On The Beach (1974)
List my ten ‘desert island discs,’ you ask? On The Beach, and nine backup copies of On The Beach. Neil’s magnum opus was not masterminded by Neil or even David Briggs but by pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, who assembled a once-in-a-lifetime backing band including, among others, Rick Danko and Levon Helm of The Band, bassist Tim Drummond, Crosby and Nash, and, most crucially, Cajun legend Rusty Kershaw. On The Beach is what people mean when they use the expression ‘lightning in a bottle’; Neil would never make another record like it. The album is made up of rough, and not master, mixes, simply because Neil got familiar with the preliminary versions and grew to love them. Engineer Al Schmidt was livid, begging Neil to let him remix the hastily assembled album at his own expense, but Neil was having none of it: it was perfect the way it was. Though he only actually plays on two tracks, Kershaw’s influence on the album cannot be overstated: A brother-from-another-mother type who exerted a great influence over Neil, encouraging his preference for capturing sublime moments over technically perfect takes, Kershaw also introduced the band to a homemade concoction called ‘honeyslides,’ a marijuana-and-honey cocktail that results in near-total catatonia. Whether you consider the second side of On The Beach an enticing advertisement for or a cautionary warning against honeyslides, the specter of this homegrown treat is undeniable. Neil, ever the method actor, was also smoking two packs of cigarettes a day to get his voice sounding appropriately ‘late night.’ Whatever Neil had to go through to create On The Beach, it was worth it, because this album has it all: Tremulous, maniacal jams about murder and ecoterrorism? Check. Heavy-lidded Appalachia? Got it. Comatose downer blues? Several of those. Excoriating social commentary? All over the place. Every moment contributes to make On The Beach an album that musically narrates the dimming of a day, or an epoch. Like Neil in the cover photo with his back to the camera, transfixed by the ocean amidst a shore full of detritus and ruins, it suggests not endings, but a Mobius strip of overlapping, unsteady beginnings; it’s the sound of Neil cautiously gazing away from the wreckage, at last, and into the great wide open.