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The tumultuous relationship of Jack Nitzsche and Neil Young

Jack Nitzsche is one of the most famous musical figures of the modern era. A multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer, he did it all over his long and storied career. Notably, he first made his name in the early ’60s as the right-hand-man of the architect of the ‘Wall of Sound’, Phil Spector, which then opened up the door to a world of possibilities. 

Afterwards, he went on to work with the likes of The Rolling Stones and Neil Young, as well as working extensively in film scores, including for classics such as The Excorcist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Although Nitzsche had such an extraordinary but oscillating career, one of the most consequential parts is the relationship he had with Canadian troubadour Neil Young, which was tumultuous, to say the least. He first worked with Young when he produced and arranged the orchestral arrangement for 1967’s ‘Expecting to Fly’ by Buffalo Springfield from their sophomore effort, Buffalo Springfield Again. This was to change the course of the rest of his life. It was a success, and the following year, he worked on ‘On the Way Home’ from the group’s third and final record, Last Time Around.

Later in 1968, Nitzsche then linked up with Young again, as he co-produced the former Buffalo Springfield man’s eponymous solo debut alongside David Briggs. Hitting it off personally and creatively with Young, Nitzsche then played the electric piano for Young’s backing group, Crazy Horse, throughout 1970, although things did not go smoothly. It was an experience that was marred by clashes with bandmates Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina. 

Ironically though, Nitzsche remained in the group after Young “fired” them in the wake of 1970’s After the Gold Rush tour, citing guitarist Danny Whitten’s escalating heroin abuse. Wanting to capitalise on their newfound fame off the back of Young, Crazy Horse made their self-titled debut in 1971, which Nitzsche produced, as well as singing the lead vocals on ‘Crow Jane Lady’. Despite this defiance in the wake of being fired, the album was a failure, so Nitzsche took his leave and looked for pastures new.

Luckily for Nitzsche, his musical skill and friendship with Young led to him being hired as the pianist for Young’s new backing band, The Stray Gators, which consisted of Ben Keith (steel guitar), Tim Drummond (bass) and Kenny Buttrey (drums). In 1973, the latter was replaced during the Time Fades Away tour by Johnny Barbata. As part of the band, Nitzsche helped Young create two of his most lauded bodies of work, 1972’s Harvest and 1973’s live album Time Fades Away

Both albums were a great success, but as the ’70s wore on, he began to suffer from mental health issues, depression and other problems connected to his constant substance abuse. 

It was during the 1973 support tour for Harvest that Nitzsche and Young’s relationship started to break down. Famously, the run birthed Time Fades Away, but this was to be a dark period for all those involved. Neil Young’s great friend and brief member of The Stray Gators, Danny Whitten, had succumbed to his heroin addiction in November 1972, which understandably left the Harvest mastermind heartbroken, leading him to write his bleakest material, which included 1974’s On the Beach and 1975’s Zuma. Added to this was Nitzsche’s escalating drug use, and seemingly overnight, the once tight-knit unit that was The Stray Gators started to fall apart. 

During rehearsals for the tour, drummer Buttrey demanded a salary of $100,000 in compensation for the session work he’d lost whilst on the Harvest tour as he quit the band, maintaining that all the fan attention he was receiving was too much. This led Nitzsche and Drummond to pressure Young to give this salary to the other band members. 

Although Young agreed to the demand, he did so reluctantly. Afterwards, Nitzsche thought that Young never got over it, and harboured resentment towards him. At this point, Nitzsche’s behaviour was getting really out of hand. He’d frequently embarrass everyone by spouting profanities through his mic and arguing with David Crosby, who had joined the tour for the final dates to assist in delivering the vocal harmonies. 

After the tour, the band ceased to operate. Drummond and Keith carried on working with Young afterwards, but Nitzsche gave it up to become one of the hottest record producers and film composers around. Despite this, his personal life was to enter its darkest patch yet, and it would end his and Young’s relationship for a very long time. 

