Crazy Horse Guitarist Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro: 'My Gut Tells Me This Is the Last Tour'

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How did you first meet Neil Young?
I met [Crazy Horse bassist] Billy [Talbot] first. He just got back from the Tonight's the Night tour in Europe. One night at a friend's house we were all talking, and I told him about Mexico because I was living down there. At the end of the night he said to me, "If you ever take a trip down there I'd like to tag along with you." So I got some money and I called him and we drove down there and we stayed at my house. Then we drove all the way down to the Baja Peninsula and then caught a ferry over to Mazatlan and hung out there.

That was the first time I ever played with Billy. He didn't even know I played guitar. We ended up being another cheap guitar in town and we played. He said, "You know, when we get back to the States you should come by the house and jam sometimes." So I started playing with them and I met George Whitsell and Ben Keith and other people. 

All of a sudden, Billy called me one day and said, "We're driving to Chicago to play with Neil. We told him about you and he wants to play with you." So I met Neil at Chess Records. No, wait, it was in his hotel room the night before. It's really kind of funny. I wasn't used to the whole rock & roll machine Neil was in at the time. We were in his hotel room and he was playing some new songs on a guitar. I was trying to figure them out. I played on one or two and then handed the guitar to Ben Keith. I said, "Man, here you play for a while." He was pushing it back and going, "No, man, you should play." I didn't realize these were all the songs we were going to record the next day. I just thought we were jamming and smoking weed. [Laughs]

By the way, this was 1973. Zuma didn't come out until 1975. It took us over a year to make it because of some silly stuff that happened. Billy tried to break up a dog fight and the dog bit him and he couldn't play for about five months. Crazy things like that happened.  

You were essentially taking the place of Danny Whitten. Those were some pretty big shoes to fill. Was that stressful?
I never thought of it like that. To me, this was just a whole new thing that was starting off. I had a lot to learn just to fit in. I remember being in Chess Records and after about four hours, one of the sound engineers came up to me and said, "Where did you come from?" They had a whole family of people that had been working together for years already, and just fitting in took a little bit. [Longtime Neil Young producer] David Briggs was really supportive and helped me a lot. I just kept trying to remember the chords. Also, at that point in time I was pretty stoned.

When did Neil first tell you that were hired?
I got fired! I got fired first!

[Laughs] I guess because I wasn't paying enough attention! [Laughs] We recorded a few days there in Chess, and then [Neil's manager] Elliott [Roberts], in the middle of the session, told Billy and Ralph that they could split. Of course, he didn't even address me, but if they were going I was going. And so that night they got really pissed off. They didn't know what was going on. I guess it was the country stuff. He was playing "Stars of Bethlehem" and those songs they ended up recording in Nashville. 

I remember going back to the hotel room and seeing that Billy and Ralph were really upset. They were saying, "I don't know why this happened." I said, "Well, why don't we just talk to Neil?" And they were like, "Well, I'm not going to talk to him!" I said, "Why not?" That's how naive I was. I just wanted answers to these questions and you gotta ask the guy who knows. They wouldn't go, so I said "Well, I'm just going to go talk to him. I might be the cause of this whole problem, so just let me go up there and I'll rap to him."

I went up there and he was with Elliot Mazer. We started talking and he said, "Well, let's walk down and talk to the other guys in the room." As we were walking down the hallway to get into the elevator Neil said, "You know, don't worry about any of this. This is another project I was already working on. I'm going to Nashville, but playing with you guys is something I'm going to remember. I know well it's going to come together." We then talked to Billy and Ralph and smoothed things out, and then went back home and worked on Crazy Horse stuff, and then all of a sudden Neil called and we got back to work on Zuma

Your first tour was Japan in 1976. What was it like to suddenly face these huge audiences?
If you look at the pictures, I just stood in the back and tried to play the chords! [Laughs] I wasn't overwhelmed, but at the same time I knew I had to buckle down and get into it and just be supportive. Luckily, Neil had such a huge presence, that's all he needed at that point. He just needed someone to support him and the whole band. Billy and Ralph were singing good and we pulled it off. As we went along, we got better and better.

But then halfway through he bolts and forms the Stills-Young band.
Not exactly. We finished the tour in Japan and then did Europe. We came back . . . this was in the middle of 1976, the bicentennial and all that. We were going to do a big tour and Neil was working on a Crazy Horse record with us. Then he just kind of disappeared from the ranch. We were working on it ourselves, not getting a lot done. The next thing we heard he'd been in Florida with Stills and they recorded a record and they were going on the road. 

All those dreams about our record coming out and doing the big tour were just gone. That was the first time I had my heart broken by Neil. I don't know if I should say by Neil or just by the business in general now that I understand it more. But from that day one, whenever Neil called I would go and put my heart into it, but the day that anything was over I would instantly start working on something else. I never sat around and waited for Neil. I knew he had a lot of things to do and they weren't always going to include us. I figured that out pretty quick.

But he always comes back to you guys.
Oh yeah. And he will, he always will. But it's just that . . . if you sit there and wait, years and years can go by and you haven't done anything. At least that's the way I feel. Billy and Ralph feel like they're staying true to the music and they just wait. I just like to work too much. Even before I called you, I've been up all morning trimming palm trees.

Tell me about recording "Like a Hurricane." Neil wrote in his book that you guys got it on the very first take.
Well, that's true in one sense. We tried it with two guitars. I think one day we tried it once at the end of a session, another day we tried it all day with two guitars, and the third day we tried it with two guitars. It was just . . . He was upset with it. I sat down at the keyboard. He had an organ and I started playing it a little. He said, "Well, let's try it like that." So we played it like that one time, and at the end of that tape, you can even hear it, Neil goes, "Yeah, that's how it goes I think. That's it." 

I guess he's not a believer in overdoing something. If it sounds right, you're done.
Oh yeah, yeah. He's learned over the years that right for us is usually the first, second or third take. We're not a studio band. We can't analyze things and then put it back together in a different way and still have our hearts into it. We lose a part of our emotion when we over-think a song. 

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