Neil Young with Crazy Horse – Down By The River. Epic guitar duelling
This may be the song that got me into Neil Young. Although I was aware of ‘Like A Hurricane’, I hadn’t heard the song. I think ‘Heart of Gold’ may have played on the radio some time during my childhood as it seemed familiar when it played.
It was after the end of the first year at university that a group of us made the car journey down to Glastonbury for the festival. The weather was warm orange sun on the dashboard and Decade was playing on the stereo. A great way to be introduced to Neil Young’s music, the collection of 10 years of songs made a long-lasting impact – Cinnamon Girl, Cowgirl In The Sand and Southern Man – lengthy tracks with sprawling guitar solos – they seemed to come from another, golden age – California in the sixties, when everything could take its time, hang loose and revel in its sound.
All the songs on the compilation made an impact quite quickly – an indication for me of the approachable melodic pop sensibilities of Neil Young. Of all of them though, it was Down By The River that stood out most – for its guitar sparring – seemingly two lead guitars playing in one song – but guitars paying in a far different way to the fret bashing histrionics of the heavy metal/rock I had been used to from my early teenage years.
I’d kind of had my taste in metal shamed out of me in the early eighties, as the cool music to listen to was new wave, punk,.synth and indie. Although I was edging back towards rock music with bands like the Sisters, the Cult, Bauhaus – who weren’t afraid of wearing their pre-punk influences on their sleeves, It think it was this track which made me realise it was possible to indulge in guitar jamming without accompanying it with lyrics boasting about pubescent boy fantasy subjects – girls, dragons, fast cars etc. More to the point, it was a song where the bass line does more than just blindly follow the guitar/vocal line. When I listen to some metal now, I find it hard to hear the bassline at all.
It’s a long song – nearly 9 minutes, with two instrumental breaks/guitar solos taking up about half the time in total. Not that the instruments revert to conventional melodies during the verse/chorus parts. Al through the song, it’s possible to hear the two guitars and bass all playing their own distinguishable melodies, helpfully separated out into different channels in the mix, so you can tell when it’s Neil Young’s guitar, when Danny Whitten’s.
Although Neil Young takes the lead most of the time in bursting out with unusual runs of notes (38 repeats of the same note at one point, apparently), Danny Whitten does more than just play backing rhythm guitar. Although clearly separate sounds, the two guitar tracks seem to throw lead and rhythm back and forth between them, with Neil Young happy to leave big gaps in his playing, which adds to the sense of space in the song. And nodding away between the two, there’s Billy Talbot’s lovely warm bass, giving calm continuity.
The song itself carries the main melody, strong singing from Neil Young with nice harmonizing from Danny Whitten, allowing all the intriguing instrumentation to carry on without the whole thing collapsing into an aimless jam. Even at the height of the first 3 minute solo, when it’s not clear where the soloing is heading, the steady drumming and comfortable bass lets you know the singers will be along soon to add structure and form back into the track.
There’s a great confidence in this song, a feeling of a band, well-practised & experienced, able to take the music where their muse takes them. ‘Come with us, it’ll be fun – you’ll be in good hands’, is what it says to me.
In good hands was precisely where my infant daughter was not, some 5 years ago when I took her, in her pram, for her first solo outing with Dad – letting Mum have a much-needed rest at home. It was a fine October day with clear skies – not too cold. Where shall we go , I thought? How about down to the Rhine, across the bridge, up to the next bridge and then back home? About an hour’s walk, a reasonable proposition.
As we headed down the road towards the bank, I either had on my iPod or had in my head the lyrics to – Down By The River. Ooh, this is appropriate, I thought –
“Down by the river, I shot my baby
Down by the river, Dead, oh, shot her dead.”
*Giggle* Never had the words seemed more sinister. I think I also had Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ in my head as well. Oh well.
The walk went fine in as far as we crossed over the Rhine and started up towards the north bridge. Then it all went a bit pear-shaped. The footpath ahead was closed for repair. Never mind, I thought – I’ll cut across the upturned cobbles and excavated tarmac to further downstream, where the path should continue.
Except the path didn’t reappear. It seemed like the efficient Germans had dug up the whole path right to the bridge. Not wanting to accept this, I was determined to continue my walk (with pram) across clayey fields, till it became apparent that there was no way I was going to reach the north bridge. I had to turn round and head back.
It was now substantially later than an hour after I had set off. The confidence with which I had embarked on this outing was ebbing with the setting sun. Slightly panicky, I did make it back over the main city bridge and then worked my way home through the chilly evening air, lit by the street lights slowly brightening as the sky above darkened. It was such a relief to reach our front door.
The whole time, the motion of the pram had kept my little child asleep and snugly warm under blankets. But now when I hear the words ‘You could be taking me for a ride”, I am transported back to that trip down to the river, even as the sparring guitars remind me of a much earlier and more fondly-remembered journey.
Music takes us to interesting places.