What is it about trilogies? Why are they so significant? “Time Fades Away” is the first of Neil Young’s “ditch trilogy” which subsequently includes the equally brilliant “Tonight’s The Night” and “On The Beach”. All three were mainly recorded between February 1973 and April 1974. But why is so much made of trilogies?
I started to think about record trilogies. The obvious ones that spring to mind are “Time Out Of Mind”, “‘Love And Theft'” and “Modern Times” by Bob Dylan, “Low”, “‘Heroes'” and “Lodger” by David Bowie, “Pornography, Disintegration” and “Bloodflowers” by The Cure and “Swordfishtrombones”,”Rain Dogs” and “Frank’s Wild Years” by Tom Waits. Other trilogies are also available (Peter Gabriel, Magnetic Fields, Green Day, Metallica, Eminem and all sorts of other artists I don’t like).
Then I started to think about film trilogies. More obvious ones: “Star Wars episodes iv, v, vi”, “The Godfather”, “Back To The Future”, “Naked Gun”, “X-Men” (before the spin offs), and “Hannibal Lecter”. I’m sure you can think of others.
How about books? There are millions of trilogies. I’ve just finished three Jonathan Coe books (“The Rotter’s Club”, “Closed Circle” and “Middle England”) as recommended to me by my literary guru, Ben. Outstanding. I haven’t read Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy but I have read the “Millennium” trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I’ve also read “Lord Of The Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s the John Le Carre “Karla” trilogy, the “Border” trilogy by Cormac McCarthy and so on and so on. Again, I’m sure others will spring to mind.
Why are trilogies so popular? Here’s an interesting idea from a random online blog: “Maybe it can all be brought back to Aristotle? The philosopher divided a story into three parts, a set up, a conflict, and the resolution aka the beginning, middle, and end. Could it be that trilogies work with such a structure, forming the three individual parts that make a good story?” Sounds good but it has no relevance to the matter in hand, namely Neil Young’s “ditch” trilogy. So my simple answer about why trilogies are so prevalent is that I have no idea.
A Neil Young website states that “because of their dark, haunting brilliance, the albums are known as “The Ditch Trilogy”. I don’t agree with this. In the liner notes to “Decade”, a compilation that came out in 1977, Neil wrote this about “Heart Of Gold”: “This song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” The three albums in question were a tough listen. In the interview with Andy Kershaw on “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, when asked about his fans, Neil claimed that over a period of several years he had “systematically tried to destroy the base of my record buying public”. These three albums would have come as a shock to people who loved “Harvest” which was released in February 1972. This was a number one album in the USA and the UK and was gentle, tuneful, melodic and memorable. Neil Young has released a number of similar albums (“Comes A Time”, “Harvest Moon”, “Silver And Gold”) and they’re very good. I love them. He has also released a number of harsh, tuneless, discordant but memorable albums of which the “ditch trilogy” are stand outs. I think I love these even more.
Neil himself has been very unkind about this record. On the liner notes for the “Decade” compilation he writes: “No songs from this album are included here. It was recorded on my biggest tour ever, 65 shows in 90 days. Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while. I was becoming more interested in an audio verite approach than satisfying the public demands for a repetition of “Harvest””. In 1987, Young told an interviewer that “Time Fades Away” was “the worst record I ever made – but as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record. 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. I felt like a product, and I had this band of all-star musicians that couldn’t even look at each other.”
Far be it from me to disagree with one of the greatest musical talents that the human race has ever produced but I love this album.
The album is a live album, recorded on a USA tour he played with The Stray Gators (Ben Keith, Jack Nitzsche, Tim Drummond and Johnny Barbata). The First track is the title track. There’s a driving piano and a great, slightly hysterical vocal from Neil. The verses describe a dystopian world (“Fourteen junkies too weak to work. One sells diamonds for what they’re worth”) while the choruses implore the singer’s son to get home by eight o’clock (“Eight?” his son replies in amazement) because “you know how time fades away.”
Track two is “Journey Through The Past” which is the name of the film soundtrack he had released in late 1972 (although this song wasn’t on it!). It’s a beautiful song – just Neil singing and playing a piano. “I’m going back to Canada on a journey through the past and I won’t be back ’til February comes”. This song was played on the “BBC Live In Concert” recorded in 1971 and available on YouTube.
The third track on side one is “Yonder Stands The Sinner.” It’s much looser and Neil’s vocals are often out of control. It’s amazing but a bit of a shock to anyone who only listens to a Neil Young record because they like “Heart Of Gold.”
Track four is “L.A.” and the sound is similar to the previous song although there is also a lovely steel guitar.
Track five, the last song on side one is “Love In Mind”. It’s stunning. It’s also on “BBC Live In Concert”. Again, just Neil singing and playing a piano. “Woke up this morning with love in mind. It was raining outside but my love still shined. Kept me warm ’til my plane touched the sky.” Whatever that means.
If those five songs weren’t brilliant enough, now turn over for an even better side two. “Don’t Be Denied” is one of my favourite Neil Young songs. It’s very autobiographical describing his childhood move to Winnipeg, being bullied at school, starting to play music in Canada before moving to L.A. and being picked up by a record company. “The businessmen crowded around. They came to hear the golden sound. There we were on the Sunset Strip. Playing our songs for the highest bid. We played all night. The price was right. Well all that glitters isn’t gold. I know you’ve heard that story told. But I’m a pauper in a naked disguise. A millionaire through a businessman’s eyes. Oh friend of mine – don’t be denied.” It’s great. Just great.
Side two Track two. “The Bridge” Many years later Neil Young and his wife at the time, Pegi, staged a yearly concert called “The Bridge School Benefit” in aid of The Bridge school which assists children with severe physical impairments and complex communication needs, including their son Ben. Another lovely song played on the piano.
Finally, “The Last Dance.” This is truly incredible. A driving rhythm describing a humdrum life. “Wake up it’s a Monday morning. No time to left to say goodbye. Can’t breathe and the lights are changing.” An inner voice is telling him “You can live your own life making it happen. Working on your own time. Laid back and laughing.” The music is great with a very exciting guitar solo from Neil. “You wake up in the morning and the sun’s comin’ up. It’s been up for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours. It’s been up for hours and hours and hours. And you light up the stove and the coffee cup, it’s hot and the orange juice is cold cold cold. Monday morning. Wake up wake up wake up wake up wake up. It’s time to go, time to go to work.” Finally self realisation. “Oh no. No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no.” And that’s it. His worst record? You’re joking. It’s a masterpiece.