Neil Young Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

A Dreamer of Pictures: Neil Young’s ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ at 55

Alternating brooding rock anthems with ragged country-rock, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere set Neil Young on a musical quest that continues 55 years later.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Neil Young
14 May 1969

One day in early 1969, Neil Young was home in bed suffering from a bad case of the flu. It was a particularly nasty virus, leaving Young feeling “delirious half the time” and “pretty high in a strange kind of way”. His wife, Susan Acevedo, a restaurant owner whom he had married the previous December, brought him bowls of soup to combat the fever, but nothing seemed to help.

Young’s house overlooked Topanga Canyon, a half-hour’s drive from Los Angeles. The area was a hippie enclave populated by artists, writers, bikers, and social outcasts of every stripe. His balcony presented a sweeping vista of the Santa Monica Mountains dotted with old houses clinging to the rocky terrain. Young had married Susan in the Topanga house the previous December and a year later would install studio equipment to record his third solo album, After the Goldrush. But, for now, it was his den of isolation.

Wracked with fever, Young picked up an acoustic guitar, which he kept beside the bed. The instrument was tuned in double drop D, an alternate tuning he had used on “The Loner” and “The Old Laughing Lady”, two standout tracks from his eponymous debut album, released in late 1968. The record was only modestly successful, but it was an essential first step in Young’s solo career after the demise of Buffalo Springfield, the rock band he founded with fellow singer-songwriters Stephen Stills and Richie Furay in 1966.

Double drop D tuning is achieved by dropping the first and sixth guitar strings, usually in E, down a full step to D. Combined with the fourth string, already in D, the strings drone against open chords, like a rudimentary sitar. Robbie Krieger used the tuning on “The End”, from the Doors‘ 1967 debut album, to give the ominous psychedelic epic its ragga-like cadence. The tuning is close to D-modal (or DADGAD, where the second B string drops down to A), a folk tuning favoured by British traditionalists such as Davey Graham and Bert Jansch. In a 1992 Rolling Stone interview, Young declared Jansch, who also influenced Jimmy Page’s modal excursions in the music of Led Zeppelin, to be “as important as Jimi Hendrix“.

Sitting in bed, Young strummed the guitar while drafting lyrics on a sheet of notepaper. Before long, he had written “Cinnamon Girl”, destined to become one of his signature songs. The track is a simple uptempo rocker, but the droning D strings lend it a folky quality in touch with the modality heard in the Doors’ song. As the opening track on Neil Young’s next album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, “Cinnamon Girl” would mark his transition into a mature songwriter.

Neil Young wrote two more songs later that same day – surely one of the most productive days in songwriting history. “Down by the River” is a murder ballad as jagged as the Topanga hills. The track would give Neil and his new backing band, Crazy Horse, plenty of room to improvise during the instrumental sections. The third, “Cowgirl in the Sand”, is similarly structured while inhabiting a dry emotional valley wrought by Young’s fever dream. Both songs are in standard tuning with simple chords, destined to become jam band and campfire classics.

“Cinnamon Girl”, “Down by the River”, and “Cowgirl in the Sand” were the creative centerpieces of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, released in May 1969. Filled with brooding rock anthems and ragged country-rock, the record launched Neil Young’s ascendance into the ranks of the era’s top rock artists. The first of his many collaborations with Crazy Horse, it began a musical quest that continues to this day with the 2024 release of the live album Fuckin’ Up and subsequent tour.   

Released just six months apart, Neil Young and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere were drastically different albums. The November 1968 debut LP had a sound typical of the California studio system in the late 1960s. Never a technically strong singer, Neil Young sounds plaintive and almost shy against the lush studio backing of Los Angeles’ Wrecking Crew and Jack Nitzsche’s orchestral arrangements. This stylistic tension suits the emotional fragility of “The Loner”, “The Old Laughing Lady”, and “I’ve Loved Her So Long”. However, Nitzsche’s orchestrated “wall of sound”, inspired by his earlier work with Phil Spector, threatens to overwhelm Neil’s homespun charm. Only a long acoustic finale, the Dylanesque “The Last Trip to Tulsa”, had the sparse aesthetic Young would pursue later in his career.  

