Certain Songs #1251: Neil Young – “Borrowed Tune”

Album: Tonight’s The Night
Year: 1975

Recorded at the Broken Arrow Ranch on December 5, 1973

One of the most storied albums in Neil Young’s entire career, Tonight’s the Night famously sported an almost two-year gap between the time the bulk of it was recorded in late August and early September and the time it was released on June 20, 1975.

Fueled by equal parts of guilt, grief and tequila, the songs on Tonight’s The Night were frank and fucked-up on multiple levels as Neil — with the help of Ralph Molina, Billy Talbot, Ben Keith & Nils Lofgren — confronted the overdose deaths of roadie Bruce Berry and guitarist Danny Whitten.

And in fact, it’s possible that those recordings needed to sit on a shelf for a couple of years, because Neil still had one more song to add to the project, the lovely but devastating “Borrowed Tune.”

I’m climbing this ladder
My head in the clouds
I hope that it matters
I’m having my doubts
I’m watching the skaters
Fly by on the lake
Ice frozen six feet deep
How long does it take?
I look out on peaceful lands
With no war nearby
An ocean of shaking hands
That grab at the sky

Recorded at his ranch nearly three months after the rest of the record, “Borrowed Tune” is just Neil Young all by himself.

In my imagination, he’s sitting at a piano with a harmonica holder around his neck, trying to find a melody that will fit yet another set of despairing lyrics. It’s at least 3:00am, and Neil’s staring at that set of lyrics by the light of a full moon shining in through a small window when he finally gets some inspiration. And why not? Nobody was probably going to hear this song anyways.

I’m singing this borrowed tune
I took from the Rolling Stones
Alone in this empty room
Too wasted to write my own

That borrowed tune, of course, is “Lady Jane,” an overly sincere ballad that the Stones released on Aftermath, (and a song that my post-high school covers band did as a “slow” one), which is an incredibly random choice of a song to steal from, but — just like with “Mr. Soul” — he basically got away with it; I guess not even Allen Klein wanted to fuck with mid-1970s Neil Young.

I’m climbing this ladder
My head in the clouds
I hope that it matters

In the end, his piano echoing the melody, the harmonica dispensing with it, “Borrowed Tune” doesn’t so much end as pass out, totally forgotten about until somebody notices it on a tape days or even weeks later.

But of course, none of that actually happened. While “Borrowed Tune” was recorded after the rest of the “Tonight’s The Night” songs, it was actually one of the first ones written, debuting in January 1973 on the Time Fades Away tour (along with “Lookout Joe” and “New Mama.”)

So as to why “Borrowed Tune” wasn’t part of Time Fades Away, but also wasn’t recorded at the same time as the rest of Tonight’s The Night is yet another eternal mystery about Tonight’s The Night.

“Borrowed Tune”

The Rolling Stones – “Lady Jane”

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