Neil Young & The Stray Gators - Time Fades Away

Neil Young & The Stray Gators - Time Fades Away

by Phil H

Neil Young & The Stray Gators - Time Fades Away

Time Fades Away is probably the most famous album never to have appeared on CD, with more than 10,000 people having signed an online petition calling for a reissue and Uncut magazine recently voting it No.1 in their list of the 100 most neglected LPs. Not bad for a raggedy live album featuring 8 previously unreleased songs that lasts barely more than half an hour.

Time Fades Away was released in October 1973 and is the first in the infamous 'ditch trilogy' of albums Young recorded in the wake of his rise to global success with the mellow sounds of his After The Goldrush and Harvest LPs - and particularly the massively popular 1972 single Heart of Gold.

The smooth harmonies and gentle acoustic sounds of the West Coast were on the rise and would make huge stars of The Eagles, James Taylor, Doobie Brothers and Jackson Browne among others. Young could have been king of that particular soft rock hill but decided, not for the first or last time, that he didn't care to go where the wind was blowing. As he put it in the Decade liner notes: 'Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.'

The result was a remarkable trio of albums (also comprising Tonight's The Night and On The Beach) that seemed to reflect not only Young's troubled mood but also that of a nation suffering a nasty hangover after the death of the Sixties dream, locked in a futile war in Vietnam and increasingly at war with itself. It's the souring of hippie idealism into hedonism and a lack of direction that Robert Greenfield portrayed so well in his 1974 book A Journey Through America With The Rolling Stones. Or as Hunter S Thompson put it in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (first published in 1972): 'We were riding on the crest of a beautiful wave. Now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.'

Having agreed to his biggest tour to date - 65 dates in just 90 days - supposedly to promote Harvest, Young decided to get his old Crazy Horse sparring partner Danny Whitten involved again and move back in the direction of 1969's Anybody Knows This Is Nowhere. However, Whitten was a strung-out wreck when he turned up at Young's ranch for rehearsals in late 1972 and was eventually sent home a few weeks later with $50 in his pocket.

He was found dead later that day after overdosing on valium and alcohol, a miserable end to such a promising talent. Young was hit hard by the news, telling a friend: 'Every musician has one guy on the planet that he can play with better than anyone else. You only get one guy; my guy was Danny Whitten.' Young was still talking about him onstage the last time he played in Manchester in 2008.

Tour preparations took an even worse turn after Young agreed to pay respected session drummer Kevin Buttrey $100,000 to do the tour and the rest of the band found out. Keyboard player (and respected producer) Jack Nitzsche had a drunken confrontation with Young about it, with the singer angrily agreeing to pay everyone the same amount.

The scene was now set for a disastrous tour. Young was paying all his musicians well so he compensated by treating them all badly. Even the fans were getting on his nerves with their demands for the mellow folkie sound he'd grown tired of.

Tequila became Young's drink of choice and the band flew around the States in an old Electra prop-jet amusing themselves with a huge hookah hash pipe somehow constructed out of an aquarium pump. Bassist Tim Drummond described it as 'like putting your mouth over the exhaust pipe of a car'.

The opening acoustic section of the shows (first solo and then with the band) were well received but the electric section was more troublesome, the fans baffled by the rickety and raw sound, and deeply ambivalent new songs.

Young quickly decided Buttrey was the source of his problems and ragged on him mercilessly until the drummer left the tour two thirds of the way through to be replaced by Johnny Barbata. Then Young's voice started to give out and he called in David Crosby and Graham Nash to help out on the final few dates.

The tour finally limped to a close in April 1973 and the sane response would have been to put the money in the bank and the experience behind him. Instead, Young decided to release a live album documenting the mayhem in all its murky glory.

What's so gripping about Time Fades Away is just how heartfelt it is. Young recalls his father, Scott, telling him, 'As a writer, the one thing you have to do is lay yourself bare', and it's a dictum he certainly lives up to here.

