Time Fades Away / Journey Through the Past / Yonder Stands the Sinner / L.A. / Love In Mind / Don't Be Denied / The Bridge / Last Dance
by David Skoglund
"My songs are all so long
And my words are all so sad"
- Neil Young
The key to understanding and appreciating Time Fades Away is in knowing the conditions under which it was recorded. In the fall of 1972, Neil Young put together a band to tour in support of his Harvest album. He had not been out for almost two years, since his solo acoustic tour of early 1971. In that time, both After the Goldrush and Harvest had been huge albums, thereby creating a demand for live shows. An arena tour was booked for the early part of 1973, and to no one's surprise tickets sold quickly. The band that Young had assembled was a combination of the Nashville players from the Harvest album, and Crazy Horse. The initial tour lineup featured Young, Ben Keith (steel guitar), Tim Drummond (bass), Kenny Buttrey (drums), Jack Nitzsche (piano) and Danny Whitten (guitar and vocals). After rehearsals, it was obvious that Danny Whitten was in no condition to tour, as Whitten was in the midst of trying to kick a heroin addiction by substituting large quantities of other drugs in its place. He was fired from the band, and given an airline ticket home and fifty dollars. A day later Whitten was dead of an overdose, having used the severance money to buy the drugs that killed him. The start of the tour was right around the corner, so Young and company made the difficult decision to continue as planned. In early January, the band took to the road for a three-month trip that was scheduled to visit over sixty cities. Audiences were treated to a show that featured an opening solo acoustic set followed by a rock set from the band. The material was drawn mainly from After the Goldrush and Harvest, along with a smattering of older songs and a batch of new songs. Part way into the tour Young's voice began to give out. Without the vocal support of Whitten, he was forced to carry more of the vocal chores than ever before. As the strain of the road and the grief of Whitten's death began to catch up to Young, the shows became more and more ragged and raw. In addition to everything else, the road crew tried to negotiate for more money midway through - the temptation of seeing full arenas every night must have proved too great. A brief break halfway through provided a chance for Young to regroup; it was obvious that if the tour was to continue, something needed to be done. Young called up his friends David Crosby and Graham Nash for help, and they came onboard for the last month of the tour as backup vocalists and rhythm guitarists. An additional change in the band lineup was the replacement of drummer Kenny Buttrey with Johnny Barbata, the CSN&Y tour drummer. Buttrey dropped out during the break because the atmosphere was too much for him.
The bulk of Time Fades Away was recorded during this last leg of the tour, in the western United States. Like the live sets, the album features a mix of understated acoustic work and raw, urgent electric tunes. The new songs included those that would appear on Time Fades Away, some that would appear on Tonight's the Night ("Borrowed Tune," "New Mama," and "Look Out Joe") and some that have yet to appear on any album ("Lonely Weekend" and "Sweet Joni.") The three acoustic tunes are "Journey Through the Past," "Love In Mind," and "The Bridge." Two of these songs are older numbers not written for this tour. "Journey Through the Past" was a staple of the 1971 live performances, and the version here was recorded during the first part of the 1973 tour, unlike all the other 1973 material. "Love In Mind" was recorded in Los Angeles in February of 1971, and is presumably included here to balance the more raw material. The electric numbers ("Time Fades Away," "Yonder Stands the Sinner," "LA," "Don't Be Denied," and "Last Dance") have an energy unlike anything else Young had recorded before. The main reason for this is the steel guitar playing of Ben Keith, who assumes Whitten's role as the main musical foil for Young's guitar work. Unlike the Harvest material, in which Keith mainly provides an atmosphere, his playing is sharp, biting and urgent. It dramatically complements Young's wrenching, staccato playing, especially on the album's closer, "Last Dance." This album is an honest document of a very difficult period in Neil Young's life, both in musical and personal terms. The descent into darkness continued during the sessions for Tonight's the Night, which started soon after this album was assembled and mastered. The safe thing would have been not to release these songs at all and let the tour diminish into memory. Luckily, Neil Young has never done the safe thing.