Frank “Poncho” Sampedro On Tripping At Budokan And Why Neil Young And Crazy Horse’s New 1990 Live Album Is The Band’s Definitive Document
Guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro insists that Neil Young And Crazy Horse’s November 1990 show at the Catalyst was not just a warmup. The band had been woodshedding new songs for a month before they took the stage at the small club in Santa Cruz, just a few miles from Young’s ranch. The show was filmed and recorded, but any plans for an official release were soon scrapped. Instead, the band — which also included bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina — released Ragged Glory in early 1991 and spent most of the year on the road playing angry, aggressive sets in venues that dwarfed the tiny Catalyst. It’s one of Young’s legendary tours, coinciding with the American invasion of Iraq as well as the alternative rock boom.
Because that tour essentially revived Young’s career after a fairly disastrous run through the 1980s, it’s long been regarded as a pivotal moment for the artist. And because the Catalyst show was never officially released, it’s long been dismissed as a dress rehearsal for what came next. Poncho, however, believes it’s something more than that. “We’d been playing three sets a day, five days a week, for a full month,” he says 30 years later. “We weren’t warming up anything!” That makes the 4xLP live album Way Down In The Rust Bucket, named after an offhand comment by Young, a compelling addition to his sprawling catalog and, Poncho believes, the defining Crazy Horse document. “In my heart I think Rust Bucket is one of the best Crazy Horse records ever.”
One of a handful of Neil Young reissues out this month, Rust Bucket serves as a sort of exclamation point to the long-awaited second volume of his Archive series, which chronicles the artist’s tumultuous early 1970s: the unexpected success of Harvest, the soul-searching in the wake of sudden celebrity, the re-formation of Crazy Horse after the dismissal and death of original guitarist Danny Whitten, the almost haphazard recording of Zuma. Poncho joined the band right in the middle of this period, and his newbie enthusiasm — he’d already given up on a career in music right before he met Young — jostled the band out of their grief, which you can hear on Zuma as well as on the first-take rarities on Archives.
That album is about mythology and history commingling with real life (“Cortez The Killer,” for example, surveys ancient California history but ends with a comment on Young’s love life). There was an old world hidden just behind our modern one, and these songs were a bridge back and forth. Young’s career has accrued over the years the magnitude of mythology, as befits an artist defined by his mercuriality: Because he experimented freely, changed his mind often, held back some records, emphasized others, his catalog has so many different phases and so many dark corners. But his early ’70s are especially legendary, a period well documented yet still inscrutable. Especially boxed in a set roughly the size and weight of a cinderblock, containing 10 CDs and credits running longer than the liner notes, it can seem unapproachable to all but the most devoted Neil Young fan, a bit like the monolith in 2001 — and nearly as big.
But last year’s excellent Homegrown — the “lost” album that was originally slated to be his follow-up to Harvest — gave us a peek into this period, like a first chapter in a serial novel. Shaken by the popularity of Crosby Stills Nash & Sometimes Young and by the unexpected success of Harvest, Young was looking for a way forward: for something new, something that might compel rather than constrain him. He found that in the reconstituted Crazy Horse, which was about as far from CSNY as you could get: their messy, crunchy unpredictability far removed from the arcing, aching, perfect harmonies of that folk-rock supergroup. In tracing this crisis, Archives has the feel of a long, sturdy novel, with its own flawed hero.
Poncho is one of many compelling secondary characters in that story, who spent nearly half a century in Crazy Horse but was still called the new guy. During that time they played the Catalyst several times, and he even co-wrote several songs with Young, including “Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze” and “Rockin’ In The Free World.” He retired following their 2012 Alchemy tour, after arthritis in his wrists made playing too painful (“I was rolling down the road in the bus with both my wrists in ice buckets”). Today, he lives and gardens in Hawaii, where he spoke to Stereogum about jamming in Zuma Beach, tripping at Budokan, and “quarantining” at Young’s ranch.
Have you had a chance to dig into Archives yet?
FRANK SAMPEDRO: I haven’t gotten that deep yet, because it’s just so overwhelming to go through all that stuff. I never really listened to the records Neil made with other people, and there’s a lot of that on there. But somebody sent me “Powderfinger.” It was one of the first times we played it, and it freaked me out to hear it. We were just stumbling our way through it. It was really slow, and Neil had different words to it. We didn’t play one of the lines together. But it was really nice. It was still organic. Everybody tells me I need to listen to the Budokan recordings.
What do you remember from that show?
