When Neil Young brings Crazy Horse to London in 1976, I’m four rows from the front of the stage at Hammersmith Odeon. It’s late March, a Sunday night. I still have the tickets, somewhere, probably curled at the edges and yellow with age by now, a bit like most of us who were there at the time.
“It seems like I just got here from somewhere else,” is the first thing Neil says, appearing unannounced on stage, standing in a spotlight blinking, shielding his eyes with a hand, like someone looking into the far distance, not sure what might be out there. He looks bedraggled, like he’s spent the night in a ditch, dressed in a torn and clearly battered old suede jacket, a shirt he might have been wearing for a week and patched up jeans. Crows for all I know are nesting in his hair. He sits down behind a cluster of mics, as if he’s giving evidence against the Mob at a congressional hearing, picks up a guitar and falteringly plays “Tell Me Why”. This is followed by a monologue, during which he affects to believe he’s in Germany. It’s funny at first, then oddly disconcerting, although you’re inclined to suspect his disorientation is a clever impersonation of someone too whacked out to know where they are. If he’s truly this barbecued, it’s a wonder he’s conscious.
Anyway, his aw-shucks haplessness continues as he grapples with a banjo and a harmonica rack into which he fits a harmonica. There’s a horrible noise when he blows into it. “Put it in upside down,” he drawls somewhat distractedly. “Don’t do that every night,” he adds, although you suspect he probably does as part of a performance whose haphazardness is possibly a carefully crafted illusion. He then plays a version of “Mellow My Mind” from Tonight’s The Night whose rustic twang makes it sound more like “For The Turnstiles” from On The Beach. Three new songs quickly follow – “Too Far Gone”, which we won’t hear again until he includes it on 1989’s Freedom, and “Day And Night We Walk These Aisles” and “Don’t Say You Win, Don’t Say You Lose”, which nearly 40 years on remain unreleased. He finishes this opening set with “Heart Of Gold” and promises to return after a short break with Crazy Horse, “to keep this story moving”.
Then, here they are: Neil and Crazy Horse. It’s been seven years since Everybody Knows This is Nowhere introduced us to the raw elemental noise they make together, a long wait to see them live at last, during which time they’ve lost original guitarist Danny Whitten to drugs and replaced him with the intimidating Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro, who’s on stage now slugging it out with Neil on a malarial “Down By The River”, which is full of swampy dread and festering malevolence. It sounds unbelievable. Elsewhere there are epic versions of “Southern Man” and “Cortez The Killer”, the gloriously sloppy gospel hoe-down of “Let It Shine”, from the Stills-Young album, Long May You Run, and ferociously dispatched takes on “Drive Back” and “Cinnamon Girl”.
Best of all is something no-one’s heard before, which Neil, deadpan, introduces as “another laidback song” and turns out to be one of the first ever performances of “Like A Hurricane”. All night, people around me have been wondering aloud about what a huge industrial fan is doing on stage. We find out now, when it whirs noisily to life and what feels like a gale-force wind nearly blows the band off their feet, Neil’s hair streaming behind him as he hunches into it, like someone walking home through a blizzard. The noise Crazy Horse are making behind him is the one, basically, they will go on making, on and off, for the next four decades, up to and including the new Americana, a great reunion they and Neil tell us all about in this month’s terrific cover story by Jaan Uhelszki. As ever, enjoy the issue and if you want to get in touch you can email me at the usual address: firstname.lastname@example.org