“It’s easy to get buried in the past / When you try to make a good thing last," Neil Young sings on “Ambulance Blues,” an anthem about the anxiety-inducing trappings of fame, and the closer to his 1974 album On the Beach. Looking at the tragedies of his recent past and reckoning with a future that seemed robbed of hopefulness, his takeaway was this: nothing gold can stay.
That may be true, but regardless, Young went on to have one of the longest-running, most critically acclaimed careers in rock music. And On the Beach, which turns 45 this week, managed to transcend that pessimism, and lives on as a not-so-cult favorite among critics and fans alike.
Opening with the upbeat “Walk On,” On the Beach doesn’t necessarily indicate right off the bat that it's a record of lonesomeness and disillusionment. But that is its greatest legacy; it's a requiem for the crocheted optimism of the 60s that eventually evaporated due to national traumas like the Charles Manson murders and the Vietnam War. “Some get stoned, some get strange / But sooner or later, it all gets real,” he warbles jauntily. And get real it does.
Young’s world-weariness on the album might feel premature when you consider that he was just 28 when it was released, but it was actually his fifth studio album, and he wasn't afraid to get heavy from the start. It was the second release in what’s known as the “Ditch Trilogy,” a sequence of records that were considered flops in the wake of the massive success of 1972’s Harvest, the best-selling album in the US that year. After the death of his friend and collaborator Danny Whitten by overdose at the end of 1972, Young fell into a depression, telling Rolling Stone, “I felt responsible.” The result was his “least favorite record,” Time Fades Away, and soon after, On the Beach followed. (The third part of the Ditch Trilogy was Tonight’s the Night, released in 1975 just prior to Zuma, another masterpiece. Prolific guy, Neil Young.)
Living in California at the time of its creation, Canadian-born Young might've had plenty of reasons to go to the beach—but judging by the content of this album, it feels safe to say that he wasn’t playing volleyball and drinking Mai Tais. Instead, we feel his meditation on the unsatisfactory nature of success, a heaviness crashing through his at times mellow and lackadaisical music in waves. If Mac DeMarco’s music is the soundtrack of blissfully tuned-out nihilism in 2019, On the Beach perhaps served a similar purpose for the jaded late-20s West Coast crowd of its time.
With not one, or two, but three tracks with the word “blues” in their titles, Young seemed set out to make an album that was reflective and personal, uninterested in mass appeal, and tinged with a sadness that’s unshakeable. Young himself called it “one of the most depressing records I’ve ever made.” Its cover depicts a buried car and an empty pair of chairs under a colorful, mod umbrella; in the distance, Young is turned away from us, shoeless and gazing into the vast sea.
“Though my problems are meaningless,” he sings on the album's title track, “That don’t make them go away.”
It’s a short album, just eight songs, but perhaps that’s because these moments of heavy contemplation are best experienced in tempered doses, even if they're comforting to depressive types. Music about self-loathing can be relatable and effective, but there are instances when he seems close to crossing over into misanthropy; Young felt too weighted, and probably too smart, to enjoy the limousine lifestyle presented to him by fame. “Well I heard that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars / But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars,” he sings on “Revolution Blues,” a track inspired by Charles Manson, whom Young knew and had even worked with on music, once calling his talent "so good it scared you." The song can read as a channeling of Manson's madness, or more darkly, as Young stepping into the killer's skin and finding a way to relate that madness to his own aversion to fame.
Still, On the Beach’s beauty is undeniable. “Motion Pictures (for Carrie)” is a gorgeous breakup song, a simple, bluesy folk tune about the dissolution of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, capturing the defeatism of seeing on the horizon the end of a powerful but difficult love. The title track, "On the Beach," is pure poetry wrapped in an unhurried, oceanic sprawl. And “Ambulance Blues” is one of the most stunning (that harmonica!) embodiments of Youngian wisdom and bottomless emotional depth of his whole discography.
As engaged as it is with the state of the world, the music itself sounds escapist, which can be explained, in part, by the circumstances of its creation. Young and his posse were high out of their domes on “Honey Slides,” a mixture of honey and shitty Mexican swag weed that was somehow characterized as being heavier than heroin in terms of its effects. "People passed out,” said Elliot Roberts, his late manager, in the Neil Young biography Shakey. “This stuff was, like, way worse than heroin. Much heavier. Rusty [Kershaw] would pour it down your throat and within ten minutes you were catatonic." It’s probably no coincidence that Honey Slides were frequently consumed during the recording process, given the long, slow pacing and repetition that makes these songs strangely relaxing.
While it was a commercial failure compared to Harvest and After the Gold Rush, critics seemed compelled by On the Beach’s melancholic looseness from the get go. The New York Times noted that while he was “lost in a brooding, private world” at the time, it was a “great album.” Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden wrote in his review of the record, “Young has dared what no other major white rock artist (except John Lennon) has—to embrace, expose and perhaps help purge the collective paranoia and guilt of an insane society, acting it out without apology or explanation."
In 2019, nearly half a century later, the notion of a society gone insane feels realer than ever, and the desire to tune out or bury ourselves in distraction has never been stronger—or at least, that’s what Instagram influencers and Netflix culture and the endless cavalcade of baffling new Taco Bell menu items would suggest. In the decades to come following On the Beach's release, there would be more murders, more cults, more war, 9/11, powerful rapists, racist presidents. We would become desensitized to watching dozens of innocent people being gunned down in schools, places of worship, even music venues. But if there's anything we owe ourselves, it's the right to mourn our own innocence, or at least the innocence we once saw in the world. (Perhaps that's why Young recently played "On the Beach" live for the first time in 16 years.) There's a fourth-wall-breaking line in "Ambulance Blues" that goes, “It’s hard to say the meaning of this song." We can't blame ourselves for searching for meaning, even when that search often feels fruitless.
Maybe now, disenfranchised young people on the precipice of taking over the responsibilities of society cope with the rampant senselessness of the modern era by sharing memes, or angrily tweeting, or taking lab-engineered derivatives of ecstasy. Personally, I'd rather do it by listening to Neil Young.
“There ain’t nothin’ like a friend / Who can tell you you’re just pissin’ in the wind,” Young sings. And on On the Beach, he is cynical about the world, but happy to be that friend.
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