SAMPEDRO: We took acid before we played, me and Billy the bass player. We were just trying to be cool walking into the place, and Billy said, “Wow there’s a lot of smoke in here.” I told him, “Shhh,” because there was no smoke. But as soon as he said it, I saw it. The place was overpacked with people. This was 1975, and Neil was huge in Japan. When we landed at the airport, we thought there was some sort of political demonstration going on. There were all these people being held back behind fences with signs and stuff. But they were Neil’s fans. It was amazing.
So Billy and I were on acid. I only opened my eyes a couple of times onstage because the first time I did, I hit my guitar strings and watched as they bounced off the floor and then back up to the ceiling. “Oh shit, I gotta let that go. I’ll just play.” Chip Monck was doing the lights, and he’s so creative. Billy and Neil were up at the mikes singing their parts, and the song was ending, and I opened my eyes right when Chip Monck was running through the whole gamut of lights. Mandalas were floating out of their heads and going into the audience. It was really beautiful, although I think I kinda froze. I remembered all the songs, though, and we played really good that night. It was almost impossible to play bad, there was so much good energy in the place. Billy and I were really open to everything, and Neil was digging what we were doing.
Did anybody noticed how hard you were tripping?
SAMPEDRO: I looked over at Billy and he was smiling and walking over, and we were gonna say something to each other. But then Neil took these giant steps over and put his head right between us and goes, “HEY MAN, WE’RE GETTING PSYCHEDELIC TONIGHT!” Until the end of the show, I kept thinking, “Did Billy tell him? Did I tell him?” But he didn’t know.
That whole night ended up being an extravaganza of insanity, because they took us right from the venue to the airport. We had to fly to Copenhagen that night, and we didn’t have a handler or a manager with us. This guy who’d driven us around all week, he kept handing Neil a yellow envelope, and Neil kept handing it back to him. No gifts. No gifts. But he kept giving it to Neil. So I finally went over there and said, “Let me see what’s in there, Neil.” It was all our passports and tickets! We’re gonna need this shit, man!
You’d been in Crazy Horse less than a year by then, correct?
SAMPEDRO: Everywhere it says that I started playing with Neil in 1975, but we actually met and started recording around 1973. Zuma came out in ’75, and I think we started recording it in ’74. Billy had been trying to break up a dogfight on the beach and got bit on his hand, so we had to wait for him to recover. It was six months, nine months before he could play like himself again. But we were all hanging out and having a good time. Nobody was committed to anything. It was all pretty free and easy. We could play a little bit or not play. Of course, as we got older and got wives and children and all that, things changed. We had responsibilities!
What was it like joining the group? Was it difficult replacing Danny Whitten?
SAMPEDRO: They had a good thing going, but when Danny passed away… it wasn’t like the wheels fell off, but there was a wheel missing. When I came along, I was so excited to be in a band. I brought a lot of energy. At that point in my life, I’d given up on music, even though I had played since I was 11 and moved to Hollywood in 1966 to get in bands and make records. I was 16. I tried hard, but it never happened. I had applied for a job at the post office. I had sold my guitars. I was tired of not having rent money and not having food and living in my truck and all the other crazy things you have to do when you’re broke. Along comes Billy and the next thing I know we’re jamming at his house and I’m meeting Neil Young. Right when I’d given up, I made it.
I met Neil in Chicago at the Chess Records sessions. After that he came out to where we were in Echo Park in LA, and then he moved us all down to Zuma Beach, where we started recording at [producer] David Briggs’ house. I remember Neil coming up to me and saying, Poncho, you know, I’m gonna head up to San Francisco now. He had a place up there, and he said we ought to come up with him. Aw man, are you kidding? Why would we leave LA? This place is a blast. We were on the beach! There were Playboy bunnies and Hustler girls and everything’s just fine! We’re making records, we’re playing shows. What else could you want?
How did northern California compare to all that?
SAMPEDRO: I didn’t realize what was going on until we finally did get up to his ranch. It was another whole incredible scene and another great place to make music. We hung out there for years. This is the difference between then and what would happen later on with Crazy Horse: Neil would say, “I think I got a song,: and we’d start playing together. We’d play some songs we knew, and then we’d try some new songs. Just recording, just having fun. Then we’d go out to eat. After a little while Neil called us up and said, “Hey man, I just got a call from Warner Brothers and we gotta turn in a record.” That was Zuma. We didn’t have a concept in mind. It wasn’t going to be this or that. It was all just wide open. We were just playing and recording, and we didn’t know what people did with the recordings. We just kept making new ones. We never thought about putting together a record or running order or any of that shit. We were just having a good time.
