Neil Young’s song ‘Down By The River’ was first released on the 1969 album with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and is remembered as part of Young’s fever four — the four tracks he wrote delirious with a sickness. The song has long been a part of Young’s vibrant iconography and regarded as one of his best, but perhaps one of its finest performances comes from the singer’s side project, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Side project may be a slightly churlish way to describe one of the finest supergroups in rock’s history, but when the performance was filmed for TV, Young was already growing in fame and considered one of the finest singer-songwriters in America. By 1969, the singer had already amassed an impressive canon of work and joining his CSNY bandmates; they delivered on the ABC TV show the Music Scene in 1969.
One of Young’s most arresting pieces, ‘Down By The River’, is a nine-minute quasi-murder ballad and sees Young beginning to flower properly as one of the finest songwriters of his generation. It’s also one of Young’s finest moments on guitar too. Using ‘Old Black’, a faithful Les Paul, Young delivers some laconic yet searing licks on the recording. While the line “I shot my baby, down by the river” has always seen the song fall into a murderous if not iconic position, the truth is, the song is more pertinently about lost love rather than losing a life.
“There’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick,” recalled Young when speaking with Fusion magazine in 1970. “See, now, in the beginning, it’s ‘I’ll be on your side, you be on mine.’ It could be anything. Then the chick thing comes in. Then at the end, it’s a whole other thing. It’s a plea… a desperation cry.” It is this cry that Young expertly performs and, in particular, Stephen Stills, with whom Young not only shared an ex-band (Buffalo Springfield) but an affinity for lead lines that take you to another place quicker than a truffle-flavoured TM session.
The entire band are in the groove, so to speak. While we wouldn’t like to comment on the band’s chemical levels during the performance, they certainly come together as one to deliver a memorable showing for the Music Scene audience. Cut down to around four minutes long, the performance packs a mean punch and gets as woozy and jazz-inspired as the original recording but somehow gets to a state of delirium even more sweetly.
There’s a good reason the song is so dripping in soulful sweat; it was written during a heinous bout of fever for Young. The singer wrote it while suffering hallucinations alongside three other tracks from the album; ‘Cinnamon Girl‘, title track ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’. It certainly sparkles with the kind of intensity only cold sweats and vomit can produce, the kind of pupil dilating passion you can witness in the performance below.
Watch David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young perform ‘Down By The River’ in 1969.