Part 5: High School Friend Comrie Smith
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.
Previous installments are available by using the links in the side panel on the right.
Part 5: COMRIE SMITH
Young’s high school buddy in early, short-lived ‘bands’. Also played with Toronto folk-rockers, 3’s A Crowd
UNCUT: Tell me about you and Neil before he moved away in 1960. Was he already into music?
SMITH: I remember when we were kids I’d meet Neil everyday on the corner to walk to school together and he’d have his white bucks on and his transistor radio just blaring out. He’d say, “Hey Comrie, listen to this one!” He loved the Fendermen with “Good Morning Captain”. I had a Go Bo Diddley album which had the greatest funky guitar song that we used to listen to a lot. He liked Gene Vincent and Link Wray. I had those albums and we’d listen to them all the time. We used to buy records from this little elderly lady at Robinson Radio. Once they were off the hit parade she’d sell them for 39¢. So you could get an Everly Brothers 45 and there’d always be an interesting song on the B-side and we’d listen to those. Neil and I both loved Roy Orbison. We would listen to “Only The Lonely” and “Candy Man” in my living room. We had both started playing earlier with Neil on his baritone ukulele and me with my acoustic guitar. We had thought we would form a group together when we were in junior high but then, of course, he left. I knew Rassy, too, before she and Scott split up. She was a great mom for us in that teenage time. She was very supportive of our musical interests and I understand she did the same for Neil in Winnipeg.
Did you remain in touch with Neil after he moved to Winnipeg?
Only once [laugh]. It was after Grade 9. Neither of us were terrific students. He sent me this long, scrawly letter – he still writes in that style – about Winnipeg and how cold it was in the winter, stuff like that. And that was about it. We never saw each other until he came back to Toronto in 1965. When he came out he ended up at a friend’s, Richard Mundell’s house in North Toronto. I had an old car, a 41 Plymouth at the time. Neil phoned me one night in the middle of the summer from a party and said, “Bet you thought I didn’t know much about cars. Well, I sure know a lot about them now.” And he told me all about his hearse breaking down. He said, “There’s a party going on here, why don’t you come over and bring your guitar?” So I went over with my guitar and we played. After that he hung out a lot with me at my place with my girlfriend.
Neil had left Winnipeg for Fort William (Thunder Bay) with his band The Squires in the spring of 1965 before heading further east to Toronto in late June of that year. The band folded soon after with Neil pursuing a folksinging career. Was this about the time you met up again?
Sort of. He still had his Gretsch electric guitar. We had been friends before Neil moved to Winnipeg in 1960 so when he came back we kind of picked up where we’d left off. I was playing in a band that was folding as well so it was just the two of us really. Neil had this idea at the time that the coolest thing in the world would be to have two Martin guitars with d’Armand pickups on them. My girlfriend at that time ended up giving me a d’Armand pickup. But on those tracks Neil’s still playing his electric Gretsch guitar unplugged and I’m on a little Hofner guitar unplugged. Neil hadn’t traded in his Gretsch for a Gibson 12-string acoustic yet. I had been playing for 2 or 3 years in and around Toronto with my own band and various bands basically playing rock ‘n’ roll, not necessarily folk. And I was really into writing songs and Neil was, too. So together our ideas just seemed to work well folkie-wise.
Tell me how these tracks – “Hello Lonely Woman”, “Casting Me Away From You” and “There Goes My Babe” – came to be recorded.
Those three songs were recorded in the attic of my parents’ house in Toronto, 46 Golfdale Road, and it’s just me and Neil on a couple of unplugged guitars. Neil likes things pretty raw and that’s what those tracks were. We were good music friends. It’s just the two of us and a friend who operated the tape machine. The recordings were made around late August or early September of 1965. There were more than those three songs on the tape. I remember a song of Neil’s called “Betty Ann” that had the line “Betty Ann, if you can, won’t you mend my broken heart again.” Marty Onrot who was sort of managing Neil had him make a tape of his songs around then and I think I heard parts of that. But this is a different tape from that same period. It was kind of a routine for us at night. We’d go to this hamburger place up in Willowdale and get a hamburger around 8 or 9 at night. Then he’d come back and I had my girlfriend’s tape recorder and Neil would fool around on it, all these wonderful monologues on it making up stories about his auditions or pretending he was a club owner telling him, “Hey kid, you don’t need drumsticks. You just need pencils ‘cause you’re too loud,” all in his humorous voice. We had a lot of fun with that. I wish I still had those tapes.
So we were up in the attic and there were some heavy vibes going on. There was another guy running the recorder. “Hello Lonely Woman” was kind of an R ‘n’ B number and you can hear Neil’s foot tapping on the linoleum. I felt pretty bad about my playing on the tracks, it wasn’t that good. There was a great version of “High Heeled Sneakers” on that tape but I guess it didn’t get used for copyright reasons. There was another one of Neil’s on the tape called “Don’t Tell My Friends” that was an early Neil Young tune.
