Straight From The Crazy Horse's Mouth
They look like a ravaged bunch of card school cronies but they're the legendary Neil Young And Crazy Horse and they've just released one of the year's rock masterpieces. Neil Young talks about the fine line between genius and madness.
Somewhere around the thousand numbers along Pacific Coast Highway sits the Malibu Beach Hotel - "a small hotel". its prosaic stationery assures prospective clients, "on the beach".
Each hotel room consists of a little, low bed, a fridge you virtually need pliers to open and about three foot square of carpet between the bed and the door. However, these Ernest Saunders-style living conditions or no, the view of the Pacific Ocean through the sash windows is so spectacular that the Malibu Beach Hotel's proprietors couldn't, in all conscience, charge you any less than 200 dollars a night for the privilege of sleeping next to it. Down on the beach, a family of fat people cavort noisily in the lapping waves. It's a beautiful day.
Across the hotel car-park are strolling four men. With their straggly hair, creeping paunches, miscellaneous tattoos, dark glasses and mid-afternoon squints, they look like a particular ravaged card school from the Odd Couple, say - emerging from an all-night tequila and poker session into the morning light. One of them carries a bottle of Evian water, holding it like a doctor would hold a sample.
Between them, and with very little prior warning, these men have just released one of the year's rock masterpieces. They are Crazy Horse, the album's called 'Ragged Glory' and the one with the water is Neil Young.
The band mosey into room 103 and slump around a table, a set-up that only accentuates the card school idea. Neil Young, facing the sash windows and the ocean beyond, looks balefully at the tape recorder over the rim of his shades. His eyes are extraordinary in the light of the sun. Red-rimmed and manic, they even seem at times to be looking in separate directions. His head is covered by a cyclist's cap, so all that can be seen is the odd sprout of grey-brown hair and a couple of bushy eyebrows. His main expression is the classic Neil Young mad frown. And although he never opens the bottle, he never lets go of it.
Beside him sits Ralph Molina, Crazy Horse's drummer, a small, dark-skinned man with a tendency to doodle prolifically. During the day, as interviewers come and go, he's come up with some pretty intense-looking diagrams. For Select, he opts for a maze of interweaving triangles.
Next to Molina, cynically attempting to jog his doodling arm, is Neil Young's guitar foil, Frank Sampedro. Stocky, silvery and very approachable, he joined Crazy Horse in the mid-'70s, after the band's original guitarist, Danny Whitten, died of a heroin overdose.
And, coming round the table, there's bassist Billy Talbot, a fast talker with a cracked voice and a simple answer to the first question that must be asked these guys. Why does Neil Young keep coming back to Crazy Horse to make his music?
"We take showers regularly," shrugs Talbot.
Neil Young, after the laughter has died down, embarks on a kind of explanation.
"First of all," he says, in his strange, chirpy voice, "people get the idea that Crazy Horse is backing me, cos I do so many other things. But, really, it's me and Crazy Horse playing together. The record is together. There's no leader. I have the record deal. But Crazy Horse and me are a group. It's just that I don't always play with that group.
"But when we're together," he continues as the other three begin to nod and smile, "it's a special thing. We've been together for so long - I've known Ralph and Billy for 25 years - it's not the same as when I work with anybody else, even though I've had some great experiences with other people. Crazy Horse is a rock band, and we make a great sound. And we sound like no one else."
'Ragged Glory' is Neil Young's follow-up to last year's 'Freedom'. 'Freedom' had been Young's best in ages, an album which put a heart full of hate up against a soul full of hope and made for one of 1989's most thrilling listens. It had stunning songs like 'Don't Cry', 'Someday' and 'No More', as well as the now-famous 'Rockin' In The Free World'. And it raised substantial hopes that Neil Young might finally have exited the dark, hopeless shell of mediocrity that had dogged him for nigh-on a decade.
On occasions since the release of 'Freedom' his world, which has at times appeared to be one of besotted solo perseverance and fuck-everyone-else, has collided with the changing world outside, and intriguing sightings have resulted.
There was a blistering, almost too intense solo acoustic gig at Hammersmith Odeon in December, where he stunned the audience by ending the show with a wracked, stricken version of his old song 'Ohio', dedicating it to the young Chinese student who stood in front of the encroaching tanks in Tiananmen Square; two songs at the Mandela Wembley extravaganza ("it was important to do that, it represented feeling of hope"); and an appearance at Farm Aid in the States to underline his support for the Mid-West farmers' crisis.
