This song is about heroin use and what it will do to you in the end. Young wrote it about Danny Whitten, one of the original members of his band Crazy Horse. In 1971, Young went on tour and hired Crazy Horse and Nils Lofgren as backup. During rehearsals, Whitten was so high on heroin that he couldn't even hold up his guitar. Young fired him, gave Whitten 50 bucks (for rehab) and a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. Upon reaching LA, Whitten overdosed on alcohol and Valium, which killed him.
Whitten was one of the founding members of Crazy Horse and was very influential on much of Young's work preceding his heroin addiction. His influence is particularly noticeable on Young's second album, 1969's Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Leading up to Whitten's dismissal from the band and overdose, Young even attempted daily one-on-one lessons to try and rehabilitate his old friend.
As quoted in Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History
, Neil Young says of the tragic death of Whitten: "I felt responsible. But really there was nothing I could do. I mean, he was responsible. But I thought I was for a long time. Danny just wasn't happy. It just all came down on him. He was engulfed by this drug. That was too bad. Because Danny had a lot to give. boy. He was really good."
Incredibly, this wouldn't be Young's only loss from heroin to be commemorated in song. Longtime friend and roadie Bruce Berry would also overdose on heroin just months after Whitten. Berry's song is "Tonight's The Night
," on the album of the same name.
The song's first line mentions a "cellar door." Young and Crazy Horse, with Whitten, had played Washington DC's Cellar Door club in 1969.
Young's famous version was recorded live at the University Of California in January 1971, a year before it appeared on his Harvest album.
A solo, acoustic performance of this song by Young from Massey Hall in Toronto on January 19, 1971 features on his 2007 Live at Massey Hall 1971 album. He introduces it with a short explanation: "Ever since I left Canada, about five years ago or so and moved down south... found out a lot of things that I didn't know when I left. Some of 'em are good, and some of 'em are bad. Got to see a lot of great musicians before they happened, before they became famous - y'know, when they were just gigging. Five and six sets a night, things like that. And I got to see a lot of great musicians who nobody ever got to see, for one reason or another. But, strangely enough, the real good ones that you never got to see was... 'cause of, ahhm, heroin. An' that started happening over an' over. Then it happened to someone that everyone knew about. So I just wrote a little song."
This was one of the songs that Young performed at Live Aid in 1985.
Young made this succinct statement about the song in the liner notes to his album Decade: "I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men."
Flea, famed bassist of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, played the song frequently on a 1993 tour following the singer John Frusciante's temporary departure due to heroin addiction.
The song has struck a long-lived chord with broad range of musicians. Over the years, it's also been covered by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Dave Matthews, and Jewel.
At Young's 1995 Bridge School benefit concert, the Pretenders sang this in honor of Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon, who died a week earlier from a drug overdose. Blind Melon was scheduled to play the event but canceled after Hoon's death.