“Bruce Berry was a working man / He used to load that Econoline van. / A sparkle was in his eye / But his life was in his hands.”
So begins Tonight’s the Night, the title track of Neil Young’s harrowing 1975 masterpiece. It is dedicated to a roadie who died of an overdose while traveling with Young and his band.
There had been earlier references in Young’s songs to the cost of life on the road, most famously in The Needle and the Damage Done, but he had never explored the relationship between creativity and self-destructiveness at such depth. The thing about Berry that counts most to Young is his edgy intensity: “Well, late at night / When the people were gone / He used to pick up my guitar / And sing a song in a shaky voice / That was real as the day was long.” But Young also shudders at Berry’s death, placing the song on the edge between celebration and lament.
In spite of this shudder, Young has revisited and validated fiery intensity many times across his long career, perhaps most famously in the track that both opens and closes 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, first in an intimately acoustic version, then as an electric anthem of the kind only Young can pull off.
My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) seems at first glance like a simple celebration of rock ‘n’ roll’s ability to survive: “My my, hey hey / Rock and roll is here to stay.” The tension is clear in the next two lines, though: “It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away …”
These lines have haunted the subsequent history of rock ‘n’ roll, particularly because of being quoted in Kurt Cobain’s famous suicide note – as if they could explain his decision to end his own life. Again, two verses further into the song, he sings: “It’s better to burn out / Than it is to rust …”
Less often remembered is another line from the same song: “And once you’re gone you can’t ever come back.” The message is clear: rock survives because it can reinvent itself, thus renewing the Protean, rebellious energy at its core. We, on the other hand, do not. Whether we are artists, listeners or both, life will be too much for us sooner or later.
Rock has always mythologised the brief, turbulent lives of its practitioners. These casualties serve as metaphors for intensity and suffering in the midst of an indifferent or hostile world. It is ironic in this context that Young, like Dylan, has survived and remained (though intermittently) a vital influence on the music of the generations that have succeeded him.
Of course such survival has its own risks – stagnation, nostalgia, the long twilight of mediocrity. But it also carries in it the potential of renewal against the odds, and Young’s career, with all its high and low points, stands as a testament to this. Long may he run.