Hillbilly Highway – Overnight to Albuquerque

by Sheldon Birnie

With the news a couple weeks back that Neil Young & Crazy Horse will be releasing a new album, titled Americana, a wave of excitement began to build inside of me. While I’m a big fan of much of Neil’s overall oeuvre, for me his work with Crazy Horse stands above and beyond his other collaborations, and beside or beyond his best solo work. This is real exciting news out here on the Hillbilly Highway, friends. Big time.

Neil & The Horse have pumped out a bunch of great albums over the years, from the classic Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Rust Never Sleeps to the bizarre but intriguing Re-Ac-Tor and the less than thrilling Life, and back to new heights with Sleeps with Angels and Broken Arrow. My favourite would be Zuma, exploring dizzying cocaine highs and crushing come-down lows. Greendale, their only offering of the 21st century, holds a special place in my heart, as I was lucky enough to see them tour that record, in its weird, full-concept production, in Vancouver in 2003.

But out of everything Neil and The Horse have put out, I would still hold Tonight’s The Night as the pinnacle of their sloppy, pissed drunk & broken hearted sound. While technically not a Crazy Horse release, the album was recorded shortly after the deaths of original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot make up the rhythm section, and constant David Briggs was behind the board. Whitten himself appears in ghost form on “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” recorded live with Crazy Horse before his untimely overdose.

There’s much to be said about the mystique of this album, too. Like Time Fades Away and On The Beach — the other two Young albums that make up this mid-70s despondent “ditch trilogy” — Tonight’s The Night received a lukewarm, if not downright hostile, critical reception upon release. Young only made this worse by seeming to bait critics and audience who didn’t understand what he was presenting/going through at the time. I love that sort of shit. Like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and Young’s early 80s tomfoolery on the Geffen label (see particularly Trans and Shocking Pinks), anytime a major artist sticks expectations on their heads and up the asses of critics, I love it.

But mystique and urban legends aside, the songs on Tonight’s The Night are just top-notch. Ahead of their time, really. The bleak despair of “Borrowed Tune,” the stumbling beauty of “Speakin’ Out,” and the dangerously rowdy “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” make side one a perfect set up for the fall on side two. “Roll Another Number” is the perfect prelude to a late-night drug-run / booze-cruise, while “Lookout Joe” and “Tired Eyes” lead you right to the more dirge like second round of “Tonight’s The Night.” The whole package, though, as Ray Wylie Hubbard recently described it, is “as lethal on vinyl as China White.”

The best track on the album, and perhaps even my favourite Neil Young track, is “Albuquerque.” Just after “Roll Another Number,” “Albuquerque” takes you with the narrator on a lonesome, highway through the dark of night. The drop D tuning, the stuttering pace, and Neil’s heartbreaking harmonica set the tone. There is little hope at the end of the line, but there is clearly none at the start, so any glimmer of something better, of some place where “nobody knows who I am … less than 90 miles away” seems worth the trip. Much like today’s beautifully drawn out drug-drama Breaking Bad, Neil and the Boys lay down on vinyl much the same scene, in less than four minutes. Life can get hard and ugly out on the Highway, especially if you’re fucking around with the wrong crowd. Keep your nose clean and your brights on, friends. Let’s roll another number.

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