Title: The Needle and the Damage Done
Artist: Neil Young
To me, the Y in CSN&Y always seemed like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Although Neil Young's association with the vocal group made sense on a philosophical level, especially when it came to writing timely protest songs ("Ohio" comes to mind), musically they seemed miles apart. Young always struck me as more original, more daring, more experimental (anyone remember the immensely interesting flop called Trans?) and I think the proof is in his solo work. While Crosby, Stills and Nash continued to attach their beautiful harmonies to songs of little emotional depth (see "Southern Cross"), Young moved toward more personal topics, both biographical and autobiographical.
"The Needle and the Damage Done" is heavy before the needle even touches the record. The title alone gives us some clues about the subject (heroin addiction) while Young's lyrics offer three parts lamentation, one part cautionary tale. Not that Young was one to clean up recordings or fix out-of-tune vocal tracks, but the choice to use a live recording for the record adds an air of vulnerability to the track that I find compelling.
Finally, as many times as I've heard the song, I'm still impressed by the creatively constructed chord progression. I've never heard another song that combines this common semi-chromatic descent (D-C-B-Bb) with the equally common blues shuffle riff (A-C#-E-F#-G-F#-E-C#). To make matters even more interesting, it's downright difficult to tell what key the song is in. Most pop songs have either a traditional V-I cadence to restart the progression (or a IV-I), but this progression ultimately settles on a II (E Major) before returning to I. (The entire verse progression for those who care about such things: D9 D9/C D9/B Bbmaj7(#11) C F Esus4 E) The overall effect is one of a never-ending loop (which Young chooses to end unresolved on the Bb chord), perhaps an unconscious representation of the never-ending spiral that haunts so many addicts.