'Neil Young FAQ' Diaries: On the Beach, Now and Then and the Kershaw Connection

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Although On The Beach is one of my very favorite Neil Young albums, I didn’t become fully aware of “Cajun Wildman” Rusty Kershaw’s unique connection to this masterpiece from Neil’s infamous “Ditch Trilogy,” until I was fairly deep into the process of researching material for the Neil Young FAQ book.

I did of course know the name, largely by virtue of Rusty’s recordings with his more famous brother, Cajun fiddle great Doug Kershaw. I also knew somewhat of Kershaw’s contributions to the On The Beach album, and of course I knew of his reputation. Especially all of those legendary tales of lore I had heard about the “honey slides” which powered the sessions for the On The Beach record.

For those who don’t know the entire back story, Kershaw’s introduction to Neil Young’s musical inner-circle came by way of Ben Keith — a fellow musical traveler on the Cajun country circuit, who had by this time become a fully integrated, and quite integral part of the Neil Young camp. As the story goes, Kershaw made himself quite at home during the making of On The Beach too, racking up exorbitant hotel bills on Neil Young’s dime, complete with the wine-stained and cigarette burned hotel room carpets that those paying the bills soon learned came as a natural by-product of Kershaw’s “Cajun Wildman” reputation.

But more importantly to this story, are Kershaw’s contributions to the overall feel of what is arguably the single most underrated album in the entire Neil Young catalog.

At the time, Kershaw was a larger than life, somewhat cantankerous figure, and a bit of loose cannon as well. By most accounts though, the impossibly laid back feel of On The Beach was powered in large part by the potent combination of high-grade pot and honey cooked up into little cakes called “honey slides” that Kershaw and his wife introduced into this mix of already veteran stoner musicians.

As anyone who has ever heard On The Beach — and particularly the haunting, intoxicating, and some would say depressing, tone of its epic second side — already knows, the songs amble along at a lazy, impossibly relaxed snail’s sort of pace.

To these same fans, this is of course what makes On The Beach one of Neil Young’s greatest, if largely overlooked and under-appreciated albums. Whether it was the intoxicating influence of Kershaw’s honey slides or not is probably still something that is open to conjecture. What is not however, is the way that Neil Young lays his soul completely bare on the three tracks comprising that amazing second side. Kershaw’s musical contributions here on guitar and fiddle are also absolutely key, particularly on what is arguably Neil Young’s single greatest song, “Ambulance Blues.”

The lazy, back porch vibe of this song stands in stark contrast to Neil’s lyrics about liars and critics who are “all just pissing in the wind.” But the way that Neil Young and Rusty Kershaw vibed off of each other during the sessions is also a matter a record.

Kershaw is said to have arrived, half-baked, at most of the sessions without having heard a note of the songs he was about to play on, and also to have insisted on sitting as close as possible to Neil for the sole purpose of being able to “vibe off of him.” The chemistry between them heard on the final recording is so preternatural sounding, it comes off as borderline ghost like. Which is a key factor in why On The Beach is the amazing, hauntingly beautiful record that it is.

Several years later, Neil Young and Ben Keith returned the favor, by playing on Kershaw’s own Now And Then, a sadly overlooked, and today largely forgotten album that recaptures much of the original laid back, ghostly vibe of On The Beach. Although the songs on the long since out-pf-print, and near impossible to find Now And Then are nowhere as near as depressing as those on On The Beach, many of them do manage to duplicate its impossibly laid back feel.

You won’t find anyone pissing in the wind, or showing up at a radio interview alone at the microphone here. But, if you can actually find a copy of this forgotten gem, on tracks like “Future Blues,” “New Orleans Rag” and “Boys In The Band” you might just discover the closest thing to what a slightly more upbeat sequel to On The Beach could have sounded like.

And you may also just catch yourself a whiff of those honey slides.

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‘Neil Young FAQ’ is available for purchase both through the publisher Backbeat, at internet booksellers like Amazon.com, and in local in retail stores. You can follow ‘Neil Young FAQ’ on Twitter and friend us on Facebook.