Shakey recalls the creation of some of his classic songs

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Down By The River
Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released: May 1969
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, Los Angeles, Jan 1969

Dissatisfied with the sound of his debut album and bored and exhausted by the long hours in the studio that its endless overdubs entailed, Young determined “to be real instead of fabricating something” when it came to recording the follow-up. And the key turned out to be a band called The Rockets he found playing the clubs on LA’s Sunset Strip.

After sitting in with the band at a gig at the Whiskey A Go-Go in August 1968, he invited three members of the six-piece – Danny Whitten, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot – to help him record his next album. For reasons nobody can now remember, he renamed them Crazy Horse (after his initial suggestion, The War Babies, had been rejected) and by January 1969 they were in the studio recording Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

“Down By The River” defined the guitar sound Young perfected with Crazy Horse, played on a vintage instrument he called “Old Black”, a 1953 Gibson Les Paul that he’d bought in 1967 for $50. Years later, he was still recalling the excitement of the first time he played it through a vintage 1959 Fender Deluxe: “Immediately, the entire room started to vibrate. I went, ‘Holy shit!’ I had to turn it halfway down before it stopped feeding back.” The sessions for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere were the first time he’d used the combination in the studio.

Despite being nine minutes long, “Down By The River” was edited down from a much longer jam. “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. “Made some radical cuts in there – I mean, you can hear ’em. Danny just played so cool on that. He was playing R’n’B kinda things. He made the whole band sound good.”

Bassist Billy Talbot confirms that it was “Down By The River” which patented the Crazy Horse sound: “At first we played it double-time, faster like the chorus is now. It was almost a jazz thing.” They then borrowed a James Brown-style beat, but slowed down to a more stoned pace.

According to drummer Ralph Molina, Young borrowed the chord sequence from a Danny Whitten composition called “Music On The Road”, although Young’s biographer Jimmy McDonough reckoned it owes more to “Let Me Go”, another Rockets song, which appeared on their only album (released in ’68).

Written in bed with a fever on the same day as “Cinnamon Girl” and “Cowgirl In The Sand”, once the sickness passed Young still didn’t seem to have much idea where “Down By The River” ’s lyric came from, with its “I shot my baby” refrain.

“No, there’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick. It’s a plea, a desperation cry,” he insisted in 1970.

Yet in a long preamble to the song at a 1984 concert in New Orleans, he told a different story, claiming it was about “a guy who had a lot of trouble controlling himself”. He went on to describe a very literal meeting by a river in which the man tells the woman she’s cheated on him once too often: “He reached down into his pocket and pulled a little revolver out and he said, ‘Honey, I hate to do this, but you’ve pushed me too far.’”

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Cowgirl In The Sand
Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released: May 1969
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, Los Angeles, Jan 1969

The second of Young’s ground-breaking early guitar epics with Crazy Horse was written in bed with a fever on that same day as “Down By The River” – on an acoustic guitar, in which style it can be heard in a stunning take on 1970’s live CSN&Y album Four Way Street.

But it’s the electric version that remains the most memorable, and includes some of the finest guitar interplay between Young and Whitten.

“Nobody played guitar with me like that,” Young says of Crazy Horse’s main man, who died of a heroin overdose in 1972. “That rhythm, when you listen to ‘Cowgirl In the Sand’, he keeps changing. 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. So 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. Danny was the key. A really great second guitar player, the perfect counterpoint to everything else that was happening.”

On another occasion, Young said of his style with Crazy Horse: “A lot of people think we play simple and there is no finesse. But we’re not trying to impress anybody; we just want to play with the feeling. It’s like a trance we get into.”

The trance-like quality is reflected in a dreamlike lyric, addressed to some idealised woman with intriguing references to sin and rust. In a much-bootlegged performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1971, Young obscured its meaning further by introducing the song as about “beaches in Spain”, a decidedly odd comment given that at the time he’d never even been to Spain.

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Cinnamon Girl
Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released: May 1969
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, Los Angeles, Jan 1969

That day when Young took to his bed in early January 1969 with a debilitating dose of flu turned out to be one of the most productive of his career. Lying in his Topanga Canyon house with his mind in an altered state due to a fever that rolled up to 103 degrees, and with scraps of paper covering the bed, he composed his third classic of the day – “Cinnamon Girl”.

“Sometimes [when] I get sick, get a fever, it’s easy to write,” he explained. “Everything opens up. You don’t have any resistance. You just let things go.”

Within days of his recovery, he was trying the songs out with Crazy Horse. “Cinnamon Girl” was the first one to be recorded, and the euphoric marriage of crunching riffs and sweet melody made a dramatic album opener. Again the dreamy lyrics reflected his feverish state, and the mysterious effect was only enhanced by the hand-scribbled non-explanation that accompanied the song’s inclusion on the 1977 compilation Decade: “Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me through Phil Ochs’ eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife.” Or anyone else, come to that.

The guitar sound was based on an open tuning, which he had first used on Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird”. “We discovered this D modal tuning around the same time in 1966,” he told Nick Kent. “That was when ragas were happening and D modal made it possible to have that droning sound going all the time. That’s where it started, only I took it to the next level, which is how ‘The Loner’ and ‘Cinnamon Girl’ happened.”

A version with a slightly different vocal performance was released as a single in America, where it charted at No 55. “The parts are switched, Danny is on the bottom and me on top,” Young explains. “That was so you could hear my voice clearly, which Reprise wanted for the single. We left the album version alone because it was better and we knew it.”

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