Neil Young and Crazy Horse were halfway between Oslo, Norway and Gothenburg, Sweden when their 2013 summer tour came to a premature end. Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro was headed downstairs from the top level of the band's double-decker bus when they hit a little bump on the road. He grabbed onto the doorjamb with his left hand, but he didn't realize that his road manager was about to close the door.
"I actually felt the door slightly squeeze my fingers," says Poncho. "I was thinking, 'Hey, what's that?' He also felt it, and thought something was obstructing the door. So, he re-opened it and slammed it shut with all his might." Poncho fell to the ground screaming. "When I looked at my fingers – from the tip of the fingernail to the cuticle – they were pointed straight up in the air," he says. "They were just smashed to death."
The band was due onstage at the Way Out West Festival in Gothenburg the next night, and they had seven additional European shows after that. A doctor confirmed that Poncho had three fractures on his left middle finger and two on his ring ringer. They were right on the tips, on the exact parts that hit the strings. "I was freaking out," says Poncho. "But being the crazy guy I am, I kept saying, 'I'll play tomorrow. It'll be cool.'" He stayed up all night icing his finger with the road manager, who was enduring endless taunts from the rest of the crew. "When the swelling got down I could open and close my hand," says Poncho. "I put my finger on the guitar, touched the strings, and I fell to the floor in pain again."
Obviously, there was no way he could play that night or any time in the near future. Horrified at the thought of the tour getting called off due to his injury, Poncho suggested that Nils Lofgren, who played with Crazy Horse on the 1973 Tonight's the Night tour, fly in to take his place. "I don't know if they called him," says Poncho. "But it didn't happen."
Little did Poncho know that Lofgren had the same idea, and he just happened to have a month off between legs of his world tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. "I had the idea they'd bring Poncho out to sing his harmonies and they could fly me out to play guitar," Lofgren told Rolling Stone last year. "They could have brought in anybody, but I'm an alumni of the band and I know most of the songs."
Neil Young, however, had no intention of playing his first sans-Poncho Crazy Horse show in almost 40 years, especially because there was virtually no time for rehearsal with Lofgren or anybody else. He called off the European dates, but there was hope that the guitarist would be better in time for a short North American run in September. "I spoke to Neil before I flew back home," Poncho says. "He said to me, 'I just want you to go home and get your hand better so you can play good in the future. Don't worry about these shows.'"
Recovery was a slow and painful process, and it quickly became clear the group would have to pull the September shows as well. "I didn't even pick up a guitar until Thanksgiving," says Poncho. "I was at my girl's house and people there wanted me to play even though I had tape on my fingers. I played without my two hurt fingers, but it was difficult. I honestly worried I'd never play again, but a doctor told me the best therapy was playing guitar."
After a three-month break, Poncho began playing every seven days, eventually reaching the point where he could play three hours every single day. "That was right at the time I was finally I was able to clip my own nails," says Poncho. "Before that, it was still the decayed and broken nails from the accident."
With Poncho healing up, a Neil Young and Crazy Horse overseas tour was booked for the summer of 2014. "I'd been rehearsing the set from the past two tours for months," says Poncho. "I figured we'd be doing the same stuff." He got a big shock when he arrived at Oakland's Fox Theater for three days of rehearsal: "I show up and Neil says, 'Oh no, we aren't playing any of those songs.' He had a whole new set of songs we don't usually play. They weren't really Crazy Horse songs." The list included "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," "Separate Ways," "Don't Cry No Tears," " Goin' Home," an electric rendition of "After the Gold Rush" and a brand new tune called "Who's Gonna Stand Up and Save the World?"
Shortly after the last day of rehearsal, the group got some terrible news. Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot was driving back to his home in South Dakota from Oakland when he stopped somewhere near Salt Lake City. "He told me that he tried to get out of the car and his foot didn't work," says Poncho. "He thought, 'Something's funny.' Then he noticed his arm didn't work that well."
Talbot had suffered a mild stroke while driving and didn't even realize it. Complete recovery seemed likely, but flying to Iceland to begin an extensive European tour was simply out of the question. "[Neil Young's manager] Elliot [Roberts] called to tell me the news," says Poncho. "He didn't know what was going to happen to the tour, but then I spoke to Neil and he said that Rick [Rosas] could handle Billy's parts and that I could sing all his parts."
This was much more vocal work than Poncho was using to doing. "I stayed up late and practiced all the parts that Billy usually sings," the guitarist says. "By midnight I was hoarse and unable to hit any of the notes." He phoned up Young to deliver the news. "He just said, 'Don't worry about it - I'll get backup singers,'" says Poncho. "The next morning he called up and said, 'I got 'em.'"