Tracked mostly live at Wally Heider Recording in Hollywood, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere made minimalism its guiding philosophy. Neil Young with Crazy Horse made brutally simple rock music devoid of the polish applied to the earlier set. Young and Danny Whitten teased raw emotion from their guitars – fat guttural chords shaking with vibrato. Billy Talbot’s bass and Ralph Molina’s drums harnessed reckless energy antithetical to the refined professionalism of the Wrecking Crew.

Young overdubbed his lead vocals on the album – a process he would later abandon in favor of all-live takes. However, his voice on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is much more assured in its idiosyncrasies. For the first time on record, listeners heard the weatherbeaten voice Emmylou Harris once described as “almost scary… very haunting… other-worldly.” Matched to this aesthetic are Whitten and Molina’s harmony vocals, a shadowy alternative to the vocal sheen of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, whose eponymous debut also appeared in May of 1969.

Neil Young met guitarist-vocalist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina while the trio were part of the Rockets, a six-member group. The Rockets released one self-titled album in 1968, a solid set of psychedelic blues-rock typical of the California scene at the time. Whitten shared guitar duties with brothers George and Leon Whitsell and lead vocals with George. The sixth member, violinist Bobby Notkoff, later played the haunting violin heard on “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)” on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. As the subtitle of that song implies, the Rockets died out once Young recruited Whitten, Talbot, and Molina into the newly-christened Crazy Horse.

The lumbering grooves Neil Young generated with Crazy Horse owed much to traditional country music, except the group’s fierce energy pushed everything into the red. Ralph Molina’s primordial drumming style stretched the rhythm of songs to the breaking point. Billy Talbot’s basslines seldom strayed far from the root notes of three and four-chord riffs. Neil’s guitar solos – played on “Old Black”, his battered 1953 Gibson Les Paul, through a saturated Fender tweed amplifier – wailed anxiously against Danny Whitten’s stark rhythm guitar.

The sound of Crazy Horse defied the corporatized polish beginning to inhabit California rock in 1969. Crosby, Stills & Nash’s debut signaled the new mellowness. Tracked also at Wally Heider Recording, Crosby Stills & Nash reflected Stephen Stills’s multi-instrumental prowess capped by the trio’s immaculate harmonies. Stills’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and Nash’s “Marrakech Express” were catchy folk anthems for the Woodstock generation. Although Neil Young would later join the trio to form Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, penning the group’s most vital single, “Ohio”, in 1970, he never really fit in, sitting out most of the album Déjà vu released the same year.

Young’s personal and musical devotion to Crazy Horse has been much more enduring. In his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, Neil reflects on the importance of Crazy Horse to his creative muse: “To me, [Crazy Horse] is a vehicle to cosmic areas that I am unable to traverse with others. Some people have asked me why I play with them… The answer is blowin’ in the wind. I can go places with them.” Such places were unforeseen in 1969, but the widespread influence they eventually had on punk, grunge, indie rock, Americana, and countless jam bands affirmed their legacy.  

Another crucial element in Young’s musical journey was producer David Briggs, the only other holdover from his debut album. The Wyoming-born record producer had been kicking around Los Angeles for a few years, taking odd jobs with Tetragrammaton Records, an independent label briefly notable for releasing John Lennon and Yoko Ono‘s controversial 1968 album, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. Briggs met Neil in 1968 while the latter was hitchhiking in Topanga Canyon. The two forged a bond that would last 18 albums until Briggs’s death from cancer in 1995.

Briggs’s production style involved bypassing conventional studio processing to record tracks directly to tape. Isolation between instruments in the studio was minimal, enabling the musicians to interact visually and musically as they performed. The approach was not entirely novel: soul records from Motown to Memphis were commonly tracked live, and the English engineer Glyn Johns used similar methods in sessions by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. But in Los Angeles’ studio system, Briggs’ barebones sound rattled against the isolation baffles, and individual tracking quickly became standard in multitrack recording.

