Neil Young‘s future was very much in doubt when he began recording Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in January of 1969. His former Buffalo Springfield bandmates were forming successful new groups like Poco and Crosby, Stills and Nash, but Young was determined to make it on his own – even though his self-titled 1968 debut was pretty much dead on arrival and Young was playing tiny clubs in Michigan, Ontario and New York to pay the bills.
Young had cut his debut with studio pros like drummer Earl Palmer and bassist Carol Kaye. But he felt the songs he was writing for his follow-up needed a needed a rougher, edgier touch. When he came across a band called the Rockets one day in Laurel Canyon, he knew he found his guys. Led by guitarist Danny Whitten, they were a former doo-wop group that had morphed into a psychedelic folk outfit. They weren’t highly trained musicians, but they played with incredible intensity. Success had eluded them for years, and they jumped at the chance to play with someone as established as Neil Young, who promptly changed their name to Crazy Horse.
After years when he’d labored over each and every song he recorded, Crazy Horse helped teach Neil the value of working very quickly. “In a single day we did ‘Cinnamon Girl,’ ‘Down By The River’ and ‘Cowgirl In The Sand,'” bassist Billy Talbot told Rolling Stone in 1979. “There wasn’t much need to discuss it.” Young had just started started playing a black 1953 Gibson Les Paul that Jim Messina had given him. It produced a thunderous noise that quickly became his signature sound. He plays the guitar to this day.
Side One of the record ends with the nine-minute “Down The The River” and Side Two ends with the ten-minute “Cowgirl In The Sand.” “Me and Billy and [drummer Ralph Molina] sounded like Crazy Horse right away,” Young told biographer Jimmy McDonough. “All I had to do was come up with the songs and the riffs. I started realizing how long we could jam. It was fantastic . . . ‘Down By The River’ was really edited. We got the vibe, but it was too long and sometimes it fell apart, so we just took the shitty parts out. Made some radical cuts in there – I mean, you can hear ’em.”
The songs were unlike anything else Young had ever recorded. He wrote many of them in a single day when he was suffering from the flu. “It became obvious to me that this band was much funkier than all the other bands I’d been in,” Young told McDonough. “And I noticed that some of the musicians that I’d played with in the other bands didn’t think these guys were very good. Yet I liked them. Even more, as a matter of fact. I was having a really good fuckin’ time playing with them. Where else could I go and play my guitar for fuckin’ seven minutes, sing a verse and play another five-minute solo?”
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere hit shelves on May 14th, 1969. Neil Young brought Crazy Horse on a tour of clubs and small theaters across the country, but the album didn’t get much traction. Meanwhile, Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut (also in stores in May of 1969) was an immediate smash. They got huge offers to tour, but they needed an extra musician. It was a wildly different project than Crazy Horse, but Young loved playing with Stephen Stills, and it was an opportunity to make real big money. Young took the job, and on August 16th, 1969, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young made their public debut at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. Two days later, they played Woodstock.
The supergroup toured all through the rest of the year, often closing out the night with a ferocious rendition of “Down By The River.” The guys in Crazy Horse didn’t know what kind of future they had, but the songs they cut with Neil were finally getting a huge audience. Everybody This Is Nowhere started to gradually climb the charts, eventually reaching Number 34. “Cinnamon Girl” was finally released as a single in April of 1970 and many radio stations put it into heavy rotation.
By that point, CSNY was already falling apart and Young was hard at work on his next solo LP, After The Goldrush. Buoyed by the huge success of CSNY, it was the album that would finally establish him as a solo superstar. Danny Whitten played on a few tracks on the LP, but he died from mixing valium with alcohol two years later. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere remains the only Neil Young and Crazy Horse album he played on. “It’s probably my best,” Young told Rolling Stone in 1975. “It’s my favorite one. I’ve always loved Crazy Horse from the first time I heard the Rockets album on White Whale. The original band we had in ’69 and ’70 – Molina, Talbot, Whitten and me. That was wonderful.”