It’s been another momentous year for Neil fans. Just as we’d settled down to enjoy the rowdy delights of Barn, the Official Bootleg Series truffled out new perspectives on his storied ’70/’71 and the Eldorado reissue brought back into focus Young’s creative rehabilitation at the end of the ’80s.
This week, Young releases Noise & Flowers – a live album taken from his 2019 European tour with Promise Of The Real. Young started the tour a few weeks after the death of his long-serving manager, Elliot Roberts, which freights this album with a certain rugged pathos. There’s amazing version of “On The Beach”, too. But, for me at least, the biggest Neil release so far this year has been Toast – the mythical ‘lost’ album recorded in 2000 at the end of a scorching run of records with Crazy Horse. You can read my full review of Toast here – but I thought now the issue is off-sale it wouldn’t hurt to run the Q&As with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro and Billy Talbot that accompanied my review. It’s worth reading to the end, as Billy gives some tidbits on the upcoming Horse album and likelihood of a new Horse tour.
Anyway, in case you’ve somehow missed out on this so far, here’s the splendidly ragged “Standing in the Light of Love” to get you in the zone…
Here’s Poncho first, with Billy to follow further down.
UNCUT: What took you to San Francisco in the first place?
Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: It was logistics. Neil and Pegi had taken a penthouse apartment in downtown San Francisco, as their daughter Amber was going to high school there. It was more sensible than travelling in from where they lived out in the woods [at Broken Arrow Ranch], so Amber could be around her friends.
What was Toast like?
There were derelict buildings and squatters. I remember there was a doughnut shop on the corner and that was it. In the studio, we found a backdoor we could open, so we’d go out the back to smoke a cigarette and watch the rats run around. I mean, they were huge. There’s no place to even get dinner, so we would order out and one of the roadies would go pick up all the food. But at Toast, they didn’t have enough forks for everybody. You would think someone might go out and buy a couple of forks. Anyway, they never did.
What kind of place was Neil in at the time?
He never said a word about his relationship with Pegi. All Neil did was sit on the floor in the middle of the studio with a couple of yellow pads and some pencils and pens around them. While he was writing, the rest of us was supposed to just be cool and not bother him. Before that, Neil would always call and just overwhelm us with anywhere from 10 to 20 new songs. He’d start playing them all on their own, so we’d have a game of catch up. But that’s the way it was. It was fun. But at Toast, I can’t even tell you how many weeks – months – we stayed there.
… and then you went to South America.
We were on fire, man! The people loved us. Playing to 200,000 people in Rio de Janeiro was insane. When we started “Like A Hurricane”, the crowd sang the melody back to us, like a soccer chant. The more intense the solo got, the louder they got. I looked over at Neil, he had his head thrown back with his eyes closed, wailing away on his guitar. It was such a high magical moment, man. Wow. We came back to Toast with this new energy. We were all into Latin. Every song, we tried to turn it into Latin. But it quickly got back into the same thing, then it just ended.
Then what happened?
Neil called me, like, two weeks later, He said, “Hey, I want to redo some of the songs. Got a couple other ones. I’m gonna get together with Booker T. I think you and I, we should go for a new studio. That’d be good.” So I flew out to this new studio up north over the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a 2,000 per cent turnaround from Toast. The next day, Booker and Duck [Dunn] showed up. We hit it off right away and we started recording. It was all good. Duck would sit in a chair to play bass, then all of a sudden he’d stand up – and whenever he did that, we knew that was the take. But that’s what made the difference – Neil had the songs this time.
What do you think about Toast now?
I’m amazed at this record. I can’t believe some of the stuff we played. It seems so natural when you listen it. We played all genres and we touched on a lot of different aspects of who the Horse could have been or could be. Neil’s lyrics are really touching. The way he used his vocals were so creative, It’s just unbelievably beautiful. Really.
What do you think of the versions of “Quit”, “How Ya Doin’?” and “Boom Boom Boom”?
They hit me emotionally. When I heard “Boom Boom Boom” and “How Ya Doin’?”, I cried. It was so sad, and so good at the same time. “Boom Boom Boom” is equal to “Down By The River”, it takes you to so many different places. Tommy Brae’s trumpet solo makes you cry. Pegi and Astrid’s vocals are so eerie. The chorus – “Ain’t no way I’m gonna let the good times go” – it sounds like Neil is trying to end the song, then he’ll play a little more and sing that chorus again. It’s so bluesy. But we never stopped. Then we broke into our old selves and started getting crazy and psychedelic at the end. Wow! What a ride. “How Ya Doin’?” is so eerie. I put that right up there with “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”. When Neil sings, “Let’s say I got a habit”, that goes right through you – but it’s about all those things, all the crazy insanity that get into in our lives, from drugs to drinking to love and all the things that hook us. How do we control them? We don’t, we have no control over those things.
Aside from the seven songs on Toast, did you record anything else while you were in San Francisco?
We recorded “Two Old Friends” [later re-recorded for Are You Passionate?] I remember I played it while everybody was taking a break. I was sitting in this little acoustic guitar booth that they built for me and I played the whole song. I just practising. The song was going through the speakers into the studio. When I came out, Neil looked at me and said, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” But we didn’t get it there, for some reason.
