Friday 20 November 2009

"Crazy Horse" (1970) (News, Views and Music 48)

 “It’s not that I don’t mean every word I say, it’s just my love for you it changes every day” Look at all the things that I got, look at all the things that I got, look at all the things that I got...” “If this is heaven, then I hate hell!” “I can tell by your eyes that you’ve probably been cryin’ forever...” “Walk on, talk on, baby tell no lies, don’t you be caught with a tear in your eyes, sure enough they’ll be selling stuff when the moon begins to rise, pretty bad when you’re dealing with the man and the light shines in your eyes’ ‘Don’t let nobody read that letter I wrote you, it’s words are true and meant just for you’

Crazy Horse “Crazy Horse” (1971)

Gone Dead Train/Dance, Dance, Dance/Look At All The Things/Beggar’s Day/I Don’t Want To Talk About It/Downtown/Carolay/Dirty, Dirty/Nobody/I’ll Get By/Crow Jane Lady

One of the joys of writing websites like this that seem to go on forever and then some is that I can draw people’s attention to the forgotten talents nestling in amongst the superstars and demi-gods on this list. The Crazy Horse line-up circa 1971 features no less than two truly forgotten musical geniuses in guitarists Danny Whitten and Nils Lofgren, both of whom should have been huge superstars by now only complications and obstacles got in the way of their paths of greatness to greater or lesser extents. And, if I’m allowed to stretch that statement a little to include genius performers rather than composers then I could probably include the other key members of this album too – bassist Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina and guest keyboardist Jack Nitzsche are all household names to Neil Young fans but little known outside them despite their own considerable talents.

Not that ‘Crazy Horse’ is a perfect album. Depending on how you approach it and how you feel each time you listen to it it’s either the product of great talents fading away, the greatest band in the world reduced to half speed and energy or an emotional goodbye to a talent who already knew he was failing. Back in 1970 the 3-piece Crazy Horse were at the peak of their powers, backing Neil Young on one of his most loved and celebrated albums ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, an album which broke the mould of band LPs and revelled in the intimacy and synergy between the players. But by 1971 Danny Whitten is failing fast – this former abstainer has by now found drugs and got sucked into the ‘millionaire lifestyle’ so quickly that his friends and colleagues find him unrecognisable from the bright-eyed ball of energy they used to know just a year earlier (Neil thinks so too and emotionally disbands Crazy Horse in the middle of sessions for his new LP ‘After The Goldrush’). Luckily for us, Danny still had a backlog of great songs he hadn’t yet used and the record company Warner Brothers were still impressed enough by ‘Everybody’ to give him a shot at recording them. But compare this album to either of the previous Whitten LPs (‘Everybody’ and the recently-reissued Crazy Horse debut album ‘The Rockets’) and it’s clear that everything is starting to go wrong – that what used to come so easily is now a struggle. Admittedly Danny’s songs always had that downbeat streak poking through his songs occasionally – ‘Won’t You Say You’ll Stay?’ from the debut ‘Rockets’ album would have fitted in on this record perfectly and remains one of his best ever songs. But this isn’t occasional confusion – it’s permanent, debilitating uncertainty.

As a result this album has a strange sound all of its own. Glorious pop songs and ballads, yearning with love and optimism are being recorded here by a man who already felt that time was running out to say ball he wanted to say. It’s as if the happiest man in the universe sat down and wrote songs for the saddest man in the world to come in and record. Just look at that cover for clues – sure the title says ‘Crazy Horse’ but is that pony on the front cover grinning his head off or baring his teeth in anger or frustration? It’s hard to tell, there’s such a thin line between the two emotions some times and never more so than on this record.

 Full marks to the others, then, for coming to Danny’s aid and helping out as best they can; Billy and Ralph are used to their friend’s moods by now and slow their own bubbly playing styles to match the new mood (good practice for backing Neil on such albums as ‘Sleeps With Angels’ and Danny’s tribute album ‘Tonight’s The Night’). Jack Nitzsche – who reportedly hated Crazy Horse – seems a strange choice for the album, given his penchant for recording things lush and orchestral in direct contrast to the Horse’s usual style, but you wouldn’t know that by his joyous piano playing or his songs which fit firmly in the Crazy Horse mould. Best of all we have the world’s greatest musical unsung hero who comes to the need of yet another band at the last minute, swapping ideas with Danny and urging him to come out of his shell while urging him on with some terrific guitar-duelling and two of his better songs of the early 70s.

