A few months ago, around the time of his performance at Farm Aid IV, Neil Young summoned the members of Crazy Horse — guitarist Frank Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina — to his Broken Arrow Ranch, in northern California. There, in a matter of weeks, they recorded the bulk of Ragged Glory. Produced by Young and David Briggs, it’s a classic Crazy Horse album, with lots of rough edges, screeching guitar and feedback. In an entirely appropriate gesture from nature, three or four earthquakes shook the area around Young’s ranch on the final day of recording. “We did four tracks that day, and during the final chord of one of the songs, during the feedback, it was real loud, and you could feel everything shake,” Young says. “And everybody was going, ‘Oh, wow, what an ending!’ But it turned out it was the earthquake. We were riding the waves, as they say. We were surfing on the earthquake.”
What prompted you to make another record with Crazy Horse?
It seemed like the right time. I try to savor those times I play with Crazy Horse, and I space them out so that we don’t wear ourselves out. But this time everybody had something to prove, especially the rhythm section. They’re playing really aggressively. I’m really happy with it.
A couple of years ago, you said you’d never play with Crazy Horse again. What happened? We had just come off a really rough European tour. Nothing was going well for us, and it was kind of a Spinal Tap syndrome — so now Nigel’s back in the group, you know [laughs]? It’s just cycles: You wear something out, and you can beat it into the ground, or you can leave it and let the rain fall on it and the sun shine on it and see if it comes back. We’ve always done that. We’ve had musical low points and musical high points throughout the last 20 years. I think this is one of the high points.
The album reminds me of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, your first record with Crazy Horse.
It’s probably closer to that record than anything else I’ve done. I can’t compare it to anything else. We did cut an acoustic track for it, but it wasn’t one I wrote in the same time frame as I wrote the majority of the songs. It just didn’t fit — the feeling didn’t fit — so we left it off.
It’s funny, I wrote seven of the songs in a week. It was two weeks before Farm Aid. Those are the last seven songs on the album. The first two, “Country Home” and “White Line,” I wrote years and years ago; they were songs we were never able to get right back then. And I wrote “Fuckin’ Up” around the end of the Freedom period, when I did Saturday Night Live. We used it for a warm-up song there.
What caused you to cover “Farmer John”?
That was really spontaneous. It just came about while we were practicing one day. Well, we were recording, because practicing and recording are all the same for us. We were rolling the tape and putting things down, but we’d just about finished the album and then we got this take.
Tell me about “Mother Earth.” The guitar part sounds a lot like Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.”
“Mother Earth” was a trip. I recorded that guitar part at Farm Aid. I wrote “Mother Earth” at the same time I wrote the other songs, but I kept hearing it in a huge place — in my mind, I could only see playing it with a gigantic crowd, with the sound swirling around as loud as could be. So I focused everything on that, and the third time I played it through was the time I played it at Farm Aid.
That song is based on an old hymn. I don’t know the name of it, but it’s a traditional melody from years gone by. And I modified it. I used different chords and screwed around with it. The folk process. I’m just an old folkie — I can’t find my acoustic guitar anymore, that’s the problem [laughs.]
One song you recorded, “Don’t Spook the Horse,” is being called a “special profane bonus track.” What’s that all about?
We’re like ancient history. When we put out a single, in our heads we still see a 45. And it used to be that there was an A side and a B side. But now it’s not just a B side anymore, it’s a “bonus track.” And on a CD, it can be as long as you want it to be. So “Don’t Spook the Horse” is our special bonus track. It’s over seven minutes long, and if we had put it on the album, we would have had to make it a double CD.
That song is like those things they use in school these days, where you don’t read the whole book, you read the little condensed version of the book to get an idea of what the book is about. That’s how they teach kids literature today [laughs.] Well, that’s the way “Spook the Horse” is. If you buy that, you don’t really have to buy the album. It’s all in there. It’s a condensed version of the whole album. Especially for reviewers who don’t like me at all. Just listen to that one, and you’ll get all you need.
Several of the other songs on the album are also over seven minutes long.
I purposely wanted to play long instrumentals because I don’t hear any jamming on any other records. There’s nothing spontaneous going on on records these days, except in blues and funkier music. Rock & roll used to have all that. People aren’t reaching out in the instrumental passages and spontaneously letting them last as long as they can. I love to do that, but I can only really do it well with one band. I tried it a little on Freedom. But that style of music is better for me with Crazy Horse.
We played just like a band. It wasn’t someone in a control room with a bunch of machines — a MIDI and synthesizers and a drum machine and producers and tech people. You just can’t get that old-time vibrating feeling with machines. That happens with musicians who just love to play and improvise together. I knew that not many people were doing that, so I really wanted to do it.
What’s happened to the CD anthology you were working on? Is that still going to come out?
Shit, that’s a giant. I’m still working on it. It’s ridiculous. I recorded everything I did over the years, and I also videotaped every tour. I have somewhere around a hundred unreleased tunes, and a lot of them are videotaped. There’s some really funky stuff, real obscure shit. Like the Ducks in Santa Cruz, and Crazy Horse at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz in 1982, or 1984, playing a bunch of songs that we could never record. We went to New York and tried to record these songs for three weeks, and we didn’t get one track. We just blew a whole bunch of time. That was when I first introduced the horns; we had a horn section with Crazy Horse. We just never could get it to gel.
I thought it was my responsibility to try to put all this stuff in order and try to get it all sorted out so that if something ever happened to me, I wouldn’t have to count on anybody else to take care of it for me. Because I do know where everything fits in and where it’s supposed to be.
It’ll come out as a multi-CD set and a multivideo set simultaneously with books that refer to the songs and their place in time and what was going on and who was there. Little stories about each song and opinions from different people. It’s going to be really interesting, and I’m really into it, but it’s not something you can just knock off in a year.
I understand that you and Crazy Horse plan to tour after the first of the year.
Yeah, I’m already dreaming about how great it will be to play with the Horse. We’re gonna play the arenas, the ugly shitholes that nobody would ever dream of sponsoring, because I’m tired of the sheds, the sponsored sheds. It’s like you go into this big box that’s got a brand name on it and play for all these people who are paying exorbitant prices. And everybody’s got these big shows, because they got all this money from the sponsor. And so everything’s got this inflated huge thing going on. So I want to do a straight-ahead thing and play the arenas with the echoing, thundering sound of the Horse.