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Nils Lofgren Reveals “The Music And The Madness” Behind Neil Young’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’ Tour

Nils Lofgren Reveals “The Music And The Madness” Behind Neil Young’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’ Tour

Neil Young’s ‘Somewhere Under The Rainbow’ live album immortalises the ‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour. Guitarist Nils Lofgren explains why.


Nils Lofgren was just 18 when he booked his first Neil Young sessions, playing piano and guitar on the Canadian icon’s career-making After The Gold Rush album. Three years later, the multi-instrumentalist prodigy had led his own band, Grin, to success and been enlisted into Young’s on-off backing band Crazy Horse, playing alongside guitarist Danny Whitten on the group’s sole, self-titled album. But when Whitten died of a drug overdose in November 1972, followed just six months later by Bruce Berry, a beloved roadie for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Lofgren, Young and the entire Crazy Horse stable were plunged into a deep grief that flooded Young’s Tonight’s The Night album and which remained all too palpable throughout the tour that followed. One notorious performance, recorded on 5 November 1973, at London’s Rainbow Theatre, and released, half a decade later, as the live album Somewhere Under The Rainbow, the sixth entry in Neil Young’s Official Bootleg Series, reveals a group of colleagues and friends seeking a collective catharsis on stage while also reaching creative heights that remain unparalleled in Neil Young’s storied career.

“That was such a powerful, visceral chapter for me,” Lofgren tells Dig! of the Tonight’s The Night era. “I think the music and the madness of that tour healed us and was a ray of light to deal with the rage and the grief and the loss we all of a sudden found ourselves in.”

Listen to ‘Somewhere Under The Rainbow’ here.

The personal losses Young and Crazy Horse suffered were the latest in a spate of deaths that seemed to mark the end of 60s idealism, as fatal overdoses began claiming the lives of some of the era’s most visionary talents. “It was a very difficult time, when the hippie-dippie 60s, free-love-and-music 24-seven, turned dark,” Lofgren reflects. “Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, Brian Jones, [Jimi] Hendrix, Janis Joplin – all of a sudden our friends and heroes started dying. And I found myself making what I call a ‘wake’ album, where we just kind of commiserated and helped each other to deal with this sudden darkness that I really didn’t have many tools to cope with.”

‘Tonight’s The Night’ sessions: “We tried to share the drama and the magic”

Entering the studio in the late summer of 1973, Neil Young addressed that harrowing time in the Tonight’s The Night album: a collection of existential songs that found Young seeking to escape the gloom (Mellow My Mind) while struggling to understand his place within it (Borrowed Tune, Albuquerque, World On A String) and attempting commune with his departed friends (Tonight’s The Night). But while the album release was delayed until June 1975, the tequila-fuelled recording sessions that spawned the record spilled onto the stage, as Young took his newly christened band, The Santa Monica Flyers – the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums), plus Nils Lofgren and steel guitarist Ben Keith – out on tour, playing his stark new songs to baffled audiences who wouldn’t hear the material again for almost another two years.

“It wouldn’t have been the same if everything was like, ‘Here’s a nice little produced studio record,’” Lofgren says, explaining how the rawness of the Tonight’s The Night sessions aided the grieving process and set a standard for the live shows that followed. “Neil didn’t want to produce it. He said, ‘I’m gonna show you songs. I don’t want you to learn them too well. We’re gonna record them live. When I sing ’em right, you’re done. No one can change a note… And we took that sensibility on tour, and tried to share the drama and the magic of that music. Whether they got it or not, we wanted to share it.”

‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour: “It got to be a little adversarial… They wanted the hits”

Following some warm-up shows at Topanga Corral, a small venue in Topanga Canyon, in West Los Angeles, said to have inspired the song Roadhouse Blues, from The Doors’ Morrison Hotel album, Young took Tonight’s The Night – still sitting in the can – on a mini-tour, staging a short residency at The Roxy, in West Hollywood, where he performed six sets across three nights before playing a handful of gigs in Canada and then heading over to the UK.

