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The Story Behind the Song: Neil Young's cheating brilliance on 'Cinnamon Girl'


If it weren’t for Neil Young’s 1969 album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; grunge music probably would never have happened during the early 1990s. On this record, Neil Young tuned his guitar to double drop D —both the high and low E strings were tuned down to D — coupled with heavy distortion, Young helped revolutionise a gritty and heavy sound

After recruiting and essentially co-opting a band, this is the album where Young decided to strip back the psychedelic production-heavy sound that had existed ’66-’67 and reduce Californian rock to more of a down-to-earth expression. “Right then, I started trying to just do what I was doing, you know. Just trying to be real. Instead of fabricating something… show people where my head is at,” began Young in an interview with deejay B for KMET-FM. 

Young added, “I just wanted them to know where I was at. Since then I’ve just been striving to get it realer and realer on the record. As in more real.” Young snickered as he was fully aware of his redundancy. There are only so many words one can use to describe this kind of sound; the music speaks for itself. 

This is the first album that Neil Young did with his then-new backing band, Crazy Horse. He saw them perform at the Whisky A Go-Go in Hollywood when they were called The Rockets. Neil Young is supposedly persuasive, as he appropriated the majority of the band members and changed the name to Crazy Horse.

The original line up of Crazy Horse was Danny Whitten on guitar and backing vocals, Billy Talbot on bass guitar, and Ralph Molina on drums. A later member of Crazy Horse, Nils Lofgren, told Harvey Kubernik for GoldMine Mag: “from the day I met Crazy Horse and Neil Young at the Cellar Door in 1969, it was common knowledge, and Neil would be the first to tell you, that Danny was one of his early mentors and influences.” As Lofgren emphasised, Whitten added that signature vocal harmony to Young’s main melodies that many associates with Neil Young to this day. 

On the 1969 album, this powerful vocal duo is best illustrated in the song, ‘Cinnamon Girl’. Lofgren added, “Danny had that great deep ‘Bee Gees’ vibrato, with that California soul and lament.”

Many before have speculated about who Neil Young’s ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is about. While Young has, for the most part, remained somewhat ambiguous in interviews, the closest he ever came to revealing the mystery lay in the liner notes of his Decade compilation. 

“Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me thru Phil Ochs eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife.”

It was not so innocent, as there was an element of infidelity.

While this alone only adds to the elusiveness of the song as Neil Young very well intended to keep the track shrouded in confusion, one who knows their rock history could deduce that it is about Jean Gray. The ‘finger cymbals’ part references the fellow ’60s folk singer who, with her husband Jim Glover, formed the group, Jim and Jean.

According to Songfacts, Brian Ray who played with Paul McCartney and is Jean’s younger brother claims the song is about Jean. Surely enough, in Neil Young’s biography, Shakey, the Canadian singer-songwriter admitted to having a crush on Jean Gray. When he was asked to confirm whether ‘Cinnamon Girl’ was about her, he responded “only part of the song. There’s images in there that have to do with Jean and there’s images that have to do with other people.”

While it now may seem obvious to some people that it is indeed about her, ‘Cinnamon Girl’, due to its ambiguous lyrics, still retains somewhat of a mystery, which only creates a better listening experience, as our imaginations will be fired off in an attempt to grasp its meaning.

Listen to the ever-elusive and cunning ‘Cinnamon Girl’ by Neil Young and Crazy Horse below.