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'

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Billy Talbot and Neil Young perform in New Orleans.
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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.  

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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.  

Why?
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.  

I've always been dying to hear that verse, or at least read the lyrics.
Yeah, well, there's a lot that Neil's done that no one knows about. We'll write it off to that. 

I want to jump to "Ramada Inn" from Psychedelic Pill. I really love that one.
I felt that it was a long overdue song. We played it once, and that's what we have as the recorded version. We've played it live at every show. I can only think of two occasions out of all them where it didn't work out very well. It's not just the song. It's when we go into these instrumentals together. Neil is playing in a certain way, and the dynamics occur. Emotions rise and fall. When I say it doesn't work twice in 50 or 60 songs, I mean it didn't connect as well as we had liked. 

The album version is actually the first run-through of the song?
Yeah. The recorded version is a version of the song. It's a fine version, and I think it does connect. As a matter of fact, when I heard it the first time I cried. That's because of the song itself and what it was saying and what it's about. I think that we effectively carried it out. We've probably played it many times better than that recording. 

Do you ever wish the albums were made after the tours so you'd have a lot more experience playing the songs?
I think about that, but we have live albums that are for that. Still, I do think about that, but I think it wouldn't be as good as catching the . . . When we play, we capture enough of it for it to be real. Then we can go out and play it live. We know how the song goes. It's just that we never play the instrumentals the same. We certainly change a lot of other things. A lot of things change as we play live over the years. That's part of the song's growth. 

It's a ballsy move to play so many new songs on this tour. "Walk Like a Giant" goes for over 25 minutes, and about a third of that is feedback at the end.

It's what we do. We're a rock & roll band. There's a certain tactic to being in a rock & roll band. One of them is to keep your balls.

It would be so easy to play two hours of hits and then one or two new songs. That's what most other bands do in your position.
When we were in Australia, we were in the same hotel with Kiss. We heard that one of them said, "I have the best gig in the world. I've been playing the same 17 songs for 35 years." We heard that and it didn't sit right with us. Our job isn't easy. It's not meant to be easy. Our job is to keep the edge, be out on the edge, always seeing, exploring the limits of what we do and who we are, never letting up. Spiritually and cosmically, not to sound all hippified, but we don't sound good unless we're really connected and on the edge of everything.  

The last date on the books is September 7th at the Interlocken Festival in Virginia. Is the tour done for good after that?
I think so. There's two shows in Canada and one in Virginia. Farm Aid is scheduled, but I don't know if we're playing that.  

Hopefully you're just done until the next album and tour.
Yeah. I think there'll be a next time, but I don't know. I really don't know. If it doesn't happen that way, that's OK. We'll have played a lot all over the world and gone out in style. I don't care much about going out in style, though. As Neil Young says, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." 

They're filming a bunch of shows on this tour. Might there be a concert movie or album or something?
Sure. The idea is to capture it and have the option to do any of that stuff. 

It would make sense to go from Rust Never Sleeps to Weld to Year of the Horse and now Alchemy.
Yeah, it would. We'll see what happens. I think it will eventually turn out that way. I'm not thinking about that myself. I just think about the shows and playing them. That's what I'm focused on. 

I want to move onto your new solo album. You've said it was inspired by Warren Zevon's final album.
Yes. My wife and I were listening to that not long after he passed. It really inspired me. It was so in-your-face and intimate. You could feel his soul.  

Is there a theme to your album?
It turned out that way, though it wasn't what I was expecting. The songs "On the Road to Spearfish," "Big Rain," "The Herd," "Cold Wind," "Runnin' Around" and "Miller Drive" all came out of me coming to the Dakotas with my wife. We drove though Montana and Wyoming and we came to these little towns. My wife is from this little town in North Dakota. "Cold Wind" came out of that town. "Big Rain" is about our ranch. "On the Road to Spearfish" came from driving out here.  

