Finding his sound

By Sergio Ariza

At the end of 1968 Neil Young was quite disoriented, and he continued pretty lost after leaving Buffalo Springfield with a first solo album that, in his own words, had too many 'pre-recordings'. But then he listened to an album that he liked a lot; namely the debut album by the Californian band The Rockets. Young had known of them from the time that Buffalo Springfield begun, so one day he went to see them at the Whiskey a Go Go club in Los Angeles. The night ended with Young going up on stage with them for a 'jam' from which the dirty, simple and laid back sound he had been searching for for some time emerged.    

Soon after, Young signed the rhythm guitarist (and lead composer) Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina of the Rockets as his backing band to record his second solo album. The Canadian had recently exchanged one of his Chet Atkin guitars for a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop 53, painted black and considerably modified, from his former Buffalo Springfield colleague, Jim Messina, which the world would end up knowing as his 'Old Black' . When Young plugged in his old Fender Tweed, and Whitman did the same with his Gretsch White Falcon in a Fender Bassman, the magic began to emerge in long, impromptu 'jams', in which Young takes the lead role looking with distortion and Whitman takes the anchor role with a cleaner tone.


To close the circle Young had the perfect material for that new visceral sound. On the same day that he was burning up with 39 degrees of pure creative fever the Canadian had composed Cinnamon Girl, Down By The River and Cowgirl In The Sand, three of the most mythical songs of his career, which have remained on his setlist since that time. The jewel in the crown is the immortal Cinnamon Girl on which you can hear the big role that Crazy Horse (the name he had given to the former Rockets) is playing. The song contains a duo between Young and Whitten, who not only sing along but complement each other perfectly on the guitar, with Whitten playing arpeggios and Young unleashing one of his best riffs and an incredible one note solo in which he manages to make it sound different every time with the vibrato. In his own words: "People say it's one-note only, but in my head, each one of those notes is different; the more you immerse yourself in it, the more you can hear the differences."


Then comes the title song, a small wonder that is around two minutes long, in which the incredible chemistry between Neil and his new support band, responsible for those unforgettable choruses, is again tested. Round & Round is the first ‘acoustic stop’ in the crazy horse’s career. It is a return to Young’s more singer-songwriting ways, with the 'Old Black' left to one side; replaced instead with a Martin D-28. It has a deeply felt vocal harmony by Robin Lane that reminds one of the duets at the start of the 70s between Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Down By The River opens up little by little until it ends in a perfect electrical storm. Whitten plays the great rhythm guitar, subtly changing the tempo and accompaniment so that Young can put the Old Black to work with notes that cut like knives on one of the most amazing jams in history.

After the storm comes the calm with the country touch of The Losing End, one of the ‘specialties of the house’. This is followed by Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets), a farewell to the group from which Crazy Horse emerged in which the violinist of that band, Bobby Notkoff, appears as a guest. The close comes with another tide of distortion that lasts over 10 minutes. The song emerges almost from nowhere, with a barely audible guitar, until the storm of distortion in which they specialize is unleashed. The voice does not enter until almost two minutes but when it does we know that we are facing something much more than a 'jam'. The fact is that the material of Young was perfect to let loose these electric storms because there were always great songs behind them.

When Neil Young appeared on the scene 50 years ago, on May 14, 1969, he was virtually unknown until a few months later, in August, when the world discovered him on a Woodstock stage with Crosby, Stills & Nash. But with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Crazy Horse, Young found the sound for which he would be remembered for eternity.