On May 16th, 1974, Ry Cooder and Leon Redbone wrapped up a gig at New York City’s Bottom Line, but the crowd was told to stick around for a surprise. It was 2:15 a.m., and a man with a guitar appeared onstage. “This one is called, um … this one’s called, um … ‘Citizen Kane Junior Blues!'” said Neil Young, strumming the intro to “Pushed It Over the End.”
It was the public’s first glimpse of his deeply new personal album On the Beach, released 45 years ago, on July 19th, 1974. The four On The Beach songs he played that night at the Bottom Line — the somber title track, the heart-wrenching “Ambulance Blues,” the Charles Manson–inspired “Revolution Blues,” and “Motion Pictures (For Carrie),” were unlike anything Young had ever written. “Pretty dark. Not really that happy,” he said of the album to Jimmy McDonough in the 2002 biography Shakey. “I think it was a period of disillusionment about things turning out differently than I had anticipated.”
Discounting the soundtrack Journey Through the Past, the live album Time Fades Away, and the yet-to-be-released Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach was a follow-up to Young’s commercial breakthrough Harvest, but the record stands in stark contrast to its relatively cheerful predecessor. “Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars,” Young sings on the blistering “Revolution Blues,” taking on the voice of a deranged killer. “But I hate them worse than lepers/And I’ll kill them in their cars.” (Even though the 1970s weren’t even half over, Rolling Stone critic Stephen Holden called On the Beach “one of the most despairing albums of the decade.”)
Holed up in Los Angeles’ Sunset Marquis Hotel, Young and his bandmates — guitarists Ben Keith and Rusty Kershaw, bassist Tim Drummond, and the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, along with the Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm — recorded On the Beach with the help of honey slides, an intense concoction of fried weed and honey. “You know what a honey slide is?” Young asked the crowd at the Bottom Line. He instructed the room to use “poor grade marijuana” and gave specific directions on how to cook it. “That cheap grass is great,” he cracked. “You know, in these times, you have to think about prices and things like that.”
The Bottom Line show would be the only time Young would perform “Motion Pictures (For Carrie),” a song he wrote about his disintegrating relationship to actress Carrie Snodgress, who had inspired “A Man Needs a Maid.” “I think I was starting to realize what a fucked-up life I had chosen for myself with Carrie,” Young told McDonough. “So I was outta there.” Though he’d perform “On the Beach” many times within the next year, he’s played it sparingly in the decades since, recently performing it for the first time in 16 years in Belgium.
The cover for On the Beach features Young overlooking a bleak Pacific Ocean, standing on the shore with his hands in his pockets. He’s surrounded by tacky floral beach furniture and a 1959 Cadillac nearly buried in the sand. A banner newspaper headline reads “SENATOR BUCKLEY CALLS FOR NIXON TO RESIGN,” reflecting the political chaos of the era. Photographed by Gary Burden, the artwork encapsulates the mood of the record — a piercing look into Young’s mind at the time. Young never toured On the Beach (though he played many of the songs with CSNY on their reunion tour that summer), making this Bottom Line bootleg the definitive live document of the period. You can here the whole thing right here.