Music

Billy Talbot And Ralph Molina Look Back On Neil Young’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’ 1973 Gig At The Roxy


Warner Bros.

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“Welcome to Miami Beach, everything’s cheaper than it looks.” 45 years later, and you can practically smell the tequila on Neil Young’s breath as he leans into the microphone to share that tongue-in-cheek greeting on the new live album Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live. Of course, he’s nowhere near Miami Beach on this night. In fact, he’s a good 3,000 miles away, standing onstage in front of a rapt crowd of few hundred industry insiders and the LA elites, playing the inaugural gig at this posh Hollywood club. Backed by a new band called the Santa Monica Flyers, that’s made up of players from some of his older bands, including the rhythm section of the venerated group Crazy Horse, Neil is prepping to launch into one of the final songs of his short and loose set, “Tired Eyes.”

“Let’s have a little sun on that tree,” he commands the lighting guy, pointing to a plastic palm someone has placed onstage. “We’re doing okay in the ‘70s, we really are,” he slurs. “This tree’s coming back. Everything’s okay. Spiro [Agnew] says it’s alright. I wonder if he’s sleeping so well tonight.” From the audience, “I doubt it!” I’d doubt it too. It’s September 22, 1973. Less than three weeks later ol’ Spiro would resign from the office of Vice President in disgrace after facing charges of corruption.

The ‘70s had been a fraught time for Neil as well. Though the decade was still young, the Canadian singer-songwriter had endured some of the highest highs and lowest lows one can imagine in the music industry. It began with a fruitful collaboration between his old Buffalo Springfield bandmate Stephen Stills, along with David Crosby and Graham Nash that bred the No. 1 album Déjà Vu, which was followed a couple of years later by his No. 1 solo album Harvest. Neil was unquestionably one of the biggest stars on the planet. Life was good. Then everything turned black.

On November 18, 1972 Danny Whitten, Neil’s friend and Crazy Horse bandmate, died of an overdose of quaaludes. Seven months later, his roadie Bruce Berry also died of an overdose, this time of heroin and cocaine. Neil took the losses hard, blaming himself for the fates of both men. “Danny’s loss was a jolt in reality to Neil,” drummer Ralph Molina told me. “He was so in tune with Danny’s rhythm. He was the head, we were the body. It was a tremendous loss for all of us, to this day.”

Looking around at all of his commercial success and the accompanying pressures that came along with it, Neil decided he wanted out. Not of making music, but of making chart-toppers like the saccharine ballad “Heart Of Gold,” in particular. “This song put me in the middle of the road,” he wrote in the liner notes to his compilation record Decade. “Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”

The ditch, in this case, was S.I.R. Studios on Santa Monica Blvd., in LA, where he ensconced with Molina, bassist Billy Talbot, guitar and piano player Nils Lofgren and pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith. For a couple of weeks, the musicians, under the watchful eye of producer David Briggs, tipped back drinks late into the wee hours of the night — “tequila and hamburgers, that was the input,” Neil told his biographer Jimmy McDonough — and recorded the material for Neil’s masterpiece, the whimsical and dark Tonight’s The Night.

Tonight’s The Night was special,” bassist Billy Talbot told me about those recording sessions. “It was real life. He was just rapping out shit that happened,” he explained. “We’re with Neil and Danny’s passed away… it was kinda like a wake. An Irish wake. We were aware of the situation and trying not to be too heavy about it. We were playing music after all and music is a joyful thing. You don’t get that vibe every day.”

“We all just played pool and stood around,” Molina remembered. “We would look at each other, and we all knew. The mood was where we wanted it to be [and so we] walked into the rehearsal room, went to our instruments — this was about midnight, 1 AM — and just started playing. The passion, feel, heart, all came together. That’s how it was through the sessions; wait until the right moment came.”

Recording lasted through the summer of 1973, with one night, August 26, being especially fruitful, producing five of the best cuts on the record: “Tired Eyes,” “Mellow My Mind,” “Speakin’ Out,” “World on a String,” and the title track. With the record seemingly done in September, Neil was invited by his managers Elliot Roberts and David Geffen to play at this new club they invested in called the Roxy down on Sunset Blvd. To Neil and the rest of the guys, it seemed like a prime opportunity to test out their new repertoire. They agreed.

“That night at the Roxy, we did just what we did when we were recording, except there was an audience there,” Talbot explained. The feeling in the room was loose. Maybe too loose. Neil is half singer, half-comedian, cracking wise about strippers and Perry Como, mocking Geffen out amongst the crowd. Onstage is that fake palm tree they swiped from S.I.R., as well as a cigar store Indian, and about $900 worth of glittery boots arranged around Neil’s grand piano. For most of the performance, the band acted as if no one else was even there. “When you’re tuned-in as one, we forget there’s a room,” Molina explained. “Could’ve been the garage, living room…etc.”

While the patter in between songs tips toward irreverence — “The first topless girl up here gets one of these boots ladies and gentlemen,” the singer promises at the top of the set — the weeks spent in the studio shine through. Neil and the band are operating at telepathic levels, producing honest-to-God moments of inspired musical transcendence. “I wrote this song in Albuquerque, it’s called ‘Albuquerque,’” he notes, before sliding into one of the most melancholic compositions you’ve ever heard. Listening to Neil pine for an escape from the life of a rockstar while at the heart of the star-making apparatus is a thrilling dichotomy. “I’ve been flying down the road / And I’ve been starving to be alone / And independent from the scene that I’ve known.”

Despite the fact that no one in the crowd could recognize any of the material Neil and the band were playing, the mood is pretty convivial. Everyone is simply happy to be there. At the end of the set, when Neil dives back once again into the title track, a cheer goes up through the room, and as they bring it to a close, everyone out in the crowd claps to rhythm of the song. “It was an event,” Talbot said. “There was a lot of different people — not that I notice that kind of stuff — but you could feel it in the air. It was an eventful scene.”

While the performances captured on Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live were well-received at the time, the same could not be said once the band took the show on the road in Europe. Audiences who came out hoping to hear the hugely popular singer-songwriter strum out “Old Man,” and “Heart Of Gold,” were instead treated to a decidedly strung-out looking Neil playing music that remained wholly unfamiliar. Undeterred, Neil leaned into their bewilderment, promising to “Play something you’ve heard before,” and then hitting them with “Tonight’s The Night” for the second time in the set.

“As a fan, I’d want to hear classics, as a player, you can’t just live on your laurels,” Molina said. “The big guy likes to move on.” Talbot agreed, “Each performance was a trip unto itself,” he said. “We were doing Tonight’s The Night after all. Because they weren’t expecting it, it put a little stain on the whole performance, but we made use of it. Just not doing what they expected and going to the edge with these different songs was really cool for us. It was artistic. I was glad to be a part of it.”

Once that tour ended, rather than releasing Tonight’s The Night right away, Neil decided to mess around a bit more with the master tapes. He made competing mixes with his producer David Briggs who for years loudly declared to anyone that listened that the record was perfect before Young began tinkering with it all over again. At the same time, Neil became pre-occupied with a massive stadium reunion tour with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, before starting work on another, equally enigmatic record titled On The Beach. It wasn’t until nearly two years after his gigs at the Roxy that the public at large finally got to hear Tonight’s The Night in all its glorious despair.

“Neil, to his credit, always kept it fresh,” Talbot said about his boss’s mercurial tendencies. “I feel blessed that I was a part of playing with the most emotional guitar-feeling player ever and to play with other players that felt the same way,” Molina added.

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