Tag Archives: Danny Whitten

Cortez the Killer/Through My Sails – Neil Young

Zuma (1975) was the first Neil Young album to feature the second line-up of Crazy Horse, with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar and vocals in place of Danny Whitten, who had died a few years earlier of a heroin overdose.

Whitten had been a strong guitarist, with a rhythm-guitar style that still bore traces of the soul and doo-wop he had played when Crazy Horse had been Danny and the Memories. His contributions on guitar and harmony vocals were crucial to the success of Evetybody Knows this is Nowhere, the first record Young cut with Crazy Horse. While Young did include Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina on his records after Whitten died, they weren’t Crazy Horse records. Crazy Horse is a particular thing, and with Whitten gone, it didn’t exist.

When Talbot met Poncho, he had a hunch that he would click with Neil, and so he hyped Neil on him, insisting that Poncho could fill Whitten’s shoes. While Young did indeed like him, he quickly realised that Poncho was inexperienced and his guitar playing was still rudimentary, so he’d need to keep things simple for Poncho’s benefit. Zuma accordingly became an album of big, simple songs with big, simple chord changes, ideal for breaking in the new guy.

Fortunately simple suits Neil Young. He can take three or four chords and build a world out of them. He can make Cortez the Killer, for one thing. If you’re in any way a fan of Neil Young’s guitar playing you’ll probably know it, but if you don’t, you’re in for a treat. It may be his finest moment as an electric player: throughout the song’s seven minutes, Young’s playing is edge-of the-moment, incandescent.

Behind him, Crazy Horse rise to the occasion, as they always seemed to when Young’s songs demanded it. It’s a return to the sort of hypnotic, churning groove they patented on Everybody Knows this is Nowhere. Ralph Molina in particular plays a blinder; it may be his finest moment on any of Young’s records.

Cortez fades out and gives way to Through My Sails. The emotional transition is so perfect, you’d think that the two songs must have been designed to fit together this way: Cortez, the shattering end of something important; Through My Sails, the sound of someone summoning the strength to begin again.

In fact, Through My Sails had been recorded at an entirely separate, earlier recording session with Crosby, Stills & Nash for an aborted second CSNY album, to be called Human Highway.

Accounts differ as to what scuppered the record. Some say that Nash and Stephen Stills were still uneasy with each other having fallen out a couple of years earlier over Rita Coolidge; others put it down to the drugs (in his book, Wild Tales, Nash said they fell out over “some business, some cocaine thing”). Accounts even differ as to when Through My Sails was recorded – some sources say that it was recorded on Young’s ranch in 1973 as part of the first Human Highway session; others that it was cut during the rehearsals on Neil Young’s ranch for the 1974 CSNY reunion tour.

Most agree, though, it features Young on acoustic guitar, Stills on bass and Russ Kunkel on congas, with Crosby, Stills and Nash all adding their harmonies, and for a band not always known for their restraint (Stills is an incorrigible overdubber), it’s a sparse, beautiful performance. The four may have produced more technically impressive, tighter group vocals, but they never sounded more human.
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No, this is not a real album cover, but it is the picture that was intended as the cover, and it’s a pretty impressive mock-up

 

 

Last Dance – Neil Young

Last Dance is the highlight (but for some the nadir) of Time Fades Away, the out-of-print live album that began Young’s ‘Ditch’ trilogy. The story behind the live album is pretty well covered by Jimmy McDonough in Shakey, and has been covered in other places too, but here’s a quick version of it for the uninitiated.

After making Harvest, Young went on tour with the same band who’d featured on that record: Kenny Buttrey and Tim Drummond on drums and bass, Ben Keith on pedal steel and Jack Nitzsche on piano. Danny Whitten was supposed to play with them too, but his heroin use was out of control so Young sent him home. Whitten overdosed fatally shortly after, casting a pall over the tour and inspiring Young to write Don’t Be Denied.

Inevitably after such an event, the mood in the camp was dark, and it was immediately aggravated by haggling over money. Buttrey was a studio player from Nashville, and he informed Young that to drop his session work and hit the road he’d need $100,000, a figure which Drummond and Nitzsche then demanded too. Young matched Buttrey’s fee for all the band members, but was upset at the way Drummond and Nitzsche had handled the situation, confronting him during rehearsals rather than coming to speak to him privately. Nitzsche later said that the tour never recovered from this incident.

That wasn’t the last of Young’s problems. Buttrey, as a studio player, was unused to the physical demands of driving a rock band along every night on a stage (for 62 dates and with few nights off), and unprepared for the lifestyle or the craziness of touring; musicians as a general rule save their worst excesses for the road and tend to be more focused and together when recording, so this was quite a culture shock. Unhappy with Young’s behaviour and his constant demands that he play louder, Buttrey quit mid-tour, to be replaced by Johnny Barbata (of CSNY and the Turtles), who appears on all the full-band material on Time Fades Away. Nitzsche, meanwhile, one of the few people in Young’s circle prepared to go toe to toe with him, was drinking too much and had a bad attitude, chafing under Young’s heavy-handed leadership.

The stories that have come out about this tour, coupled with Young’s own comments (‘I had this band of all-star musicians who couldn’t even look at each other. It was a total joke’), had me prepared for a dismal, dirgey, tuneless assault from Time Fades Away. In fact, the music is both more delicate (three of the album’s eight songs feature Young alone at the piano – check out Love in Mind: it’s beautiful) and more upbeat than the record’s reputation suggests. The title track and Yonder Stands the Sinner, complete with Nitzsche’s pounding piano, are almost reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s New Orleansy choogling, albeit with Young singing in his trashed Tonight’s the Night voice. I can understand why the crowd in 1972 who just knew After the Goldrush and Harvest might have been taken aback at the roughness of some of his vocals, but Young’s singing is no more off-key here than on Tonight’s the Night, and is certainly more tuneful than, say, Dylan backed by the Hawks in 1966, so there had been plenty of precedent in rock’n’roll for such non-bel-canto singing.

Most unexpected given its reputation was Last Dance. McDonough makes it sound like a self-nullifying, caterwauling death march of a song (a ‘grating headache’, he calls it). On Time Fades Away (perhaps the versions played at other shows on the tour were more extreme and negative in vibe – I haven’t heard them all), Last Dance actually strikes me as capturing a familiar mood in Young’s music: summoning the strength to begin again after something important has come to a shattering end.

Still, the Time Fades Away myth is a powerful one. Maybe, to be cynical for a moment, that’s why Young insists on keeping it out of print. It’s a good Neil Young record, and in places – Last Dance being one of them – it’s excellent, but the reality doesn’t really match the myth. If you’ve heard Rust Never Sleeps (and certainly if you’ve heard Eldorado, Arc or Weld) you’ll probably find it quite tame.

And Elliott Mazer mixing the snare in the left channel and the rest of the drums in the centre is just as distracting and eccentric as it is on Harvest.

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Neil Young and his infamous Gibson Flying V,  Time Fades Away tour.