Q&A: Crazy Horse Bassist Billy Talbot on Neil Young, New Solo Album

'There's a certain tactic to being in a rock & roll band'

Billy Talbot and Neil Young perform in New Orleans.
Douglas Mason/Getty Images
July 23, 2013 12:25 PM ET

Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot has been playing alongside Neil Young for the past 45 years, but he's kept such a low profile that few people outside of hardcore fans even know his name. "Anonymity is a good thing," he tells Rolling Stone. "Neil's gotta take all that stardom, and we get to walk down the street with hardly anybody recognizing us. That happens occasionally, just enough to make it fun."

Talbot has spent the last year touring the world with Young and Crazy Horse, but he took some time off to chat with us about his long history with Neil Young, recording some of their most beloved works and his new solo LP On the Road to Spearfish

Where are you calling from?
I'm in South Dakota. The prairie is all around me. Everywhere I look, it's grass. 

Sounds nice. Do you think you're one of the few rock stars that live in South Dakota?
[Laughs] I don't think of myself as a rock star, but I guess you could say that. I don't know of any others that are hanging out around this way.  

100 Best Albums of the Nineties: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Ragged Glory 
I'm really enjoying your new album. It's not at all what I expected from you, but I want to start by going through your life a bit here. Can you start by telling me how your first met Neil Young?

The first meeting was at my house. He came because of this friend of ours, Autumn. She brought him over and Danny [Whitten] and I were in this back room, playing some guitar. He played "Mr. Soul" for us, but not the way it was recorded by Buffalo Springfield. It was in a different key, in B, and he just strummed the guitar. I thought it was a cool song.

Then I went to see him another time when he lived in Laurel Canyon. I took a walk up to where he lived, and he had just recorded something with Buffalo Springfield. He showed me how he used this sustain pedal that would make this note last through the whole song. Then another girl, Robin Lane, brought him back to our house, and we just got together and talked and stuff. We probably played a bit, too.

I forget exactly what happened, but around then we recorded the [pre-Crazy Horse] Rockets album, and he was then living in Topanga Canyon. We brought the record out to play for him, and he wanted to sit in with us while we were playing at the Whisky. Then he called [drummer] Ralph [Molina], Danny and I up to his house in Topanga to try playing "Down By the River." He wanted to record right away. 

You guys were your own band at this point. Was there any hesitancy about becoming his backing group?
We didn't really talk about any of that stuff. We just went up to his house and he said, "Let's go into the studio and record some of these songs. Maybe we'll call the band Crazy Horse." He didn't talk about us being a backing band or anything. He just said it was Crazy Horse. The four of us went in and recorded. At the end, though I don't remember exactly when, he mentioned that his managers and everyone wanted it to be called Neil Young with Crazy Horse. He was kind of embarrassed, but we were fine with it. 

That first album has really stood the test of time.
Yeah, I think it's really good. I think it's also a reflection of the Rockets. I have to mention all these years later that Danny and I and Ralph and the Whitsell brothers and Bobby Notkoff would play two-chord, three-chord, one-chord jams for a long time. Sometimes an hour. We just naturally did that. Bobby would solo on the violin and George Whitsell would play the heck out of the guitar. So would George Leroy. Danny, Ralph and I would keep the rhythm going.

When Neil called us in to to do "Down By the River," we just went into the instrumental. We just naturally did what we do, and it went for a long time because Danny, Ralph and I would do our natural dynamics. Neil is a very emotional player, like Bobby was and we were, so it really fit together. We all did it together. 

There are a lot of people, like David Crosby, who have been very critical of your playing, arguing you don't sound like professional musicians. Does that drive you crazy?
It doesn't bother me. As a matter of fact, I like it a lot.  

Because I never wanted to be like anybody else. I have always figured that if you just be yourself . . . Who knows what yourself is until after the fact? So you just go moving along. I don't know how odd it is to be playing rock & roll at 70, rocking and having people think that you're as good as you were in your twenties and thirties. I don't know if that's different, because I've never lived before. I never expected to be doing what somebody else did, particularly.  

David Crosby literally said, "The bass player in Crazy Horse should be shot."
Yeah, well . . . [Laughs] I bet he's changed his mind through the years a few times, going back and forth or whatever. And maybe I should've been shot when he said that, because he's pretty good. 

Back to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, what do you remember about recording "Cinnamon Girl"?


I remember that it was a pretty good one. It was fast. We learned it quickly and we did it. Danny was used to tuning down. Neil tuned down, I picked up the chord changes and the riff that they play, how Neil wrote it. I got that good, no problem. When we hit the verses, the part that I play came naturally to me. I love when that happens. When we got to the instrumental it was just so cool playing the verse instrumentally. It really had this thing to it that was beautiful, and we had it. The main thing I remember is that it felt really good. 

Let's jump ahead to Tonight's the Night. What do you remember about making that one?
It was a whole record of songs, never just one song. One memory is that we were doing a whole slew of songs that had to do with the theme of "Tonight's the Night" – "Open Up Your Tired Eyes" and ones like that. It just really opened my eyes to how records don't have to be "practice this song, play it, overdub some vocals, put some harmonies on it . . . " That's one way to make a record, but we didn't do that with Tonight's the Night. There was a lot of feeling and a lot of integrity. Real integrity went into the recording. It was something I really liked, the musical integrity.

The legend says you you were stoned and drunk much of the time. Is that accurate?
I don't think that's accurate. The tour was more that way than the actual recording. The actual recordings were . . . we captured moments over a week or so that we were in there. It was maybe two different periods of four or five days and then we were done. Then Neil used what he found in there. But we were relatively sober. Nobody was drunk that I knew of, though we smoked a little pot. Maybe there were some occurrences of the white powder back in those days, but that would be later at night, and we never really got anything too much later at night after that happened. We already got the juice. 

A lot of fans see it as his best record. Do you agree with that?
It's definitely one of my favorite records, if not my single favorite. But I love the recording of "Like a Hurricane," and I think we were lucky to capture that. It just laid open and set fire on you immediately. It got your attention.  

Was the Tonight's the Night tour a difficult time? You're playing a set that's mainly unreleased songs, and some nights you'd even play a single song three separate times.
Well, it was a celebration of a couple of lives that were no longer around with us. Taking that on the road was kind of like an Irish wake on tour. That's pretty odd, if you think about it.

It made for some powerful shows, though.
Great, yeah. And I was all for it. I totally approved of everything about it. Making my new solo record On the Road to Spearfish required all the wisdom I've accumulated through the years. How to get a great performance. How to record the vibe, the way to get the best out of everybody. The best lesson for that was making Tonight's the Night. 

Let's move on to "Cortez the Killer."

I just recently listened to the recording for the first time in 20 years. I thought it was a really good recording. It's one of our best and our most beloved songs to record. The moment that we start to play that song is always a great moment in the show. Lately, it's been a little mystery to us, which is puzzling. It's never been that before. After eight years of not playing it, the song is like, "You didn't play me for eight years, and now you want me to be right there for you?" When we call it up, cosmically, it's just not happening.

We weren't happy about it until this last time in Dublin when we had this talk about it. It's symbolic of a lot. The more together we are as people, the better it is. That's the way it's been working.

As far as the recording, I remember it was a special moment for Poncho [Frank Sampedro], Ralph, Neil and I. The same goes for all those Zuma songs. You've certainly heard the story about the tape stopping because the electricity went off in the recording booth. We didn't know and just kept playing and playing. We lost a verse, but Neil said it was a good verse to lose.

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