Graded on a Curve:
Crazy Horse, (S/T)

They’re best known as Neil Young’s sometimes backing band, but Crazy Horse—and by Crazy Horse I wish to emphasize I’m talking about the first iteration of the band that included the not long for this world Danny Whitten—possessed mad songwriting and singing skills all their own, as they demonstrated on their largely unheralded 1971 debut, the brilliant Crazy Horse.

Co-produced by the legendary Jack Nitzsche, pianist/songwriter and former member of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew, Crazy Horse includes several songs either written or cowritten by Nitzsche (who plays with the band on the outing) as well as a wonderful contribution by Young. But the LP’s true standout tracks are those by the talented but troubled Whitten, who would shortly thereafter be fired by Young due to his heroin addiction only to die from an overdose (either from a lethal combination of diazepam and alcohol, or on methaqualone by its owned damned self, the stories vary) on November 18, 1972. He was 29.

In addition to Whitten (guitar, vocals), Crazy Horse included Billy Talbot (bass, backing vocals), Ralph Molina (drums, vocals), and guitar prodigy Nils Lofgren (who also contributed two songs, “Nobody” and “Beggar’s Day,” on which he sings lead.). Were they are a badass outfit? Have you ever heard Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere? But on Crazy Horse the band takes the opportunity to stand on its own four legs (it’s a horse after all) and gallop, and by god gallop it does.

Why, Whitten’s country punk vocals on the Nitzsche-Russ Titelman composition “Gone Dead Train” are worth the price of the album alone. And man, does this one chug-a-lug down the track! Why, it’s the best damn train song I’ve ever heard, no shit! I mean, I just listened to it 20 times in a row, and now I’m going to listen to it again! As for Crazy Horse’s take on Young’s “Dance, Dance, Dance,” it’s the perfect ditty for a barn hoedown and proof positive that Crazy Horse could beat old Neil at his own game. Why, it’s got everything in it but a “Yee hah!” and by everything I’m including guest Gib Guilbeau’s really perty country-fried violin. Meanwhile, Whitten’s stately “Look at All the Things”—which boasts some great piano by Nitzsche and some wonderful ensemble vocals—will make you wonder whether this is a case of Young’s influence on Crazy Horse or whether Whitten influenced Young in ways that have yet to be revealed.

“Downtown” will be familiar to anybody who’s ever heard Young’s version, but I prefer Crazy Horse’s if only for the way Whitten (whom Young, initially listed as a co-writer, would later credit to Whitten alone) delivers such lines as “Snake eyes, French fries, and I got lots of gas.” And of course, “Sure nuff they’ll be sellin’ stuff/When the moon begins to rise.” (We all know what stuff he’s talking about.) As for Whitten’s doleful “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” it’s as heartbreaking as a Hank Williams song and not even the post-menopausal Rod Stewart could go on to ruin it. One of the saddest songs you ever will hear, it is. Ah, but Whitten turns things around on the raunchy and groove-based “Dirty, Dirty,” which sounds like nothing so much as a (believe it or not) country-rock take on good ole’ T-Rex. “Who told your momma ‘bout me?” indeed.

“Carolay” sounds like a precursor to the jaunty pop numbers Bruce Springsteen would soon be writing with some girl group thrown in, and it’s guaranteed to make you happy. Meanwhile, Whitten’s “I’ll Get By” has a Byrds/Buffalo Springfield feel to it and would have sounded wonderful on the radio, while Lofgren’s herky-jerky “Nobody” sounds almost, er, new wave, believe it or not. Mixed in with some Buffalo Springfield, that is. It would have sounded great on the radio too, as would Lofgren’s “Beggars Day,” which like “Nobody” sounds eerily ahead of its time. And Lofgren, despite his thin voice, acquits himself just fine on vocals on both tracks. To close things out, Nitzsche handles the lead vocals on his own “Crow Jane Lady,” which constitutes a funked-up fusion of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” and is just swell by my book.

There isn’t a single bad cut on Crazy Horse, and one can only wonder what the band would have gone on to do had Whitten not succumbed to the kinds of demons that killed so many so young in those benighted years. As it was, Crazy Horse went on to record a number of albums that, while they have their moments, don’t come close to meeting the promise of their 1971 debut. I’ll be listening to “Gone Dead Train” as long as I draw breath, and the same goes for “Downtown,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” and “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” People talk about albums you really must own. Well this is one of them. As for what they might have done had Whitten lived, it’s too sad for words and I don’t want to talk about it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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