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How Crazy Horse Got Its Groove Back

Monday, 8 October 2012

B-b-b-bobbity--"Don't Cry No Tears (Neil Young cover)" (mp3)

I picked up Neil Young's autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, today, and it got me to thinking.  These days in rock circles, it is a given that Young has earned the moniker, "The Godfather of Grunge," but I'm not sure many people know where it started.  It started with Zuma.

Zuma, a brilliant record somewhat lost to the sands of time, is known, if at all, as the first context for the concert staple, "Cortez The Killer."  But if you've been running with Neil as long as I have, you know it as the re-emergence of Crazy Horse.  See, Crazy Horse died.  It died with Danny Whitten, Young's rhythm guitarist and onstage foil, who overdosed on heroin.  It died because its sound depended on the interplay between two electric guitars--a frenetic, scattershot lead player and a rhythm player who knew to play off of those attacks with fills and partial chords, not power chords.

There's a tendency to think that Crazy Horse kept going on Tonight's The Night, but that record, great as it is, has more of the feel of "let's record with whoever's around" than the tight focus of a working band.  And while the Crazy Horse members play their parts and the add-ons like Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith play theirs, it's a different sound.

Enter Frank Sampedro.  I don't know much about the man, and, frankly in some accounts like the book Shakey, descriptions of him are pretty disparaging, recognizing him more for his drug prowess than his playing, but there's no denying that he adds a crucial second guitar (and occasional keyboard) to the band's sound.  And while he's still not blasting barre chords, his is a heavier, more amplified sound than Whitten's. 

The original Crazy Horse had pretty thin guitars--that is not a criticism; it's a fact. Coming off of Buffalo Springfield in a town where the Byrds were in full flight, Young (on a Gretsch) and Whitten play with an electric, but country-tinged, sound.  The new sound on Zuma is fuzz and distortion. 

The first song, "Don't Cry No Tears," is a bridge between that old sound and the new.  It's a song that Young supposedly wrote when he was 14, and though it rocks pretty well, it relies on a wonderful verse/chorus/melody that would suit a bluegrass version just fine and countryish guitars.

By the 2nd song, "Danger Bird," everything changes.  Introduced with controlled feedback and a thumb-strummed super-amplified guitar, the song captures despair and loss not only with powerful lyrics, but with Young's controlled guitar signatures and vocals that color outside the lines. I'm not sure that any band besides Crazy Horse could play it.  It wouldn't cover well.  It's a Neil Young that no one had heard before at that time, the Neil Young that will pen "Like A Hurricane" and "Hey, Hey, My, My" and "Rockin' In The Free World."

The tension on Zuma exists, primarily, between the new life of the band and the death of Young's relationship with Carrie Snodgress, actress from Diary Of A Mad Housewife (you saw her as the mother in Pale Rider) and mother of Young's cerebal palsy-inflicted son, Zeke.  Like Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, which preceded it by several months and overshadowed it, Zuma paints the break-up using the full emotional palette, from vindictive ("Stupid Girl") to antagonistc ("Drive Back") to wisful ("Pardon My Heart").  Like Dylan, he uses different historical settings ("Cortez The Killer") to reveal the relationship; unlike Dylan, he turns the song back on himself, using the entire romantic reimagining of the Aztec culture as a set up for his own failings:

And I know she's living there,
And she loves me to this day,
I still can't remember when
Or how I lost my way.
Young does not throw words around as generously as Dylan, but his sentiment from "Lookin' For A Love" effectively captures the challenge presented to anyone who has ever pursued a relationship with an artist like Young or Dylan or Springsteen or Picasso or Frost or...:

But I hope I treat her kind,
And don't mess with her mind,
When she starts to see the darker side of me.In fact, Zuma contains some of my favorite lyrics ever, by Young or anyone else.  I'll admit to having a thing for vindictive albums and songs (like Dylan's "Positively 4th Street").  I think anger, and especially defiance, fuel rock as well as anything.  And never has that defiant tone been put to better use than in lyrics like these that close "Danger Bird:"

And though these wings have turned to stone,
I can fly, fly, fly, fly away,
Watch me fly above the city
Like a shadow on this life.
And the first line of the climactic verse from "Barstool Blues" gave me the title of my first novel that sits in a drawer:

Once there was a friend of mine
Who died a thousand deaths,
His life was filled with parasites
And countless idle threats,
He trusted in a woman
And on her he made his bets,
Once there was a friend of mine
Who died a thousand deaths.Yes, Zuma stepped outside of time and gave us the modern incarnation of Neil Young that most of us understand best today, the man standing onstage with "Blackie," his beloved Les Paul, ready to unleash some of the most powerfully-melodic and uncontrolled guitar notes ever played.  Zuma gave us that dichotomy between electric and acoustic that has paced Young's best albums.  Though its immediate predecessors, On The Beach and Tonight's The Night, are justly praised for their introspection and sense of immediacy, it is Zuma that feeds Eddie Vedder's imagination (and my writing) and Lou Reed's guitar playing (he famously goes nuts over "Danger Bird" in a Rolling Stone interview from the time) and that helps rock and roll to keep its edge through the excesses and electronics of the late 70's and 80's.  Best of all, it helped Crazy Horse to rise like a Phoenix from the flames of drug overdoses and to become the band that tours even now.

Correction: In reading Neil's Waging Heavy Peace, I've learned that he did indeed have "Blackie," his beloved Les Paul even for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.  I guess it's the amp set-up that has changed over time.

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