Listen to this track by Godfather of Grunge Neil Young playing with the now-venerable equine-monikered rock institution Crazy Horse. It’s “Cinnamon Girl”, a single as taken from Young’s second record bearing his name; Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, released in the spring of 1969 .
The song itself has appeared in many forms over the years since it was released, including on the essential compilation album Decade, released seven years after it appeared on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. By now of course, the song is a concert staple and a rock standard that serves as a touchpoint for many bands across the rock spectrum even now in the 21st Century.
It’s almost absurd to imagine that this song hasn’t always been around, so important is it to the way that rock music would develop in the ensuing decades. But, despite its standing in the annals of rock music history, it had some pretty humble, yet strangely magical origins.
Around the time this song was written, Neil Young was in a particularly busy period of his career, even for him. He’d recently left his membership in Buffalo Springfield behind him, and the completion of his first solo album too. He’d also just begun to work with CSN, soon to produce an album that would also become a classic of the era, Déjà Vu.
All the while, he’d invited members of another band, The Rockets, to jam with him at his home in Topanga, California where he’d settled with his first wife, Susan. Danny Whitten (vocals, guitar), Billy Talbot (bass guitar), and Ralph Molina (drums); these would be the musicians that would morph into a new band especially for this project, and for many other ones to follow for many years to come; Crazy Horse.
And from the production of his first solo album, Neil Young had also begun his life-long professional association and personal friendship with producer and confidant David Briggs, who famously espoused a simple-is-best approach to making rock ‘n’ roll records, expressed by a phrase that would stay with Young even to the present day: “be great or be gone”. Briggs took this attitude in with him when producing Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. This starkness in approach would certainly bear itself out on this tune, and on a succession of songs and albums that would solidify Neil Young as a major musical force to be reckoned with in the years that followed.
But, on the day this song was written, Neil Young was not feeling at his best. He’d come down with the flu, with an attached fever that laid him low. In his recent autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, Young describes the hazy, and almost euphoric feeling that pervaded on the day he wrote this song:
I was delirious half the time and had an odd metallic taste in my mouth. It was peculiar. At the height of this sickness, I felt pretty high in a strange way … I had a guitar case near my bed – probably too near the bed in the opinion of most of the women I was in relationships with … I played for a while and wrote “Cinnamon Girl”. The lyrics were different from how the song eventually ended up, but all those changes happened right there, immediately, until the song was complete.
Through out the book, Young makes many references to the muse as being inextricable with his process for creating art, almost in divine terms. He also expands on what following the muse has cost him in terms of commercial success, and in his personal relationships, too.
Whatever the case had been here, it remains to be an utterly amazing set of circumstances whereby a very ill songwriter could write this tune of idealized womanhood, and feelings of disembodied longing with such emotional precision, and seemingly fully formed while laid up with debilitating fever. This is not to mention that two other songs that would also become rock standards , “Down By The River”, and “Cowgirl In The Sand” were also written on the very same day, and in the same state.
In many ways, it’s Crazy Horse that provides the legs on which this titan of a song stands, somehow being simple and stark, while also being ambitious and on an epic scale, all at the same time. This is basic, meat and potatoes rock music. Yet, it pulses with apocalyptic vision to be appreciated as a singular achievement. If you’re building a case for the importance of chemistry between musicians to make a unique sound that is more than the sum of its parts, then this is as good a place to start as any.
The original version of Crazy Horse featuring guitarist and singer Danny Whitten (that’s him singing high harmony on this song) played a number of gigs after this record was released, small scale at first, and onto to bigger halls like the Fillmore East. This latter show was recently released as a part of Neil Young’s extensive (and ongoing) archives project. Specifically, the release to hear is Live At Fillmore East. And to get the full story on those shows, specifically a show on March 6, 1970, you might want to check out this link that outlines what led up to the show, and what it was like to be there.
If you feel like hanging out with Neil while he tells you stories about the Horse, and any number of other subjects from his varied and interesting life, the second best thing to that experience would be to read Waging Heavy Peace. It’s a tale of a guy who is driven, and even obsessed about the things he’s involved in, musically and otherwise. But, he is ultimately balanced as a person by a single mitigating force, which is gratitude for friends, colleagues, peers, and family, living and dead, all of whom helped him to become who he is, and his work to be what it has come to mean to so many.
Don’t forget to visit NeilYoung.com, where you will find – among other things – the latest (as of this writing) Neil Young with Crazy Horse album Psychedelic Pill, a record that comes to us nearly a full 44 years after the release of “Cinnamon Girl”, and also features some extended jams that recall the vibe of their early days together.
Chemistry has had a long road.