Now, after all these hopeful portents, comes 'Ragged Glory' to consolidate the great work done by 'Freedom'. A record of great heaviness and much emotion, it's kind of a meeting point between the 'Freedom' album and the best of the primal scream- like material on the same year's limited edition 'Eldorado' mini-LP.
'Ragged Glory' is, basically, guitars and more guitars, and as such is fit to sit at the same table as any of Neil Young's previous triumphs, 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' and 'Zuma' included. It might well be the best of the batch.
It's also strangely reassuring to note that with all these albums' different line-ups and approaches, it doesn't look like Neil Young is taking on the '90s with any definite strategy in mind.
"Well, they all have a lot of songs in A minor," he grins lopsidedly. "They're getting better all the time. 'This Note's For You'...'Life'...'Life' was before 'This Note's For You', right? The whole thing about 'Life was it was a sentence. A prison sentence. Life. That's how I meant it. Kind of like being on Geffen Records," he mutters. "What was before that? 'Old Ways'? Now, 'Old Ways' (his much-ridiculed 1985 "country" album), see, that's one of my favourites. I went back to my hometown in Canada just a while ago, and there's all these old-timers comin' up and goin', Oh, Neil, you and Waylon (Jennings) sing so beautiful together on that album, heh heh. For several people, y'know, that's the one. In North Ontar-i-o... There's different strokes."
Can you imagine anyone liking everything you've ever done?
"No," he replies without hesitation.
And yet there are people who do. Fanzine editors and so on.
"Well, they must be fuckin' completely crazy," he giggles, rolling his eyes.
"They like you, man," Talbot teases him. "That's al] there is to it."
"They must have some kind of personality disorder," decides Neil. "These are people that get up in the morning and comb their faces. Haw haw haw. I mean, they...they analyse everything and they categorise it, and they collect all the different versions and all the artwork variations from all the different countries, and they try to be first with the Iyrics. It's very fascinating for me. If I ever want to know what I'm doing, or if I want to check up on whatever's going on, I just take a look at the last issue. And that way I can see what I did wrong almost immediately, haw haw haw.
"But Peggy (his wife), she saw an old piece in Broken Arrow (UK Neil Young 'zine) from the '60s on the Buffalo Springfield where they asked me, If you got married, what would you want your wife to be like? And I go, Aw, y'know, just somebody to make sure I got clean clothes and my piano's working OK...Oh shit. I had a little trouble with that one, man."
Frank Sampedro chuckles: "I read an old interview where you're saying, Well, I don't know what I'm doing next. I only think two weeks in advance and one week behind. Heh heh. I thought, Yep, that's the guy I know. He hasn't changed a bit."
Neil Young's relationship with his fans has taken several batterings over the years, as changes of direction and new frontiers led to simple, downright bad albums, and gigs got gimmicky and shallow. The nadir of his professional career may have come in 1986 when Geffen Records sued him for abuse of contract, but he'd clearly been working towards that perverse goal for some time before then.
And yet there are still 40-year-old men and women attending every Neil Young show you care to name, mouthing the words of 'After The Goldrush' and cheering when he sings the line "I felt like getting high". What does he think of these disciples?
"I try not to think about them," he mutters. "I don't ignore them. But I don't ponder them. It's not really my place to think about them. It's a little embarrassing."
Does the thought of attracting more and more young people excite him? Do they give him an easier time?
"Yeah," he says immediately. "I'm looking forward to playing to those people. This album should give them something to really bite into. And, for the old people who've been listening to us for a long time, this one sorta vindicates them. It wasn't a mirage that you heard. You were right. We do sound good."
"Yeah," says Talbot. "You were right, Dad - they do rock!"
The old Neil Young beef about the music industry being fundamentally a crock of shit with no redeeming features and a whole lot of crimes to answer for come Judgment Day has usually manifested itself in squabbles with his record companies and MTV. With 'Ragged Glory', he's declared himself available for a challenge.
"That's why we put these long endings on these fuckin' songs," he declares, referring to the feedback outros of 'Fuckin' Up', 'Over And Over', 'Love To Burn' and 'Farmer John'.