It's a very reflective, mellow album. I keep playing it over and over. I expected songs like "Welfare Mothers," but they couldn't be more different.
That's the idea. I was hoping that people would like it enough to feel things. I don't know if you've heard Alive in the Spirit World, but I feel like this is an appropriate second album. The band has grown, and both albums really represent something that I feel very deeply. 

It seems like you spend a lot of time making this one.
Yeah. I started working on it in 2005. I can't be as productive as Neil. He's maybe put out five records in that time. We didn't have any budget or any help from anybody, and this one and my last album have both gotten released. They came slowly because I didn't have a label and I knew it would be hard to do. I didn't have any real money to speak of.  

Are you going to tour behind it?
I want to. I plan on doing something when I'm done with this go-round with Neil and Crazy Horse. 

As a fan, the long gap between Neil Young and Crazy Horse tours can get a bit frustrating. Do you get frustrated that the decision to record and tour is totally in Neil's hands?
I think it's in God's hands, and Neil is not God. I do think the long layoff really worked out in a beautiful way. I got a record finished that I love. Also, the absence of Neil Young and Crazy Horse made the heart grow fonder of fans everywhere. I think it's a good thing. 

It's pretty remarkable you guys are now entering your 70s, but you all really sound the exact same.
It's fortunate that we're all healthy and we've made it this far. 

Ralph is 70, but his drumming now is indistinguishable from 40 years ago.
I'd say it's even better. I think we're all playing better than ever. And we've grown and progressed. David Crosby might even like some of my bass parts now. Also, the fans really like us. We really like us. All those people that like us come together and then it doesn't matter what a few individuals think, especially those who have axes to grind. I would never say anything derogatory about another band, especially one that Neil was playing with, because it's so hard to be subjective.  

It's got to be fun to be up there playing a song like "Powderfinger" and watching the crowd go completely insane.
Yeah, it's really great. I started this journey when I left New York City when I was 16. I started thinking about it at 14. I went out to California, and this whole time I've been on a quest. Ralph and I started playing and singing together two years later, and for over 50 years we've been doing it together in a certain way. 

As a rhythm section, you could say that we're respected throughout the world. There are few rhythm sections that have gone down in rock history, and we're one of them. That's very satisfying. That fact that we are in a band and have our own unique sound, it's very satisfying to me. It justifies a stance I took all those years ago.

I'll be 70 in October. My wife just turned 70. The two of us are out here living our lives, and I'm still thinking creatively. I'm thinking about the next song. I have songs left over in the music barn right now.

Do you ever think about writing a book? You've had quite the epic life, and most of the story is unknown to most people.
No. I think that I'll just let the songs and a few interviews speak for everything. I did once write a song, though I can't think of the title, but it's the story of me leaving New York and meeting Danny and Ralph, and then Neil joining and then Danny passing away and then Poncho joining us. I wrote that song, but it's not a book. There's been quite a few books written nowadays about rock & roll guys.

I really enjoyed Neil's book.
Yeah, me too. His writing style is fun. I read a lot of books, and I find his writing style really interesting. The best word I can use to describe it is "innocent."  

Do you mind that you're not a household name? Everyone knows Crazy Horse, but not so much the names of the musicians in the band. Does that ever bother you?
No. That's a good thing. What's important is the music and the band. With the individual names, it's like the 1927 Yankees. Some people know a few of the names, but it's the whole team that's known. Not that I'm comparing us to the 1927 Yankees because, Jesus, I'm not. But I'm happy the way things turned out.  As far as history is concerned, that'll take care of itself. I won't even be alive, so it doesn't really affect me. 

You won't be alive, but I really believe that in a thousand years people will be listening to "Down By the River."
That's good. That's what I want to live forever. If they want to inquire and find out that I'm the guy and my name is Billy Talbot and I played the bass part, great. But the whole record itself, the fact that Neil is soaring on the guitar, and Danny . . . That's what I'm proud of. That's what I'm happy about. That's what I want to be known as being a part of. It doesn't matter that it's Billy Talbot. It's just the music that matters.