It began with a Lincoln Continental and a bottle of Mateus Rose. It ended in a drug-addled implosion that signified LA noire’s final trippy comedown, writhing on its belly like a hallucinogenic serpent, baying for blood.
What transpired in between these two fabled bookends is the story of Neil Young’s seasick salute to the demise of the sixties, in all its glory/glorious failings.
On The Beach would be released to an apprehensive and critical audience, led by a Rolling Stone headshake that labelled the record ‘one of the most despairing albums of the decade.’ Thirty years later its demented deterioration of sound would come to define Young’s knife-edged spirit in the face of critical acclaim, spurring over 5000 fans to sign an online petition in 2000 calling for the release of the album on CD. In 2003, their prayers were answered…
Released before the demonic cackle of Tonight’s The Night, On The Beach was deemed a bleak follow up to the critically acclaimed smooth sounds of bestseller Harvest. In all respects, this was Neil Young’s statement of intent. An unforgiving one-fingered salute, brought to life by opening track ‘Walk On’: a vitriolic mix of world weary cynicism and focused drive that would spur Young to keep moving, whatever the cost. ‘I hear some people been talkin’ me down/Bring up my name/Pass it round’ he gnarls. ‘Walk on’ he concludes. It’s an anthem that still continues to define the lone wolf’s career…
On The Beach came to being at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, suffocating beneath Hollywood’s bleak underbelly at the close of 1973. Porn star Linda Lovelace was a regular visitor to Young’s congregated players, as were the Everly Brothers, who would often prop themselves up amidst a sprinkling of Playboy bunnies. As bassist Tim Drummond succinctly put it, the hell-raising sessions embodied ‘Hollywood Babylon at its fullest.’
In 1973 the sleazefest was fully in session, fuelled by a ‘honey slide’ homemade concoction of sautéed marijuana and honey labelled by Young’s own manager Elliot Roberts as, ‘much worse than heroin…within ten minutes you were catatonic.’
As guitarist Rusty Kershaw’s wife Julie cooked up the debilitating psychedelic goop, wolfed down by Young and co in-between regular trips to Dr. Feelgood for B12 “popcorn” shots, Neil Young turned his attentions to flesh-eating feelings of antagony and disintegration. No stone was left unturned: what with his marriage to actress Carrie Snodgress on the rocks, vampire sucking oil tacoons/Richard Nixon/CSNY weighing on his mind and baying critics on his back, the singer was hardly starved of inspiration.
The heavy guitar playing of The Band’s rhythm section (namely Rick Danko and Levon Helm) only added to the album’s sodden and weary disillusionment.
Defined by his own distinctive take on the blues: ‘Revolution Blues’, ‘Vampire Blues’ and ‘Ambulance Blues’ act as soulful psalms amidst the chaos.
Whereas ‘Vampire Blues’ launches a millionaire rock star’s attack on the blood sucking exploits of the oil industry (listen carefully and you may just hear the “chhh-chhh” of a capitalist credit card against Tim Drummond’s defiant beard), the concluding knell of closing ‘Ambulance Blues’, inspired by Bert Jansch’s ‘Needle Of Death’, addresses fractioned feelings of antagonism towards critics, Richard Nixon, and even fellow collaborators CSNY (lamenting lyric ‘you’re all just pissing in the wind’ is a direct quote from manager Elliot Roberts regarding the inactivity of the quartet.)
Crucially, ‘Revolution Blues’, inspired by Charles Manson who Young met in his Topanga Canyon days, best sums up the record’s juxtaposition of fiction and reality, as musician-and-ringmaster Rusty Kershaw bewitched the track’s recording, instigating chemically in-balanced anarchy during recording, (Kershaw bizarrely claimed to be possessed by animal spirits and slithered like a snake on the floor, even managing to spook chief hell raiser David Crosby and Graham Nash who contributed on tracks ‘On The Beach’ and said ‘Revolution Blues’.)
The circus-act wasn’t lost on Neil Young, who adopts a demented Manson persona during the song as he manically rants the couplet ‘I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars.’
As the sessions became increasingly frenetic, the shambolic goings-on proved too far-out for engineer Al Schmidt who walked out on the session before its completion, amidst exasperated exclaims of “what the fuck is goin’ on?”
Good question: what the fuck was going on? Simple: Neil Young was making his escape. The iconic album cover speaks the only truth you ever need know: trailer trash patio furniture is strewn under the grey breezy sky as a 1959 cadillac fender rises out of the sandy rubble. The day’s paper is discarded on the anaemic sand, reading ‘SENATOR BUCKLEY CALLS FOR NIXON TO RESIGN’. Someway in the not-too-distant horizon, a windswept Neil Young stands with his back against the world, staring out to sea in a yellow and white polyester suit. Subversive when you bear in mind the album’s defining mantra: ‘The world is turnin’/I hope it don’t turn away.’ With that, Young’s pre-emptive strike against the world is complete…Half a heartbeat before the world dares contemplate turning its back away from him…