Neil Young ‘The Ditch Trilogy’: A Fan’s Retrospective

Who hurt you, Neil?

I’ve often wondered this and the question never seems to reach any kind of resolution besides the vague presumptions of an already bizarre question. A friend and I often compare Neil Young to other heavyweight songwriters of his generation, claiming, for example, that the music of Tom Waits sounds like he has been hurt by every woman in the world, while Neil’s musical pain derives from that one special someone who left him in the dust long ago. It’s a pain that is still continually hurting Neil Young – a lot.

For some, Young’s music is erratic and distasteful (“I can’t stand the sound of his voice!”) and for others his music is poetic and exciting. I’d fall into the latter category. His music has that “It” factor for me. It feels really truthful, honest, and soulful – he just rocks really hard, too.

His career is fascinating and every decade his music brings challenging surprises, good and bad. But whether his fantastic ’70s records are really better than his rather manic ’80s output (the ’90s and 2000s are something else completely) is not the important question. His musical evolution over the past several decades demonstrates the progression of a truly creative person, his artistic and individual “highs” and “lows” pointing to the paradigm of an artist’s development.

But what is Neil’s artistic apex? What point in his career can we agree summarizes his overall aesthetic intent throughout the past many decades? The answer is obviously Neil’s “Ditch Trilogy”, spanning the years 1973 to 1975, approximately.

The Ditch Trilogy comprises the albums Time Fades Away, On The Beach, and Tonight’s The Night. They are Neil’s “dark” albums and his most depressing works. But more than that, they represent an artist not content with the limelight and unabashedly attempting to do his own thing. Drugs may have played a factor in these releases – as did death, excess, pain, love, Nixon-era America – as well as Neil’s own existential musings.

After the release of Harvest in 1972, his overrated commercial goliath, Neil hit the road on one of his longest and most controversial tours. Neil’s touring band, The Stray Gators, were not received especially well by audiences looking to hear the light, folky material from Harvest and what Neil and his band performed on this tour was anything but. This subsequent tour was turned into the live album Time Fades Away.

While Harvest pushed Neil into the commercial limelight, the material on Time Fades Away suggests a desire to move past this realm, to take control of his artistry on his own time. The opening title track shows Neil demonstrating this.

 “Son, don’t wait/ till the break of day

‘Cause you know / how time fades away”.

His lyrics gloriously possess a sense of urgency for taking control of one’s destiny in a world where time is finite and often vague. In Neil’s epic piano ballad “Journey Through the Past”, he sings about going back to Canada on a journey through the past – continuously balancing nostalgia for the past and looking to the future – while also expressing the crushing yearnings of love. “Will I still be in your Eyes / And on your mind?” he sings, and this is a perfect line that defines the album: while trying to look to the future, Neil still wonders if the woman he loved will remember him. If his concerns with his own fame are echoed in the gloomy lyrics of past and future in this album, Neil’s conception of himself was challenged by his sudden fame. The Ditch Trilogy provided an outlet for him to see where he was going and this kind of rawness and insecurity resonates with me, and imho, with everyone who takes the time to audition these works from decades past.

While Time Fades Away is a great introduction to The Ditch Trilogy, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night are the two more important albums. This is because they are “proper” studio albums, meaning they are subject to further scrutiny than a live album would be. On The Beach is my favourite Neil Young album. It’s so eccentric, so out there – it just rocks so hard. The title track is a trippy, mellow and drugged out affair. “The world keeps turning / I hope it don’t turn away” sings a melancholy Young. The album contains “Revolution Blues”, “Vampire Blues”, and “Ambulance Blues”, three tracks that beg the question: Who the hell releases an album with three tracks containing the word “Blues” in them without any of the songs sounding remotely bluesy? Neil does, and that’s why it’s awesome. The album is straight-up apocalyptic in nature. Everything from the title of the album (taken from an Australian post-apocalyptic novel) to the eerie cover art suggests that Neil was standing at the ends of time. He attacks the oil companies on “Vampire Blues” because they’re “suckin’ blood from the earth” and on “See the Sky About to Run” (the use of the Wurlitzer piano here is indescribably good) he sings “See the sky about to rain, broken clouds and rain” and while the lyrics are elusive and the music surreal, the track feels strange, broken, and at the end of the world too.

