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The creative energy behind Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere"

Before Neil Young began recording his second solo album "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" in January of 1969, there were those who were in awe of the creative energy leading up to its production.
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By Harvey Kubernik

In January of 1969, Neil Young began recording his second solo album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with Danny Whitten on guitar; Billy Talbot, bass; and Ralph Molina, drums at Wally Heider’s recording studio on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood.

Young’s new trio had toiled as Danny & the Memories and then shape-shifted into The Rockets, who had done an LP on the White Whale label, pure grunge, a loud, sloppy guitar-driven outfit sounding like an open wound, whose backbeat listed like sailors on leave at Subic Bay.

Young saw The Rockets one night in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard at the Whisky A Go-Go, appropriated some group members and rechristened them as Crazy Horse. They became the blank canvas upon which Neil painted his visceral, unmediated masterworks.

It was a band only Neil Young could find common cause with, and he went to hell and back with them.

“Danny Whitten, from the day I met Crazy Horse and Neil Young at the Cellar Door in 1969, it was common knowledge, and Neil would be the first to tell you, that Danny was one of his early mentors and influences,” Nils Lofgren stressed to me in a 2014 interview. “Danny had that great deep ‘Bee Gees’ vibrato, with that California soul and lament.”

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, released on May 14, 1969 on Reprise Records, was the fruit of this idiosyncratic partnership. It’s a quaking dirge for two guitars, bass, drums and woeful voice. Only in 1969 could such a seeming downer become the signature sound of FM radio. Suddenly, Neil Young is the next voice of his generation, whiny and careless, all frayed edges and broken glass.

Rodney Bingenheimer, in his music column for GO, the world’s largest circulation of any pop weekly at the time, was the first to tout “Cinnamon Girl” in print, receiving a promotional test pressing courtesy of Pete Johnson at the Reprise label. “Cinnamon Girl” from Young’s album was issued as a 45rpm, a different mix with Young’s vocal more prominent from the master take on his LP.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was constantly in rotation on Southern California radio stations KPPC-FM, KMET-FM and KLOS-FM and then programmed across the U.S. airwaves nearly reaching the Top 50 album chart.

“I don’t think there’s anything on it that I didn’t like,” Young told KMET-FM deejay B. Mitchell Reed in a 1973 radio interview. “I like it all. That’s when a change came over me. Right then I started trying to just do what I was doing, you know. Just trying to be real. Instead of fabricate something... show people where my head is at. I just wanted them to know where I was at. Since then I’ve just been striving to get it realer and realer on the record. As in more real (laughs).”

I saw Buffalo Springfield twice in Southern California during 1966 and ’67 in Santa Monica and Hollywood, and a couple of early Neil Young and Crazy Horse concerts in 1969 and ’71. In 2015, I wrote the book Neil Young: Heart of Gold, now published in six foreign language editions.

To acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, I spoke to those who heard the now classic album before the rest of the world.

Denny Bruce (producer):I was living with (arranger/producer) Jack Nitzsche from 1965-1968 at his house on Mulholland Drive. Neil liked Jeff Beck. For hours in Laurel Canyon he tried to get the ‘Jeff Beck sound’ out of his little Princeton Fender amp. He dug “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and the flip side “Talley Man.”

Neil didn’t have a whole lot of records but he had the first Lonnie Mack album called The Wham of That Memphis Man! He knew every f**kin’ note of that LP and you’ll hear them in Neil Young soloing.

Jack brought Neil to Mo Ostin (record executive) for a solo deal and was supposed to produce his Reprise label debut. He produced a few tracks on the first Neil album and arranged a few things but really didn’t get to produce it all by himself as was the plan.

I did attend Neil’s solo debut at the Troubadour. He was good at the Troubadour. Total solo. Mr. folkie. The audience enjoyed him and he took off from there.

