Crazy Horse rides again, for the first time.
There is considerable controversy surrounding this anxiously awaited release. For Neil Young fans, this is an unexpected gift—a live show of the first, short-lived incarnation of Crazy Horse in all their ragged glory. For Neil Young freaks, this is an overdue, unconscionably abbreviated version of a two-night stand at the Fillmore East that has long been legend. The verdict? For anyone who enjoys good music, this is a no brainer that comes heartily recommended, period.
Long story short: it is well known amongst aficionados that the always enigmatic Young has compiled a veritable treasure trove of live recordings that he—in typical fashion—predicted would begin to see the light of day over a decade ago. The hope was—and remains—that this disc signals only the beginning of a thorough appraisal of Young’s live career via “official” bootlegs, drawing inevitable comparisons to Bob Dylan’s critically worshipped and well-received series of sanctioned releases. So far so good. So what’s the problem? Well, this particular concert (actually a two-night engagement: March 6 & 7, 1970) was more than twice as long as the material collected and presented, leading to inexorable, and somewhat understandable claims of carelessness and even greed. If this inaugural release does not warrant a two-disc set, why not at least use up all 80 minutes available on the one disc (or 60, or 50)? Clocking in at 43 minutes, it is not unreasonable for the consumer to feel a tad cheated, particularly in our pirating-for-free era that has given rise to an online community that illicitly trades live recordings. One might conjecture that the bean counters at Reprise Records would want to entice as many legal and lucrative transactions as possible. Of course, there is the rub: how long until we see the “original, remastered and complete” version of this show hitting the streets for double the price?
For all the folks aghast that Neil Young did not contribute detailed liner notes, or commission a self-serving essay by a pointy-headed musicologist, they should be the first ones to understand that this is not how the man operates. Indeed, the fact that Young is still alive and kicking and making music is sufficient cause for respect, and appreciation (and possibly awe: Young lived as hard and fast as many of his compatriots, yet his pace and output have scarcely slackened over the years). In short and in sum, one can hardly fault him for refusing to rest (or rust) on his laurels and journey through the past—he already lived it, and he’s still living.
Ancillary baggage hopefully accounted for and dispatched with, only one issue remains: what does this concert sound like? It sounds like what it is: a remarkable document of one of the better bands of its time, performing live with palpable purpose and passion, achieving something pretty close to perfect. To appreciate why Young seems so enervated on these proceedings, it’s important to remember that he was, at the time, emerging from the first of many moves that seemed inscrutable and career-killing when he made them-in this instance having bolted from the hugely popular and influential band Buffalo Springfield. His first, eponymous solo album was somewhat slight, but still wonderful in its way, not straying too far from the distinctively psychedelic folk sound he’d developed in the mid-to-late ‘60s. It was the following year, on his second album, that rock’s real chameleon made his first major transformation. No one could have predicted the way Young—and his new band Crazy Horse—would sound because no band ever sounded like them before.
Their masterpiece, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is the big bang that spawned guitar grunge and the iconoclastic figure the flannel-clad Young cuts on the album cover, of course, would find its way onto countless stages and music videos more than 20 years later. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unvarnished and unpretentious as rock ever got, and that is one of the myriad reasons it has retained its unique vitality to this day. The production is clear and crisp, but it has that garagey vibe that has caused more than a few fans to wonder: what did these guys sound like live? The answer, finally available for those not fortunate enough to be around them in 1970, is, unbelievably: better.
The three songs taken from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere reveal a band that is tight and locked in: the confidence and chemistry of their interplay sound more like a band that had played together for years, not months. Put simply, Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums) are the ideal rhythm section for Young, and it speaks volumes that for all the styles and big-names he’s worked with over the decades, he continues to record and tour with Crazy Horse today. They surround Young like bark on a tree during the shorter, focused tracks, like “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and an early, more aggressive version of “Winterlong”. On the longer workouts, they offer Young a safety net of sound that frees him to indulge his irrepressible energy and ideas. It is, incidentally, on those longer songs (“Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”) that the contributions of guitarist/vocalist Danny Whitten can be properly assessed, and appreciated.
The wasteful death of Whitten from a heroin overdose barely two years after this recording devastated Young, and while the tragedy inspired some of his best and most haunting work (“The Needle and the Damage Done” from Harvest and the deeply personal and dark classics Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach), it also cast a gloomy shadow Young fought for years to emerge from. Whitten’s loss was crippling not only to Crazy Horse (though he was ably replaced by Frank “Poncho” Sampedro who has remained with the band ever since), but to rock music: aside from frequent collaborators Crosby, Stills and Nash, it is arguable that any single musician pushed Neil more or provided a natural and positive pressure that brought out his fighting best. To hear Young trade licks with Whitten is truly something to savor: you can catch yourself nodding along and suddenly realizing, “Holy shit! This is rock and roll”.
Nothing can really touch the studio version of “Down by the River”, but the sizzling take on “Cowgirl in the Sand” surpasses the original, making it-improbably-sound almost safe by comparison. Whitten and Young go for broke, and the entire band is on fire, churning out a take that is at once longer, louder and more dangerous: no words from Young could articulate what the loss of Whitten signified, it’s obvious in one listen. Whitten’s original number “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” was, until now, known from its inclusion on the seminal Tonight’s the Night, and now it is put in its proper, unedited historical context. In Young’s introduction to this song, his indication that he planned to record an album with Crazy Horse providing guitar and back-up vocals is a revealing-and tantalizing-tribute to the respect he had for his band mates’ abilities.
Finally, the most intriguing, and possibly most enjoyable song is the short, sublime “Wonderin’”. In typically optimistic fashion, Young introduces this tune as one that will show up “on the next album”; fans would actually have to wait until 1983 to hear it recorded in a radically different (see: rockabilly) form. On this number the services of Jack Nitzsche, who contributes electric piano, are most evident. His understated playing is never particularly noticeable-not surprising with the ceaseless twin guitar assault-but nevertheless serves purpose, providing contours and further space for Young and Whitten to thrash around.
And so, despite minor quibbles about its completeness, it is hard to fathom why any fan of Neil Young could pass on this release, which also comes strongly recommended for anyone who wants to hear live music performed with honesty and intelligent abandon. Context, as always, is key in rendering some final thoughts: indispensable as a historical document of what Crazy Horse sounded like in concert, Live at the Fillmore East is essential. And when one considers that Young was less than two years from dropping Harvest, the scope of his astonishing gifts and vision come into fuller focus: this perennial outsider was never a self-conscious stylist. As he famously remarked, traveling down the middle of the road became a bore so he headed for the ditch. Every time people have wondered (sometimes with good reason) where the hell he was going, he has always had the last laugh, proving that he knew where, and who, he was. As for the glories of the moment or remembrance of things past? Those things are already gone. Besides, everybody knows this is nowhere.