This is Danny’s album though, with the Whitten giant writing five of the album’s 11 tracks and taking lead vocals on all of them. The moments when Danny is trying to soar only to find his vocal come out as a growl (a fact that seems to surprise him as much as the listener), act as the tortured soul to Nils’ bouncy optimist in their duet songs or plunge his guitar into a downward-facing riff that puts his doubts and fears into sound are among the most moving on record. In it’s own way ‘Crazy Horse’ is a tortured genius epic in the same bracket as ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’, but is perhaps too patchy and unsure of itself to rank at the top of the world’s truly great albums. I don’t know whether they recorded this album in order (it would be unusual if they did) but it certainly sounds like it – the happiness infused with doubt on side one has turned to all-out head-hanging by the end of the album and the recordings have got gradually more ragged and sketchy along the way too. For all it’s faults, however, this is a hugely influential and inspired the recording of at least two classic AAA albums (numbers 66 and 97 respectively; Neil Young’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’, a magnificent ragged magnum opus that celebrates all of the earthy raw power Danny brought to the band and to life, and Nils Lofgren’s ‘Damaged Goods’, a frustrated flailing at the world powerhouse of an album that successfully replicates the more intense moments from this record and keeps that intensity throughout).

Interestingly, the album’s debut track comes not from Danny or even Nils but from Jack Nitzsche – the band’s most uncomfortable, un-democratic member laying out this album’s mood from the beginning. A rollicking blues in the style of many 1950s classics, it might be that Jack thought he was deliberately ‘writing down’ to suit the band’s style, but if so he captures the band’s tenacity and ragged power well, even giving them a chance to show off their under-rated harmonies courtesy of a chorus that sounds like a train whistle blowing. Danny’s expressive vocal is croaking already but sounds nicely fresh and bouncy here, playing off the layers of Whitten and Lofgren guitar on the track. While the number sticks to one boogie-woogie lick throughout – to the song’s benefit it has to be said, mimicking the sound of a train on the track like all great train songs before and after it, Neil Young’s included – the lyrics are all over the place. The first verse uses the metaphor of a train for the narrator’s desire for his woman, an event that throws him ‘off the rails’ and blows his boiler while the second has the narrator as a heavily-laden working man watching the train run past at a station and the fire going out. The third verse addresses the listener and tells us that there isn’t ‘an easy way’ with love and that everyone in love is in danger of running downhill and falling off the track. The best of this song is Nils’ guitar solo which after playing the song’s central riff for the past two minutes simply breaks out of its narrow box and jumps all over the spectrum in true Lofgren style, swapping chords keys and octaves with wild abandon. An interesting experiment which works in  more places than it doesn’t.  

‘Look At All The Things’ is the album’s hidden classic (more about the album’s well known classic later) and is the epitome of that dichotomy we were talking about earlier – on the face of it and reading the lyric sheet this is a happy song, with Danny’s narrator giving thanks for all the lovely things in his life. But the song is given a truly scary performance here, with a madrigal-like chorus of the title (like many of this album’s songs, it simply repeats the title for the whole of the chorus, something which only really happens on this album in the whole of the archives of the AAA) that simply repeats itself over and over with a scary cackle, as if it is a narrator on his death-bed kicking himself for not taking more notice of the great things in life and knowing that he won’t have them much longer. I adore the lyrics on this song which can be read in two ways throughout – the description ‘it’s not that I don’t mean every word I say but my love for you it changes every day’ is a classic opening couplet, opening the song up to happiness and doubt at the same time. The band performance is great here too – Billy and Jack chirp along as if nothing of importance is happening but Ralph’s slow drum crawl and Nils’ growling guitar add a real edge to this song. Again, Nils takes the biggest plaudits of the recording, turning in a powerhouse of a solo which circles the chord changes of the song as if trapping it and sounding like the heaviest sound on record. Fans point to Nils’ work on Neil’s ‘Speakin’ Out’ from ‘Tonight’s The Night’ as Nils’ best work, but that’s just a lesser copycat version of this song’s scary solo – frustrated, wild and abandoned, fighting this song’s sentiments tooth and nail. A forgotten classic.