There was a place in Los Angeles in Larchmont Village, Saul Bettman’s Music. Nothing but vintage gear and vintage amps. “Do you have a Magnatone amp like Lonnie Mack?” “Yes. And would you like that Gibson Flying V guitar? I have one of those.” “Give me both.” Neil got an amp there in 1967 he later used on his album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

I didn’t see Neil for a while but Jack and I were invited to a session for Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.

I had earlier played drums with Neil’s producer David Briggs with Simon Stokes on bass. We did Top 40 gigs. A singles place in Burbank in the Pickwick Entertainment area called The Never On Friday club. No married couples allowed and you had to prove you weren’t married. So I knew David before he knew Neil Young.

We go back to the studio and Neil plays us “Down by the River” or “Cowgirl in the Sand.”

Danny Whitten, in the Crazy Horse sound equation, was the heart and the soul. Danny was an incredible rhythm guitarist. And his voice is featured on “Cinnamon Girl” with Neil singing. You’re able to hear Danny’s high voice with balls and the bottom-end warmth, and then Neil’s bottom but still high pitch on top. But mixed well enough that you can’t tell it’s two guys singing.

Peter Lewis (musician): In 1966, we (Moby Grape) played with Buffalo Springfield at The Ark, a dry docked ferry boat with a slanted dance floor in Sausalito after they played the Fillmore. Skip (Spence) and Bruce (Palmer), Buffalo Springfield’s bassist, were friends. The first thing I noticed was how good Stephen Stills was right away. We spent three or four hours together and I was alone with them for a while playing songs and listening to their songs. They had one good song after another. The caliber of the tunes.

Sometime in 1969, I was at Wallichs Music City in Hollywood inside a listening booth, spinning Neil’s first solo LP and Skip Spence’s Oar album.

I was driving around in my Volkswagen bus and this chick Lorraine pulls up next to me in a big Lincoln, who eventually married Dave Mason. So Lorraine says, “Let’s go visit Neil Young.” Moby Grape knew Neil and Buffalo Springfield from shows together and studios. We go to his house. I don’t know where the f**k it is. She rings the buzzer and says, “It’s Peter Lewis.”

Neil answers. He opens the door and kind of peeks out. “Hey man! Come on up!” Neil is with his wife Susan. He had just got married and was happy to see me. Neil played us the acetate of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

I flipped out and told him, “You’re gonna be a huge rock star!” What I sawgoin’ on with Neil at that moment, honest to God’s truth, is like a rivalry with Stephen Stills where he could never do what he really wanted to as long as he was in Buffalo Springfield.

When Neil played it for me he had a big wooden chair he was sitting in. And he spun the acetate. It hadn’t been released yet. “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down by the River.” I’m comparing it to his first record. And I told him what I thought about it. “This is just gonna make you a huge rock star, man. Because you finally got that sound that you were lookin’ for. It’s not Brian Hyland and it’s not Jack Nitzsche’s take on you. You did this.”

Neil got guys that did what he told them to f**kin’ do. That’s what he wanted. Buffalo Springfield would not do that.

 Neil Young with acoustic. (Photo by Dick Barnatt/Redferns)

Neil Young with acoustic. (Photo by Dick Barnatt/Redferns)

Richard Bosworth (musician):As 1968 turned to 1969, I was 17 years old and in my senior year of high school. I’d played guitar, bass guitar and keyboards in several bands—1968/1969 were the peak years for the band Jennifer’s Friends. We released four singles on Buddah Records and one “Land of Make Believe,” written by Harry Vanda and George Young of The Easybeats, got some radio airplay in the midwest.

On Friday May 2, 1969, on our way home from a gig in Bridgeport, Connecticut, we stopped by The Stone Ballon, a new music club underneath Pegnataro’s Supermarket in downtown New Haven to firm up a gig for the following week. The Stone Ballon was open little more than a year in 1968/1969 but an amazing number of rock, blues, jazz, folk and soul acts that were about to break performed a Thursday-thru-Sunday, two-show-a-night engagement. Jethro Tull, Joni Mitchell, J. Geils Band, B.B. King, Albert King, Taj Mahal.