Listen to one of the full gig bootlegs floating around from the tour (there's a good one from Norfolk, Virginia linked on that features Buttrey on drums) and you'll hear plenty of the tunes from Goldrush and Harvest that the fans were after, but it's the new songs that Young uses for the album. The set list evolved during the tour, with great songs such as Lookout Joe and New Mama for some reason excluded from Time Fades Away only to pop up in studio versions on Tonight's The Night.

The most famous of songs on Time Fades Away is probably Don't Be Denied, which Young told his biographer Jimmy McDonough that he wrote the day after he heard that Whitten had died. A meditiation on life's frustrations that starts with his parents splitting up and getting beaten up at his new school, before moving on to dreams coming true and his distrust of the music business, it's sloppy and raw (because that's how life is) while still sounding defiant and focused. The riff perfectly reflects this, being slow and drawn out yet tense and pained at the same time. One of his finest songs, it could easily have sounded self-pitying but in fact sounds anything but - Young is determined to battle on and is clearly hurt that the 'friend of mine' did not.

The title track,Yonder Stands The Sinner, L.A. and Last Dance are also all full band electric numbers featuring a staggering swampy rock sound that Young would hone to a woozy perfection during the Tonight's The Night sessions later in 1973, with three solo numbers completing the set.

The album kicks off with the title track, and the words 'Fourteen junkies too weak to work/ One sells diamonds for what they're worth/ Down on Pain Street/ Disappointment lurks', immediately making it apparent that something weird is going down here. The lyrics here are vague, the meaning deliberately ambiguous, but the vibe is clearly dark. Nitzsche's barrelhouse piano playing and Keith's slide guitar and incredibly sloppy backing vocals flesh things out beautifully.

Journey Through The Past is a solo piano tune that from his 1971 tour (the only song on the album not to come from the Stray Gators tour), but it fits the mood perfectly, with Young singing about love like a man clinging to a liferaft.

Yonder Stands The Sinner is the most cryptic song on the album, with what's sounds like Crosby introducing it as 'kind of experimental', and Young really straining his voice at times. This must have sounded like a chaotic disaster to many fans at the time, particularly the booze-sodden lyrics about hiding 'behind the nearest tree', but it hints at addiction ('he calls my name/ without a sound') and depression among the goofing about.

L.A. is nearly as ramshackle, with Young singing about the 'uptight/ city in the smog' before asking 'don't you wish that you could live here too?' The fact that hippie baby boomer poster boys Crosby and Nash are singing backing vocals just adds to the sly humour of the song.

Love In Mind is another solo piano song, with Young baffled by the times he finds himself living in, just hoping that love will save him. It's a theme he returns to again with The Bridge, though when he sings about 'The bridge was falling down' he sounds like he's trying to patch up the troubled relationship with his second wife, actress Carrie Snodgrass (they split up in 1975).

Hardly a barrel of laughs so far, Time Fades Away still manages to end on a particularly down note with Last Dance. According to Young's biographer Jimmy McDonough, a studio version of this song was recorded before the tour that sounded like a call to arms to escape the dreariness of working man's 9 to 5 ('Wake up! It's Monday morning/ No time left to say goodbye') in favour of 'You can live your own life/ Making it happen/ Working on your own time/ Laid back and laughing'. But Last Dance seems to have served as a barometer of the mood of the band and the 8-minute version here suggests that salvation is simply an illusion, undercutting those optimistic words with 'Oh no/ Oh no'.

It all gets a bit surreal 7 minutes in when Young, after playing a fine solo, works himself into a frenzy, croaking the word 'no' 59 times while Crosby and Nash bizarrely attempt to cheerlead the crowd into singing along. It feels wonderfully raw and real and under-rehearsed. The fact that everyone involved was an excellent musician certainly helps, whatever the troubled circumstances.

Young has given various reasons for not releasing Time Fades Away on CD over the years, from technical problems with the recordings to admitting he finds it painful to listen to. Whatever the truth, it's well worth digging out a vinyl copy. The fantastic cover and massive handwritten lyric sheet inside just adds to the twisted, drunken romance of the whole thing. Strange times indeed.