Neil Young: The Squires' Years by Allan Bates
In last March issue Uncut , we brought you the inside story on Neil Young’s long-awaited Archives project. We spoke to his friends, colleagues and conspirators and, over the next few weeks on uncut.co.uk , we’ll be printing the complete transcripts of these interviews.
Part One: ALLAN BATES
Guitarist and founder member of Young’s first signed group, The Squires
I first met Neil in 1962, through a friend of mine at Junior High, Jack Harper. Jack went to Kelvin High School, and that’s where he met Neil. Jack and I had even been on TV, on this show called Junior Highlights, playing Duane Eddy’s “Forty Miles Of Bad Road” on guitar and drums.
The Shadows were a huge influence on The Squires. I mean, Neil absolutely adored Hank Marvin. All the instrumentation they had was exactly the same as ours. If we had had some decent equipment, who knows? We were a damn good band for kids in Grade 10. We were bloody good. Near the end we had better equipment, but not in the early days. We started off rehearsing in Jack’s basement, but then Jack got busy with hockey so we got a new drummer I knew from high school, Ken Smyth. Smyth’s basement had a huge pool table and the local high school guys would be shooting pool while we rehearsed. It was like a hang out. So we’d practice on a Saturday afternoon, then they’d all show up with their girlfriends when we went out to play at the local community club. It was really something.
We’d do a lot of Shadows and Ventures songs, and also The Fireballs. They were from New Mexico. We used to play their “Bulldog” and a bunch of other tunes. We could all play our instruments, right from the beginning. Ken Koblun was on bass and it was rare to find a bass player who could play, never mind own his own instrument. And Ken Smyth was really good. Every night he’d do a long drum solo, where we’d put our guitars down and all the kids would gather around. There’s one good instance, which I’m sure Neil won’t get too mad at me for talking about. We were practising in Smyth’s basement and of course, Neil wanted us to be good. He was a real rehearsal guy, there was no messing around. And I can see that with all his bands over the years. It’s very business-like, a case of let’s get it down. On this occasion, he had this Les Paul Jr. guitar and he kept on getting electric shocks. He got so frustrated that he took it off his shoulder and just threw this solid-body Les Paul right across the basement rec room, where it crashed against the wall. Then there was an awkward silence and everyone’s looking at him. But that’s how much Neil wanted things to be good. And he got so frustrated that time. It’s the only time I’ve seen him lose it or get a little bit violent. He was full of fire, you know. He just wanted this thing to work.
Another time we were driving down Grosvenor Avenue, on the way to a community club Saturday night dance. Neil had really short hair at that time, even less than a crew cut. He and I were in his mother’s little light blue Sunbeam. I mean, these people were not to the manor born. Neil and his mother had to struggle their way through. It wasn’t exactly a privileged family with a daddy handing over a bunch of money. So he was driving this Sunbeam in the Winnipeg snow in winter and we ended up rear-butted against an oak tree. Neil just looked at me, put it in reverse, backed it up and carried on going.
I’d go over to Neil’s house, sit in his living room and he’d say: “Here’s a new one I’ve just written.” And even then this guy had that creativity. He used to blow me away. I’d say: “Man, is that ever a great song!” These songs he was writing in Grade 10 and 11 were really something, songs like “Mustang”, “The Sultan” and “I Wonder”. Most bands would only be doing covers back then, but we’d be playing Neil’s original stuff too.
Later on, The Beatles came on the scene. When they came along, they blew the top off all of rock’n’roll. We knew about them before anyone else in Winnipeg because Ken Koblun was a foster child who lived with a British family. And he’d get sent all the records from England. So we got The Beatles and The Shadows, through that connection. I was at Crescent Heights Community Club, playing tennis with a bunch of buddies, when Neil came walking over after stopping off at Ken’s place. He said: “Man, you’ve gotta hear these guys from England! They’ve got this long hair and it goes down over their forehead. Damn, their good.” Just after that, we went out to play some community club and got hold of some Beatle wigs. We all put them on and the girls screamed. Then we played “She Loves You” and stuff like that. It just went over so well, it was beautiful.
We’d play the 4D coffeehouse a lot and made a really good impact. Kenny Smyth said we knocked them out, because they were used to Peter, Paul & Mary and “Four Strong Winds” type stuff. It was a really genteel folk place. We’d have our own kind of uniform too: blue, almost plastic, vests that one of Smyth’s girlfriends concocted. Later on we were trying a little choreography too, like The Shadows.
