Certain Songs #1244: Neil Young – “The Needle and The Damage Done”

Album: Harvest
Year: 1972

Recorded at Royce Hall, UCLA, on January 31, 1971

The lyrical precursor to the dark, unsparing set of songs that would comprise Tonight’s The Night a few years later, the stark anti-heroin lyrics of “The Needle and The Damage Done” have probably always struck some people as too on-the-nose, or in this case, in-the-arm.

But of course that was the entire point: Neil was expressing his pain and dismay at what was happening to Danny Whitten, whose guitar & vocals helped propel Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to immortality, and whose co-write with Neil, “Downtown,” was a highlight of Crazy Horse’s self-titled debut, and was considered good enough by Neil to stick into their live act.

So he was kinda pissed. And kinda sad. And therefore kinda direct.

I caught you knockin’ at my cellar door
“I love you, baby. Can I have some more?”
Ooh, ooh, the damage done

I hit the city and I lost my band
I watched the needle take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done

“The Needle & The Damage Done” also features some of Neil’s best acoustic guitar picking, a gorgeous hazy descending pattern that’s musically appropriate to what he’s singing about: watching someone you care about fight a losing battle with addiction.

I sing the song, because I love the man
I know that some of you don’t understand
Milk-blood to keep from running out

Because it sucks. You’re trying to stop a slowly-moving runaway locomotive: because it’s moving so slow, you feel like you’ve got a chance to stop it, but because it’s a locomotive, you really don’t have any way of truly stopping it, either.

It’s not a position you ever wanna be in, trust me. Better than being the addict, of course, but eventually you realize that there are no good options, including not doing anything, because there are no good options.

After this song was written, recorded — and so far as I know, Neil never walked into a studio and recorded it, so “The Needle and The Damage Done” is a thing that has only ever existed in front of a live audience — and released, Neil tried one last time to help Danny Whitten, recruiting him for the post-Harvest tour that eventually birthed Time Fades Away, but he was too fucked up, so Neil sent him away with $50, and a plane ticket back to L.A.

He died that night, not on heroin, but on a combo of downers & booze. Which fucked with Neil’s mind pretty hard.

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun

Like I said, no good options. Though, if you’re in a band where you have one or more members battling addiction, putting this song in your set — and rocking it up like you’re The Who at Leeds — can be incredibly cathartic for awhile, especially if you focus on the music more than the words. For awhile, anyways.

Which is probably why “The Needle and The Damage Done” been covered so often by artists ranging from The Pretenders to Tori Amos to even Duran Duran: its emotional directness is undeniable, its lyrical content unassailable and its melodic force unforgettable.

“The Needle and the Damage Done”

“The Needle and the Damage Done” performed on the Johnny Cash Show, 1971

“The Needle and the Damage Done” performed live, 1978

“The Needle and the Damage Done” performed at Live Aid, 1985

“The Needle and the Damage Done” performed on MTV Unplugged, 1993

The Needle and The Damage Done performed at Glasonbury, 2009

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