Some songwriters are gifted enough to let the words and notes flow through and wave goodbye to them as they hit the ether and no longer reside in their soul. This, usually, allows the singer to become, at least in some regard, detached from the content. Thus, songs that may have come from a dark moment in their lives can live out in the atmosphere, away from the tender spot from which they came. Neil Young is one such songwriter, but there’s still one track that chokes him up.
‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ is one of Young’s most cherished pieces. A song not only written about the danger of heavy drug use but a song written in reflection of the drug’s debilitating effect on his trusted Crazy Horse bandmate, Danny Whitten. The track is wrapped up in the pain and misery caused by Whitten’s faltering lifestyle and how Young felt responsible.
Taken from 1972’s monumental album, Harvest, this is quite possibly the greatest anti-drug song you’ll ever hear. Considering it was written in the early seventies, the idea of such a track was a dicey affair. Inspired by Danny Whitten’s heroin addiction and those around him, Young allows his pain to become a message for the future.
Young has often claimed Whitten to have been his musical soulmate, but Whitten’s addiction got the better of him, and he succumbed to an overdose on the night Young fired him from his touring band. It’s one of rock and roll’s saddest stories. Young was on tour and had hired Crazy Horse, and Nils Lofgren as a backup, and, as the group’s rehearsed, Young became angrier and angrier with Whitten’s behaviour.
Clearly reaching the point of no return, Whitten’s heroin addiction had swollen to an irrepressible place. In the rehearsals, Whitten was so high on junk that he could barely hold his guitar. At the time, Young was one of the most widely accredited songwriters of his generation, and his patience had worn thin. He fired Whitten on the spot, gave him $50 to go to rehab and put him on a plane to Los Angeles. The guitarists touched down and overdosed on alcohol and Valium, killing him and taking a piece of Neil Young with him.
Noted in Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History, Neil Young says of Whitten’s death: “I felt responsible. But really, there was nothing I could do. I mean, he was responsible. But I thought I was for a long time. Danny just wasn’t happy. It just all came down on him. He was engulfed by this drug. That was too bad. Because Danny had a lot to give. Boy. He was really good.”
Young has often included the track in his live sets and once said of the song: “Ever since I left Canada, about five years ago or so and moved down south… found out a lot of things that I didn’t know when I left. Some of ’em are good, and some of ’em are bad. Got to see a lot of great musicians before they happened, before they became famous — y’know, when they were just gigging. Five and six sets a night, things like that. And I got to see a lot of great musicians who nobody ever got to see, for one reason or another. But, strangely enough, the real good ones that you never got to see was… ’cause of, ahhm, heroin. An’ that started happening over an’ over. Then it happened to someone that everyone knew about. So I just wrote a little song.”
Listen to that song and heed its message.