“Heart of Gold 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.”
It was a shell-shocked Neil Young that stepped into the studio for the original Tonight’s The Night. Emotionally busted and physically broken from the Time Fades Away tour, he was dealing with a serious throat infection brought on by a grueling run of shows and lots of booze. Add to that, grieving the overdose deaths of two close friends, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. What followed was an album about losing friends on the mainline, drug deals gone wrong, and a longing to get away from it all. Neil’s father once said it sounded like “a man on a binge at a wake.”
There have been bootlegs of the Tonight’s The Night tour circulating for years, but none have the sonic quality here. The occasion of this performance was opening night of the now famous Roxy on LA’s Sunset Strip (opening sets from Graham Nash plus Cheech and Chong). The studio version of album was still 2 years away and outside of Neil’s inner circle, this is the first time most had heard this music. And if the songs were new to the audience, the band (dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers) were still feeling their way through the songs. But any imperfections only give it an endearing quality.
There’s no significant difference from the eventual album versions here, even down to the “Alright Nils, alright” on Speaking Out. But oddly enough, given the dark nature of the album, this set is delivered with some levity. Maybe it’s that the band is relishing getting out from under the cloud dispair of the recording sessions and in front of an audience. It most certainly is owed in no small part to the often humorous and wry between-song banter from Mr. Young. Neil more than once welcomes everyone “To Miami Beach, where everything is cheaper that it seems…”, dedicating Roll Another Number to any cops in the room, and introducing himself as Glenn Miller.
But make no mistake, the songs are ugly, rough, and powerfully delivered. The losers, the wasted, and the dead that populate the songs hang still like ghosts in the air. 45 years down the road, Roxy, like it’s studio counterpart, remains compelling and worth your time.