You can hear that on these Archive recordings. There’s a lot of first-take energy. It sounds like a band that’s enjoying the opportunity to explore these songs and dig into them.
SAMPEDRO: That’s why I love that version of “Powderfinger.” It really took me back to those days in David Briggs’ house when we were first learning those songs. Neil hadn’t even finished writing them. We were tiptoeing through them. Nobody knew their part because nobody had a part. It was all really honest. We were all finding our way together. And we were relaxed. Nobody was nervous about it. We were just playing. We kept getting better and better. It was the birth of a new band even though it had the same name.
Then you cut to Rust Bucket, which was 15 years later. Neil calls us up to the ranch and has about 12 or 14 songs ready to go. We started playing them, and then Briggs come up with this great idea: You guys just stay in the studio and play the songs over and over again, but you never get to hear the playbacks. Briggs’ll listen to the playbacks. He’ll tell us when we’re good. We literally played the songs three sets a day, all the songs, five days a week, for four weeks, and we never heard a playback. We just kept playing them and playing them and playing them and playing them and playing them. By that time we did have families, and we were staying at Neil’s ranch, but there wasn’t a phone in the house where we were staying. I flashed on it the other day: That was my first time in quarantine! We were locked up!
How did that strategy of not hearing playbacks change the way you played?
SAMPEDRO: There were times when it was frustrating. There were times when you thought, “Man we got it! That was the take!” And then Briggs comes out and says, “Are you guys tired? It sounds like you guys are getting a little tired. Maybe you should take a break.” Briggs never let on to us how good it was. When he heard us sounding good, he used that to push us a little further. He would get in all our faces, even Neil. It’s wild when you see this guy getting in Neil’s face, telling him he’s not singing good and just noodling on the guitar. And Neil’s like, “No no you’re right, we’ll do another one.” What happens then is that nobody puts their head down. We all put our heads up and played through the next take like it’s an emergency.
Briggs had that way. He motivated us. He got the best out of Neil. It was funny how he did it. It certainly wasn’t with a gentle hand. He talked shit to us, intimidated us. “Is this a rock and roll band? Aren’t you supposed to be playing rock and roll?” But when I look back on it, everything he did was perfect. He was our compass, and he really go us to go where we needed to go. He got the music to be edgy.
How did the Catalyst show come about after those marathon sessions?
SAMPEDRO: Briggs decided we were done, and he picked out some tapes for the album that became Ragged Glory. He said, “You guys gotta go play out to people and get some energy going before you take this record out on the road.” So we played the Catalyst. It’s a local gig. It’s just set-up for us. We knew half the people there. It took you 45 minutes to an hour just to get inside, because you were talking to everybody outside. At the end of the show, we didn’t leave on a tour bus. We went to the bar and hung out with our friends, then we went back to the ranch.
There were about 800 people there. It’s kind of a crooked room. It’s not a straight room. There’s a wing that goes off to the side, and there’s a wall that’s all windowpanes. You can see out to the street. There were people outside for blocks, because they could hear us playing through the windows. Of course, we were playing loud as hell. So there’s a whole block party going on outside the Catalyst. There was no other place to play around there, and no other place for people to see music. So everybody came, and they were all our friends. I would say that everybody in the building had a story about Neil. “Oh, I worked out on Neil’s ranch once.” Or, “I worked on his car once.” “I delivered that guitar to him.” Someone told me they picked up Neil walking on the road with his dog a few days earlier. Everybody had a story. The whole place is connected to Neil and his ranch. There was a whole vibe there, and it was good for us and it was good for the music.
It had to be good just to get out of the studio after a month with no playbacks.
SAMPEDRO: That’s part of what makes it a really special show. People say that the Weld album, which was recorded on the following tour, was better. They say we played harder and it was a better performance, and I guess there’s some truth to all that. But you can hear the relaxed energy we had that night and the enthusiasm. You can hear that we weren’t under any pressure. There was no warmup about it! Believe me, we knew the songs and we were ready to bolt! Neil was electric that night. When I first got the record and played “Country Home,” the first track, I had to stop it and play it again and again. I’d never heard a country song sound like that. Or I’d forgotten.
It was exciting to hear us playing like that. I don’t think we ever played like that again. On the last tour, the Alchemy tour, which was 30 years later, we weren’t playing the same. We’d learned a lot more about music and we’d mastered our instruments a little better, and overall maybe we were a better band. But I don’t think we had that same youthful exuberance and reckless abandon to do whatever we wanted and laugh and smile and have a good time. We got a little more technical. Of course, Crazy Horse could never really be called a technical band! But that was about as technical as we got.