Arriving there, the booker walked us through the club to the dressing room while John Hammond Jr. was onstage performing. We were told we would be opening for Neil Young and that he had been lead guitarist for Buffalo Springfield. We were aware of the group as “For What It’s Worth” had been a hit on the east coast and there had been an article in Eye magazine with a photo of Stephen Stills stating that he was lead guitarist for Buffalo Springfield. None of us had heard of Neil Young. His name was actually mis-spelled on a poster for the engagement as “Neal Young!”

The following Thursday, May 8, the club manager said Neil and band were flying into Hartford from California and the plane was late and we might have to do two sets. There were only a dozen people in the audience while we did our first set. We took a break and backstage in the dressing room the club manager asked us to do another set as Neil still hadn’t arrived. We were getting ready to perform again when the club manager came back to tell us they were here.

A moment later Neil walked in. He had this glowing aura. Talent and greatness just seemed to be pouring off of him. I hadn’t heard a note of his music, but I just felt an overwhelming certainty that this guy was going to be as significant as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He said hello to everyone, was very warm and friendly. The band filtered in behind him, one blonde and two dark swarthy guys, all real quiet. Neil was talkative, taking out his guitars and letting us check them out. He handed me his orange Gretsch 6120 which I strummed on for a moment, not knowing that it was his primary guitar in Buffalo Springfield.

At one point he asked a couple of us if we thought it would be cool to do a few songs acoustically before bringing up the band. I remember thinking it was an odd idea as it was all about bands in those days. Neil was so nice though, we were encouraging about it. He went outside the club by himself for about 10 minutes before he went on. That seemed different, like he took it seriously and would want some solitary time to psyche himself up to perform. He went on with his Martin D-28 guitar and opened up with “On the Way Home” from the last Springfield album. Playing songs acoustically suddenly seemed like a brilliant idea. Neil had a very stoned stage persona, unlike how he had been backstage. He did several songs from what I later learned were on his first solo album. He was engaging with the small audience, asking for requests.

Someone called for “Last Trip To Tulsa” and Neil laughed and said, “Aw, that’s too long. I think I only ever played that once when it was recorded.” There was a request for “For What It’s Worth” and he laughed again. “No man, I can’t do that one. I only know how to play my guitar part on that.” He took a break after playing six songs and then he and his band and a crew person set up for the electric stuff. It took a long time, they were not just going to plug in and start playing.

They worked on individual sounds of instruments, checked vocal mics carefully. Really meticulous. Neil had an old black Les Paul with a Bigsby vibrato bar. The other guitarist was playing Neil’s Gretsch 6120. The guitar amps were all old Fender tweeds and blonde Fender Bassmans, unlike the Marshall amps of the day. Finally they seemed to be ready and everyone left the stage for the dressing room.

A moment later Neil walked out to applause from the audience and said to the room at large, “No, not yet” and went outside the club by himself again for another 10 minutes or so. The first song was “Cinnamon Girl.” Neil’s guitar sound had this ultra-distortion. Super loud and stunning.

He introduced the band as Crazy Horse and told us they would be playing songs from a new album they had just recorded Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and launched into that title track. Before the next song Neil introduced guitarist Danny Whitten, stating that he’d heard Danny writing a song and it was good so he felt he better get in on a good thing and co-write it. They tore into “Downtown,” then “Down by the River” with the three part harmony vocals on the chorus and Neil’s single-note, machine gun guitar riff, the extended solo sections. “The Losing End” was the penultimate song of the set.

Neil began the deceivingly soft intro to “Cowgirl in the Sand.” It was another epic with extended guitar solos. If anything, the solos were even longer than what would be released on the album. Neil’s playing was unlike anyone else. The raw sound, the improvisational quality was the way Miles Davis or John Coltrane would solo.