It’s strange, though, that after all that Neil writes about Toast: “Crazy Horse shows a depth never seen or heard before. This is a pinnacle. Where they let me go, where they took me, was unbelievable.”
But he wasn’t saying it to us! But I guess he was having a hard time expressing himself. That’s like the best compliment we could ever get. It’s crazy, isn’t it? Way Down In The Rust Bucket blew my mind – but that was material we did well, already. We played it all really good that night live. So that was cool. But this is totally unique for Crazy Horse, it has so many different layers. It’s part of jazz, part of blues and it’s just spooky as hell. It’s going to surprise a lot of people, I think.
And now for Billy Talbot…
UNCUT: When did you hear Toast was finally coming out?
Billy Talbot: About a year ago. That’s when Neil listened to it and, as far as I know, the reason it’s coming out is because he really thinks it’s great. He was a little surprised by it, but probably secretly really knew [how great it was].
And what do you think about it?
I think that it’s kind of understandable it was never released; it might have been misunderstood. It has a certain loneliness to it. It’s kind of spooky. It has a vibe to it, a heavy vibe to it. It speaks of something that happened back in that time in a beautiful, beautiful way. I think Neil really rocked with the Horse.
What are your memories of the studio?
I liked it there. As I remember, the room was big enough. The control room was nice. There had good speakers in there, I guess. I don’t know how we came upon that place. But it was good. It was a good place to record. I remember being able to slip out the back door and go and listen to something in the car, or slip out the back door, a bunch of us and walk to someplace that we eat at or get in a car and drive a few blocks away to someplace and eat something and then come back and do some more music.
What do you remember about the sessions?
It went down easily and slowly. The air was pretty clean, as far as all of it was concerned. We were into the moment really nicely,. It went on after this in another form, I understand. Another record came out. When we were there doing this, it was a beautifully creative, peaceful time.
You went on tour to South America halfway through the sessions…
That was great. Yeah. We went and played, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, in Brazil for one thing. We have some video of that. We were playing great. The Toast recordings don’t reflect that. They’re great in a whole other way. We might even have done a Toast song, “Goin’ Home”, there in Brazil. That show was pretty good. But Toast recordings were a whole ’nother feeling.
What do you mean by that?
There are some songs that don’t sound like Crazy Horse particularly. I’m really partial to “Boom Boom Boom”. “Quit” has a good beginning, the way it glides in. All the songs are unusual. There’s another flavour to them that it’s hard to describe.
Neil said, “Crazy Horse shows a depth never seen or heard before. This is a pinnacle. Where they let me go, where they took me, was unbelievable.”
It’s another dimension. It was really different, the way that other things have been really different and this isn’t the same as those other things. This is another different. I like it because of that. I can understand how it just sat there, in time. Now it’s coming to light. For some reason, it makes sense to me.
Can you explain how?
No! I don’t even want to think about it! Sometimes, some things are not meant to be thought about. They’re meant to just be absorbed. Toast comes from the past. I’m just trying to come to terms with it, then maybe I’ll think about it, or there’ll be some things to think about. The words in the songs – that’s always interesting with Neil.
Tell me a bit about what Neil was like during this session.
He’s always a bit secretive. He doesn’t just run at the mouth. But he’s a nice guy and he likes having fun, enjoying life. At the same time, he was the creator of this music, along with the Horse in a way. But he wrote these various pieces, that we got into, in the way that they are. We got into it that way. And anyway, it’s good to hear.
How do you think Toast fits in with that run of ‘90s Horse albums – Ragged Glory, Sleeps With Angels and Broken Arrow?
I’m just grateful, to be able to go through those years all these years, and still be able to do something – like Colorado and Barn. I liked those records a lot. Through the years we’ve been recorded, and that’s really something to have in your life, to look back on, to see yourself in those times and these times, because we’re always different. We’re people, growing; or maybe not growing but you think you are. In any case, as the years go by, you get to see yourself through these different times with music. And that’s a good thing, for sure.
The Horse have just finished recording with Rick Rubin…
Yeah, we did. We had a lot of fun.
Any plans to tour? It’ll be difficult with Nils off playing with Springsteen next year.
Yeah, he’s going to be occupied. Maybe he’ll slip over and play with us once in a while. We don’t do a lot of stuff. We need everybody to miss us. So when they see us, they’ll just love us. If you miss somebody enough, it’s good to see them.
Is it all the same Horse – from Danny up through Poncho to Nils?
From my perspective, it is. Ralph and I and Neil are always in it. Therefore with Danny or with Poncho or with Nils, all of this is just part of it. That’s what Crazy Horse is. All of this and all of that. Nils likes to think of himself as being part of Crazy Horse all along, as he was with us years ago. Neil is an incredible songwriter. People are still interested in what he does and consequently, what we do. And we realise that, but we still play together and we still do this and it still happens because we don’t think too much about all of that stuff.
Then you get people like me ringing you up and asking you to explain it…
It’s OK. I understand that. But we’re just really moving along on this planet, trying to get through another day.