“Hello Lonely Woman” was a Squires-era song Neil later resurrected with The Blue Notes in 1988 and “There Goes My Babe” was one of his first demo recordings with the Buffalo Springfield” in 1966. But “Casting Me Away From You” remains a mystery.
“Casting Me Away From You” I would call a folk song with a little bit of rhythm. It’s in G. The lyrics go, “We used to laugh and play games together; we found things to do in stormy weather. But now I find you’re leaving me behind, casting me away from you.” He remembered the melody years later because on his first solo album there’s an instrumental called “The Emperor Of Wyoming” and that’s the same melody as “Casting Me Away From You”.
Did you and Neil continue to hang out that autumn?
Neil spent quite a bit of time in and around my place but by then we kind of lost him. After we made those tapes a couple of weeks went by and I couldn’t find him. I had the chance for us to play a couple of places but I couldn’t track him down to get him to play. He was living for a time with Vicki Taylor who was a folksinger in Yorkville. We lost Neil for a time, we didn’t know where he was, but that’s where I found him again; at Vicki Taylor’s. I would knock on the door and ask for Neil. Donna Warner would answer the door and say, “Neil’s not here right now.” I kind of liked her. [Smith later played with Warner in 3’s A Crowd] So I wasn’t sure if Neil was actually living there. Finally I got in and found that Neil was fairly ill at the time with a bad flu bug and stayed there quite a while. There were all sorts of people coming and going through that apartment, Joni Mitchell being one.
I talked with [Squires bass player] Kenny Koblun a lot during the time Neil disappeared in the fall of 1965 and he was getting real depressed. Neil kind of dropped him. Kenny was kind of deep and mysterious at times then, pretty introverted.
It was rough for Neil at that time. He didn’t really have a place to stay. He could have stayed at our place but he stayed at a few places. I think that’s when his dad made him hock his Gretsch and get a haircut and a job. He moved in with his dad for a while on Inglewood and that was a very disciplined world that he wasn’t used to. When I did finally see him again he had a new winter coat and short hair and he had a job at the Coles’s bookstore on Yonge and Bloor. I went over to see him at the store. He was a stockboy and he was showing me all these funny books. He was telling me, “You gotta get a job, Comrie. You’ve gotta pay your debts,” because I was kind of in hock over guitars and things. So I think his dad forced him to go straight for awhile. That was the message I got.
It was frustrating for him in Toronto. He wasn’t very good as a folksinger then. After he left in the hearse I went to Arc Records in Toronto with this tape Neil and I had made of this acoustic stuff. Bill Gilliland who was the record promoter said, “Get your band together and come in and we’ll make some demos’,” but it never happened because people weren’t that big on Neil’s voice. I thought he was great because he had such a melodious approach, melody and chords. At that time it was just chords and words but Neil always had nice melodies. That came from The Shadows but also Neil really liked Floyd Cramer, that piano player who’s famous for those little triple trills that Neil later played in the Buffalo Springfield.
At the time did you know that Neil had left Toronto for California?
I heard he was in the Mynah Birds. I didn’t realize that Neil had moved quite as quickly into adapting to the Mynah Birds. He played a Gibson acoustic 12-string stuffed full of newspapers to kill all the feedback and he played beautifully. They sounded great.
He came around to my parents’ house to say good bye when he had that 1953 Pontiac hearse and was leaving for California. We went for a ride in it. He didn’t try to convince me to go with him. I kind of knew he was thinking of going but I wasn’t sure. He had taken the band’s Ford Econoline van, which I think was rented, out to Pickering. I wasn’t sure what he was doing exactly. He had me follow him in my car out on the 401. He parked the van, he had unloaded all the Mynah Birds equipment, and said, “Okay, let’s go.” We drove through Broughamtown where he had fond memories as a child before driving back into North Toronto. About a week later, or maybe even less, he showed up at my house with Bruce Palmer and they were leaving that night.
So how did the 1965 tape come into Neil’s possession?
We had this problem for years of not being able to communicate because my letters weren’t getting through to him and nothing was happening. Then in 1997 I picked up the phone one day and there he was saying, “Remember those tapes we made in the attic, Comrie? Have you still got them?” So I took what I could find to his show in Hamilton, he sent some tickets, and I gave him the tape. The next time I saw him was I guess in 2000 in Toronto at a concert and he said, “The Archives are a go ahead!”
Did you know that you are playing on Neil’s highly-anticipated massive box set?
I didn’t know these tracks were going to be on the box set. No one called me to tell me. I would have thought that someone would have wanted me to sign a release or something. One of my friends said, “Geez, Comrie, get a lawyer.” But right now I’m just trying to get a car. [laugh] Gosh, I sure hope people like those songs. They have a kind of raw appeal. I love those old songs and those old stories not so much because Neil’s so famous now but because it was so surprising. He always wanted to make it big. He really had a fixed eye on where he needed to go. And he knew that writing his own songs was important.
INTERVIEW: JOHN EINARSON