After our second show set it was decided that since there were only about seven paying customers in the place on that late Thursday night, Neil would just do an acoustic set to end the evening. He did his usual walk outside by himself before performing. Crazy Horse and our group were sitting out in the audience and after playing five songs or so Neil says to Crazy Horse “Hey, I can tell you guys want to play, don’t you?” Neil said, “Well, what do you want to play?” In unison they replied “Down by the River” which they performed to end the evening.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night because “Down by the River” was running through my brain and I was excited about the possibilities of spending three more days hanging with Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

The next morning at school I told my musically inclined friends about Neil Young, strongly suggesting that they check him out. Some would be there that evening although a few had tickets to the Jeff Beck Group concert at nearby Yale’s Woolsey Hall. All through the day, songs from the soon to be released Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere album were running through my mind. Attendance was better at Friday night’s shows. After our first show set, Neil began acoustically and again exhibited a humorous and stoned persona. He told a few funny stories, thanked the audience for coming to his show instead of the Jeff Beck concert; mentioning that he was a big fan of Beck.

After a short break he came back with Crazy Horse and opened with “Cinnamon Girl,” following with the rest of songs in sequence from their upcoming album release, ending the set with “Cowgirl In the Sand.” I already loved these songs like Beatle songs. “Down by the River” was a masterpiece and one could tell Neil and the band were aware of it.

Backstage between shows Neil and Crazy Horse were warm and friendly. Danny Whitten opened an attaché case and all it held were pint bottles of liquor. He took a swig and asked, “Anybody want a drink?”

Neil at one point was strumming a guitar by himself while a friend and I were having a discussion about our imminent senior graduation dinner the following month. Neil said “What are you guys talking about?” I explained it was my responsibility to book a band for the event. He asked “What does it pay?” I replied, “$250.00.” He went “Um. That’s what I’m getting a night for this gig. Maybe I’ll play your senior grad dinner.”

By the time of Saturday’s shows, word had gotten out around town that Neil Young and Crazy Horse were happening, and The Stone Balloon was packed that night. We did our usual alternating sets with Neil solo followed by him and the band. Even after hearing them for three days in succession, they still sounded fresh and exciting. One could tell that Neil Young and Crazy Horse were thrilled to play their new material.

Suddenly, Sunday night, Stephen Stills shows up. He was with a dark-haired guy who turned out to be Dallas Taylor. Backstage, between shows, Stills was cocky and confident. He and Neil seemed happy to see each other.

I asked Stephen what he was doing now after Buffalo Springfield. “I’ve just recorded a new album with David Crosby of The Byrds and Graham Nash of The Hollies but we don’t know what we’re going to call it” was his reply.

Stills told Neil he had just been at dinner with Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records and Ahmet told him about Neil’s New Haven gigs, suggesting Stephen drop by to talk. We all know now what Ahmet wanted those two to talk about.

At the end of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s final set of the four day engagement, Neil brought up Stills and Dallas Taylor took over the drums. To end the evening, Stills and Young proceeded to trade fiery guitar licks like they had in Buffalo Springfield and soon would again in some new unnamed group in the future.

Monday morning, back at school, I was still thrilled by the entire previous four days of shows. I was absolutely certain that in Neil Young, I had met and experienced someone who was going to be a major star. Stephen Stills also gave off that vibe. I’d never run across anyone who had the charisma, talent and greatness that emanated from Neil.

Many of my friends had been to the shows and I was shocked when half of them vehemently hated Neil Young. “He’s the worst guitar player I’ve ever seen,” “I despise his singing,” and “No way is Neil Young going to be successful” was the assessment from that camp. The other half of us thought he was one of the greatest guitarists and songwriters we ever seen and heard. His singing voice was just fine by us and that Neil Young was bound for glory.

In May of 1969 virtually no one knew of Neil Young or Stephen Stills. In August of 1969 at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, which I attended, one of the headliners Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were considered to be the American Beatles.

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