Los Angeles, I’m yours
Last week, Jimmy Olson, drummer for Saint Small, texted me a photo of the album he just picked up over at Barely Brothers (another reason to live in Saint Paul), Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats, famously recorded with his pal John Lennon while the latter was spending too much time at (and under) the bars of Los Angeles, circa 1973-4. At the exact same time, a few Saint Small blocks away, I was listening to the new live release from Neil Young, recorded at the Roxy in LA in the September 1973.
Pussy Cats—Starring Harry Nilsson Produced by John Lennon, as is noted on the front cover—is a shambolic misstep during which Nilsson ruptured his vocal cords (and kept it from Lennon, nearly destroying his beautiful voice). It’s also one of the most fascinating records of Nilsson’s utterly fascinating career. Lennon and rock star buddies like drummers Keith Moon and Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr (at one point all three on the same track!), Jesse Ed Davis, Klaus Voorman, and Bobby Keys were among those who chipped in for a “Toot and a Snore in ’74” (as one bootleg session that also included Macca and Stevie Wonder was later titled). Meanwhile, Nilsson and Lennon tackled oldies like “Rock Around the Clock” or the more recent “Many Rivers to Cross” and even Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with Nilsson’s voice becoming unhinged from too many nights with too many “milkshakes” (Lennon’s name for Brandy Alexanders). In short, it could only have been made at this exact place and time in rock history, LA circa early ’74.
The sixties were over, hung over, but the energy and infusion of punk and disco and hiphop had not yet arrived, so the ruling rock class were indulged like never before or since. And while the results are mixed, the many flaws of this album are precisely what make it so fascinating. It was the era of Watergate, losing the war in Vietnam, the gas embargo, inflation, and prog rock.
Meanwhile, across town, at nearly the same time (summer of ’73), Neil Young is numbing himself with a lot of tequila. He wants to disappear from his world, because although he loved the fame (and money) and adulation brought about by being part of the biggest post-’60s hippie rockers / first corporate rock band CSNY, and having the biggest success of his solo career with Harvest and “Heart of Gold,” he was quickly learning that, as Lennon once sang, money can’t buy you love, nor can it save a life overtaken by drugs.
With the 1972/3 deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, the composer of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and subject of “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry, Neil was looking at the dark side of the rock and roll lifestyle, and he didn’t like what he saw. Coming off the success of Harvest, it took a bold artist to make an album as raw and intense as Tonight’s the Night, with its songs about scoring drugs, losing inspiration and perspective, and being bummed out in LA, despite the fame.
The stories behind the sessions are pretty legendary, with Young assembling a great band that included Nils Lofgren, Ben Keith, and Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, then playing the same 9 songs over and over at SIR Rehearsal studios in LA, where producer David Briggs ran a 16-track tape machine night after night, culling the album from raw performances and no overdubs. The vocals careen from whisper to anger, and the effect is as far from “Heart of Gold” as imaginable. The music was weird and unsettling, and after a 3-night run of shows at the Roxy Theatre, the project was shelved while Neil released On the Beach before doubling back for Tonight’s the Night.
Last week Neil released the live shows from 1973 at the Roxy. It’s an even more unsettling experience live, with the audience hearing unreleased songs while a dark, leering Young leads the band with power and cynicism. David Geffen is in the audience and Neil acknowledges him from the stage. He’s down in the abyss, with Tonight’s the Night eventually becoming the crown jewel of what’s termed the Ditch Trilogy (named because he once said he found life after Harvest boring “in the middle of the road” so he promptly headed his music toward the ditch). But it’s no easy listen, and no smiley face ’70s have a nice day.
The reason I thought to write about this now was my sudden realization that these records were created in LA within weeks of each other – something I’d never considered, mostly because Tonight wouldn’t come out until late 1975, despite being recorded in the fall of ’73. Lennon, Nilsson, and Young were all at low points in their careers in some ways, crashing down after the highs of the ’60s, drunk in LA, and searching for meaning in the one city where funhouse mirrors distort what’s real more than probably any place on earth. What each would find wasn’t pretty, but it made for captivating art.
And from there I thought (as I sometimes do) about Father John Misty, and how Josh Tillman discovered his voice when he abandoned being Josh, moved to LA, and embraced a surreality as FJM that included overt references to this period in Neil Young’s career (“I rode to Malibu on a dune buggy with Neil / He said “you’re gonna have to drown me down on the beach If you ever want to write the real” / And I said “I’m sorry, Young man what was your name again?”). I don’t know what any of it means, but it’s all the fascinating cosmic connections we draw for each other around place, history, art, and music.
I’m glad I’m not living in LA in 1974. Yet I also kinda wish I coulda.