On The Beach is an album that is from left-field – it makes no sense. The sprawling final track, “Ambulance Blues”, highlights this best. While the track deals with a plethora of issues – Nixon-era America, the state of CSNY, climate change, Neil’s critics, Toronto – he eventually sings “It’s hard to say the meaning of this song”. This is because Neil himself doesn’t know what it is and this logic applies not just to this album, but to The Ditch Trilogy as a whole. With these records Neil was making exactly the music he wanted to make, music that was often confusing and out there even to Young himself.

The final album in the Ditch trilogy, Tonight’s the Night, is Young’s lament to his friends Danny Whitten of Crazy Horse and roadie Bruce Berry, both victims of overdoses. Casualties of the times, I guess. Young claims this is his darkest work, but he curiously also suggests that this album was the closest he ever got to creating art. What makes this so? It might have something to do with the raw confessional nature of the album, the slack jawed ready-to-party-on-a-Saturday-night and do-tons-of-blow vibe that comes from the sleazy guitar chops and honky-tonk piano contained within the album’s grooves. If this is the case, and since this album is technically a lament to his friends that died from the very rock n’ roll lifestyle that Young illustrates on the songs, this record is almost an unintentional concept album. That’s cool, but it’s Young’s apathy that I find so intriguing.

Again, The Ditch Trilogy is so special because it demonstrates Neil’s refusal to conform to anyone’s conception of his music other than his own. Sometimes this is represented through Young’s apathy to conventional ways of writing or singing songs, which is refreshing and, in Young’s case, painful. On the aptly titled “Borrowed Tune”, Young sings “I’m singin’ this borrowed tune / I took from the Rolling Stones, /Alone in this empty room /Too wasted to write my own”. This is unconventional song writing at its best. Not only does Neil unapologetically take the song’s melody from the Stones, he shamelessly alludes to this fact within the very song! This is brilliant because it shows that he feels so apathetic, so saddened by the death of his friends, that he simply does not have the time or energy to be original, he just reworks and reinterprets past songs for his own emotional and artistic needs.

No song better describes the disinterested passion of Tonight’s the Night (and The Ditch Trilogy as a whole) as “Mellow My Mind.” I love this song; it’s one of the few songs I can listen to over and over again and still find something special. “Baby, mellow my mind“, sings an earnest Young, “make me feel like a schoolboy on good time”. While the simplicity and honesty of lines like these is admirable, the song becomes great because of Young’s mesmerizing vocal performance. He simply does not give a shit on this track. His voice, barely in range and out of key, breaks apart and splinters as he tries to reach high notes. For any other artist this kind of “sloppiness” would be miserable to listen to, but when Young does it it’s enchanting and otherworldly. It’s Neil’s realization as an artist so deeply entrenched and entranced by his own music making, so consumed by melancholy and emotion, that sometimes the only way to play a song effectively is to decimate it. Neil butchers this song, and it’s beautiful.

The three albums that represent The Ditch Trilogy are Neil’s best collection of albums. If we judge good music or art or whatever based on anything, it’s the sound of an artist moving us in an authentic and honest manner. That statement (even to me) feels like a cliché, but it is also often true. A combination of personal experience and history were on Neil’s side during this time, though often in a morose manner. However, it is not what happens contextually to an artist that matters, but how they choose to represent it artistically. Neil was experiencing an identity crisis, personally, artistically, and commercially, following the success of Harvest and the death of several close friends because of the very Rock N’ Roll lifestyle he’d come to be a part of. The representation of these facets of his life through the druggy, hazy masterpieces which comprise The Ditch Trilogy is his artistic height, the perfect distillation of a great talent courageously sharing his despair and confusion.