After the Buffalo Springfield imploded, Neil Young recorded his first, eponymous solo album, an elaborately overdubbed affair that cast him in the role of brooding singer-songwriter. But soon after that record was released, in January 1969, Young began jamming in Los Angeles with a band called the Rockets, redubbed Crazy Horse, and started a relationship that would change guitar rock forever and form the foundation of his career. If Neil Young had an aura of careful subtlety bordering on tentativeness, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere felt raw, rushed, energized. Indeed, Young dashed off the album’s three central songs — “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” — in a single fever-addled afternoon, and Young and the band play with an almost reckless disregard for prettiness, precision, clarity.
The recurring ten-note guitar riff that opens “Cinnamon Girl” sets the tone: harsh, metallic and as elemental in its own way as anything on the first album by protopunks the Stooges (which came out the same year). Crazy Horse — guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina — play at the very limits of their capabilities. Their heavy, almost oppressive caveman stomp contrasts with Young’s mournfully high voice and underlines the album’s central theme: Boy chases, loses and eventually kills girl, then does hard time — if all only in his own mind. “I’m sorry for the things I’ve done/I’ve shamed myself with lies,” Young quivers on the eerie, Appalachian-style fiddle ballad “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets),” one of several quieter, country-flavored tunes that serve as respites between guitar onslaughts.
On the epics that end each album side, “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” Young and Whitten circle, prod and light into each other like boxers in a sweaty fifteen-round match, the notes stabbing in and out, answering each other in short staccato bursts while the rhythm section stolidly keeps things from flying apart. The quartet’s interplay is at once primitive and abstract, more suggestive of Ornette Coleman’s fractured free jazz than the jam-band psychedelia that was the prevailing West Coast fad at the time. Some listeners found it crude, but the gloriously spontaneous sound forged on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere would endure, not only as a blueprint for Young and Crazy Horse (even after Frank “Pancho” Sampedro replaced Whitten, who died of a drug overdose in 1972) but as an influence on countless bands, from Sonic Youth to Son Volt.