSUED ON VINYL IN 2015 AND 2016