“It was such a reckless, emotional thing. I was so freaked out about all the death around me,” Lofgren says of the tour, which also saw Young, forced to face up to the grim realities of his friends’ lifestyle choices, begin to interrogate the music industry they were all a part of. At a time when David Bowie was reimagining rock concerts as theatrical experiences, Young drew attention to the artifice of performance in his own way, via garish stage props and sardonic commentary. “We hammered 16-inch glitter boots all around the belly of the piano,” Lofgren recalls. “We had a palm tree with a roadie, BJ, who’d shine a light bulb on it. And Neil would just rap to the audience, say, ‘Welcome to Miami Beach. Everything is cheaper than it looks.’ Just kind of poking fun at the façade of the world and the music business – and all businesses.”

But while each performance provided Young and his cohorts with the opportunity to heal, his fans, unprepared for such an unvarnished outpouring of emotion, weren’t always ready to embrace their hero in his time of need.

“It got to be a little adversarial at times,” Lofgren says. “Neil’s a revered poet, like Bob Dylan, and they wanted the hits. They wanted Helpless, Down By The River, Heart Of Gold, all that stuff. And we were playing this concept album no one had ever heard of, that was very dark and visceral. And a lot of times the audiences were a little ornery… People were clapping, but they’re like, What the hell is this?”

It didn’t help that Young enjoyed antagonising the crowd, eventually promising “something you’ve all heard before” and then playing Tonight’s The Night’s title track for a second time each evening – now as a lengthy jam taken at a funereal pace, the band an almost ghostly presence behind Young as he recounted some of the late Bruce Berry’s tour escapades, including the night he lost David Crosby’s guitar. Audiences “were furious and beside themselves”, Lofgren recalls. “And we were laughing.”

‘Somewhere Under The Rainbow’: “That was one of the most powerful nights in my life”

By the time Young and The Santa Monica Flyers landed in the UK, however, word had spread, and some fans were willing to welcome material they had no reference point for. “The thing I noticed about Somewhere Under The Rainbow – people seem very responsive throughout,” Lofgren says of listening to the band’s 5 November 1973 show for the first time since leaving the stage that night. “I was quite surprised that they were getting it.” Perhaps encouraged by the audience’s reaction, Young pulled out a few fan favourites during the second half of the set. “I can only guess that maybe, since the audience was into it, and just the mood and reception of the presentation of Tonight’s The Night and all this madness, that they got a taste of a lot of great other songs,” Lofgren adds.

Not that Young was content to play the “hits” as everyone expected them. “Who would have thought there’d be an 11-minute version of Cowgirl In The Sand without Neil on guitar?” Lofgren says of the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere song that brought the Somewhere Under The Rainbow night to an end, and which remains, to many, one of the best Neil Young songs of all time. “I really don’t remember why Neil went in that direction, but I’m glad he did. It’s very powerful.”

The much-adored Helpless was also reconfigured on stage, Young effectively deconstructing his highlight from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu album over a trance-like nine minutes, accompanied part-way through by haunting accordion from Lofgren, aiding Young as he tuned into the beyond in order to broadcast his emotional state of mind as unguardedly as he ever would. “Everything was so stream-of-consciousness,” Lofgren says. “There wasn’t any discussion of who played what. Just play what you feel. Just be you and be present, as friends trying to commiserate.”

“Neil took the grief we were suffering and channelled it”

Half a century later, the London show that makes up Somewhere Under The Rainbow remains firmly lodged in the memories of those who were there – not just Lofgren and the rest of the band, but audience members who have, over time, come to understand what they experienced.

“I come to England and play solo or acoustic duo shows all the time,” Lofgren says. “And after my shows I’ll go and sign [records], and someone comes up and says, ‘Hey, I want to apologise. I was at the Tonight’s The Night show and I was one of the people yelling for hits. And I apologise to you because that was one of the most powerful nights, musically, in my life. And I didn’t even get it ’til I left.’ And that happens regularly.

“It was just a magical time,” Lofgren concludes of the period that culminated in the Somewhere Under The Rainbow performance. “Neil took the grief we were suffering, and the rage at the loss, and channelled it into that chapter of recording and touring with Tonight’s The Night.”

Find out where Neil Young ranks among the most influential musicians of all time.

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