Nitzsche’s drug and alcohol abuse was totally out of hand, and in November 1974, he slandered his old friend in the most unapologetic of ways in a Crawdaddy interview. After this moment, the pair became estranged, and it’s not hard to see why. 

Asked about the two cuts he helped arrange on Harvest, ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ and ‘There’s a World’, the composer buried his head and moaned, according to the interviewer. He then shut down any possibility of future collaborations with Young. “His lyrics are so dumb and pretentious.” he scowled. “I mean anyone who would write lyrics like ‘Someone and someone were down by the pond, looking for something to plant in the lawn’ or ‘Are you ready for the country?’! The tour was torture. Everyone in the band was bored to death with those terrible guitar solos. He would turn and face the band with this stupid grimace while he was playing, and I would nearly roll on the stage laughing. He takes himself so seriously.”

The invariably “real” Nitzsche continued: “You know, Neil presented a different image… he appeared to be a really hip, of the people guy. But it turned out to be bullshit. Neil Young is the biggest offender of all of them – his whole lifestyle is the millionaire who doesn’t give a shit about anything, about anybody but himself. He doesn’t even write well. But everybody’s fooled because they think they should like him – I mean if you don’t like Neil Young, how funky are you?”

It was claimed that Nitzsche was drunk during the interview. In another interview, it was claimed that he contracted hepatitis when he was young, meaning his body could not handle alcohol very well, leading to his vitriolic outburst.

It was also claimed that at the time of the Crawdaddy piece, he was living in a property in Bear Gulch, California, that was owned by Young. Allegedly, he had talks with the former Buffalo Springfield man about his residence, but it looked like he might have to relocate after them. We’ll let you make your own mind up on these mitigating circumstances, but one thing is clear, the damage was done.

This was only the start of Nitzsche’s fall, though. Later in 1974, he was dropped from Reprise Records after he recorded a song that criticised the company’s executive Mo Ostin. Things rumbled on over the ’70s, but the worst was yet to come. Neil Young had endured a fraught split from the mother of his first child Zeke, actress Carrie Snodgress in 1974, and her infidelities became the basis of On the Beach and Zuma. At some point after the break-up, she and Nitzsche started a relationship, which was itself a rocky one. 

In 1979, Nitzsche was arrested for allegedly breaking into the home of his now ex-girlfriend, Snodgress, and raping her with a gun barrel on June 29th. She was treated in hospital for bone fractures, cuts and bruises and recieved 18 stitches. The charge of rape was dismissed in court, but nevertheless, Nitzsche’s reputation was damaged. His years of drug abuse had turned him into a violent abuser.

As is the case with stars of a certain stature, he would bounce back, and over the rest of the ’70s and the ’80s, he enjoyed a prolific career, which seems incredible when we reexamine it with our post-MeToo lenses. He and Young eventually reconciled in 1986, and in 1992 Young reconvened The Stray Gators for Harvest Moon. Nitzsche was replaced by Spooner Oldham on the keys but did arrange the strings on ‘Such a Woman’.

It seems that afterwards, Nitzsche and Young lived with mutual respect. During an interview with the Musician’s Hall of Fame in 2005, Young argued that arrangers are the unsung heroes of the music industry, allowing artists to take on new artistic directions through subtle but genius moves. 

“I don’t know how you’re approaching arrangers,” Young said. “They seem to get left out in both fields. They are musicians. Not only are they musicians, but they are master musicians. They are organising musicians and helping them work as a giant unit.”

“Guys like Jack Nitzsche and people like that are geniuses. They need to be recognised,” Young asserted before maintaining that it was Nitzsche who helped to create the “soul of the Phil Spector sound”, and that he doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves for his pioneering contributions. 

Jack Nitzsche is inextricably linked to Neil Young, and even though the pair didn’t speak for years, we’re glad that they made up, and that Young is able to carry on arguing for his old friend, even if the celebrated composer was highly problematic in his personal life.

Listen to ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ below.

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