As avid readers of the blog will know by now, the wonderful Mr Neil Young released an album last week. That album, A Letter Home, features a series of covers of some of his favourite classic songs. It includes tracks by the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson to name but a few. The standout track, to my ears at least, is a stunning cover of a track by the late great Bert Jansch. That track, Needle Of Death appeared on Bert’s first ever release, his self titled debut album. It is a haunting tale of heroin usage, and ultimately the untimely death of a friend of Jansch’s.
Through ages, man’s desires
To free his mind, to release his very soul
Has proved to all who live
That death itself is freedom for evermore
And your troubled young life
Will make you turn
To a needle of death
If this is ringing any bells with the Neil Young fans in the room it is no surprise. Heroin usage is not new territory for Neil. Indeed, it is not new territory for musicians through the ages. From The Velvet Undergrounds, disturbingly even sided, seven minute reminiscence Heroin, with its frankly demonic sounding ending, to Elliot Smith’s stunning Needle In The Hay, as featured in The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack, musicians have probably sung more about heroin than any other drug (alcohol and cigarettes excepted). Indeed, some would probably argue they have glamourised its usage, though I would disagree. From The Libertines to Ryan Adams, Amy Winehouse to Blur, loads of bands have sung about it, but not many have made it sound in any way glamorous.
Far more telling are the number of songs people have written for lost friends as a result of it. One such example is the Neil Young’s Needle And The Damage Done. The song first appeared on Neil’s 1972 album Harvest. Believe it or not, back in 1972 Mr Young was mainstream enough to not only spawn a number one single, but release the biggest selling album of the year, something tells me his most recent effort will not repeat that achievement.
Intriguingly, the version that appears on the album is not a studio recording, rather a live recording from a show at UCLA. Why Young chose not to re-record it for the studio is a matter for debate. However, the pure perfection of the live recording might be a good answer. The song would go on to appear on a series of Young’s live albums as well as the compilation album Decade. In the sleeve notes for Decade, Neil made a simple statement regarding the song “I’m not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men” or perhaps as he puts it in the song, simply “I sing this song because I love the man”.
On the live release Live At Masset 1971, Neil went further into the subject. Talking of the great musicians, he had seen before they got famous, and the great ones who never got famous, and how, he had noted that heroin seemed to play a part in an awful lot of the ones who didn’t. He also, rather too modestly, describes the song as a little song he wrote.
The song sets off with a twanging acoustic guitar, and musically it doesn’t step far from that, a series of stunning riffs and chugging chords, and Neil’s inimitable vocal. I would argue it has never sounded better.
The opening verse, clicks in instantly, “I see you knocking at my cellar door, I love you baby can I have some more” innocent enough out of context, but when you know where it is going it is haunting.
“I hit the city, and I lost my band, I watched the needle take another man” it apparently relates to the descent into addiction of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. Whitten would sadly go onto die not from heroin addiction, but a lethal combination of valium, used to treat arthritis in his knee and alcohol, apparently drunk to help him get over the heroin usage. Neil latterly discussed Danny’s death, admitting for a very long time he blamed himself for it.
The third verse, is arguably the most powerful, as Young goes on to discuss the difficulties and reasons behind writing the song “I sing this song because I love this man, I know that some of you don’t understand” in my head this last line is devastating. Demonstrating that in the group of people Neil found himself amongst, not only was heroin usage commonplace, but so many people were wrapped up in their own problems they could not even look upon Young’s warning with any sense of understanding.
The song would go on to be covered by much young musicians such as Laura Marling (brilliantly), Pete Doherty (terribly) and Jake Bugg (not as terrible as you would think), proving his message still bears a relevance and is still an important message. Like Young himself the song transcends time periods and styles, it remains incredibly powerful and moving now, just like the Bert Jansch track that may well have played a part in its conception.
A Letter Home is out now on Third Man Records. Neil Young & Crazy Horse play London’s Hyde Park this summer with The National, Caitlin Rose, Midlake and many more