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(Credit: Neil Young)

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Life and death: The critical impact Danny Whitten had on Neil Young

It’s safe to say that apart from ex-girlfriend Carrie Snodgress, no one person has had more of an effect on the career of Neil Young than the late Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. I would wager that Whitten, in life and death, had a transformative effect on Young, more so than Snodgress, and that without him, many of Young’s best works wouldn’t have come to fruition.

It all started back in 1967. Whilst still a member of Buffalo Springfield, Young met Whitten, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot who were performing in the LA band The Rockets.

After the release of his debut album in 1969, Young began jamming with the trio. He expressed a keen interest in recording with them, and they agreed, just as long as they could carry on playing with The Rockets. Young complied at first, but shortly after, he arranged a rehearsal schedule that made the trio’s hopes of continuing with The Rockets impossible. After briefly going by ‘War Babies’, they soon changed their name to Crazy Horse.

The sessions eventually developed material that would become Young’s iconic second album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Whitten provided the album with some of its most important moments, including singing alongside Young on ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and participating in duel guitar lines on ‘Down by the River’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’. 

In this sense, Whitten offered a priceless contribution to Young making his first steps towards being hailed as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’. The trio of tracks would be some of the most influential Young ever penned. They’re so important that Young still plays them live to this day.

During this period of success, Whitten began using heroin, becoming increasingly reliant on the drug after he found that it relieved the crippling pain he suffered from his long battle with arthritis. He would contribute only in part to Young’s next record, 1970’s After the Gold Rush, due to his addiction. In fact, Whitten and the rest of Crazy Horse were dismissed halfway through the recording sessions, with Whitten’s addiction cited as a significant factor.

However, he still managed to give his character to some of the album’s best moments, including ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’, ‘I Believe in You’ and ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’. He was reintroduced to the fold towards the end of the sessions to provide vocal harmonies on ‘Tell Me Why’, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’, ‘Southern Man’ and “Till the Morning Comes’.

Famously, during this time, watching his friend on a downward spiral, Young penned the heartbreaking song ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ sometime in 1971 that went on to be a highlight of 1972’s Harvest. The title is a direct reference to Whitten and some of his other friends’ addictions, and the destruction it causes.

Whitten’s condition got so bad, that he was dismissed from Crazy Horse by Talbot and Molina, who opted for replacement musicians on the band’s two 1972 albums. In April 1972, Whitten received a call from Young asking him to play with his new backing band, The Stray Gators, on the forthcoming tour for the acclaimed Harvest.

(Credit: Alamy)

Whitten turned up for rehearsals, but he was in no state for it. He lagged during the practice, couldn’t figure out the parts, and struggled to keep in time. He was a sad husk of his former self. Young, now a huge star after the successes of After The Gold Rush and Harvest, had more at stake than ever, and under pressure from the other members of The Stray Gators, fired him again on November 18th, 1972. Young handed Whitten $50 and a plane ticket back to LA.

That night Whitten passed away. His death was said to have been a combination of diazepam, which he was taking for his arthritis, and alcohol, which he was using as a substitute for heroin to get over his addiction. The following year, it was reported in Rolling Stone that Whitten died of a quaalude overdose. Young remembered: “We were rehearsing with him, and he just couldn’t cut it. He couldn’t remember anything. He was too out of it. Too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to LA. ‘It’s not happening, man. You’re not together enough.’ He just said, ‘I’ve got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?’ And he split.”

Young heartbreakingly recalled: “That night the coroner called me and told me he’d died. That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible. And from there, I had to go right out on this huge tour of huge arenas. I was very nervous and… insecure.”

Many years later, Young told biographer Jimmy McDonough that, for a long time, he felt personally responsible for Whitten’s passing. It took him decades to get over his friend’s death. “Danny just wasn’t happy,” Young admitted. “It just all came down on him. He was engulfed by this drug. That was too bad. Because Danny had a lot to give, boy. He was really good.”

Young was destroyed by Whitten’s passing. After the massive success of Harvest which contained many melodic, stripped back songs, audiences would not warmly receive Young and The Gators’ electrified sound on its follow up, 1973’s Time Fades Away and their raucous live performances. 

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Young would heavily criticise the band members’ performances after shows. This would cause drummer Kenny Buttrey to walk out, creating huge tension. At this point, Young also developed his penchant for tequila. Looking back, he’d say of the spirit: “It does something else to me than alcohol usually does.”

Of the record and tumultuous time period, Young said in 1987: “The worst record I ever made – but as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record. I was on stage, and I was playing all these songs that nobody had heard before, recording them, and I didn’t have the right band. It was just an uncomfortable tour. I felt like a product, and I had this band of all-star musicians that couldn’t even look at each other.”

In 1974, Young followed up Time Fades Away with On the Beach, which makes a claim for being one of the decade’s most heart-wrenching albums. Engulfed by depression at this point, Young’s dark outlook shone through. Tracks such as ‘On the Beach’ and the album closer ‘Ambulance Blues’ were a stark sonic indicator of the juncture Young found himself at. A brilliant album, it is possibly the most emotionally affecting he’s ever released.

Looking back on the album in the liner notes for 1977’s boxset Decade, Young wrote that the experience “put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there.”

Neil Young with Crazy Horse after the show, 1974. (Credit: Alamy)

1975’s Tonight’s the Night completed the trio of heartbroken albums that became known as the ‘Ditch Trilogy’ by fans. It is important to note that just a few months after Whitten’s passing, Young’s friend and roadie, Bruce Berry, had also died of a drug overdose after being introduced to heroin by Whitten. Berry’s story became the theme of the song ‘Tonight’s the Night’ which even mentions him by name.

Whitten’s guitar and vocal work shine clear on ‘Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown’, and it was the last time he’d appear on a Neil Young record, save from the 2006 live album Live at the Filmore East, which was recorded in 1970. Interestingly on the live record, Whitten is credited as the sole author of the track, a triumphant way to bow out.

Significantly, the band assembled for Tonight’s the Night became known as The Santa Monica Flyers. As well as Young it consisted of Ben Keith, Nils Lofgren, and more crucially, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina. Talbot and Molina had retired the This set the wheels in motion for Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s rebirth. Crazy Horse had split not long after Whitten’s death. 

In 1975, Young decided it was time for Crazy Horse to reform, and brought in Talbot’s friend, Frank Sampedro on guitar. This decision was to be momentous for their careers. “It was great,” Talbot recalled of the reunion. “We were all soaring. Neil loved it. We all loved it. It was the first time we heard the Horse since Danny Whitten died.”

Enlisting Sampedro meant that Crazy Horse could develop the hard-rock sound they’d first established on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. However, Sampedro’s playing style meant the band could move on from the “free-form” approach of the Whitten-era Crazy Horse. This new style had a critical impact on the development of grunge and noise rock in the future and is credited with elevating Young’s playing to another level.

Zuma is where Young truly became the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, and it is one of his best by far, a real triumph in the face of personal tragedy. Don’t be fooled though, this wasn’t an optimistic album. It was also deeply heartfelt, however, it seemed to put Whitten and Berry’s deaths in the past, and instead concentrate on the infidelities of Carrie Snodgress.

It is clear that in life and death, Danny Whitten’s impact on Neil Young was definitive. In life, he helped Young write and record some of his most vital early tracks, and make his foray into proto-grunge, and in death, he gave Young some of his most memorable, emotionally affecting bodies of work. Ironically as well, Whitten’s death made Young embark on a journey of immense self-discovery, which culminated in him reforming Crazy Horse and producing the masterpiece that is Zuma.

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