Last Dance is the highlight (but for some the nadir) of Time Fades Away, the out-of-print live album that began Young’s ‘Ditch’ trilogy. The story behind the live album is pretty well covered by Jimmy McDonough in Shakey, and has been covered in other places too, but here’s a quick version of it for the uninitiated.
After making Harvest, Young went on tour with the same band who’d featured on that record: Kenny Buttrey and Tim Drummond on drums and bass, Ben Keith on pedal steel and Jack Nitzsche on piano. Danny Whitten was supposed to play with them too, but his heroin use was out of control so Young sent him home. Whitten overdosed fatally shortly after, casting a pall over the tour and inspiring Young to write Don’t Be Denied.
Inevitably after such an event, the mood in the camp was dark, and it was immediately aggravated by haggling over money. Buttrey was a studio player from Nashville, and he informed Young that to drop his session work and hit the road he’d need $100,000, a figure which Drummond and Nitzsche then demanded too. Young matched Buttrey’s fee for all the band members, but was upset at the way Drummond and Nitzsche had handled the situation, confronting him during rehearsals rather than coming to speak to him privately. Nitzsche later said that the tour never recovered from this incident.
That wasn’t the last of Young’s problems. Buttrey, as a studio player, was unused to the physical demands of driving a rock band along every night on a stage (for 62 dates and with few nights off), and unprepared for the lifestyle or the craziness of touring; musicians as a general rule save their worst excesses for the road and tend to be more focused and together when recording, so this was quite a culture shock. Unhappy with Young’s behaviour and his constant demands that he play louder, Buttrey quit mid-tour, to be replaced by Johnny Barbata (of CSNY and the Turtles), who appears on all the full-band material on Time Fades Away. Nitzsche, meanwhile, one of the few people in Young’s circle prepared to go toe to toe with him, was drinking too much and had a bad attitude, chafing under Young’s heavy-handed leadership.
The stories that have come out about this tour, coupled with Young’s own comments (‘I had this band of all-star musicians who couldn’t even look at each other. It was a total joke’), had me prepared for a dismal, dirgey, tuneless assault from Time Fades Away. In fact, the music is both more delicate (three of the album’s eight songs feature Young alone at the piano – check out Love in Mind: it’s beautiful) and more upbeat than the record’s reputation suggests. The title track and Yonder Stands the Sinner, complete with Nitzsche’s pounding piano, are almost reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s New Orleansy choogling, albeit with Young singing in his trashed Tonight’s the Night voice. I can understand why the crowd in 1972 who just knew After the Goldrush and Harvest might have been taken aback at the roughness of some of his vocals, but Young’s singing is no more off-key here than on Tonight’s the Night, and is certainly more tuneful than, say, Dylan backed by the Hawks in 1966, so there had been plenty of precedent in rock’n’roll for such non-bel-canto singing.
Most unexpected given its reputation was Last Dance. McDonough makes it sound like a self-nullifying, caterwauling death march of a song (a ‘grating headache’, he calls it). On Time Fades Away (perhaps the versions played at other shows on the tour were more extreme and negative in vibe – I haven’t heard them all), Last Dance actually strikes me as capturing a familiar mood in Young’s music: summoning the strength to begin again after something important has come to a shattering end.
Still, the Time Fades Away myth is a powerful one. Maybe, to be cynical for a moment, that’s why Young insists on keeping it out of print. It’s a good Neil Young record, and in places – Last Dance being one of them – it’s excellent, but the reality doesn’t really match the myth. If you’ve heard Rust Never Sleeps (and certainly if you’ve heard Eldorado, Arc or Weld) you’ll probably find it quite tame.
And Elliott Mazer mixing the snare in the left channel and the rest of the drums in the centre is just as distracting and eccentric as it is on Harvest.
Neil Young and his infamous Gibson Flying V, Time Fades Away tour.