"Everything now is concerned with formats. This is, Fuck your format. Put this in your own fuckin' format. (He assumes a glib DJ voice). OK, that was a new song, ah, there, by, ah, Neil Young. Nine and a half minutes long, with a 45-fuckin'-second last note. Rilly hope you enjoyed it. Haw haw haw."
The feedback endings are fabulous enough (Young claims they're among his favourite pieces of music on the album), but when it comes to his actual guitar playing during the songs - solo constructions and biting, chopping rhythm figures - genuflection and wondrous gazing are the only acceptable reactions. The man is, quite simply, in sizzling form, right from the first twisted notes of 'Country Home' to the final buzz of 'Mother Earth'. There's a tremendous elemental beauty to Neil Young's guitar playing on 'Ragged Glory', with Crazy Horse's backing inspiring him to yet more stellar examples, sometimes three or four solos in a song.
What does he think about when he's playing?
"I don't think," he says firmly. "My head has nothing to do with it. I...I think it's my whole soul. My whole body and my whole soul. Just doin' the fuckin' dance of the pyramids."
How good are you, technically?
"Terrible," he drawls, grinning. "Well, either that or I'm a fuckin' genius, man, beyond fuckin' reproach."
If the former is the case, how do you keep yourself terrible after 35 years of playing guitar?
"It's a natural thing..." he frowns.
"Because he hasn't tried to change," interrupts Talbot.
"He has a giant soul," announces Sampedro loudly, and there's a moment of awkwardness. "A giant soul. There's nothing technical about it. You shouldn't talk technical."
"It's called musical innocence," adds Talbot. "That's what Neil has."
"All I know," declares the man himself, "is...the music gets to a certain point...and you leave the ground..."
This time there is silence, as the four musicians consider the implications of this. "While you're up there," he goes on, "everything's OK. But eventually you've gotta come back down, and that's when things get hard to explain. When I come offstage, I feel a bit disoriented. If I've been playin' a good show, I'm really fuckin' disoriented. I really wanna know, geographically, what's happening. I'm trying not to walk into any walls. Usually I'm hyperventilating. Probably a little bit echo-ey in the head. Trying to find my way around."
At the risk of getting punched here, there seems to be a consensus among people who write about you that you are, with respect, absolutely mad.
Silence. Sash windows. Bottle of water. Tape recorder.
How do you feel about this?
"Hey," he says softly, "I'm fuckin' crazy, man. I'm totally fuckin' crazy. Just look at me."
He bows his head and looks over the shades. His eyes, illuminated in the bright blue Pacific sun, frown out. They appear to be in separate sync, colourless but for a faint red liquid aspect around the edges. His famous bushy eyebrows are rearing up dramatically and his lips are pursed and upturned in wry affirmation of his casual announcement. He is, as he says, totally fuckin' crazy.
It's gone a bit quiet again. Molina is doodling absent-mindedly, Sampedro is grinning to himself like a good-natured uncle and Talbot is gazing impassively at the far wall from behind shades. So it's true, then. After all the rumours and stories and break-ups and make-ups and albums and performances and charities and tragedies, it all comes down to something this simple. Craziness.
"Yeah," says Neil Young, and shrugs.
"I'm doing what I'm doing," he frowns later, when the conversation has recovered a little of its jocularity. "And it has nothing to do with image-ing. Image-ing is killing the record industry, but it won't kill me.
"Luckily," he says, gesturing to the Crazy Horse contingent, "I've found these very straight people to balance me out completely. They keep me on the straight and narrow."
And if they weren't here?
He considers this: "There'd be blood all over the walls."
Neil, what will your next LP sound like?
"I don't know."
Will it have anything to do with what anyone else is doing?
"I don't think so."
They wander away, "four old gunslingers" in Billy Talbot's words, already at the rehearsal stage for another momentous Neil Young And Crazy Horse tour. In deference to Young's Spinal Tap fixation, it'll very probably be called the Smell The Horse tour.
As they disappear from view, something Frank Sampedro had said during the conversation drifts back into the memory.
"He has a giant soul."
And Neil Young, whose soul it was, had juggled his unopened bottle of water, sung "I'm mad, I'm mad" in the style of Michael Jackson's 'Bad', giggled goofily and settled back into his chair, staring balefully once again - one eye on the ocean, one eye on whatever - from over the rim of his shades.