CHR 1.5: Neil Young - Time Fades Away
So we reach The Great Mystery of the Neil Young Discography: Why is Time Fades Away out of print? It’s a record smack dab in the middle of his peerless 70’s winning streak, the follow-up (however unsuccessful) to his most popular LP, and — for three songs — it features a three-quarters reunion of CSNY at the height of their powers. Conversely, any of the theories about why Neil has left it to collect dust in his voluminous archives don’t hold water. Does it reflect an era that remains an open wound? Well, yeah (read down for why), but so does Tonight’s the Night and On The Beach, both of which were also recorded in that same gloriously creative, emotionally crushing year. Is it the raw, warts and all, new songs recorded live format? Again, Tonight’s the Night uses basically the same approach, minus the crowd noise , and it’s a method Neil would return to later in the decade with Rust Never Sleeps. Is it just a bad album? Shakey cites a 1987 interview where Neil calls it “the worst record I ever made…I was onstage and I was playing all these songs that nobody had heard before, recording them, and I didn’t have the right band. It was just an uncomfortable tour.” But, in part thanks to its relative obscurity , Time Fades Away has earned cult status and is generally considered on par with the rest of the decade.
I think the truth lies somewhere in between. If it were just another in-print Neil record, I think it would be somewhere around Zuma on the 1970’s NY power rankings. But despite its musical flaws, it’s absolutely fascinating as a chapter in the storyline of Neil Young . The grueling 62-date tour it documents was darkly christened by the fate of Danny Whitten, who, after failing his tryout for the touring band and receiving $50 from Neil to get home, was found dead with $50 worth of heroin in his system. Artistically, Neil was experiencing an internal backlash against his own success thanks to Harvest, and writing songs about as far away from “Heart of Gold” as possible. So while Neil would throw his 1973 crowds a bone with a brief solo set and the big Harvest hits up front, he would then pummel them with a bunch of unreleased, dark material that doesn’t really sound finished or particularly well rehearsed. I’m pretty sure everyone at a 1973 rock concert was really fucked up, so it probably wasn’t exactly Dylan at Newport or anything. But it’s still a pretty punk rock move for a guy at the commercial peak of his career, and a fascinatingly confrontational listen.
Basically, Time Fades Away is the prequel or the dress rehearsal for Tonight’s the Night, opening with a line about “14 junkies too weak to work” and featuring the same last call vibes instrumentally. But instead of facing the decaying stench of the 60’s full on, for now Neil hides under a blanket of nostalgia, to the point of including a song called “Journey Through The Past” .” Two different songs talk find Neil talking about his Canadian homeland, and the best of the two (“Don’t Be Denied”) pens an autobiography that runs from his Winnipeg school days to a hilariously cynical recounting of Buffalo Springfield’s rise to stardom. Vocally, the album is full of raw throats and cracking notes — even when Crosby & Nash show up to help out, the harmonies on “Yonder Stands The Sinner” or “Last Dance” are brutal and perverse.
It’s weird that Neil throws the Stray Gators under the bus in Shakey, when the lineup also featured frequent co-conspirators Ben Keith, Jack Nitzsche and Tim Drummond . They also sound, to my ears, perfect for this increasingly bleak material — Keith, especially, whose pedal steel and brute-force backing vocals amplify the desperation of the songs. The end jam of “Last Dance” is masterful architecture, with the precision guitars and drums like heavy marble columns while Keith’s instrument haunts the empty spaces between. Even King Cheeseball Graham Nash can’t ruin the moment with one final cry of “Last Dance!” before the needle runs off the final groove.
Would releasing this music digitally — either as part of the perpetually-delayed Archives Vol. 2 or on its own — break its spell? Doubtful; On The Beach only increased in reputation after it was released from its long, cruel exile, and that record is no sunnier, if a little bit more polished and subdued. But there’s something poetic about an artist who sticks to his guns on an album and a time he’d rather forget, resisting an easy deluxe reissue cash-in and leaving a weird toothless gap in his peak era discography. For an album that’s about seeking solace in the past and finding nothing, it’s also an appropriate omission.
 - Audiophile Neil of today who insists on HDCDs and Blu-Rays and the like apparently thinks it sounds too “murky.” I appreciate its lo-fi aesthetic, and as with the tone of the material, it’s not much different from Tonight’s the Night.
 - Sure, you can’t get it on CD or stream it, but it was the friggin’ follow-up to Harvest, so there’s a few million copies floating around in used vinyl bins. A nice side effect of this restriction is that you can only experience the cover art — one of my favorites of all time —- at full size.
 - In that same 1987 interview, Neil begrudgingly admits “as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record.”
 - Actually recorded two years before the rest of the album, at the same concert that yielded the Harvest version of “The Needle and the Damage Done.”
 - There were drummer problems, which led Kenny Buttrey (a frequent Dylan backer) to be fired halfway through the tour over money demands.