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.
Ant from Morecambe EnglandJust read Neil Young's 'waging heavy peace'. Awesome piece of work. You wanna know about Young? Then read this! Brian from Boston is one silly boy!
Greg from Harrington Park, NjThe Line every jinkie's like a setting sun, to me, means that every night the sun sets, like the junkie's high will ware off sometime throughout the night... then the next morning they will get high, or "rise" again, just as the sun does. The sun rises and sets every day without fail. Until the junkie changes his ways, he will also rise, "get high" and set "come down"
Nick from Cleveland, OhThere are some very insightful comments here (it's almost as if some have primary experience with the subject of the lyrics.) "Every junky is a setting sun," like all of Young's best lyrics, has layers of meaning. The obvious interpretation is that addicts come and go every day. But every dope fiend apprehends another meaning: Like the setting sun, the junky has to get up in the morning and repeat his daily routine of copping.
Tom from Wilkes Barre, PaPerhaps Brian from Boston believes that the Needle and the Damage Done refers to phonograph records getting scratched....lol
Nate from New York, NyNo, Brian from Boston, this song is definitely about drugs.
David from Orlando, FlJust thinking about when I was a junkie. Neil Young said it best when he said "Every Junkies Like a Setting Sun" That is so true. I say that from experience. Junkies will come & go, just like the sun rising & setting. If you've never been there, than you can't understand. If you have been there, then you know. I was there for 3 very long years & it sucked. As 38 Special said, "A Prisoner by Drugs with no Life to be Free". Another quote that is
Oldpink from Farmland, InBrian from Boston, you badly need to get a clue. If you can't find the drug reference in this song, you can't find it in either the title or the stark lyrics, then I doubt you can find much of anything else in life.
Michael from Barrack Heights, AustraliaIt wasn't a Neil Young concert where the coke was up his nose. It was in the Band's farewell movie "The Last Waltz" when he sang "Helpless". Danny whitten didn't overdose on $50 of pure heroin. He died from an accidental overdose of Vodka and Valium. There was no trace of heroinin his system. coroners report. www.dannyraywhitten.com
Brian from Boston, MaThis song is not about drugs. Why do some people always have to find a drug meaning in every song
Matt from Kansas City, KsOzzy's song "Suicide Solution" is about the dangers of alcohol, and is said to be about Bon Scott drinking himself to death
Oldpink from New Castle, InBoy! talk about dreary! Nonetheless, this one was a rare thing for the time it came out, i.e. a song that discourages what was going too far and claiming not just lives, but also talent and motivation. Skynyrd are the only other band I can name off the top of my head who wrote similar songs, including "Poison Whiskey," "That Smell," and "The Needle and the Spoon."
Raul from Los Angeles, CaThe "Harvest" album version of this song was recorded in UCLA's Royce Hall.
Rick from Tuscola, United Statesa great album and a great song. every junkie is like the setting sun. they are not rising they are almost gone.
Peter from Nyc, NyI don't agree with those journalists, whoever they are. This song is entirely "Just Say No". The line "every junkie's like a setting sun" means that just like a setting sun, junkies don't last very long.
Malicious Matt from SquatneyThis song is obviously about what happens when you dont take care of your record collection. The rest of his songs are all about drugs though.
Laura from Detroit, Mi1994 -- In January, five prison guards at the Boise, Idaho, Maximum Security Institution were accused of taunting death row inmates by playing a 1971 Neil Young song "The Needle and the Damage Done" during a scheduled execution-by-injection.
Justin from Olympia, WaI don't think he should be criticized for the "setting sun" lyrics. It seems to me that, "Every junkies like a setting sun" means that people that are addicted to heroin can be good people that are self destructing. They can be beautiful people, but they are inevitably killing themselves. I think it's one of the great lines in pop music.
Fyodor from Denver, CoI've read that some journalists criticize this song for not being "Just say no" enough, especially for using attractive imagery ("setting sun") at the end. Heartless bastards!
Dan from New York, Nyneil young definetly wasnt drug-free back when harvest came out; barely any popular musician was. this song is touching and has a very important message.
Rob from Vancouver, CanadaIt wasn't until the 90's when Young was mostly drug free. I don't really count pot. No one in Vancouver does.
Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScI love this song. It's so sad though. He had obviously lost soemone who was important to him.
Jude from Thomasville, GaI don't think Neil was setting himself up as a moral example. I think he was grieving over the death of a good friend and trying to keep others from falling into that trap.
Emmett from Milwaukee, Withe conert that neil had a coke nugget in his nose was the last waltz, when he was playing helpless with the Band, Great song.
Murray from Shellharbour, Australiai read a biography or autobiography of neil young, and he was by no means "mostly drug-free". he is an awesome musician/songwriter tho, and harvest is one of the greatest albums of all time. this is one of my fav songs to play on the guitar.
Sam from Philadelphia, Paim with tedious toad where the hell did u get your info? neil young was addicted to coke and heroin for over 15 years
theres a story that right before a neil young concert that martin scorcese was filming, neil young couldnt go onstage becuase he had a huge nugget of cocaine in his nose. in the special features it shows scorcese trying to airblow the coke nugget out of youngs nose
Tedious Toad from Auckland, New ZealandNeil stayed mostly drug free? BALONY!
Robert from Chicago, IlThis song isn't the only one about Danny Whitten's heroin abuse. Neil Young's album Tonight's The Night also portrayed Whitten's tenure with the band and leading up to his death (also is the worst album he ever made).
Amy from Chicago, IlThis is the best, most touching song about losing someone to drug addiction. Neil at his best.
Paulus from Tasmania, AustraliaNeil Young - "I wrote that about Danny Whitten. He'd gotten so wasted, so strung out, that he ODedand almost died."
Roddy from Southampton, EnglandIn the liner notes of "decade", a Young greatest hits collection, he wrote "I'm no preacher, but a lot of good people have been lost to heroin" or something to that effect...