Neil Young

The Needle and the Damage Done

Song Review by

Neil Young used to introduce "The Needle and the Damage Done" in his concerts by describing it as a serious song about heroin addiction. Specifically, with its reference to a "cellar door" (i.e., the nightclub the Cellar Door) and to losing a band (i.e., Crazy Horse), it seems to be about the heroin addiction of guitarist Danny Whitten, who later died of a heroin overdose. Young's recording of the song introduced on his popular 1972 album Harvest is a live take on which he accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, adding to the song's simple, plaintive effect. Most people have found "The Needle and the Damage Done" to be an effective account of the horrors of addiction, though it has also been criticized for a certain ambivalence, which is perhaps a part of the time during which it was composed, a time when at least some drug use was condoned by Young's audience. The songwriter commiserated with the addict's need for what he called "milk-blood" and suggested that there was some element of the addictive personality in every person. And though his final simile, "every junkie's like a setting sun," clearly suggested the early death awaiting an addict, some felt it was too attractive an image to make the point. "The effect of that final line is to glorify heroin addiction," wrote Johnny Rogan in his biography Neil Young: The Definitive Story of His Musical Career (1982), "something which Young surely had not consciously wished to do." Nevertheless, "The Needle and the Damage Done" generally has been taken to be a powerful cautionary statement about the effects of heroin. Young has used it consistently, putting the original version on his 1977 compilation Decade and performing additional live versions on Live Rust (1979) and Unplugged (1993). It has become a staple of Young tribute albums, appearing on Borrowed Tunes: A Tribute to Neil Young (1994), Pickin' on Neil Young: A Tribute (1998), Rockin' Banjos of Bluegrass (1999), This Note's for You Too!: A Tribute to Neil Young (1999), and Gettin' High on Neil Young: A Bluegrass Tribute (2000).

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Harvest 1972 Reprise / Warner Bros. 2:03
Time Fades Away 1973 Speed Records 2:13
No Image 1973 Warner Bros.
Decade 1977 Reprise 2:02
In Berlin [Video/DVD] 1986 Rhino
No Image 1991 Silver Shadow 2:26
No Image 1992 Bootleg
Unplugged 1993 Warner Reprise Video / Warner Bros. 2:52
Back to My Roots 1993 Kiss the Stone
There's a World 2000 2:24
Greatest Hits 2004 Reprise
Live at Massey Hall 1971 2007 Reprise / Classic 3:55
Neil Young Archives, Vol. I (1963-1972) 2009 Reprise
Cow Palace 1986 2012 Let Them Eat Vinyl
Official Release Series, Discs 1-4 2012 Reprise / Warner Bros. 2:03
No Image 2012
blue highlight denotes editor's pick