North American idol

Two sides of Neil Young
By JAMES PARKER  |  May 16, 2007

VIDEO: Neil Young, "Old Man" (from Live at Massey Hall 1971)

Neil Young always knows what he’s doing — especially when he doesn’t. His professional association in 1968-’69 with a gang of weed-dealing LA sub-musicians called the Rockets was the despair of his better-educated contemporaries. Joni Mitchell shook her fair head. David Crosby blustered anathemas through his moustache. Young was an industry darling, a coming man, and these Rockets were hazy, street-corner dudes: when they picked up their instruments, they played like bums. As Crosby told Young biographer Jimmy McDonough, “I’d say to Neil, ‘What the fuck are you doing playing with those jerks?!’ He’d say, ‘They’re soulful.’ I’d say, ‘Man, so is my DOG, but I don’t give him a set of drums!’ ”

But Young, his antennae swishing in the darkness, knew he was onto something. With Buffalo Springfield he had tasted hippie superstardom, but his debut as a solo artist, ’69’s Neil Young, had flopped. Some blamed the muffled mix, others the depresso-whimsical songwriting. Right now, at any rate, he was just one more verdigris minstrel with a high voice. What he needed above all was to break out, and somehow with this new crew, jamming up in Topanga Canyon or at the Whisky, it was happening. With them, accident and error took on the aspect of good luck. So he picked his three favorite Rockets — Billy Talbot on bass, Ralph Molina on drums, Danny Whitten on rhythm guitar — and formed a band, Crazy Horse. Two weeks later, they had cut a full album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Within four months of the release of Neil Young, it was in the stores and selling healthily.

Reprise Records has issued the first two installments of what will be a comprehensive program of releases from the Neil Young Archives: Live at the Fillmore East 1970 and Live at Massey Hall 1971. The latter disc features Young performing solo; the recording from the Fillmore is a showcase for the aboriginal Crazy Horse sound — the iambic plod of the Talbot/Molina rhythm section, heads down and mule-like in the groove . . . Whitten’s rusty harmonizing and sardonic second-guitar work . . . and Young himself ringing and clanging around the beat with Old Black, the 1953 Gibson Les Paul that acquired (to his delight) a particular cantankerousness when fed through a 1959 Fender Deluxe amp.

Crazy Horse could sing. Back in the prehistory of the Rockets, they had close-harmonized in a doo-wop outfit called Danny and the Memories, and Whitten in particular had a rough diamond of an R&B voice. With Whitten for a vocal partner, Young would be forced to explore the harder edges of his own range — the croak, the snarl. But it’s in his guitar playing that you can really hear the effect of the Crazy Horse experience on Neil Young: the solos he takes on Old Black in the 12-minute “Down by the River” and the 16-minute “Cowgirl in the Sand” seem to come crackling out of the marrow of the music. We are present here at the first stirrings of electric/epileptic Neil, the instrumental genius who would convert the misfires of his nervous system into arcs of pure invention. In “Down by the River,” his style is monomaniacal: it fixates, it trundles in a circle, and then with squawks of feedback it heavily takes wing. Whitten was the dream second-guitarist for this sort of activity — always alert, now chopping the chord, now spreading it, and keeping a distance between his own sound and Young’s that prefigured the mutual wariness of Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Then there was the rumble of Billy Talbot’s faltering, fat-fingered bass lines, and beneath it the almost-ironic underclank of Ralph Molina’s drums.

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Related: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Flashbacks: September 1, 2006, Perfectly strange, More more >
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