‘Beggar’s Day’ really is a Nils Lofgren song and is one of his very best – so good, in fact, that it’s amazing he didn’t save it back for his own solo debut album ‘Nils Lofgren’ that year (the song fits the mood of both albums like a glove). The duetting vocals between Nils and Danny (who used to share roughly the same register and sound fairly similar in their high-but-not-falsetto voices but now sound like two totally different species thanks to Danny’s declining voice) raise this song another notch, with Danny’s mournful ‘your mercy won’t save me’ off-setting Nils’ proud/angry wail ‘I lost control of my darker side!’ Nils did this song many times in concert over the years – check out his 1979 ‘Live At the Rockapalast’ DVD for the best version I know – and seemed to have a soft spot for it. Certainly it fits his early 70s ‘gentleman hellraiser’ persona well, seducing the listener over to his dark persona in a way that’s darker and more terrifying than even the least straightfortward heavy metal song. Interestingly Nils’ later addition to the song (‘and I feel bad about it!’, yelled over the last notes of the song) is missing from this version, suggesting a pang of guilt later about mimicking Danny’s only too real murky side in song just before his death. Nils shouldn’t worry though – ‘Beggar’s Day’ is the ultimate shadowy rocker, trying to find the way to the light even if it’s way is blocked at every turn. Bear in mind that Nils was all of 18 when he wrote and recorded this (it was already his 5th or 6th album release) and weep for the fact that his talents aren’t better known today.

‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ is by far the album’s best known song, a hit for several artists – most notably Rod Stewart who made it his best ever single (in the eyes of the AAA anyway; certainly it has much more resonance than, say, D’ya Think I’m Sexy?’ and ‘Sailing’). But this is Danny’s original (co-written with Nils, who generously dropped his co-credit to give Danny more money), quiet and terrified-sounding, with Danny’s off-key rasp sitting uncomfortably against Nils’ delightful on-key harmony. The lyrics to this song are amazing – Danny using the John Lennon trick of making up a whole song about how so many thoughts are flying through his head he can’t concentrate on which to tell us. Unlike many songs that try to do the same and just sound bland, there’s a weight behind these words and this performance – we can really feel the pain and hurt in this song, even if it never is addressed directly. In fact, it’s amazing just how emotional this song is considering that there’s hardly anything to it – there’s just two verses and a repeated chorus. The acoustic guitars on this song, by Danny and Nils, are lovely too – it’s one of my big regrets about Danny’s early death that there aren’t more acoustic recordings of him around – check out this song and Neil’s ‘Round and Round’ for evidence as to why Danny would have been one of the best acoustic players in a few years time.  

‘Downtown’ is the other well known song on here, courtesy of Neil Young’s revival of a 1970 recording of it for the Danny Whitten tribute album ‘Tonight’s The Night’. As we discussed on the review for that album, it’s amazing how different these two recordings sound out of context – even without knowing that Danny’s death was round the corner, that 1970 live version is fierce and vibrant, all the more devastating for the way the song features so many off-hand lyrics to the drug dealers that were about to kill the song’s main writer and yet sounds so alive. This 1971 version is slower, darker and scarier, with Nils’ guitar sounding like3 the evil twin on Neil’s lead on that other recording. There the trip downtown sounded like a lot of fun – here it sounds like it might be the last trip the narrator ever makes. In the end, I prefer the live version which strains at the leash to run and play and jumps tracks several times it has so much energy to spare – this version just sounds a bit tired (reviewers at the time who knew this song from live performances expressed their regret for how much slower this song sounded). But there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a terrific song, with complicated half-rhymes spilling out of the verses a la Dylan and an energetic effortless pop chorus a la The Beatles. Neil’s contribution, by the way, were the lines about ‘lights flashing’ in your eyes and ‘selling stuff’ – as he admitted later, ‘Danny was more subtle than me’. Listen out too for the line ‘walk on, talk on’ – Neil uses the image again in a track from his 1974 record ‘On The Beach’, using it as an image of proud indifference as he marches on despite his critics.

‘Carolay’ is an interesting little song from Jack Nitzsche. On any other album this would be the album’s ‘wild’ track, with a quick little riff that’s forever jumping just ahead of the melody, like a horse following a carrot. Here it sounds like the album’s ‘normal’ track, with things a lot less restless and unsure on this simple tale of saying goodbye. But even this track thrives on contrasts, from the narrator’s tearful goodbye in the drawn-out chorus to the happiness he feels at having a clean slate from which to work in the verses. There’s also hardly any guitar on this track and Crazy Horse sound more like a bar-room band, knocking off a little ditty in between pouring the drinks.

‘I’ll Get By’ is the album’s last classic song, a soaring farewell (even if the band come back on and do an encore with ‘Crow Jane Lady’) sung in clear harmony more or less throughout. In fact, it sounds like a Graham Nash CSN song, simple and deep at the same time, saying that the narrator will ‘get by’ as ‘long as the sky is blue’ – just at the point when the clouds come in in the shape of a wild Nils Lofgren solo and blot out the sun. Switching from major to minor key throughout, this is another song that tries hard to tie it’s nails to the mast in its opening lines about being safe as long as there’s someone there to help you – only to completely undermine itself by the end of the song. ‘I’m going to die, aren’t you?’ sings Danny sweetly near the end, a line that would be unsettling even if he hadn’t died less than a year after recording it – in the context of this album it’s frightening. A simple song about missing lost loves, even if you’re happy with the person you’re with, this is more OK material being made to sound gorgeous by the sterling arrangement which switches between happy and sad throughout. 

