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Music

The drummer who “butted heads” with Neil Young

@SamWKemp

Long-time Neil Young collaborator Karl Himmel may have aided the singer-songwriter on some of his most beloved albums, but that doesn’t mean they always got along. The drummer once recalled that the pair got off to a particularly bad start when they “butted heads” during their first studio session.

Himmel came to Young’s attention after he was recommended by Levon Helm, the drummer and co-lead vocalist of The Band. It was 1974 and Young was working on his Homegrown album, which wouldn’t see a release until many years later in 2020. Despite its long incubation period, the album led to a working relationship between the pair that would last a lifetime.

Speaking to Rolling Stone in a recent interview, Himmel revealed that he was approached by co-producer Ben Keith, who said: “‘Come by the studio and I’ll introduce you to Neil. And Levon needs some equipment.’ I’d known Levon for years, and I said, ‘I’ll give him anything he wants.’ But I was working a couple of times when they were in the studio. I also didn’t want to go to someone else’s studio when I’m not the drummer. The last day that they were recording, Levon said to me, ‘You gotta come down.’ And so I went, and he introduced me to Neil.”

When Helm left to work elsewhere, the drumming job was left vacant, giving Himmel a chance to work with Young in a professional capacity. The drummer recalled that during their first session together, “Neil said, ‘I really like your snare drum.’ Then I go, ‘I like your pretty guitar,'” Himmel said. “It was just a great meeting.”

That’s not to say it was an easy ride from start to finish. “We butted heads that first time in the studio,” Himmel added. “I’ll never forget the look on Ben Keith’s face. We were doing a song, and Neil said, ‘What’s the drummer’s name?’ Ben Keith goes, ‘Karl.’ And Neil goes, ‘Karl, I think you’re pushing me.’ “At the time, I thought I was bulletproof since I worked with a lot of people. I went, ‘What’s that guitar player’s name?’ Ben said, ‘Neil.’ I said, ‘Neil, I think you’re out of tune.’ He smiled and went, ‘That’s it! I gotta get another drummer!’ And he started laughing.”

The exchange may have been tense, but Himmel’s no-nonsense approach sat well with Young, and the pair developed a close working relationship: “That’s how it is with Neil,” he continued. “We still laugh when we talk, but he’ll go, ‘Why don’t you call?’ I go, ‘I don’t call anybody.’”