There was no time for rehearsals in America, and the new lineup of the band – featuring Poncho, founding Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Rick Rosas and backup singers Dorene Carter and YaDonna West – had just three days in Iceland to learn the entire set. "I was freaking out," says Poncho. "There was so much to learn. I spent all my time in the hotel playing every single song he mentioned over and over. I always want to know the songs so well that I can go onstage and just be mindless, not worrying about the changes or the arrangement of any song."
The opening night was unlike any Crazy Horse show in recent memory, without a single song from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere or Rust Never Sleeps, their two most famous albums. "About 10 days into the tour I sent Neil an email," says Poncho." I said to him, 'The show is really kind of lacking in the middle. I think we should play 'Mr. Soul,' 'Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)' or maybe 'Sedan Delivery.'"
Unsurprisingly, Young disagreed. "He wrote back and said, 'That's not who we are,'" says Poncho. "'We aren't that band. If we try and pretend to be that band, we'll just lose.' That really hit home to me, and I knew he was right. It was too late the change the tickets and everything after Billy went down, but we were no longer Crazy Horse. This was a different band."
As the weeks went by, the globe began descending into chaos, and Neil Young and Crazy Horse were forced to cancel their show in Israel. This inspired Young to start adding more political songs into the setlist, including "Living With War," "Name of Love" and "Be the Rain." The final verse of "Rockin' in the Free World" and parts of "Standing in the Light of Love" were also re-written to reflect the global situation.
At the beginning of the tour, Sampedro had a list of just 14 songs to learn. By the end, it swelled to 27, but some of them – including "Stupid Girl," "Trans Am," "Throw Your Hatred Down," "World on a String," "Restless Consumer" and "Danger Bird" – never made it into the actual show. "At one show our tour busses were parked by a river," says Poncho. "I said to somebody, I hope we don't play 'Down by the River' tonight. I never feel like I do a good job with that, but sure enough we opened the show with a 26 minute version of the song."
Old classics like "Powderfinger" and "Cortez the Killer" were played repeatedly, even as the setlist continued to change. "I was lobbying for 'Mr. Soul' right up until the very end," says Poncho. "I was happy he brought back 'Name of Love.' We originally did that back in 1987, and it was an absolute disaster every night, especially at this one gig in Rotterdam. He cut it with Crosby, Stills and Nash the next year, but this was our big chance to save face."
The group's future plans are unclear, and Poncho says that Crazy Horse almost certainly won't appear at Farm Aid on September 13th in Raleigh, North Carolina. "It's just a huge expense to bring Crazy Horse there," says Poncho. "Neil did tell me that he loves this band, he loves playing with us and he wants to do it as much as he can. He didn't talk about any sort of timeframe, and I'm sure he loves playing with CSNY, too."
On the plane back to America, Poncho did approach Young with his take on what the future should hold. "I said to him, we should get together in the spring, record another Crazy Horse album and do a farewell tour next year,'" says Poncho. "Elliot was saying, 'Great idea!' But Neil's a poker player. He didn't really say anything. He's always thinking about what he's doing today and tomorrow, and right now he has acoustic shows, Pono and he's working on a fiction novel."
Whatever Crazy Horse does next, Poncho is confident that Billy Talbot will be back in playing shape whenever it rolls around. "He's going through rehab and he's playing guitar and piano, using both hands," says the guitarist. "He's walking really well. He's using a cane, though he really doesn't have to anymore. He plans on putting it down soon. He says his only real problem is that he often feels tired because of all the medication he's taking. That's just a matter of time until they figure that out. He's feeling so well that he just invited me to his house to record. I said to him, 'Are you crazy? I just got off the road.'"
With the tour behind him, Poncho is now back in Hawaii. Neil Young has a vacation house very nearby. "If my arm was in good shape I could almost throw a hardball onto his driveway," says Poncho. "Most people in this community of 22 homes are gone most of the year, though I'm here full time. Wealthy people live right on the ocean, but I'm a ghetto dweller up on one of the hills."
Gardening, snorkeling and kayaking take up most of his time these days, but visions of a Crazy Horse farewell tour continue to dance around his head. "It's not about the money," he says. "It comes from my heart. I want to do a tour where we know it's the last one and we can really say goodbye to all the people that have always been there for us. I want to share a special moment with them. I realize that might just be me being wanting everything to work out the way it does in a Frank Capra movie."