So far so wonderful, but it’s onto the lesser songs now. First up is Neil Young’s ‘dance Dance Dance’, a song that’s caused many Young fans to scramble for this album as Neil never actually release this song until his archives project this year. Actually, I prefer Neil’s live versions of this simple little song to either ‘finished’ product (especially the 1971 ‘In Concert’ performance, which has been on BBC4 several times in the past year), as it sounds much better played simple without the trappings of either version. It’s not a bad song – especially in Neil’s hands which gives it an urgency which it probably doesn’t deserve yet nevertheless fits. But this is truly the wrong song to give to Crazy Horse – it needs a light touch that the 1971 incarnation of Danny Whitten can’t handle, it’s ‘barnyard fiddle’ feel seems at odds with Crazy Horse’s more rocking style (though it would have fitted the ‘Rockets’ line-up of the band pretty well) and the usual Horse stomp can’t quite work out what it’s meant to be doing with this song. If only Neil had given his old band ‘Everybody’s Alone’ to record – another 1971 gem unreleased till earlier this year – it’s tale of isolation and worry meshed together with a pretty and bouncy melody would have been the perfect fit for this album.

‘Dirty Dirty’ is another Danny Whitten song, but one that takes the rough edges and simplicity a bit too far. Unlike, say, ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’, this is a one-layered swampy blues which tells you everything you need to know about it by 30 seconds in. This song repeats its lines so often (‘Who told your mama? Who told your mama? Who told your mama on me?’) that there isn’t actually much space to tell the story and perhaps The Horse might have done better to make this song an instrumental or near-instrumental, letting The Horse build up a head of steam with only Nils’ guitar bouncing all over the place on top. Still, I’ve heard worse.

‘Nobody’ isn’t that bad either – it’s just that this second Nils Lofgren song is in a completely separate league to his earlier song and had already been released once by Nils’ first group ‘Grin’ (their version, with drummer Bob Goldberg filling in the Danny Whitten role, is its superior in every way although it’s still not one of Nils’ more inventive songs it has to be said). Danny tries hard with the conversationally tone that’s far more Nils’ style than his, but the use of his off-key rasp in contrast to Nils’ boyish falsetto doesn’t work as well as on this album’s other songs and again this track runs out of steam long before it reaches its end. The band get quite a groove going, however, and the recording in many ways rescues the song.

No the only true disappointment on the album is the last track, ‘Crow Jane Lady’. Nitzsche’s third track on the album stops and starts so many times that it stretches both the listener’s and the Horse’s patience to breaking point. Like many of Jack’s songs it appears to be straightforward with it’s simple one-phrase chorus but the more you try to analyse the song the more you get confused. Who is the Crow Jane Lady? What is her relevance to the narrator? And why oh why have Crazy Horse chosen now to start playing country music? A mess, this is not the way we wanted the album – and Danny’s recording career – to end.

Given stories of Danny’s decline during the year of 1971 it’s amazing that this album exists at all, never mind the fact that it’s as good as it is. Yes parts of it don’t quite work, no you’d never want to play it for easy listening and no it will never match the epic guitar work-outs so beloved of Neil Young/Crazy Horse fans. But ‘Crazy Horse’ is an album full of talent, with both Nils and especially Danny’s work amongst the best in their respective canons and had this album been like most debut albums (a stepping stone and learning curve towards their later, more thought out creations) it might have been the start of a wonderful career. Sadly it was not to be, but just because the first line-up of Crazy Horse never got the chance to make the most of their talent that’s no excuse this album out of hand. After all, just look at how much the band have grown from their only other non-Neil album with Danny (‘The Rockets’, released in 1968 and bearing the original 6-piece line-up of the Horse) – another promising but even more ragged and mis-matched album than the one we have here. ‘Crazy Horse’ may be one of the more obscure albums we’ve covered on this list but that’s due to circumstances and not talent – Danny Whitten had the potential to be one of the greatest singer-songwriter-guitarists of them all and he is for several flashes across this album. Why does Neil persist in going back to ride that ‘crazy horse?’ when so many of his other bands have more experience, eclecticism and knowledge? Because they have heart, that’s why, and on this album they gave even Neil a run for his money...

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