We begin this edition of Six Degrees in Miami Beach. Not the actual Miami Beach, mind you, but the Miami Beach of Neil Young‘s fevered imagination. In 1973, Neil was one year removed from the career-defining behemoth that was Harvest and its feel-good granola anthem, “Heart Of Gold.” Problem was, Neil wasn’t in a particularly “feel good” frame of mind and sure as hell didn’t want his career defined by granola anthems. Still reeling with guilt from the November 1972 heroin overdose of his guitarist and friend, Danny Whitten, Neil embarked on what would become the “Time Fades Away” tour. Enter heroic amounts of tequila, self-loathing, and brutally honest rock ‘n’ roll.
On stage, he drunkenly passed himself off as the MC of a sleazy Miami Beach nightclub and led his band, The Stray Gators, through a wobbly series of setlists. Audiences expecting the lilting melodies of “Heart Of Gold” and “Old Man” were rudely met with grinding volume and utter chaos, as if the roadies left the “fuck you” knob stuck on 11. In short, the tour was a disaster and Neil spent the better part of the next 3 years in a dark place, battling his demons through music.
It was in this dark place that Neil Young would, perhaps inadvertently, produce one of the rock era’s most important templates. In a move that paralleled (and in my mind was a more courageous version of) Bob Dylan‘s leap from folkie troubadour to rock Judas, Young “headed for the ditch.” There he turned his crippling self-doubt and apathy toward mainstream acceptance into its own muse, producing a trilogy of albums that stand with any in the history of rock: Time Fades Away (1973), On The Beach (1974), and Tonight’s The Night (1975).
Admittedly, these are fairly sloppy affairs, all but devoid of hit single material, and in the case of Time Fades Away and Tonight’s The Night, boozy snapshots of the drug culture that helped inspire this artistic phase. However, past the slop, bum notes, and struggles with pitch are documents of searing beauty. These albums reward the listener like few others with their brutal fucking honesty and music both visceral and full of meaning. Some would say that despite their flaws these albums have stood the test of time. I disagree. I think it’s precisely because of their flaws that the Ditch Trilogy has not only survived, but prospered.
As Neil famously wrote of “Heart Of Gold” in the Decade liner notes, “This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there.” Today, Six Degrees is paying tribute to the ditch, where you’ll still meet the most interesting people and hear the most interesting bands. Neil would return to the ditch periodically throughout the ’70s and ’80s, when the combustible temperament at the heart of Neil’s best work would finally bear fruit in the music of a new era. All of the bands mentioned below embraced Neil’s ditch digging because like his best work in the mid ’70s, they too have produced brilliant work away from the middle of the road.
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Neil Young – Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown (1970)
The first song in today’s lineup actually predates the Ditch Trilogy by a few years. In fact, Tonight’s The Night, the album on which “Come On Baby” appears, was released in 1975, mostly recorded in 1973, and this particular track recorded live at the Fillmore East in March 1970. But, this is also the point. Tonight’s The Night is Neil coming to terms with the death of Danny Whitten and the drug culture which helped kill him. This song is a reminder of when “old times were good times” (“Lookout Joe”), when Crazy Horse found its groove, Whitten (who sings lead on this one) sounded strong, and the future was seemingly rife with optimism. Nevertheless, an eerie kind of prescience hangs over one verse:
“Sure enough, they’ll be sellin’ stuff
When the moon begins to rise
Pretty bad when you’re dealin’ with the man
And the light shines in your eyes.”
In two years, it would all be over.
Thelonious Monster – Swan Song (1987)
“It don’t care just where you come from
And it don’t care if you’re rich or you’re poor
No, it don’t care about your religion
No, it don’t care about you at all.”
Thelonious Monster is here for two reasons: 1) Like many of the songs on Tonight’s The Night, “Swan Song” is about drug addiction, specifically heroin, and 2) It was Bob Forrest, lead singer of the Monster who turned me onto Tonight’s The Night many years ago. In the spring of 1992, while opening for the twee Darling Buds in Palo Alto — talk about an all-time double-bill mismatch — Thelonious careened through an amazing version of “Mellow My Mind.” When I asked him about the tune after the show, Bob told me it was from Tonight’s The Night and that if I didn’t own the album within 24 hours I was an idiot. Not one to shirk my duties, I bought the album the next day and discovered that I was an idiot anyway for not previously owning the album. Thankfully, I’ve made up for it ever since. And many thanks to Bob for the heads up.
“Swan Song” was actually written for Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the titular “Swan.” If I’m not mistaken, at the time this song was written, Kiedis and Forrest were roommates in Hollywood and Bob saw what heroin was doing to his friend. Sadly, about a year after this song was released, original Chili Peppers guitarist, Hillel Slovak, would die of a speedball overdose.