We’d play anywhere, every weekend. We once played on a flatbed Coke truck in a shopping mall, but by and large we played a lot of high school dances, proms and community clubs. Community clubs were great in those days. They’d have regular dances. You couldn’t organise it nowadays because you’d get gatecrashed by thugs or get murdered. But then it was all Coke and potato chips. We once played The Cellar, which was a really tough place. That’s where you got the bikers. But Neil didn’t give a damn where he played. If we had a gig, we were playin’, and that was that. At the Cellar, we had an extra solid-body guitar ready on the stand, just in case we needed it as a weapon. I mean, as if you’re ever gonna hit a guy with something like that. You could kill someone like that! Patterson’s Ranch House was another place where they’d just have cowboy bands, but Neil didn’t give a shit. He was going to play his rock’n’roll there. I didn’t know this until he told me later, but Neil told me one of the bands that played there was called Bluegrass Bob & The Bobcats. Looking back, we didn’t realise how good we were. There was no arrogance or attitude, we were just good.
When Neil lived on Grosvenor, it was a horizontally-divided duplex, with a family renting on the main floor. Neil and his mother and brother were renting on the top floor. There was an old out-of-tune piano in the basement, close to the door. So Neil would go down there and pound away on it. I guess the family on the main floor called the cops because it was too loud. I think they thought this guy was crazy. So the cop came over and got a real kick out of it all.
Neil pretty much adored Randy Bachman. There was also a jazz guitar player called Lenny Breau, who was probably the best guitarist who ever lived. I used to go and watch Lenny and just stare at him. He was incredible. Bachman was a huge fan of Lenny’s, so that filtered down through Randy to Neil. The Squires played the Town & Country restaurant the same night as Lenny. Neil loved playing hooky from school. He thought school was a total waste of time, so we’d go down to Winnipeg Piano, where they had these great guitars in the storeroom. We’d get the guy to take the guitars out if the cases and you could even smell them. We’d spend an afternoon doing that.
When it came time for us to do our first recording at CKRC Studios, it was all very business-like. We’d rehearsed well beforehand, there was nervousness, but it was fun. It was new but we just did it. Did I think we’d made it when “The Sultan” came out? God no, not even close. Neil was pretty smart. We were driving one day and he turned to me and said: “Y’know, I would never do this for a living. This is just a little side thing.” I mean, he was sucking me in. But I said: “Oh yeah, me too.” It was the wrong answer. Later on he went to Fort William, where he wrote all of his great early folkie stuff and played the 4D there. And when he came back to Winnipeg in September 1965, he called over at my place. The Squires had broken up and he said: “Why don’t you come to California with me? I need a bass player.” And I said: “I can’t, man. I’m going to University. Are you nuts or somethin’?” Looking back I think it was the right decision for a couple of reasons. First of all, Neil didn’t need anybody. If I’d been as talented as he was, I wouldn’t have needed anyone. The way that guy wrote songs was incredible, it was a great gift. Even Crosby, Stills & Nash aren’t much without Neil. He writes the songs that put the edge on the music. Basically, without him, they’re very vanilla. The other reason I don’t regret it is that I got married and had four kids.
Even then, Neil was incredibly driven. He quit school after Grade 11. Neil’s mum, Rassy, was a real character. She was as hard as nails and had a real edge on her. It was like: “Neil, pick me up some beer or you’ll get it!” The rest of us were all really intimidated by her, she was tough stuff. Neil called her Raspberry. We used to go over to Rassy’s place after Neil had made it pretty good and she’d give us all the news. She told us later that she’d argue with Stephen Stills’ mum. It would be like: “Oh yes, well Stephen’s the best singer!” Then “No, get real. Neil’s got the best songs!” They were just like soccer mums. I think Neil must have given Rassy a lot of joy, because she had a lot of pain with the split up [with Young’s father, Scott]. She had to go on her own with the two boys. When he made it, it must have given her immense joy. He bought her a condo in Florida and everything. I think The Squires filled a void in Neil’s life. Like I said, Ken Koblun was a foster child and Neil was like a father figure, a protector, in his life. That’s my interpretation anyway.
I do remember the first time Neil sang on stage. I think we did “I Wonder” together, and then “It Won’t Be Long.” There was no such thing as harmony. It was a sort of intertwining unison! But it was fun and no one threw any eggs at us. It was kind of intimidating, because in those days you would have thought an artist had to have a voice like Roy Orbison, who was incredible. But that was totally untrue. Neil wrote his own songs, in a way that only he could sing them. Boy, he sure showed the world. But the DJ at CKRC actually said to him: “Gee, that’s nice, Neil, but for crying out loud, don’t sing.” We had a reunion in Winnpieg in 1986 and Neil was asking where that DJ was. He wanted to see him. It was the kind of remark Neil always remembered. Neil’s got one of the great voices, it’s so haunting. I remember seeing an interview with [author] Stephen King and he said his books were like Neil Young: “You either hate ‘em or you love ‘em. There’s a lot of people that that voice does a lot for. Plus he’s a genius writer.” King was a real fan.
When Neil was in Buffalo Springfield, I thought they were just fabulous. Songs like “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” just blew me away. I remember I was studying for exams in my third year and my Dad said: “Hey Al, look at this!” And there was Neil on TV.
INTERVIEW: ROB HUGHES