Remembering Danny Whitten: 1943 - 1972
(via Danny Whitten - His Life - His Music)
"You only get one musician in your life who you really connect with, and for me, that musician was Danny Whitten."
~~Neil Young (From Danny's Friends)
38 years ago this week -- on the 18th November, 1972 -- Danny Whitten tragically passed away.
Danny Whitten is best known as co-lead guitarist in Neil Young's band Crazy Horse. The unquestionably classic album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere album, Whitten's distinctive guitar interplay with Young is what makes epic tracks such as “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down By the River” remain staples in Young's setlists 40 years on.
Neil Young said:
"Danny Whitten was the focal point of Crazy Horse, but he was also the fault line that ran through it.
Like many a troubled genius, the greatness of his art was partly a product of his own tragic life. He left us with a slice of magic in this album but also with the thought that he could have given us so much more had he given himself a chance to."
It is without a doubt that Whitten was key to Neil Young's early career success. Producer Jack Nitzche said:
"In my humble opinion, Crazy Horse is to Neil Young what The Band was to Bob Dylan. As perfect a complement as tequila and salt."
Producer David Briggs said:
"Danny Whitten was the Brian Jones of Crazy Horse."
"Come on baby let's go downtown" - Fillmore East in March 1970
"I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men."
~~ Neil Young, from the liner notes of Decade, 1977
From interview with Neil Young reflecting on Danny in Rolling Stone ( August 14, 1975) by Cameron Crowe:
Neil Young: Somehow I feel like I've surfaced out of some kind of murk. And the proof will be in my next album. Tonight's The Night, I would say, is the final chapter of a period I went through.
Rolling Stone: Why the murky period?
Neil Young: Oh, I don't know.
Danny's death probably tripped it off. Danny Whitten [leader of Crazy Horse and Young's rhythm guitarist/second vocalist]. It happened right before the Time Fades Away tour. He was supposed to be in the group. We [Ben Keith, steel guitar; JackN itzche, piano; Time Drummond, bass; Denny Buttrey, drums; and Young] were rehearsing with him and he just couldn't cut it. He couldn't remember anything. He was too out of it. Too far gone.
I had to tell him to go back to L.A. "It's not happening, man. You're not together enough." He just said, "I've got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?" And he split.
That night the coroner called me from L.A. and told me he'd ODed.
That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible. And from there, I had to go right out on this huge tour of huge arenas.
I was very nervous and ...insecure.
Tonight's The Night is like an OD letter. The whole thing is about life, dope and death. When we [Nils Lofgren, guitars and piano, Talbot, Molina and Young] played that music we were all thinking of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, two close members of our unit lost to junk overdoses. The Tonight's The Night sessions were the first time what was left of Crazy Horse had gotten together since Danny died. It was up to us to get the strength together among us to fill the hole he left.
Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot recalls Danny Whitten in an interview in THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR (October 24, 1996) BY NICK KREWEN:
"We knew it was coming, but it was a shock," says Talbot of Whitten, who left Crazy Horse in 1971 due to his problems. "But that album wasn't solely about Danny. It included some of the other good friends we lost -- Bruse Berry, who was one of our roadies. Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin.
"Danny was the topper. That was the one that hit too close to home."
Talbot says he remembers flying to Ontario and playing three gigs on the university circuit before the band embarked on a week-long European tour.
"It was like an Irish wake," he recalls. "There was a lot of celebrating, a lot of drinking, and being rowdy instead of playing out the darkness."
Whiten's replacement in Crazy Horse, Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro, recalls Danny Whitten in an interview in interview with Undercover (November 2003) by Paul Cashmere:
"I never felt I could replace Danny and to this day I can't play like Danny.
Every once in a while Neil will say 'you should listen to the record' or Billy will say 'just listen to what Danny did'. I try not to.
Danny had what he did and I think it is very special. He was a great singer and a great songwriter and he played guitar a certain way. That's just not what I do. I play the way I play.
I remember when I first met Neil. 'On The Beach' had just come out. It had 'Turnstile Blues', 'Vampire Blues' and I remember telling Neil (and I don't know how I had the balls to say it) but I said 'you know, you've got a lot of blues on your record. You should be rockin' and having fun and seeing chick's asses swaying in the audience' (laughs).
So that is the kind of approach I brought."
Fillmore East in March 1970
Photo by Joe Sia/Bill Graham Archives
From RollingStone.com review of Crazy Horse album by PARKE PUTERBAUGH (RS 890 - February 28, 2002):
"Danny Whitten was a man out of time; his artful, uncluttered songs seem steeped more in the verities of early rock & roll than in the convolutions of the late Sixties. Listen to the unabashed balladic sentimentality of 'I Don't Want to Talk About It' and the grinding R&R basics of 'Dirty, Dirty' and 'Downtown.' The last of these, if you pay close attention, is a shocker -- an upbeat ode to cruising for drugs that sounds like a West Coast complement to the Velvet Underground's 'I'm Waiting for the Man.'
The Eagles get all the credit for exposing the dark side of the California dream, but you can peek at the lobby of the Hotel California on Crazy Horse, too.
The opening track, Nitzsche's chugging, bluesy 'Gone Dead Train,' reveals itself as an elaborate metaphor for impotence; the troubled Whitten lays his cards on the tempestuous, self-revelatory 'Look at All the Things'; and Lofgren's stormy 'Beggars Day' can been interpreted as his fatalistic view of Whitten's drug problems ('All your mercy can't save me'). Danny Whitten died at twenty-nine of a heroin overdose on November 18th, 1972. It's all documented on Tonight's the Night, Neil Young's elegy for Whitten and fellow drug casualty, roadie Bruce Berry, but it was foreshadowed on Crazy Horse."
