50 Years Ago: Crazy Horse Debut on Neil Young’s ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’
Neil Young decided to get real on his second solo album, eschewing typically endless studio overdubs for a gritty, live-in-the-studio approach. All he needed was a band that shared his vision. So, Young stole one.
Guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina were playing clubs on the Sunset Strip in a group called the Rockets when Young first encountered them. Young initially sat in with the Rockets during an August 1968 gig at the Whisky a Go-Go, before inviting the trio back to the studio.
By the time Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere arrived on May 14, 1969, they had been renamed Crazy Horse – and a life-long association with Young was underway.
"The truth is, I probably did steal them away from the other band – which was a good band," Young said in Long May You Run: The Illustrated History. "But only because what we did, we went somewhere."
They fit his new mindset almost telepathically, adding a tough garage-band aesthetic that deftly offset Young's always-mournful vocals. They played fast and loose, leaving the accidents in. They tried new things, pulled out old ideas, let things unspool. "We don't know the songs; we don't have charts," Molina told Rolling Stone in 2011. "We just start playing. The magic just seems to happen."
This first-take fission helped Young complete Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in just two weeks. The already-restless Young had found his rock 'n' roll muse. "A lot of people think we play simple and there is no finesse, but we're not trying to impress anybody," he later argued. "We just want to play with the feeling. It's like a trance we get into."
You certainly hear that during "Down by the River," "Cinnamon Girl" and "Cowgirl in the Sand," a trio of songs that makes up the heart of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. All of them were written in a single afternoon's dream-like state while Young suffered through a raging fever.
"Sometimes if I get sick, get a fever, it's easy to write," he noted in Shakey: Neil Young's Biography. "Everything opens up. You don't have any resistance. You just let things go."
Listen to Neil Young and Crazy Horse's 'Cinnamon Girl'
They began with the album's thunderous take on "Cinnamon Girl." Young returned to an open-tuning he first used on Buffalo Springfield's "Bluebird," inverting convention by making the rhythm chords intriguingly complex and then adding an infamous one-note solo. "Down by the River" then showcased a new guitar-amp combo that would eventually define Young's Crazy Horse sound.
He plugged "Old Black" – a 1953 Gibson Les Paul he'd purchased for $50 in a 1967 – into a vintage Fender Deluxe amp, with perfectly ear-splitting results. "Immediately, the entire room started to vibrate. I went, 'Holy shit!'" Young told Uncut in 2015. "I had to turn it halfway down before it stopped feeding back."
That matched the jittery sense of violence surrounding "Down by the River," though Young later admitted he never quite figured out where the lyric – with its "I shot my baby" refrain – actually came from. "It's about blowing your thing with a chick," Young surmised in a 1970 talk with Robert Greenfield. "It's a plea, a desperation cry."
Not everything worked. Sometimes, they hit dead ends. For instance, "Down by the River" eventually ballooned into a nine-minute jam before Young edited it down.
"We got the vibe, but it was just too long and sometimes it fell apart, so we just took the shitty parts out," Young explained in Shakey. "Made some radical cuts in there – I mean, you can hear 'em."
Still, happenstance occasionally favored them. The title track was released with a demo vocal, because Young discovered he liked the tinny quality that the talk-back microphone provided.
Meanwhile, the subtitle for "Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)" hints at Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere's musical backstory. In a weird twist, Rockets violinist Bobby Notkoff is prominently featured, playing a dirge-y farewell for his own band. "That's the hardest part," Young recalled in Long May You Run, "the guilt of the trail of destruction that I've left behind me."
Listen to Neil Young and Crazy Horse's 'Down by the River'
In this case, at least, the ends justified the means. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – and his new band of rough-housing brothers in Crazy Horse – finally helped Young toward a stated goal of being "real instead of fabricating something." In 1979, he told Cameron Crowe this was the favorite of all of his solo projects. Fans agreed, as the album became Young's first-ever platinum seller.
Unfortunately, it wouldn't last. They closed out with "Cowgirl in the Sand," a showcase for the lost brilliance of Danny Whitten. The guitarist later overdosed after being kicked out of Crazy Horse.
"That rhythm, when you listen to 'Cowgirl in the Sand,' he keeps changing," Young told Uncut. "Billy and Ralph will get into a groove and everything will be going along and all of a sudden Danny'll start doing something else. He just led those guys from one groove to another, all within the same groove."
This shifting, from-the-gut interplay freed something in Young. "When I played those long guitar solos, it seemed like they weren't all that long, that I was making all these changes, when in reality what was changing was not one thing but the whole band," Young added. "Danny was the key. A really great second guitar player, the perfect counterpoint to everything else that was happening."
Young also ended up losing Old Black for a time in the early '70s. "I took it to this store to be repaired," he told Rolling Stone in 1979. "I came back to pick it up the next week and the store was gone."
He didn't find that Les Paul again until 1975, and by then Whitten had been dead three years.