Another Briggs trademark was his custom of rolling the tape machine on everything happening in the studio. Even the earliest run-throughs of a song could become the master take if the energy felt right.  When singer Robin Lane arrived in the studio to sing harmony vocals on “Round and Round (It Won’t Be Long)”, her practice run ended up as the album cut. “I thought we were rehearsing,” she told Young biographer Jimmy McDonough. “I didn’t even know what I was singing.”

Recorded at Wally Heider on 17 January 1969, “Down by the River” was the first track completed for Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Edited down to nine minutes from a handful of longer takes, the track captured Crazy Horse as they grappled with a song they had only just learned. The looseness of the performance emphasizes dramatic tension in the song – ominous verses (“Be on my side, I’ll be on your side”) building to a cathartic chorus (“Down by the river / I shot my baby”). Neil’s lengthy guitar solos, the first of which starts with a single note repeated 38 times, are combustible spontaneity in action.

Capturing such a key track on the first day set the tone for the sessions. On 18th January, the musicians and Briggs cut “Cowgirl in the Sand”, once again arranging the song into cryptic verses and a rousing chorus interspersed with lengthy guitar solos. Crazy Horse were on fire, playing some of the heaviest music imaginable in that pre-metal era. Forced into falsetto by the song’s soaring chorus, Young’s voice blooms into one of the most distinctive vocal sounds in all of rock music.  

Crazy Horse established their lopsided country vibe five days later when the group recorded “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” on 23rd January. The song is the closest thing on the album to a conventional country-rock tune, although even here the idiosyncrasies flourish. One of Young’s anthems of bewilderment, the song was an outtake from Neil Young ill-suited to that LP’s syrupy production. Stripped down to the frame, the song found a more definitive vibe as Crazy Horse scoured through the song’s simple chord changes and falsetto harmonies.

Two months separated the recording of these three tracks and the remaining four. Young used the interim to tour as a solo acoustic artist, ostensibly to promote Neil Young. On a live series recorded at Toronto’s Riverboat in February, released as part of Neil Young Archives Vol. 1: 1963-1972, he sounded hushed and reserved – more the contemplative folkie of his debut album than the flannelled frontman of Crazy Horse. The trio joined him for other dates around the US, mainly in nondescript barrooms and opening sets for more established acts. Young was already a semi-established star thanks to the success of Buffalo Springfield, whose song “For What Its Worth” (penned by Stephen Stills) hit the US Top 10 in 1967. But with Crazy Hors,e he opted to downplay his leadership to build cohesiveness within the group.

With touring completed for now, the four musicians re-entered Wally Heider Recording with Briggs on the 23rd of March. They had their most productive day, cutting three of the remaining four tracks for Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. The most memorable of these, “Cinnamon Girl”, made the perfect album opener. By then, the song had morphed from the love ditty Neil drafted in his sickbed – lines like “Purple canaries that live in the air” were nixed – into a melodic yet caustic rock and roll anthem.

Lasting under three minutes even with Neil’s ragga-inflected guitar coda, “Cinnamon Girl” was concise and direct in ways the tracks recorded in January were not. The song became notorious, both for its implied sexism (“Ten silver saxes, a bass with a bow / The drummer relaxes and waits between shows for his cinnamon girl”) and its iconic “one note” guitar solo comprised of a repeating pedal note. Nothing else in 1969 sounded quite like it.

Also cut on 23rd March were “The Losing End (When You’re On)”, a rambling country-rocker, and “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)”, the set’s starkest and most foreboding dirge. Paired together on Side Two, the songs reflected contrasting aspects of Young’s country influence. “The Losing End”, with its loping rhythm and lovelorn lyrics, was an off-kilter take on contemporary Nashville and Bakersfield. “Running Dry”, full of dread and despair, echoed the fatalism of country-gospel duo the Louvin Brothers and Hank Williams at his darkest.

