Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro on New Live LP, Why He Left the Band

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Andy Greene
·18 min read
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When guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro hit the road for the first time as a member of Neil Young and Crazy Horse in November 1975, one of his first gigs took place at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, California. The nightclub is a short drive from Young’s Broken Arrow ranch and it holds just about 800 people, making it a perfect spot for the group to try out new material in front of a friendly, hometown crowd, and they returned again in 1976, 1984, 1990, 1996, and 1997.

Details of the Seventies Catalyst gigs have been largely lost to time, while the later ones have only been heard via shoddy audience recordings. But a six-camera team along with a professional audio crew captured the November 13th, 1990 show from the Ragged Glory period. It was released a week ago on CD and DVD as Way Down in the Rust Bucket.

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“Way Down in the Rust Bucket showcases a reconvened band that sounds newly motivated after increasingly sluggish and creaky shows in the Eighties,” wrote Rolling Stone‘s David Browne in a review of the set. “They’re not yet the smooth-galloping machine they would become on the full-blown tour, though. What we’re hearing is the musicians feeling their way — for only the second time onstage — through the new material from the just-out Ragged Glory.

Sampedro retired from Crazy Horse following the 2014 leg of the group’s Alchemy tour and has kept a low profile since then, but he called us from his home on the Big Island of Hawaii to look back at the Rust Bucket era and explain why he stepped away from the band after a 40-year run.

To put this Rust Bucket period in context, let’s go back to the 1987 Crazy Horse Life tour. Neil talked about that period recently on his website as a weird time when tickets weren’t really selling in some European markets and some shows even got canceled.
That’s when we filmed [the documentary] Muddy Track. We were playing pretty good. We were incorporating some new stuff, more electronic kind of stuff. MIDI technology was available, and we had these different rigs on the stage we never had before. It was all kind of new.

I didn’t know we weren’t selling tickets. I know we played in a couple of tents, but they were really fun. If you really ask me, I thought the band was pretty healthy then. [Producer David] Briggs was with us and we had a good light to guide us. It was coming out of kind of a dark period. We didn’t really run out of it. We kind of crawled out of it.

Yeah. The Bluenotes This Note’s for You era started at the end of 1987. That band started with all three of you from Crazy Horse playing in it. After a short bit, you were the last one standing.
Well, first Billy [Talbot] went missing in action and then Ralph [Molina] went down. Ben Keith was playing with us then as part of Crazy Horse. I remember him coming to my room and being like, “Hey, it’s only me and you, Poncho. We better step it up or we’re going to be gone.” [Laughs]

That led to the time where you played on Freedom with Neil with 1989, and Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot made a Crazy Horse album called Left for Dead, clearly implying there were some hurt feelings.
Well, I’d been left for dead myself at times. [Laughs] It’s just one of Neil’s changes. You can’t take it too personally. You can’t. Look at all the work we did after that. But you’re skipping over some things. There were the Bluenotes and then we transitioned into the Lost Dogs and the Restless. And then Neil did a solo acoustic tour where Ben [Keith] and I traveled with him and we played in the middle of the show. And then Neil and I went to Europe where he played an acoustic show and I played in the middle of it.

Then we did Saturday Night Live without [drummer] Chad [Cromwell] and [bassist] Rick [Rosas]. Rick was super pissed about that. And we did it with Charley Drayton and Steve Jordan. SNL gave us a week at at the studio to rehearse. All we did was record.

Neil recently wrote that he wants to release those recordings as an album.
Yeah! That’s where “Fuckin’ Up” was first recorded. It was with Steve and Charley. It was fun. Steve was playing my guitar and I love to play drums. My son was drumming at that time, so we always had a drum set at home. I sat down behind his drums and he had this line figured out for “Fuckin’ Up.” I started playing the drums and we were getting into it.

Neil came in with his guitar and was like, “OK, everyone on their instruments.” Steve said, “Let’s try it like this.” And so I play drums on “Fuckin’ Up.” One take. And then Neil said, “Let’s get back to our instruments.” Steve walked past me, lowered his sunglasses and was like, “You’re doing pretty good, Poncho. Just lay off the toms a little.” [Laughs]

We did another take, and I tell you, that’s one of the joys of my life. I played drums on Steve Jordan’s set with Neil and Charley and Steve. Wow! I always say to Neil, “Do you have a copy? I just want to hear it for myself.”

How did Crazy Horse reassemble after that?
We went through all those periods and then we finally got back together with Billy and Ralph. I remember Neil and I talking about it and it seemed all good. We went in the studio to do this record [Ragged Glory] and we played about two days and then Briggs showed up with [engineer] John Hanlon. That’s where the term “Spook the Horse” came from.

John Hanlon was a new guy and we didn’t know him. He started running around behind our amps and looking at everything and checking out the front of the amps where the mics were placed and looking at this and that, and looking at the room mics. He was just everywhere and I ended up calling him “The Fly” because he was floating around everywhere.

