For the most part, when a musician/band sets out to record an album, there is much deliberation involved as to what songs are going to go onto the album. Do they write songs for the album or do they put together songs that they have been performing live and just have not yet recorded in a studio setting? I have been listening to Neil Young‘s masterpiece of an album Harvest quite a lot recently and the question of how songs came into place comes up for me — specifically when I hear the song The Needle and the Damage Done.

To start, the song seems completely incongruous with the rest of the album. Sure, no song on the album is screaming with joy, but this is the utter pit of despair compared to the rest of the songs — it has to be, considering that the song is about the destruction that is wrought by addiction to Heroin. The needle in the title refers to the needle that drug abusers use to inject themselves with heroin. The lyrics are painfully sharp.

I hit the city and
I lost my band
I watched the needle
take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done.

The lyrics are not many, but they get right to the point. This is not the kind of song like Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row where you have to wade through metaphors and wonder, what is he really trying to say here? No, it’s pretty clear. Drugs have killed people — more or less right in front of him.

I’ve seen the needle
and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s
like a settin’ sun.

Too sadly true — every junkie is like a setting sun — but there is no hope of another sunrise. For many months it bothered me that this song was the only track on the whole album to be recorded live rather than in the studio. Then it occurred to me why Young would employ this device, and it is genius.

The raw live setting is appropriate for such a minimalistic song — it is just Neil Young with his guitar, a microphone, and nothing else. There is no studio trickery here. Here is a fantastic recording of the song from when Neil Young was on the Johnny Cash Show.

Young gives a good yet brief introduction to the song by saying that “…a lot of great art goes down the drain…” Indeed, it does. If you have a look at some of the drug abusing artists who have perhaps ironically played covered of “The Needle and the Damage Done” it makes one wonder how much more great art could have been had the artists not plunged themselves down that drain.

6 Comments

  1. Outstanding article, Gordon. Neil Young is one of our greatest gifts.

    It’s funny how many people try to interpret that song as being about anything BUT heroin. Your clip makes is entirely and precisely clear just what Neil was writing about when he created the song.

    1. That’s right, David. I wonder what the misinterpreters make of the word ‘needle’ in the title of the song and in the lyrics of the song — are there other hard drugs that are done by needle? Or do they want to see it as a metaphor for something else entirely?