Monday, 3 November 2008

Neil Young: 'Cowgirl In The Sand' live at Massey Hall, 1971

‘Cowgirl In The Sand’ originally appeared on the 1969 album ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, Young’s first with Crazy Horse.

He later claimed to have written it, alongside ‘Down By The River’, while passed out in bed with a raging fever in Topanga Canon. It is the oppressive thunk and shifting time of the original album recording that seems to manifest the heavy, crawling discomfort of illness. A rambling ten-minutes long, the original is dominated by hypnotic rhythmic interplay between Young and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, of whom Young later said “he just led those guys [bandmates Billy and Ralph] from one groove to another, all within the same groove.”

1971 was a pivotal time for Young, who would hit the big time with ‘Harvest’, and its number one title track, ‘Heart Of Gold’, just a year later. He was to hate the trappings of the musical mainstream. In this recording, as part of his ‘Journey Through The Past’ solo tour, Young is comfortably unfettered by commercial pressure – over half his set was comprised of material he was yet to record. And at Massey Hall in Toronto, where he was born, he appears both coy and contented – a musician enjoying his best work before the mayhem of middle of the road success descends.

Without Danny (who died of a heroin overdose in 1972), and cut to just under four minutes, ‘Cowgirl’ is no longer about the symbiotic rhythmic conflict of two guitarists. Still anchored by that uncompromisingly sturdy tempo, it is Young’s transcendent falsetto that is the manifestation of someone who struggled for liberty from others, but ultimately could not escape from themselves.

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