Sunday, July 14, 2024

Neil Young’s ‘Early Daze’ Puts Danny Whitten Front and Center

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Before Micah Nelson, before Nils Lofgren, and before Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, there was Danny Whitten. The original Crazy Horse guitarist died over 50 years ago, but the mark he made on Neil Young and the band persists to this day. Just watch this clip from the recent, now-suspended tour, where Nelson sings backup on “Cinnamon Girl.” Those harmonies — simultaneously honeyed and gravelly, providing just enough support without overshadowing, yet so powerful and full of potential — echoes Whitten. He’s the spirit of Crazy Horse that never really went away. 

“Every musician has one guy on the planet that he can play with better than anyone else,” Young once said. “You only get one guy. My guy was Danny Whitten.” 

Whitten died of an overdose of alcohol and valium in November 1972. This was so long ago that it occurred just a year after Jim Morrison, and, remarkably, before Nick Drake and Gram Parsons. Like those artists, we usually associate Whitten with his death. His tragically short life is forever embedded in songs like “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Don’t Be Denied,” and, most famously, Tonight’s the Night, where Young mourned the loss of Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. But Early Daze, Young’s latest archival release, is a celebration of Whitten’s life — before his untimely demise.

Early Daze, a new Neil Young archival release, is a brief record — just 10 tracks clocking in at 38 minutes — and contains no new songs, so casual fans might write it off. But it features the original Crazy Horse lineup (Young, Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina, and keyboardist Jack Nitzsche) and is packed to the brim with their magic, amazingly even more loose and unfiltered than the 1969 classic Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. There’s “Look At All the Things,” a Whitten original as melodically dense as his heartbreaker “I Don’t Want to Talk About It”; and “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” where Whitten’s vocals are so eerily clear that it sounds like it was recorded yesterday. If his posthumous version of “Downtown” on Tonight’s the Night makes it sound haunted, this take is wildly alive, baked in grit. 

As Young diehards know (or Rusties, we’re called), Early Daze has been in the works for years. “I have made an Early Daze record of the Horse, and you can hear a different vocal of ‘Cinnamon Girl’ featuring more of Danny,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir Waging Heavy Peace. “He was singing the high part, and it came through big time. I changed it so I sang the high part and put that out. That was a big mistake. I fucked up. I did not know who Danny was. He was better than me. I didn’t see it. I was strong, and maybe I helped destroy something sacred by not seeing it. He was never pissed off about it. It wasn’t like that. I was young, and maybe I didn’t know what I was doing. Some things you wish never happened. But we got what we got.” 

You can hear that raw, Whitten-forward “Cinnamon Girl” here, which was originally released as a 7” single. There’s also the mythical Crazy Horse version of “Helpless,” available to the public for the first time; Young scrapped and re-recorded it with CSNY for Déjà Vu. And finally, a moment for the criminally underrated “Winterlong,” a fan favorite that the Pixies covered and Young eventually released on the Decade compilation. Young has released many archival sets, but for real fans this hits home as hard as any.

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