Certain Songs #1247: Neil Young – “Tonight’s The Night (Roxy 09-28-1973)”

Album: Roxy – Tonight’s The Night Live
Year: 1973

Recorded at The Roxy, West Hollywood on September 28, 1973

This is where things get complicated. A couple of months after the ending of Time Fades Away tour ended, roadie — and brother of Jan from Jan and Dean — Bruce Berry overdosed, bookending that tour with a death that complimented the OD of Danny Whitten just before the tour started.

This sent Neil Young into a tailspin, and in August of 1973, he assembled a band consisting of bassist Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina, pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith and Nils Lofgren to record a series of songs confronting the pain he was feeling. He dubbed them the Santa Monica Flyers, but they were also essentially Crazy Horse, too.

The resultant album, Tonight’s The Night, didn’t come out until 1975, and so we are going to deal with it after On The Beach, in the same way Neil Young fans did in the 1970s, but in between recording that album and shelving it, he and the Santa Monica Flyers played a series of shows in late September of 1973 at the opening of the Roxy in Hollywood.

That’s where he first unveiled “Tonight’s The Night” on an unsuspecting public. I mean, imagine expecting “Heart of Gold” and getting Neil Young sitting down on piano and howling “tonight’s the night” — on two separate songs! — over and over and over.

At first, there isn’t really even a beat. Ralph Molina’s just kicking his bass drum throughout the entire first verse, which jumps directly into all the pain Neil was trying to exorcise.

Bruce Berry was a working man
He used to load that Econoline van
A sparkle was in his eye
But his life was in his hands

Well, late at night when the people were gone
He used to pick up my guitar
And sing a song in a shaky voice
That was real as the day is long

BTW, let’s give it up for Billy Talbot’s bassline: slow and ominous, but also holding the song together during the opening part where Neil, Nils & Ben Keith are all over the map, and then when the song finally picks up just before the third verse, driving it forward.

Early in the mornin’ at the break of day
He used to sleep until the afternoon.
If you never heard him sing
I guess you won’t too soon

‘Cause people let me tell you
It sent a chill up and down my spine
When I picked up the telephone
And heard that he’d died
Out on the mainline

Which grinds the song to a halt once again.

Tonight’s the night
Tonight’s the night
Tonight’s the night
Tonight’s the night

It’s such a weird, ambiguous chorus, isn’t it? Tonight’s the night for what? Is that the song that Bruce Berry used to sing. Is tonight the night when Bruce Berry is going to die? Or is tonight the night we’re going to decide to live? Or is it something else? Hell, if you only listened to the chorus — admittedly a difficult thing to do with this song — you might think that it’s a love song. Probably not.

In any event, “Tonight’s The Night” does make a sincere attempt to rock out for awhile, but always gets dragged back down into despair, and it ends much the way it begins, everybody singing “tonight’s the night” together over and over again until it stumbles to the end.

“Tonight’s The Night” is also an incredibly important song to me personally, but I’ll get into that when I write about “Tonight’s The Night (Part II)” in about a week or so.

“Tonight’s The Night (Roxy 09-28-1973)”

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