Don’t call Neil Young The Godfather of Grunge to his face. He’d be happy to give the title away. “How much to do want for it. I can’t be held responsible for what other people call me. It’s totally up to them. Being Don Grungio has not been easy for me, it’s a temporary situation”.
Today, Don Grungio, wearing old jeans, a Levis jacket and a straw hat, is dressed more like a farm hand than the inspiration of the 90’s Seattle movement. Young is holding court near his home, the Broken Arrow Ranch, south of San Francisco.
High in the mountains, it’s hard to imagine the city is so nearby. The smell of pine fills the air and Crystal Springs Lake, the natural spring water lake that services the greater area of San Francisco lies at the bottom of the dirt road below the area.
Neil Young bought the farm with his first royalty check. He figured if he never received another payment, at least he’d have a home to live in.
The money did keep coming and Neil kept acquiring land. He is now the largest landowner of property in the region.
As a musician, Young’s most prolific occupation has been as a member of Crazy Horse. “Neil tells everybody he’s just the guitar player in Crazy Horse. It’s the record company that invented the name Neil Young and Crazy Horse. We don’t feel like a backing band (for Neil), we feel like a band” points out Crazy Horse lead guitar and backing vocalist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro.
Director Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man) has captured Crazy Horse live for his new movie “The Year Of The Horse”. The footage not only seizes the potency of the band on stage but also the friction between the personalities that has made them one of the most powerful bands of the last twenty five years.
One scene, a stand-up argument between Young and bass player Billy Talbot follows quickly out of the concert footage of their song Fucking Up. Neil justifies the episode. “Don’t you have friction in your job? Aren’t there some assholes that you can’t get along with. Everybody has this thing. It’s part of the music, part of being in a group, part of being brothers. Despite the fighting we all care about the same thing. We’ve been through every aspect of it and we still love to play music. It’s the songs. That’s what keeps us going.”
The songs that keep Crazy Horse alive on the road are forever changing. “I go through all kinds of work trying to figure out what songs to do that I haven’t done already. I try and come up with songs that fit how I feel now. That way, when I am singing them, I don’t have to pretend,” Neil says.
Many of the songs on the current tour dig deep into Young’s back catalogue. Danger Bird from the 1976 set Zuma has been resurrected for the current tour and live CD. Zuma, released just four years after Young’s commercial breakthrough Harvest, has constantly proven a vital source of material for the Crazy Horse live set. “This last tour we used Zuma as a big source and it will continue to be somewhat on the next tour. Also for the next tour we’ll be using Landing On Water and Mirror Ball,” said Neil.
1995’s Mirror Ball was the album that earned Neil his Don Grungio moniker. Young had joined Pearl Jam on stage at the MTV music awards to help the Seattle rockers perform his song “Rocking In The Free World”. The Young / Pearl Jam collaboration continued in the studio producing “Mirror Ball” for Young and “Merken Ball” for Pearl Jam.
Crazy Horse performing the songs Pearl Jam recorded for Mirror Ball should be evidence that grunge didn’t start in Seattle in the early 90’s. The fact that compared to The Horse, Pearl Jam sound relatively mellow didn’t go unnoticed by bass guitarist Billy Talbot. “I think that Pearl Jam were put in an unfair position (laughs). Actually, they really were. They didn’t have all those years of playing with Neil. We ride the emotional roller coaster when we get together and play. It would take a long time for them to get to that point with Neil where they could do that. That’s not the kind of band they are, even”. Sampedro adds “They are like an angry, young 90’s band and they were playing with a guy singing about peace and love. It doesn’t fit the way we feel. We all came from the same place, with a strong bond and they just didn’t have that opportunity”.
Young agrees grunge has been around a long time before Nirvana or Pearl Jam. “Don Grungio came into existence with the first Crazy Horse album. The end of “Cinnamon Girl” was the beginning of Don Grungio”.
Never miss a story! Get your free Noise11.com daily music news email alert. Subscribe to the Noise11 Music Newsletter here