Song 319: Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Down By the River” (1969)

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Where would we be without Neil Young? I have no way to prove this, of course, and this kind of speculation usually drives me crazy, but I think rock music would be very different without him. I have a feeling that acoustic music, even with Bob Dylan in the mix, would have tended more toward the “sincere folksinger” image, and I think electric rock would have been less … well, loud.

I love all the sounds Young can somehow conjure. His acoustic sound is raw and lonely, and his electric sound is fierce and dangerous. And then, of course, there’s that voice, that thin, sad voice, that powers everything. The sound that resulted from the contrast between that tiny voice and the gigantic guitars was one of his neatest tricks.

And that’s why I love “Down By the River,” a song from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the first record that Young and Crazy Horse made together. The fact that their debut had this song, not to mention “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and the heartbreaking title track, is incredible. My favorite moment in “Down By the River” is a very small one, but it represents why I love Neil Young. Around the seven-minute mark, in the middle of a long, haunting, solo, Young plays a simple chord that rings out in all its fuzzy, distorted glory. It’s the tone that earned Young the nickname “grandfather of grunge,” the rare pop culture nickname that actually fits.

I also love the recurring moment when Young sings the title phrase. The first mention is especially beautiful: After a verse of dark and mysterious imagery (the incredible “she could drag me over the rainbow” among them), you expect more of the same, and then Young starkly says that he shot somebody. The sound of the guitar is just as matter-of-fact, as stark and declarative as Young’s confession.

The vocals on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere were apparently intended to be rough versions that the band would use to record their parts, and Young was going to record more polished takes. Young’s decision to keep his rough vocals in the mix is what makes him Neil Young. He doesn’t seem to make any bad choices.

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