Tonight's The Night liner notes
One of the most revealing parts of the Tonight's The Night album is the liner notes themselves which are in Dutch. A translation of the Dutch to English notes reveals some insights into Neil Young's despair during the period after Whitten's death. It certainly reveals the importance of tequila and understanding the meaning of Tonight's The Night. From the liner notes:
"The death of Neil's discovery and friend, Danny Whitten seems to have affected him deeply. Since 'The Needle & the Damage Done' most of Neil's songs about Danny's death reflect his guilt complex. Neil seemed to fall back into an even deeper depression. Then he began drinking, became sentimental and generally intolerable for anyone who had anything to do with him. It's said that those around him treated him with great caution for fear of provoking him, causing him to retreat and become a recluse. During this evening at the Rainbow, Neil makes particular reference to Miami Beach where he was safe from external influences and where a highly emotional and introverted process went its course."
Another fascinating aspect to the original vinyl album was the writing in the run out groove. On Side A the phrase "Hello Waterface" was written. And on Side B the phrase "Goodbye Waterface". There's been a great deal of speculation and rumor about what these cryptic phrases might mean. One theory is that it refers to either Danny Whitten or Bruce Berry. If this is the case, "Waterface" most likely refers to Whitten. Whitten has been described as an emotional person who was prone to bursts of sobbing. Hence, Danny's crying might be the "Waterface".
The TTN liner notes refer to "BB", which is clearly Bruce Berry. The note includes the line "Tell Waterface to put it in his lung and not in his vein." This line is an anti-heroin reference and speaks to Neil's loss of Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten and long time roadie Bruce Berry's heroin overdose deaths.
Danny & The Memories
From Neil Young's Tonight's the Night Liner Notes:
'Ladies and Gentlemen. There is one member of the band for whom I feel a special affection. One day he came and knocked at my cellar door in Washington DC where the president of the U.S. lives... Impeach the president, and... eh... What a situation. WHAT A SITUATION, ladies and gentlemen... where's my cigar? I won't be seeing you again for a few years so I can do what I like! Ha ha ha'.
The audience laughs.
'I'm going to try and play something now. I've got a song about a 'straight dog' who took no drugs, no hard drugs, nothing at all. Believe me...according to some rumours I'm dead already, but I'm standing here...believe in nature. I'm not Catholic but I believe in a sort of confession....here tonight, ladies and gentlemen. I want to sing a song for Danny...Whitten who can't be with us tonight. I can feel the Jose Cuervo but I think that what I want to say is getting across. I'm talking slowly about a good friend of mine and I don't want to discredit his name. This is a song for him. Perhaps I'll sing fifty songs for him this evening. You never know...'
The death of Neil's discovery and friend, Danny Whitten seems to have affected him deeply. Since 'The Needle & the Damage Done' most of Neil's songs about Danny's death reflect his guilt complex. Neil seemed to fall back into an even deeper depression. Then he began drinking, became sentimental and generally intolerable for anyone who had anything to do with him. It's said that those around him treated him with great caution for fear of provoking him, causing him to retreat and become a recluse. During this evening at the Rainbow, Neil makes particular reference to Miami Beach where he was safe from external influences and where a highly emotional and introverted process went its course.
'Don't Be Denied', the song for Danny develops into a terrible, deep-reaching event. The playing is awful but the emotion is great Neil is incapable of putting any structure into his guitar-playing instead, he comes across as a man possessed, hair flying, pounding his guitar, jumping and screaming: 'Oh friend of mine, don't be denied, don't be denied, don't be denied.' Confused, he comes up to the microphone and begins to talk gently: 'You buy a newspaper on the street in the morning, and you open it at page two straightaway because you can't read page one....photos of all the people....now I'm in the desert....The Americans are there. Let's think about the desert this evening. In the desert there's a lion, some people are standing on one side on the lion and some on the other. Everybody knows what I'm talking about, so everybody can draw their own conclusions. We're going to play a song, ladies and gentlemen, to try to cheer ourselves up. It wasn't very good in the desert was it? I didn't like it much there anyway'.
This interview with Nils Lofgren was originally published in the Neil Young magazine `Broken Arrow', issue 62, January 1996:
Q: `Tonight's The Night' was recorded shortly after the deaths of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. Was that a traumatic time?
LOFGREN: There were a lot of tough emotional feelings... Danny was the one who asked me to join Crazy Horse to make their first album which I think is just a great record. Jack Nitzsche and I both joined to make the first Crazy Horse record and Danny came back east - he was gonna try to join my band Grin.
But by that point he was so sick that he just couldn't hold up.
So, the `Tonight's The Night' record - at the same time there was a dark cloud over all of this we made a point of enjoying ourselves too. We had a good time. We'd do it like a show - we'd get up and really go after something and perform it and then stop, go take a break, go shoot some pool, come back, do it again, on and off until the early morning and then we'd, you know, head off and meet up again later. So, at the same time it was really sad to lose Danny and Bruce...
I also remember feeling very grateful that I had these friends, that I was alive and that I was being included in such a special project. And there was a real sense of family in that sense despite the obvious sadness due to the loss of Danny and Bruce.
"Danny just wasn't happy. It just all came down on him. He was engulfed by this drug. That was too bad. Because Danny had a lot to give, boy. He was really good." - Neil Young, to his biographer, Jimmy McDonough in Shakey.
Crazy Horse Danny Whitten "I Don't Want to Talk About It"
Thanks to the tribute website Danny Whitten - His Life - His Music.
C'mon baby, let's go downtown. "What we lose in the fire, we gain in the flood"