“Well, it wasn’t supposed to go down that way,” Neil Young drawls on “Tired Eyes,” and that could effectively serve as an epitaph for this album. A boozy requiem to a departed friend (or two), Tonight’s The Night is not the somber, reflective affair one might expect. It sounds like a bar band – a really good one – loosely jamming through a set of tunes, with only passing concessions to sadness and mortality. A friend has just died and that sucks, but there’s no pretense to poetic insight or some hoary “Candle In The Wind” nonsense here. It’s a raw, shambling album that creeps up on the listener, and once there remains, hauntingly, fittingly.
The idea of an album as live performance was en vogue in the mid-seventies – cf. Browne, Jackson: Running On Empty. Apparently, Neil’s live shows around this time consistented primarily of this material, bookended by the two versions of the title track as on the album. Reactions were mixed. And I think I understand why: this material doesn’t have the polish or immediacy of some of his other work, which is really saying something because Neil Young albums are not known for pristine musicianship. Not to say that this record is poorly performed, because there are moments of real beauty: Nils Lofgren’s slinky guitar lines weave in and out of the jazzy changes in “Speakin’ Out” while the band chugs on in subtle syncopations on “Lookout Joe” and the title track. But there is a one-take, offhanded approach to the sound with cracking vocals, spoken asides, and other occasional miscues. Sloppy? Yes. Careless? Absolutely not.
“Bruce Berry was a working man/He used to load that econoline van.” The album is dedicated to roadie Berry and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, both recent drug and alcohol casualties. The two versions of the title track don’t vary much, but seem placed to underline the importance as an inspiration for the rest of the album. This is Neil’s version of “Taps.” Elsewhere, he swipes the melody of “Lady Jane” and seems to realize it halfway through on “Borrowed Tune,” one of the few places where the lessons of the deaths may be sinking in: “…my head’s in the clouds/I’m hoping it matters/I’m having my doubts.” Of course, “Mellow My Mind” and “Roll Another Number (For The Road)” offer no such concession, but even the supposed celebrations of getting high and living the road life evoke a certain solemnity, emptiness. “Albequerque” mines the same territory: “Well they say that Santa Fe/Is a hundred miles away/And I got time to roll a number and rent a car.” No one’s ready to address their grief or the road lifestyle that’s proving to be a dead end. This is a desperate sounding record at times, with a grim self-awareness lurking just under the surface of the drunken atmosphere.
Two songs don’t really fit: “Come On Let’s Go Downtown,” co-written by the departed Danny Whitten, is bit simplistic but can be given a pass as a memorial of sorts, while the folksy CSNY sounding “New Mama” on side two simply doesn’t belong here. It’s reminiscent of the way “Through My Sails” closes 1976’s Zuma – fitting perhaps for another collection but just tacked on in this context.
Tonight’s The Night occupies a special place in the Neil Young catalog: initially rejected by the record company, this personal tribute to a few fallen friends has since been accepted as one of his finest works. It’s a performance: listen to this group of friends play a bunch of tunes to deal with their grief, trying to jam away the harsh clarity. Listen to the affirmation, the admission of this confusion. Please take my advice: open up your tired eyes.