Another trip up my own ARSA.
The days when I would drop everything to see Neil Young perform are past, but I’m still willing to take a (Santa Monica) flyer on him if the terms are right.
The other day I bought a ticket to something called the Outlaw Music Festival, which will take place next month up in Scranton.
The main attractions for me are Neil and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The bill also includes Willie Nelson (seen him before, but sure, why not), Sheryl Crow (yuck), and a couple country-lookin’ people I’m not familiar with but am willing to give a chance.
I suspect Neil’s gonna fill his 40 minutes by playing a half-dozen screeds against Monsanto … which is not really gonna compare to the time I saw him strafe the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium with Crazy Horse, or the time I saw him hold Boston’s Orpheum Theater in reverent silence with an acoustic guitar.
But it oughta be a goof, anyway. Yet another chapter in the Big Book of Neil Being True To Himself.
The prospect of another path-crossing with Neil made me think of the times I’d seen him, and of the presence of his music in my life.
And, given my eternal interest in radio play, that led me to research a fitting question for the moment:
Just how much airplay did Neil’s “Ditch Trilogy” receive at the time? Any at all?
# # # # #
The Ditch Trilogy, for the uninitiated (I can’t assume everyone who lands here is a pop geek like me), is possibly the best-known and most-cited example of Neil Young being true to himself.
Repelled by the pop stardom visited on him by 1972’s Harvest, and reeling from various personal losses, Neil recorded a trio of dark, oblique, sloppily played, and deliberately uncommercial albums: 1973’s Time Fades Away, 1974’s On The Beach and 1975’s Tonight’s The Night.
(In the liner notes to his compilation album Decade, Neil quipped that Harvest put him “in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” Hence, the Ditch Trilogy.)
The Ditch Trilogy drew positive reviews when released, with music critics seeing the end of the Sixties’ hippie idealism in the albums’ parade of death, drugs, fatigue and broken promises. The records remain influential and well-regarded today, with Tonight’s The Night particularly honored.
And, despite its sonic raggedness and lyrical darkness, the Ditch Trilogy actually sold pretty decently at the time.
Time Fades Away reached No. 22 on the U.S. album charts, On The Beach No. 16 and Tonight’s The Night No. 25. Their performance would only have seemed disappointing when compared to that of Harvest, or to the gentler, better-groomed records of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
# # # # #
Still, album sales are not quite what I want to know about. What I want to know is: Was there anywhere, other than the anything-goes world of college radio, where you could turn on the dial and actually hear this music?
Sure, Neil didn’t care about airplay when he made these records. But if they’re as good as everyone says, surely somebody must have caught on at the time and put them on the radio. Plus, Neil had already sung on several Top 40 singles, so American radio listeners had learned to accept his distinctive voice.
To the invaluable ARSA database of local radio airplay charts we go. We don’t find much, but what we do find is interesting.
The songs from Tonight’s The Night are totally absent from the ARSA database; there were no singles, and no program directors decided to jump on any album cuts. Even the listeners who sent “Seasons in the Sun” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” into the Top Ten in that general era weren’t game to dive into the album’s druggy Hollywood murk.
Time Fades Away produced one single in the title track, and only one station in the ARSA database grabbed it: WKXY in Sarasota, Florida, listed it as hitbound for the week ending December 7, 1973.
“Time Fades Away” — with its glum opening line, “Fourteen junkies / Too weak to work” — kept company in the hitbound category that week with Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle” and Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room,” both of which would become massively more popular.
(Other songs on the chart that would have been a kick to hear back-to-back with “Time Fades Away” included “Who’s In The Strawberry Patch With Sally,” “Just You N’ Me,” “All I Know” and Neil’s fellow Canadians the DeFranco Family with “Heartbeat, It’s A Lovebeat.”)
That leaves my favorite of the three albums, On The Beach.
The album’s opener, the semi-funky, sorta-catchy and guardedly optimistic “Walk On,” was its only single. According to Wiki, it managed to reach No. 69 on the U.S. singles chart, a feat Neil would need four more years and nine more singles to equal.
(The song’s core message — haters gonna hate hate hate — would later be put to much more profitable use by Taylor Swift.)
“Walk On” appears on 26 charts in the ARSA database, all from around this time of year in 1974. It reached the Top 10 in Ottawa, the Top 20 in Cleveland, and muddled around the mid-twenties in cities like Dallas, Tempe, and Charlottesville.
Other songs riding the charts at the time included “The Night Chicago Died,” “Annie’s Song,” “Havin’ My Baby,” “Earache My Eye,” “Clap for the Wolfman” and “Please Come To Boston.”
It’s a pleasure to think of Neil, head down and shoulders hunched (like on the cover of After The Gold Rush), metaphorically walking on through the crowd of his musical peers, his eyes set on a different destination.
As an added bonus, the chosen B-side to “Walk On” was “For The Turnstiles,” a rickety, autumnal, unknowable duet between Neil and his longtime sideman Ben Keith.
Keith plays Dobro to Neil’s banjo, sings an improbable but gorgeous harmony, and generally fills his space so unobtrusively that I sometimes forget two musicians are playing.
“For The Turnstiles” doesn’t show up on any ARSA charts, but I find it marvelous to think that the “Walk On” single got it into broader circulation … maybe on the radio once in a while; maybe on some teenager’s bedroom stereo; maybe on the jukebox of a desolate barroom at two o’clock in the morning, or two o’clock in the afternoon.
You can really learn a lot that way
It will change you in the middle of the day
And though your confidence may be shattered
It doesn’t matter.