The Making of “Down By The River” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Here's the story of the making of “Down By The River” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
From an epic archive feature, in December 2004’s issue of Uncut by Nigel Williamson, Neil Young himself explains the making of every single song on his Greatest Hits album:
“Down By The River” defined the guitar sound Young perfected with Crazy Horse, played on a vintage instrument he called “Old Black”, a 1953 Gibson Les Paul that he’d bought in 1967 for $50. Years later, he was still recalling the excitement of the first time he played it through a vintage 1959 Fender Deluxe: “Immediately, the entire room started to vibrate. I went, ‘Holy shit!’ I had to turn it halfway down before it stopped feeding back.” The sessions for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere were the first time he’d used the combination in the studio.Full December 2004 article "Neil Young on the making of his greatest hits" in Uncut by Nigel Williamson.
Despite being nine minutes long, “Down By The River” was edited down from a much longer jam. “We got the vibe, but it was just too long and sometimes it fell apart, so we just took the shitty parts out,” Young explained. “Made some radical cuts in there – I mean, you can hear ’em. Danny just played so cool on that. He was playing R’n’B kinda things. He made the whole band sound good.”
Bassist Billy Talbot confirms that it was “Down By The River” which patented the Crazy Horse sound: “At first we played it double-time, faster like the chorus is now. It was almost a jazz thing.” They then borrowed a James Brown-style beat, but slowed down to a more stoned pace.
According to drummer Ralph Molina, Young borrowed the chord sequence from a Danny Whitten composition called “Music On The Road”, although Young’s biographer Jimmy McDonough reckoned it owes more to “Let Me Go”, another Rockets song, which appeared on their only album (released in ’68).
Written in bed with a fever on the same day as “Cinnamon Girl” and “Cowgirl In The Sand”, once the sickness passed Young still didn’t seem to have much idea where “Down By The River” ’s lyric came from, with its “I shot my baby” refrain.
“No, there’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick. It’s a plea, a desperation cry,” he insisted in 1970.
Yet in a long preamble to the song at a 1984 concert in New Orleans, he told a different story, claiming it was about “a guy who had a lot of trouble controlling himself”. He went on to describe a very literal meeting by a river in which the man tells the woman she’s cheated on him once too often: “He reached down into his pocket and pulled a little revolver out and he said, ‘Honey, I hate to do this, but you’ve pushed me too far.’”
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