Neil Young & Crazy Horse Return to the Stage: A Crash Course on Their Legendary Collaboration

Neil Young Crazy Horse
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Neil Young + Crazy Horse perform at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Sept. 27 1978.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse just announced two shows at Warnors Theatre in Fresno, California, May 1 and 2. This will be the first time the veteran rocker and his long-running backing band will take the stage together since 2014, but this is nothing new for the Horse -- many times over, they have fitfully gone silent for years on end only to unpredictably return to the studio and stage.

Young has performed with many backing ensembles over the decades, including The Stray Gators and Promise of the Real, but Crazy Horse is typically only trotted out for special occasions -- or just on the boss' whim. The Horse, which has consisted of Frank “Pancho” Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina since the '70s, still dispose of what 99 percent of bands would consider the absolute basics -- staying on beat, evolving your sound, maybe introducing a new chord.

But what Crazy Horse has always lacked in technical theory, they make up in sheer passion, emotion and hypnosis. By turning off their rational frontal lobes and simply playing from the heart, to witness the Horse is less like a rehearsed night out and more like beholding Godzilla lumbering through Tokyo. Frankly, the Horse is utterly fearless of “sucking” by traditional metrics, of playing in circles endlessly in search of a center, of even falling flat on their faces at times. But that unique bravery makes them achieve so much more -- they’ve influenced everyone from Drive-By Truckers and Songs: Ohia to Milk Music, but there is simply no one on Earth like them.

In honor of Crazy Horse’s triumphant return next week, here is a crash course on the band’s history, the development of their unique sound and how their legendary affiliation with Neil Young came to be.

1963-1968: Requiem for the Rockets
Crazy Horse didn’t start out with that wooly, rambunctious sound. In fact, the seed of the group was in doo-wop -- they began as a vocal group called Danny and the Memories. And if you ever want to get to the essence of who Crazy Horse was, is and will be, Danny Whitten is equally as important to the story as Young. Best to hear it from the (ahem) horse’s mouth: in Young’s idiosyncratic autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, he claimed Whitten "was better than me. I didn't see it. I was strong, and maybe I helped destroy something sacred by not seeing it.” The Memories eventually tried on psychedelic folk as The Psyrcle before eventually gigging around L.A. as The Rockets -- who Young hooked up with while playing at Whiskey a Go Go in his first band, Buffalo Springfield. Few “We should jam!” buzzed bump-ins would ever prove more fortuitous than this.

1969-1970: “Like Tequila and Salt”
Neil Young released his debut, self-titled solo album in 1969, but it wasn’t until he hooked up with the Rockets that he fully grew into his own artist. While his debut was dressed-up and overproduced with a tentative 23-year-old songwriter plopped in the middle, his first album with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, is revelatory. The group, thankfully, never quite shed their doo-wop roots, and every one of Neil’s songs is given a swing, a kick or a call-and-response vocal. Like an oyster producing a lustrous pearl from an agitating agent, Neil’s meeting with the renamed Rockets alchemized gnarly, sloppy energy into molten beauty. Suddenly, all bets were off on traditionally correct playing, as long as you did it with passion -- the flaws were recontextualized as a feature, not a bug. Producer Jack Nitzsche perhaps said it best: "In my humble opinion, Crazy Horse is to Neil Young what The Band was to Bob Dylan. As perfect a complement as tequila and salt." No matter what routes he would go on to take with or without the Horse, their grooves were tattooed on Young’s psychology forever.

1970-1972: The Horse on Pause
Neil Young & Crazy Horse enjoyed a short victory lap for their happy union, performing some well-received gigs the winter of 1970, including an engagement with Steve Miller and Miles Davis at the Fillmore East. The group headed back into the studio briefly for After the Gold Rush, with Whitten’s health beginning to decline as he self-medicated his rheumatoid arthritis with heroin. But perceiving that Whitten may not have been up to the task, Young decided to put the Horse in the barn for the next two years, hooking up with future Young mainstays Ben Keith and a teenaged Nils Lofgren for his two greatest commercial successes, After the Gold Rush and Harvest. Despite the relative absence of the Horse while Young reaped commercial hosannas, this is still an important period for the group, since Lofgren and Keith would go on to act as crucial auxiliary Horsemen from then on out.

