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by Justin Farrar

June 5, 2012

Classic Rock Crate Digger: Neil Young and Crazy Horse's Long, Hard Road

by Justin Farrar  |  June 5, 2012

Buffalo Springfield, Pearl Jam, Stray Gators, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Devo, Booker T. & The M.G.'s, The Ducks... Neil Young might've penned a tune called "The Loner," but as that list demonstrates, the rock icon loves working with a group. None more so than Crazy Horse, the garage-bred, rough-and-tumble roots-rock trio that has backed Young on many of his most sonically challenging (and emotionally tumultuous) albums, from Rust Never Sleeps and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to Tonight's the Night and, now, the new  Americana.

As a member of Buffalo Springfield, Young first met Crazy Horse in the late '60s. Then going by the name The Rockets, they were popular mainstays on Los Angeles' rock-club circuit. The anchor of the group was a brilliant but deeply troubled guitarist and songwriter by the name of Danny Whitten. After Young's self-titled debut in '68, he asked the group to join him for the following year's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The record's best tracks ("Down by the River," "The Losing End (When You're On)," "Cowgirl in the Sand") established the new collaboration's striking aesthetic: Young's screeching melancholy, brooding introspection and inner turmoil all wrapped inside the group's primitive rock and roll minimalism, buoyed by prickly feedback and grooves stripped to their barest bones.

But despite the record's critical and commercial success, Young kept Crazy Horse at arm's length for most of the early '70s, often working with CSN&Y or his other group, The Stray Gators, instead. The reason for this revolved around Whitten and his violently self-destructive drug abuse. According to Jimmy McDonough's excellent biography Shakey, Young invited Whitten to stay at his northern California ranch in an attempt to help him kick his habits. Sadly, though, the musician's downward spiral was irreversible. Even Crazy Horse was forced to give him the boot, eventually.

Precipitated by Whitten's death in '72, Young and Crazy Horse (with Nils Lofgren filling the guitar slot) unleashed one of rock and roll's great bummer albums, Tonight's the Night. Not long afterwards, the band hooked up with Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, who has been their full-time guitarist ever since. It's this lineup -- Sampedro with bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina -- that has backed Young on many of his most-loved records, beginning with Zuma in 1975 and including American Stars 'n Bars, Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust. These last two found Young and the Horse exploring textures of feedback and distortion that were extreme even by puck rock's standards.

Since the Rust era, Young has used Crazy Horse sparingly. Typically, he'll release a string of solo albums, then, out of the blue, hook up with his old friends, only to soon begin the cycle anew. This approach has generated some excellent music, including Ragged Glory, the vicious live album Arc and Sleeps With Angels.

For an intimate and at times painful look at the unique relationship between Neil Young and Crazy Horse, definitely check out director Jim Jarmusch's 1997 documentary Year of the Horse. It's candid, sloppy, loud and passionate -- just like their best music together.

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