“Round and Round (It Won’t Be Long)” was the last song recorded for the album on the 24th of March. Recorded in a different Hollywood studio, Sunwest, it featured just Young and Danny Whitten on guitars, augmented by Robin Lane as a third vocalist. The more wistful feel of this song reflected its origins as one of Young’s outtakes from Buffalo Springfield. A demo of the song later surfaced on a 2001 boxed set of Buffalo Springfield material. Once again, however, an older outtake drew new breath from Briggs’s and Crazy Horse’s simple infusions.

Comprising just seven songs, the finished LP of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was a brief yet powerful introduction to the sound of Neil Young with Crazy Horse. The country-rock elements highlighted Young’s affinities with earlier sets by Bob Dylan (John Wesley Harding), the Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo), and Buffalo Springfield’s three releases. However, nothing on those albums matched the sheer sonic impact of “Cinnamon Girl”, “Down by the River”, and “Cowgirl in the Sand”, all of which bridged an unforeseen gap between folk rock and hard rock.

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, for one, took note, quoting lines from “Down by the River” (“Be on my side, I’ll be on your side / There is no place for you to hide”) during Led Zeppelin’s 1970 performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Neil Young joined the ranks of top arena acts in the 1970s, touring both with and without Crazy Horse throughout the decade. As punk went scorched earth on classic rock in the late 1970s, Young, especially with Crazy Horse, was a rare case of an “older” artist maintaining credibility. By the early 1990s, Neil Young and Crazy Horse were celebrated forerunners of alternative rock and the grunge movement and aesthetic.   

Young’s guitar solos on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere were themselves a fount of influence. They echo the styles of countless guitarists, including Trey Anastasio, Peter Buck, Kurt Cobain, J. Mascis, and Thurston Moore. Like his singing, Young’s guitar playing channeled emotion unbothered by conventional standards of technical prowess. His almost mantric style of soloing was a viable alternative to the fire-breathing blues of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page. Even the brilliant master of the Telecaster Roy Buchanan covered “Down by the River” in his repertoire, applying his own blazing chops to the song’s forlorn landscape.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere would turn out to be Young’s only complete studio album with the original Crazy Horse. A year later, Whitten, Talbot, and Molina contributed to several tracks on After the Goldrush and the group recorded a live set released in 2006 as Live at the Filmore East (part of the Neil Young Archive series). The early daze ended on 18 November 1972 when Danny Whitten – addicted to heroin, unable to play, ousted from both Crazy Horse and Young’s later group, the Stray Gators – died in Los Angeles. Crazy Horse found capable substitutes in Frank “Poncho” Sampedro and Nils Lofgren, but Whitten’s death scarred everyone who knew him.    

Following the commercial breakthrough of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Young went on to conceive bigger-selling and more musically varied albums. After the Goldrush retained much of the fire of its predecessor on songs like “Southern Man” and “When You Dance I Can Really Love”. 1974’s On the Beach and 1975’s Tonight’s the Night – both partly conceived as tortured elegies for Whitten – dialed up the emotional catharsis even further. 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps (and its companion piece Live Rust) absorbed the spirit of punk, while 1990’s Ragged Glory (and its live follow-ups Weld and Arc) saw Crazy Horse become flannelled statesmen of nineties rock.

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere set this arc in motion. Its sound is that of a band getting to know one another, feeling their way over mostly uncharted territory. Its haggard arrangements and threadbare emotional fabric had few precedents in the pre-metal world of 1969. At the same time, simple melodies, infectious guitar riffs, and oddball harmonies make its songs memorable. The vastness and variety of Neil Young’s catalogue make it impossible to single out one album as the definitive representation of his work. However, as a formative statement of purpose, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere was a crucial touchstone on his journey to somewhere.


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McDonough, Jimmy. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography. Vintage Canada, 2003.

Young, Neil. Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream. Blue Rider Press, 2012.

Young, Scott. Neil and Me. McClelland & Stewart, 1985.