1971-1972: Please Take My Advice
While Young went off with the Stray Gators, Crazy Horse was able to capitalize a bit on their new success, recording two solo albums for Reprise Records. But Whitten wasn’t well. His heroin dabbling had developed into a full-bore addiction, and the others weren’t having it, kicking him out during the sessions for their album Loose. Young still gave him a chance to rehearse behind his hit solo album Harvest, but Whitten still couldn’t stay on task, lagging terribly in his guitar parts. Young understandably felt he couldn't risk disaster on this crucial tour, and sent Whitten away with $50 and a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. What happened next would haunt Neil for the rest of his life, as Whitten split and died of an overdose that evening. He explained: “I had to tell him to go back to L.A. 'It's not happening, man. You're not together enough.' He just said, 'I've got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?' And he split. That night, the coroner called me.

1973-1974: Neil Grabs the Lifeline
A crestfallen Neil, feeling responsible for Whitten’s death, did what he would continue to do for decades to deal with the pain -- he cut some music. But the music that was wrenched out of Neil as a grief response is stuff for the ages. Under obligation to undergo the tour for which Whitten had tried his best, but he could not, Young headed out on a troubled tour of stadiums and basketball arenas that would be immortalized on the infamous, long-out-of-print live album Time Fades Away. With an incoherent mishmash of his usual guys onstage -- Ben Keith, the Stray Gators, Jack Nitszche, Crosby, Stills and Nash, probably the mailman -- Young mostly took the opportunity to get smashed on tequila and complain about the sound. It was a rough time, and he sure sang about it for his next project, Tonight’s the Night, for which Young brought out Keith, Nils Lofgren and the surviving members of Crazy Horse for a blacked-out wake recorded in the back of a stereo equipment store. The darkest moment of all on Night, however, is the sudden inclusion of a Horse concert recording from 1970, “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” -- a Whitten-sung ode to scoring heroin.

1975-1978: Don’t Cry No Tears
After a series of personal lows for Young that resulted in some of his most evocative, lasting music, the clouds cleared around the time Young moved out to Malibu. Newly separated from actress Carrie Snodgress and with some free time after Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young aborted some studio time, he was determined to enjoy his newfound bachelorhood, even getting the Horse back together to jam. Enter Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, a madcap San Fernando Valley head-shop owner who was buddies with the group. According to Jimmy McDonough's infamous Young biography Shakey, Sampedro had become a Crazy Horse fan while he “wandered between California and Mexico, dabbling in a variety of endeavors of dubious legality that gave him great insight into the human condition.” Sampedro ended up joining the Horse for the Zuma sessions, and his risible presence is all over the album's celebratory vibe -- the material’s mostly half-written, rather chauvinistic jams about cutting the ol’ ball and chain, but it’s hard to not grant the Horse this boys’ night out after their darkest years.

1979-present: On a Twisted Road
Young recorded his final great album for some time in 1979, the acoustic-electric hybrid classic Rust Never Sleeps. From there, Young would find many new muses -- Devo, Pearl Jam, Booker T. and the MG’s -- while returning to the Horse less and less frequently. However, the increasingly rare events in which Young called up his old mates to jam sometimes resulted in their best-ever work, with the Horse developing new shades of atmosphere and nuance whether they intended to or not. 1994’s Sleeps With Angels is mostly oversold these days as Young’s reaction to Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but Crazy Horse turned in brooding, understated performances they’d never repeat, with their Neanderthal approach put on time-out in favor of hushed flutes, brushed drums and marimba. Still, Crazy Horse were rarely the main attraction, only being trotted out every decade for so-so one-offs (Broken Arrow) or ill-conceived multimedia projects (Greendale). Yet, something changed around 2012, as Young grappled with a writer’s block that had plagued him since he took a hiatus from pot-smoking and the band recorded a fun but trifling album of kindergarten standards, Americana. Their second album that year, Psychedelic Pill, wasn’t only far superior to that throat-clearing album, it may have been the greatest album Neil Young ever laid to tape with Crazy Horse. It all begins with “Driftin’ Back,” a stormy, 27-minute rant about low bit-rate sound quality and his choice of religion (“I might be a pagan,” Neil notes in his hauntingly still-boyish tenor) and ends with “Walk Like a Giant,” which features the Horse at its most feral, ending with minutes upon minutes of quaking amplifier noise -- crash, crash, crash. It will clear the room at any party and makes even the band’s sprawling guitar explorations in the ‘70s look quaint by comparison. The Horse ran free.


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