Soul Asylum – Easy Street (1990)
Soul Asylum – Barstool Blues (1989)
Two of my favorite Soul Asylum songs from their 1986-90 peak. Easy Street is from my favorite SA album, And The Horse They Rode In On and was made into the above video, a decidedly less popular offering than their later milk carton vid (“Runaway Train”). Their cover of Neil’s Zuma classic, “Barstool Blues,” is one of the highlights from a mostly disappointing compilation, The Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young.
True story: The first time I saw Soul Asylum was in November 1990 at the Country Club in Reseda, CA, with Thelonious Monster opening. Despite the fact that I drove 9 hours to see the show, mostly for Thelonious, SA completely blew me away. There was no stage-y nonsense, the band didn’t have any sort of “look” (other than jeans and T-shirts, that is), and while they never sounded like Neil Young verbatim, you could certainly hear that he was one of the elements to the Soul Asylum brew. And like Neil, their shows made up for the lack of stagecraft with two hours of stripped down, balls-to-the-wall rock, passion, and solid songwriting.
At the time, the band was touring behind Horse, a great album that went absolutely nowhere and brought the band to the edge of extinction. In fact, in 1991-92 Soul Asylum was effectively defunct and Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy were peddling songs as a duo. In ’92, Columbia signed Soul Asylum for pennies on the dollar and released their next album, Grave Dancer’s Union, with few expectations for success. And then a funny thing happened on the way to the cut-out bin. “Runaway Train” became a generational touchstone. Just like that, Soul Asylum’s collective bacon was saved in the music industry equivalent of a hail mary pass.
Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver – Head First + Jersey (2009)
Uncle Joe’s is one of the great what-might-have-beens. Formed in San Diego in the early ’90s, the band relocated to Seattle in 1994, where I was living at the time. UJBOD was probably the first band I heard that sounded like they were directly influenced by Soul Asylum. For what it’s worth, critics generally mentioned The Replacements when discussing the band, and not totally without cause, but also because name-dropping The Mats has always been cooler. Nevertheless, the two guitars on fire and heads wired on ’70s rock was straight outta the Pirner/Murphy playbook.
Sadly, the UJBOD story ended before it really had a chance to begin. The group disbanded in 1995, shortly after the release of their second album, Chick Rock, because one of the members couldn’t shake a drug habit. All these years later and it still bums me out. Like Soul Asylum, this was a band that no one could follow on stage, and I say that as someone who saw about 20 different bands try and fail. While their songwriting hadn’t yet reached the Pirner/Murphy maturation point, I do believe it could’ve come close. Too bad we never found out.
Slobberbone – Gimme Back My Dog (2013)
Slobberbone – Big Time (2009)
OK, so Slobberbone wasn’t the best name for a band. Noted. But from 1997-2003, few bands brought more quality rock ‘n’ roll to the table while putting as many miles on the company van. Led by singer/songwriter/guitarist, Brent Best, Slobberbone combined the musical acumen of Soul Asylum and Neil Young to deliver tales of loss, drinking, regret, alcohol, relationships gone bad, and liquor. It was like Best wrote first-rate country songs for your favorite bar band. But alas, after tens of thousands of miles and barely a dent in the public consciousness, a band can only take so much. The Bone called it quits in 2005, but not before leaving us with one of best albums of the 2000s, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today. (FYI, since I originally published this piece in June 2008, Slobberbone has since reformed for occasional shows and mini-tours, which is where these videos come from.)
“Gimme Back My Dog” is not only one of the best songs on Everything, but has the double distinction of being the only song on this list personally endorsed by Stephen King. Actually, endorsed is understating it. In a July 2003 column for Entertainment Weekly, King actually called it one of the three greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time. What’s scary is that the master of horror might be right. For added pleasure, I’ve added Slobberbone’s cover of “Big Time,” one of 37 Neil Young songs covered during the band’s career.
Grand Champeen – The Sound That Made My Year (2002)
I featured Grand Champeen in the previous edition of Six Degrees, so I was a little reluctant to repeat myself. However, if Neil Young, Soul Asylum, and Slobberbone are in the discussion, omitting Champeen isn’t an option. Where Slobberbone drew inspiration from Neil Young and Soul Asylum, Champeen drew inspiration from Neil Young, Soul Asylum, and Slobberbone. In fact, the first time I saw (let alone heard) the Champeens, it was opening for Slobberbone here in Austin. Not only was I fan after only 2-3 songs, it sounded like the band was frankensteined from my record collection. Seriously, not only were the 3 aforementioned bands represented, but as I mentioned last time, I also heard Superchunk, The Replacements, and Austin’s own Prescott Curlywolf.
If Neil Young has taught us anything, it’s that bands shouldn’t fear the ditch. Sure, they probably won’t become millionaires, but there’s a good chance they’ll produce music that’s honest, stripped-down, and limited in irony, values that should always be influential. To that end, I’d like to think that somewhere out there is a young kid hearing Tonight’s The Night for the first time and about to start our new favorite band. I know, I know, I’m a dreamin’ man.