Story Behind the Song: "The Needle and the Damage Done"

I think "The Needle and the Damage Done" is one of the most perfect songs ever written. Neil Young didn't even need three minutes to paint a haunting picture of junkiedom; on Harvest the song is 2:17. 

You'd have to be a fool cover it, let alone record a 6:21 rock version. But I played the intro one day in rehearsal while John Hummel was adjusting the cymbals to his liking. Next thing I knew, Dan Grennes had picked up his bass and the whole thing fell together, and then moved into this sprawling psychedelic jam. 

Still, I figured that would be the end of it. You just don't want to touch such an iconic song. 

But when we were recording basic tracks for Get Free at the Pigeon Club with Wayne Dorell, we threw "Needle" down at the end of the night, just for the heck of it. I guess after recording for 12 hours we were ready to cut loose, because the jam really took off. 

A few days later at SST Studios ,a very patient Jerry Ramos engineered til 3 am, while I added ambient layers of acoustic and electric guitars. I wanted to create the kind of album closer that would send the listener drifting off to dreamland under the headphones. You'll have to let me know if it works for you. 

I first heard "Needle" at 15, when I fell helplessly in love with my high school's golden boy. He was six feet of slim-hipped, long-legged basketball star charm, with a hippie soul. Girls sighed as he ambled down our preppy halls in worn Levis and a faded polo shirt, curls the color of dark honey brushing his broad shoulders. 

I sat behind him in math class, and never dared imagine he'd notice nerdy little me. But one day he turned around, ran a finger up my shin, looked into my eyes and murmured, "Mmm, sexy." I was a goner. 

Knowing him as well as I do now, I'm sure he did it mostly just to see the look on my face. But our little moment gave me the courage to sit that afternoon with the clutch of girls who gathered around him in the courtyard after lunch to listen to him strum his Yamaha and sing  "Needle," "Heart of Gold," and "If" by Bread (that was a swooner!). 

I bought Harvest that weekend, and fell in love with Neil, too. 

Somehow, this guy and I connected. We had both skipped a grade, were in deep, embattled conflict with our moms, and loved music passionately. He had a (tall, gorgeous) girlfriend but we began hanging out, and I went on agonizing breakup watch. 

We fell into a pattern - Friday afternoons I'd climb into his battered white Valiant. We'd go to McDonalds for vanilla shakes and fries, and then to his family's home on River Road, where he'd play me his favorite songs, and serenade me with his own beautiful renditions. 

Yes, he and the girlfriend finally broke up; yes, he and I finally made out; and yes, he broke my heart by taking up with the school femme fatale two weeks later. 

I forgave him when he showed up at my college dorm room that fall. We stayed friends-who-fool-around-sometimes through the next four years, even as he battled personal demons and the pull of drugs, which almost dragged him under. 

For years, he stayed safe in adulthood and a flourishing executive career, visiting me in NYC every August for the US Open. But one year another tall, gorgeous girlfriend busted his heart, and he didn't come. And the pull came back. 

When his brother called, I knew the news was bad. A combo of hard drugs, a vicious bar punch, and cracking his head on an unforgiving wood corner on his way to the floor left him near death, deep in a coma. 

There he stayed for a month, and then one day he was back, but how back, no one knew. His brother called again to say that when the doctors brought in a tray of variously shaped blocks, to test whether he could distinguish colors and shapes, he put them in his mouth, like a toddler. 

He fought his way back, though, losing his sense of taste, hearing in one ear, peripheral vision and some frontal lobe activity, but not his sense of humor, his foxiness, or his passion for music. He even struggled through finishing his MBA. One strange side effect was that music began pouring through him again. He could pick up the guitar and effortlessly perform a huge catalog of songs he hadn't played in a decade. 

"How the heck do you remember the chords to all those songs after all this time?" I asked him, when I came to his parents' home to see him. 

"I have no idea," he replied, chuckling. 

The pull came back, too, and landed him in jail a few times. I wrote "When It Comes Down" (Get Free, track 2) for him after that, but honestly, I don't care what trouble he gets in (and today he's doing great). I'm just happy he can still sing to me. Guess I'm a fool for love.

"There are so many ways covering a song of this magnitude could’ve gone wrong for any artist, but Debra Devi hits the nail on the head with this creative, yet respectful, interpretation. This is not just Devi playing Neil Young, this is Neil Young being played through Devi, and the end result is absolutely fantastic." - Guitar International