Sunday, November 18, 2012
Do you recognize these guys? Most of you probably don't. I wouldn't have, until started to read Neil Young's new autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. He talks about being obsessed with this video, for a lot of reasons. Chief amongst them, this is most of Crazy Horse - Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot - the band he had played with for the past several decades and on the two albums he released this year.
Up front is Danny Whitten, since this is Danny and the Memories. Unfortunate name. For Young. And for Whitten. Whitten is the guy, or one of the guys, for whom Young wrote "Needle and the Damage Done." He wrote that while Whitten was still alive. Young looked at this video and came to the conclusion that Whitten was more talented than he was when they first came together. He regrets stealing the high part away from Whitten on "Cinnamon Girl." Believes he should have given Whitten a bigger role in those early collaborations, and that he could have gone somewhere big.
Whitten didn't get far. Forty years ago today, Danny Whitten died. Young fired Whitten from the band because he couldn't remember the songs. He told him he didn't have it together enough to play, and sent him back to LA. Young got the call from the coroner the night Whitten flew back to LA, November 18. Whitten had ODed. He was 29 years old.
Google his image and see if you can reconcile what comes up with the guy in the suit in this video singing a song thousands of oldies covers bands have plied in cheesy bars for decades. If you want to add an extra layer of madness to Young's guilt, Google photos of Kurt Cobain and compare the two. And think about how Cobain quoted Young in his suicide note, "It's better to burn out than to fade away," and how much trouble that gave Young (he poured his troubles into Tonight's the Night after Whitten, and Sleeps With Angels after Cobain).
I think I can see some of what has been obsessing Young about this. Yes, there is some truly horrible dancing going on around these guys, especially the woman in the blue pants, whose name I can only hope is lost to history. It's a hokey set-up. But there are a couple of elements that stick out for me. There is the arrangement of the song, and that demonic foghorn blast of "oh yeah" from the band. It doesn't sound like a celebration, it sounds like a warning. Combine that with the black stage and the red twilight in the background, and this could be a poorly choreographed deleted dance scene from Clockwork Orange, if it had originally been conceived as a vehicle for Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
But the most compelling thing is Whitten's face. There are times when it seems like he's having fun or goofing off, but he's the tightest one of the bunch. And there are also times when he looks desperate, mostly at 1:27 and after. He looks like he's dancing on strings. It's easy to look back and read that in, knowing how the story ends. But watch it and tell me if you don't see it, too.
To write the book, Young was thinking a lot about his past. He talks a lot in it about not being inspired to write music and knowing he was going to reunite with Crazy Horse. The first album was Americana, an album of folk standards, with "Get A Job" tossed in. Some of these were arrangements that Young had played before in his past. And then there was the jump to the new(est) album, Psychedelic Pill, the first track of which is "Drifting Back," which finds Young wondering if you'll get his music, having to listen to it in meager, compressed modern formats, if he's getting through to you.
That process may have been jumpstarted by this video. The albums and the book make more sense once you've seen it. Tomorrow, Neil Young and Crazy Horse play in Toronto, his old stomping grounds, after having played Winnipeg yesterday. Today, the band has off. It's a safe bet this video will play on the tour bus before the day is through.