“The Needle and the Damage Done” written by Neil Young and released February 1, 1972. This song has been covered 34 times to date. There has been much talk about safe-injection sites here in London, Ontario, and elsewhere not to mention the opioid crisis, so this song seems to be as relevant now as it was 46 years ago.
The lyrics are simple and the message quite direct, you can read them here
I’ve read that the term “milk blood” refers to the act of drawing out heroin saturated blood to save for another “fix” in case you can’t get a hold of more soon enough.
As with most songs, particularly of this nature there is a personal connection to the writer and or the performer, Neil of course being both in this instance.
As I understand the story, Neil had lost a bandmate and a roadie to heroin overdoses, so I believe he had them in mind when he wrote this song. Heroin being the particular drug of choice at the time and I use the word ‘choice’ advisedly, of many artists and non-artists alike. Cocaine was gaining a lot of popular use, nevertheless people were finding ways to do themselves in, accidentally or not. Neil had seen others die of drug overdoses as well and has made some references to this in relation to writing and performing this song.
Here are a few of the musicians and singers that died in the years leading up to the release of this song: Frankie Lymon (of the Teenagers) age 25, February 27, 1968 heroin, Alan Wilson (of Canned Heat) age 27, September 3, 1970 barbiturates, Jimi Hendrix age 27, September 18, 1970 barbiturates, Janis Joplin age 27, October 4 1970 heroin, Jim Morrison age 27, July 3 1971 believed to be heroin.
The Pretenders and Chrissie Hynde perhaps found some solace when they covered this song in 1999, they lost two bandmates to drug overdose in 1982 and 1983.
The cover versions (34) of this song (at least those that I’ve listened too) for the most part do not do it justice; Neil Young’s delivery clearly owns this song, which is often the case with his songs, though not always!
Not one to shy away from difficult topics in his songwriting, Young has produced some powerful and sometimes controversial tracks. 117 songs written by Neil Young solo (and with Crazy Horse etc.) have been covered and some of them dozens of times. Add in four from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and 11 from Buffalo Springfield that is a staggering 132 of his songs have been re-recorded!
Just to give some perspective, he is eclipsed by of course by Bob Dylan at 275 songs covered, The Beatles at 192 and the Rolling Stones at 141. That being said the number of actual cover ‘versions’ is another thing with some of these artists having just one song covered by hundreds of other singers. Nevertheless an impressive number for old Neil.
Here are a few more of them:
(written by Neil Young) and Record by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY) in 1970, covered 34 times, Ben Harper (2011)
David Allen Coe
(1985) who is a Nashville based singer (not without his own controversy) and not a ‘southern man’ himself being from Ohio and… who’s song “Tennessee Whiskey” from 1981 was recently reprised by Chris Stapleton
Instead of a cover version of which there are four, I’ll include the response song to the two above. Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974) with “Sweet Home Alabama
The band and others took exception to the way Neil Young had characterized Alabama and the south in general and Lynyrd Skynyrd pointed it out quite clearly in the song if you listen to the lyrics. Unintentionally according to the band itself the song became a big hit reaching number 8 in the U.S. and somewhat ironically number 6 in Canada. I have read Neil regrets his words in the song Alabama and no longer performs the song, though he still performs Southern Man. Neither song was a chart success for Neil Young and they were not initially released as singles I don’t believe, so I’m not sure how they came to the attention of Lynyrd Skynyrd
to begin with, I guess they were just Neil fans…
Sources; Wikipedia, YouTube, Rollingstone.com, Billboard.com, Itunes, internet searches
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