Neil Young – Time Fades Away

In yesterday’s entry, I described my favorite band as being really original and really insular, and I fully believe that the two are often connected with great artists. Well, there aren’t many artists out there as original and insular as Neil Young, so I figured we’d give his stuff one more shot before the year’s out.

Though I could go on about one of his really popular albums, the center of my own enjoyment of the man has been his infamous “Ditch Trilogy”, and since the only other Neil Young content on this blog have been 2 of the 3 albums in that trilogy, I figure logically I should talk about his impossible-to-find album, Time Fades Away:

Like with yesterday’s album, I’m not kidding when I say this one is hard to find. The LP has been out of print for longer than I’ve been alive, and it was never released in any other format. The reason? Neil didn’t like the sound quality apparently. Of course, the actual performances captured in this live disc are wrought with uncertainty, nervousness, raw energy, and a very raw sound, even moreso than the second Ditch album, Tonight’s The Night.

There’s a good reason for that; if you know anything about the Ditch Trilogy, they were the trio of albums that came out after Neil had recorded the greatest album of his career, success-wise. In preparing for a harrowing 60+ show tour to promote Harvest, which would eventually be considered the “Greatest Canadian album ever”, Neil was having problems with his guitarist, the talented Danny Whitten, who had grown a little too attached to heroin, like one does. Indeed, one of Young’s previous songs, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, was written partly about Danny’s addiction (though it mainly encompassed what Young saw as a more widespread problem among musicians).

Well, one thing led to another and, early on in the rehearsal stage of the tour, Neil had no choice but to have Danny sit this tour out, presumably until he could remember how to play songs. Danny took it like a man, cleaned up his act, and lived happily ever after… oh, wait, no he didn’t, he overdosed on heroin and died.

So needles to say, Neil was pretty dang low about this series of events, and at some point preceding the tour, decided to do something a little wacky: play the dates on his tour using only newer material that nobody had done before, ignore the hits, and quietly lose his tiny mind.

Thus, that is the context in which Time Fades Away was recorded. Neil’s voice was not performing as well as he liked, so a few songs are peppered with performances by CSNY members Crosby and Nash, who provide some rhythm guitar work too. Other than that, Neil toured with a band he dubbed the “Stray Gators”, made up of musicians I am not even going to name because they seemed to be as confused as I am as to who they were and whether they actually played in this band. I will say that the temperamental pianist for the group was Jack Nitzsche, who among other things, was one of the key players in developing Phil Spector’s reviled “Wall Of Sound”, and is thus on the level of Himler in my mind.

Anyway, despite the unstable Neil Young, his unstable band, the unstable recording process by which the album was recorded, and the unstable audience who were simultaneously confused and angered by Young’s refusal to step in line with all good sense, this album is amazing, if not a bit… well you probably know.

It starts off with a bouncy song called, appropriately enough, “Time Fades Away”. There’s something to be said about a song that starts with the line “14 junkies too week to work, one sells diamonds for what they’re worth”, clearly Neil ain’t playing around. This song is easily the catchiest in the set, and makes some indictments on the immoral, nameless set of characters in each verse, ending each one with the chorus:

Son, don’t be home too late
Try to get back by 8
Son, don’t wait ’til the break of day
’cause you know how time fades away

I kind of love it, it’s like parents warning their children, only instead of stopping at junkies, there’s also “all day presidents” which seems to represent governmental corruption, and something about the subways in Canada, I don’t know. Either way, the tune of the song is one of my favorites of Neil’s.

The next song is one of three songs on the album that is just Neil on a piano, singing an amazing song. It’s interesting that a live recording should have 3 “solo” performances and have that be nearly half the album, but Neil has never been in a mood to care about such conventions. This one, “Journey To The Past”, shares a title with a film that Neil did with a soundtrack that was also never released on CD (rightfully so, I have heard). It’s a really good song, and like much of this album, is such an honest set of lyrics that you’d swear they were auto-biographical, I don’t know enough about Neil to confirm whether they are. The other two songs that feature Neil on piano by himself are “Love In Mind”, and “The Bridge”, the last of which is my favorite, despite being the most abstract of the three, or perhaps because of it!

“Yonder Stands The Sinner” and “L.A.” are really jammy jam songs that seem to have a very accusatory tone, the first seeming to be about the singer running away from someone calling him “Sinner”, and calling his name “without making a sound”. Of course, my natural instinct is to assume this song is about the conscience. “L.A.” seems to be about the second coming of Christ, or that time that everyone from that area keep talking about where California is inevitably going to slide into the ocean (see also: “Desperadoes Under The Eaves” on Warren Zevon). In fact, “Love In Mind” seems to be another guilt-ridden track about the conscience. I’m sure that these songs must represent, in that fantastically subtle way, guild that Neil was feeling toward other events that predate this album.

“Don’t Be Denied” tells the story of a boy who grew up in an abusive school and ended up learning music and moving to L.A. to play music with his friend and selling his “golden sound”. Lyrically, it’s my favorite song on the album, as it tells a really clear story and no matter what the truth is, I fully believe it to be Neil’s story. This is one of those  songs that will tell you why Neil is so loved and revered by everybody, and more importantly, why he can do whatever the heck he wants with music and it will still be important to somebody.

The song ends with a really catchy tune seemingly dedicated to the ones who must work day jobs in lieu of “making it” (hello!), and musically it really speaks to me. I don’t know, I just love jam songs when done effectively. This one is one of those ones, for sure.

So yes, Time Fades Away is a great album, but I can see why Neil never wanted anything to do with it after it was released. It’s an album that captures a moment that Neil has moved on from, and the sound and performance quality is such that releasing it would only please his established fans, which would go against what Neil was doing when he decided to tour stadiums with songs his fans weren’t expecting. It seems illogical to please your fans by releasing an album of a time where you were against pleasing your fans, unless there’s some great financial gain to be seen from it, and there isn’t, and anyway Neil Young doesn’t have to care about all that. This album has purposely been lost to time, and indeed, though this music still shines as bright as it ever did, time fades away.


One Response

  1. I respect your committment to your project. This site came up as a related topic to my first blog (with more to come) called Letters To Neil Young. Maybe you could drop by and read/comment?

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