December 28, 2010
TIME FADES AWAY
Released as a document of the ill-starred 1973 tour with the Stray Gators, this is a very nervous record.
I like it a lot.
YOUNG: "My least favorite record is Time Fades Away. I think it's the worst record I ever made - but as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record. I was onstage and I was playing all these songs that nobody had heard before, recording them, and I didn't have the right band. It was just an uncomfortable tour. It was supposed to be this big deal - I just had Harvest out, and they booked me into ninety cities. I felt like a product, and I had this band of all-star musicians that couldn't even look at each other. It was a total joke."
Out of print on vinyl and still not available on CD, this rough gem begins a sequence of albums that were artistically brilliant.
"Harvest" was huge hit, "Heart of Gold" went to number one and Neil was riding high following his work with CSNY and Crazy Horse. The next logical step was to bring the mellow, back porch sounds of his recent LP on a lucrative tour. Heavyweight players from the "Harvest" sessions were drafted, though one member of the band didn't make it past rehearsals.
Danny Whitten was Neil's right hand in the first incarnation of Crazy Horse on second guitar and vocals. He was talented but headed down a path of heavy substance abuse, leading Neil to dump Crazy Horse for awhile. Whitten was invited to join the new touring outfit based on word that he was in the process of straightening himself out.
YOUNG: 'We were rehearsing with him and he just couldn't cut it. He couldn't remember anything. He was too out of it. Too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to L.A. 'It's not happening, man. You're not together enough.' He just said, 'I've got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?' And he split. That night the coroner called me from L.A. and told me he'd ODed. That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible. And from there, I had to go right out on this huge tour of huge arenas. I was very nervous and . . . insecure.'
Casting a pall over the tour, the negativity would only be exacerbated with disputes about money and a set of brand new songs that Young wanted to try out and record live.
Switching to a Gibson Flying V that refused to stay in tune, blowing out his voice (Crosby and Nash were brought on board late in the tour to help with vocals) and pissing off fans in packed stadia at every stop by presenting sets of unfamiliar material were all events that marred Young's 90 day trek.
The result was worth it.
Making no attempt to be cuddly, rough edges are left in, capturing things on the fly. Real, though not radio-friendly, Young would be frustrated with his audience and their inability to move with him. Opening with a pounding, uptempo country raver that introduces "fourteen junkies, too weak to work" down on "pain street", the subject matter stands apart from what his contemporaries were singing about. It was the antithesis of the sunny California, singer-songwriter trip which was then in vogue.
Canada features in the lyrics of the title track and "Journey Through the Past", which boasts a great melody and had been around in his set for some time before seeing official release on Time Fades Away. (you can hear it on the BBC session and the Massey Hall gig from 1971). A gentle song that catches the author in a reflective mood, it provides a softer contrast to the junkies on pain street. This was one of three solo piano spots on the disc, each offering a quiet musical snapshot.
"LA' is one of my favorites on the set, with a haunting refrain ("LA... city in the smog..uptight...") and creeping steel part (courtesy of the late Ben K eith) that comes closest in feel to the material on Harvest. Too many artists in the "alt-country" genre have based their sound completely on this musical model, though they fail to create the same mood. (weak songs, little originality) "Don't Be Denied" is autobiographical in tone, covering being beaten up in school through to jumping the border and helping to form Buffalo Springfield. There's an excellent version of it with CSNY at Wembley at the close of their 74 tour. The riff is simple, but effective when married to the pleading nature of the chorus.
"Last Dance" folks, but no one was dancing when a very drunk Young was screaming at the audience in Cleveland ("Get up!!") and making ungodly noise on his out of tune Flying V. That particular performance doesn't show up here, though I kind of wish that it did. Turgid and flatfooted, it seems to go on "for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours..." (listen to the record). Should have been edited to make room for another cut. Young always had songs in his back pocket and set lists from this tour reveal tunes that are unreleased to this day ("Sweet Joni" being a case in point.)
While it was not greeted warmly by fans or critics, charting outside the top 20, it's an important release. Never before had a major artist put out a live disc, comprised of all new material, with nary a hit single to be found.
Imagine the balls that it took to present this to the record company.
Now it's quite sought after and opinions have since (of course) been revised, though you won't see it released on CD anytime soon. The sonic problem with "Time Fades Away" is stated on the LP label: "This Recording Was Mastered16-Track/DirectToDisc (acetate) by Computer." The multi-track master tape was recorded/mixed LIVE, leaving little room for remixing tape hiss, bad notes and crowd noise. To reassemble the album, someone would need to sort through fifty or so ¼" and/or 2" multi-track reels and "a few" cassettes. Finding the right version by date would be easy enough, but at what stage would the mix be at? Raw recording? Truck monitor mix? Mono PA monitor recording?
Best just to snag it on vinyl, as I did when my cassette copy finally died.
by Sean Coleman