Few riffs will hit the hearts of Neil Young fans quite like the chugging masterclass on 1969 song ‘Cinnamon Girl’. Here, we’re taking a look back at the iconic single through Young’s isolated guitar. A song Neil Young “wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me,” and it’s such a visceral track the songwriter once admitted, “It was hard to explain to my wife.”
The track debuted on 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young’s first step into the wild with his new backing band Crazy Horse. ‘Cinnamon Girl’ would later be released as a single in 1970, peaking at 55 on the Billboard chart.
It may not have been a chart-smashing success but the song is a broad stroke of Young’s impending legend status. The track is dripping with longing with Young saying he wrote the track for a fleeting romance he imagined for the purpose of the track, though influenced by a real event.
The song was written in the same short window as three other tracks from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ and ‘Down By The River’ as well as the title track. The three songs were all put together while Young was suffering from the flu and a dangerously high fever at his home in California. “Sometimes [when] I get sick, get a fever, it’s easy to write,” Young explained to Uncut. “Everything opens up. You don’t have any resistance. You just let things go.”
Whether it was the medication or the relief of passing lucidity, the fact remains that it was a charming period of writing for Young.
‘Cinnamon Girl’ was the first track to be recorded of the fever four and it is one of Young’s most beloved and covered tracks. In the liner notes for Decade, Young said of the song: “Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me through Phil Ochs’ eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife.” The song is one of Young’s finest.
The track isn’t all down to Young, though. In fact, the track really highlights his partnership with Danny Whitten during his early recordings. The vocals, which can be found below the isolated guitar track, are a duet and perfectly balanced by Whitten’s high harmony and Young’s low one. “Nobody played guitar with me like that,” Young says of the guitarist, who passed away after a heroin overdose in 1972. “That rhythm, when you listen to ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, he keeps changing. Billy and Ralph will get into a groove and everything will be going along and all of a sudden Danny’ll start doing something else.”
He added: “He just led those guys from one groove to another, all within the same groove. So when I played those long guitar solos, it seemed like they weren’t all that long, that I was making all these changes, when in reality what was changing was not one thing but the whole band. Danny was the key. A really great second guitar player, the perfect counterpoint to everything else that was happening.”
But truly, it is on the isolated guitar track that the power fo the song really rings true. It’s a big heavy riff, muddied and bruising. It chugs across the airwaves and lands with aplomb. Written and performed on Young then-newly acquired, now-legendary Gibson Les Paul “Old Black”, it is Young at his powerful best.
The best way to hear this strong and punching approach is by checking out the isolated guitar track below. Listen to Neil Young’s “Old Black” on ‘Cinnamon Girl’ from 1969.