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Still Crazy Horse After All These Years . . .

Pop music: Neil Young's on-and-off backup trio, which plays Irvine with him Thursday, keeps its sound alive between gigs.

September 11, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The work schedule is highly irregular, outside consultants are sometimes brought in on a whim to supplant the veteran staff, and layoffs are inevitable.

Looked at that way, being on the wrong side of the ampersand in Neil Young & Crazy Horse would seem like the kind of gig Johnny Paycheck was talking about when he sang "Take This Job and Shove It."

But Crazy Horse has been in Young's corral since 1969, the backing trio he generally summons when he wants to make records or play shows that call for a certain special rough soulfulness and pounding simplicity. Crazy Horse--bassist Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina and guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro--will back Young tonight at the Forum in Inglewood and Thursday at Irvine Meadows.

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Complaints? Sampedro and Molina admit they've had a few, and not too few to mention. But over the phone from a Chicago amphitheater last week, where they chatted separately while waiting backstage to team with Young in front of 25,000 fans, both players focused mainly on the great pride they've taken in Crazy Horse's body of work with Young, which includes many of his peak albums and live shows. Their main gripe is that they wish they could have done more.

While the versatile Young has looked to other players for his country, blues and rockabilly departures, typically he has turned to Crazy Horse when it's time to rock hard. "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" (1969), "Zuma" (1975), "Rust Never Sleeps" and "Live Rust" (1979), "Ragged Glory" (1990) and "Sleeps With Angels" (1994) are the ones that have contributed most to Young's Hall of Fame stature.

But the general rule--if Neil is rocking hard, he must be riding with the Horse--hasn't been so hard and fast lately. In 1993, Young played a hard-rock tour with Booker T. & the MGs that had little to do with that classic band's Memphis R&B style, and in 1995, he recorded his "Mirror Ball" album with Pearl Jam.

"Both of those moves were probably egged on by record company or management, some [expletive] for money," Sampedro said. "That's my own opinion. When I went and saw [Young with] Booker T. and the MGs, I thought it had to be some kind of marketing move. He was doing the same show we had before, but with a different band. It was like the same thing over again without us.

"When I heard the Pearl Jam album, I felt the same way: We could have done that. They played great, and I love them, but it didn't sound magical to me. It didn't have the emotion [of a Neil Young & Crazy Horse performance], even though they played well.

"I used to get angry when he would go and play with other people," continued Sampedro, who over the past few years has had a steady, between-tours job doing behind-the-scenes digital sequencing for the "Tonight Show" band.

"But when you look back at the history of Neil, he always comes back to Crazy Horse, while others are a one- or two-shot deal. I've gotten past the insecurity, and say, 'OK, it's just a matter of time.' We're not fired, we're just laid off."

Added Molina: "Neil has a lot of avenues. When I was younger [it was a problem], but now I'm older. As far as I'm concerned, [what Young plays with Crazy Horse] is his best stuff. To him, this is a special thing. If we had done album after album, tour after tour, we might not be playing together, it might not be special. But we get together every three or four years, and it's still special and fresh. That's why it's lasted this long."

Molina--at 52 a grandfather who has been with his wife, Barbara, for 33 years--said one fringe benefit of Crazy Horse's working arrangement is plenty of at-home time between tours. Molina said that during their down time, he and bassist Talbot often get together to play informally.

Crazy Horse's origins go back to 1963, when Molina, who grew up in New York City, came to Los Angeles and soon joined a doo-wop group called Danny & the Memories.

Molina's cousin, Lou Bisbal, was a member and recommended him for his ability to sing high harmonies. Danny Whitten, who hailed originally from Georgia, and Talbot, a former New Yorker, were the other members.

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When rock superseded doo-wop, Whitten, Talbot and Molina formed the Rockets, along with three other players. Young, who had risen to fame with Buffalo Springfield, became a jamming partner, then recruited the three Rockets to back him on "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," his second album as a solo artist.

Young's pattern of sojourns apart from Crazy Horse began within months, when he joined Crosby, Stills & Nash. Crazy Horse made its recording debut as a self-contained band in 1971; "Crazy Horse" showcased Whitten's considerable talent as a singer and songwriter, including the wistful ballad, "I Don't Want to Talk About It," which was later done by Rod Stewart. But Whitten died in 1972, a victim of heroin addiction.

Sampedro, 47, grew up in Detroit and came to Los Angeles in his teens with rock aspirations. By 1973, he was ready to pack it in.

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