I've been listening to Neil Young a lot over the past couple of weeks while making my way through Shakey, the definitive biography by Jimmy McDonough. He's a very specific artist and stands in his own space, although obviously comparisons can be made with the likes of Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. What seems to me particular about Neil to me is his loneliness, the sense of isolation and yearning to escape this loneliness, alongside the essential realisation that he's unlikely to ever fully do so and anyhow, this is what makes him Neil.
'When we got into the studio, the groove just wasn't there. And we couldn't figure out why. This was the major frustration for me as a young musician. It fucked me up so much.' Neil Young, talking about Buffalo Springfield
Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, his second solo album, seems as good a record as any of Neil's to think about when writing or talking about him. It's a very fiine record in its own right, but it's also a deeply haunted one. Haunted by the past and by the idea that was beginning to gain traction in his head about the artist that he wanted to be. Young had already made a name for itself, as a member of Buffalo Springfield, who made three very good albums featuring many fine songs, that Young penned and sometimes sung and also the first signs of his blistering guitar style, but somehow never completely fulfilled their enormous potential, Young had to break free from there and head out on his own in order to realise the vision in his head.
'What does Crazy Horse give Neil Young? A clean slate. They should never have been allowed to be musicians at all. They should've been shot at birth. They can't play. I've heard the bass player muff a change in asong seventeen times in a row. 'Cinammon Girl' - he still doesn't know it. And the drummer - boom, boom thack. Boom, boom thack. I'd say to Neil. What the fuck are you doing playing with those jerks?!, He'd say they're soulful. I'd say, ' Man, so is my dog, but I don't give him a set of drums.' David Crosby on Crazy Horse.
He also needed to find a set of musicians to work with in order to do this. These musicians were Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Danny Whitten, and most importantly Danny, the trio he started playing with in Topanga Canyon who came to be known as Crazy Horse and who on Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, together light the fuse for what came to be the Neil Young sound. Not the most adept musicians perhaps, although Whitten particularly gave Young something that he hadn't had before and helped him get to where he wanted to go. But musicians with an innate feeling and empathy for what he wanted to do.
'Feeling. Just a vibe - funky, honest and soulful. Direct.' Neil Young, when asked what Crazy Horse offered.'
Within seconds on Cinammon Girl, the opeing track on Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, it's immediately evident exactly what Crazy Horse brought to Young's table. It's one of the songs most readily associated with him of course and the sparks flying between the four musicians are genuinely palpable. Incendiary even, though that's a much abused term. It seems to fit here. The harmonies, the sound of the guitars and Young and Whitten harmonsiing together. It's almost alchemy. The template has been laid down straight off. At the end of the song, remarkably only three minutes in all, Young and Whitten's guitars, (or is it just Young's? It's difficult to tell sometimes with him?), call and respond in a quite astonishing way. It's as good an example of this kind of music as you could ever wish to hear.
The title track, which comes next is much more laid back and at ease with itself.. Sufficiently so to get a place on the Official Soundtrack of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, a film seemingly intent on airbrushing anything sordid and genuinely creepy about the late Sixties and early Seventies out of the picture. Not that there's anything wrong with that at all. There was plenty of sweetness on show during those times too and Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere captures that perfectly.
Round & Round (It Won't Be Long') shifts the rules round again. In some ways it seems more aligned with what Crosby, Stills & Nash, (sometimes with Young too), were trying to do with their early records. A calm before the storm of Altamont and the dread that descended in the Nixon years that followed. Whitten's backing vocals are incredibly poignant here. He almost seems to channel Emmylou Harris.
'It's a cry. A desperation plea...There's no murder in it. It's about blowing your mind with a chick.' Neil Young on Down By The River
Then Down By The River and the band stretch things out and show what they can really do. The song, in McDonough's words 'oozes dread...the guitar playing is violent.' Like a jagged, premonition of Television's Marquee Moon, a song it certainly bears parallels with, but without the virtuosity, it's by no means an easy listen, but it is a fully absorbing one. Only Creedence and The Stones at this point in time had any of the nascent fury in their bellies that's on display here.There's an almost unbearable sense of suspense and the idea that everything is really at stake here, that things could go either way as the song lulls then builds, then lulls and builds again and fires its way towards its close. By the end it's not clear if anything has been resolved.
'Danny Gave Neil the blackness he needed.' Jack Nitzsche on Danny Whitten ' Danny was the key.' Neil Young on Danny Whitten.'
Three tracks left, (there are only seven in all on the album), The Losing End (When You're On), drags the old lonesome cowboy routine i to Young territory, not for the first, or by any means the last time in his career. Once more it's Whitten's remarkable, keening backing vocals, that make this work so affectingly. His and Young's call and response vocals are almost like two hetrosexual men declaring their love for each other without actually having to do so openly. That happens in music sometimes. Given what happened to Whitten, only a few short years later, I find it incredibly moving.
Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets), is named in tribute to the band that Crazy Horse were before Neil coralled them. It has the bittersweet violin sound that Dylan later martialled on Desire. It seems to be a song sung from a prison cell and channels the spirit of Leadbelly's In The Pines, a song much later covered by Nirvana. Kurt Cobain in many senses was a fellow traveller or spiritual heir to Young but without the inner stillness that Young maintained to assuage the pain.
And on to Cowgirl In The Sand a reponse or complement to Down By The River. Ten minutes and more to round up Side Two. These two seem clearly to be the key tracks on the record, despite the abundant riches elsewhere. These are the two where it feels to me like the ones where the band are truly striking out for their own fresh territory, wanting to make their mark. Not as great musicians, as with the likes or Page and Clapton. Taking the less travelled route on the fork in the road.
Cowgirl In The Sand has greater conventional beauty than Down By The River but it's equally uncertain, troubled and vulnerable. Another 'desperate plea' in many respects. Again, on the surface to an unnamed woman, an idealised partner. Foregrounding Young's extraordinary voice, which is only here truly becoming to come into its own despite the great work he'd already done. Also of course, the eternally duelling guitars of Young and Whitten.
What a record this is. What a statement. Young and Crazy Horses first great work of art. By no means their last. A testament to the power of personal and group vision. Forwards and onwards into the Seventies, fired by an inner conviction that there was actually no earthly way back to The Garden.
'I liked Everyone Knows. I knew that was a good record. I knew that it was us.' Neil Young