The next day, we went to play the songs and we just couldn’t. Things we started the day before just fell apart. That’s when Briggs said, “Well, you can’t spook the horse.”

The sound of Ragged Glory is very different than Life. It’s stripped-down and you don’t hear that Eighties production. It’s more how you guys sounded in the Seventies.
Yes, it is. What happened is that once we got to know Hanlon and we started recording, Neil had these songs ready for Ragged Glory. We started playing them three times a day, every day, for a month, five days a week.

On the third or fourth day, Neil told me to call out the songs. I did that every day. Towards the end, I was like, “Why am I doing this? Am I doing good? Doing bad? I don’t know.” I was lost.

Neil said, “Go ahead, Poncho. Call them out.” I said, “Man, why don’t we just play some song that you played in your first band when you were starting out? Let’s just play something different to be loose.” He then started “Farmer John.” We played it one time. And it made it on the record. The next time we played it was at the Catalyst. It wasn’t quite as good, but we never played it before.

What’s interesting is that you make Ragged Glory in early 1990. This is before Pearl Jam even exists and before most people have heard of Nirvana. It’s still the era of Mötley Crüe and Poison. With Ragged Glory, you really made a grunge record before that was even a thing.
Yeah, man. We did. You know what? Let me go on record as saying that I think this Way Down in the Rust Bucket is the best Crazy Horse record we ever recorded. I love it! I love this record. Neil plays great, unbelievably great. He’s just electrified. “Country Home” sounds like a country tune I never heard in my life. He just takes it to all kinds of different levels. He nails “Cortez.” He nails “Danger Bird” and “Over and Over.” He’s just playing so good and the band played really good.

I hate when people say, “These were warm-up shows for the tour.” We did two shows. Do they really think they were warming us up for a giant tour? That’s more for us. It’s giving back to the community. We played in Santa Cruz. It’s really close to Neil’s place. That’s so most people could come to see us. Just standing in the parking lot, I wound up talking to about 100 people I know.

We’d go onstage and we played “T-Bone.” We’d played that song at a birthday party for one of Pegi’s friend and then we played it there. We never played it too many other places. It was just fun. We played “Homegrown,” and at the end, people were throwing weed on the stage since it’s a big weed-growing community. [Laughs] We were having fun.

It was all about the beginning of a new era. We were becoming alive. I just don’t see it as a warm-up. It doesn’t hit me like that. We played “Cortez” and it sounds so beautiful. When I hear Neil play it with other people, it just doesn’t sound the same to me, ever.

Tell me a little more about why this Catalyst show happened.
Well, Briggs, our leader, said it was time for us to go out and play. We had to go play in front of people before we do a tour. That was why we did it. It was just to be out there and be aware that there’s going to be a crowd. At the same time, it was a setup because it was all our friends and it’s a home crowd. It felt really good.

We did “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze.” Briggs used to give us crap about that song. “You guys never put your heart into it. You have to dig deeper. You sound like you’re noodling.” [Laughs] He wanted it to be “Moe the Sleaze” and really dig into it. It came off more like a pleasure cruise. He thought maybe the audience would give us an edge.

You played the Catalyst a lot over the years. What’s special about that room?
Where Neil lived at the ranch, there was one other place to play and it was a bar, the Mountain House. We played there [on November 12th, 1990], but you could only get like 50 people in there. We just played on the dining-room floor. There was no stage. There was no room for a PA. You might want to call it our home venue. Later on, after Princeton Landing [where Crazy Horse had a long residency in 1996], Neil didn’t want to play bars anymore and the Warfield [in San Francisco] became our home venue. But playing at the Catalyst felt like playing at home. It felt like we were still at the ranch.

Do you remember them filming it?
No. Not at all. When they told me they had a six-camera video shoot, I was like, “Really?” I had no idea.

That’s great. It means you were playing to the audience and not thinking about the cameras.
We always played to the audience. I’m watching the video now and Billy is having so much fun. I think I’m watching him more than anybody else.

You guys are obviously in a very relaxed, comfortable state. Do you think you maybe tried some of that weed that was thrown onto the stage?
[Laughs] Yes. I definitely think so. All our friends that were growers were there. You couldn’t get into the building without smoking a joint. I remember someone saying to me, “Don’t smoke that shit that guy gave you. This one will give you clarity, Poncho.” [Laughs]

The tour started two months later. It was sort of a different vibe. You were in 20,000-seat arenas, the Gulf War had begun …
A strange thing happened to me just before that tour started. That tour began in January [1991]. On Christmas day [1990], I had an emergency appendectomy. My appendix was located somewhere up around my lungs. They couldn’t find it. They had to take all my intestines out. I was really hurting. The first shows, man, I could barely walk up the stairs. We were playing big places and we had to deliver, but it took a minute for me to really get going.

Neil has said in the past that the tour was too long. You did 53 straight concerts without many breaks. That must have been taxing on all four of you.
We used to make jokes about it. They always told us that we’d never do more than three or four in a row. But when you added it up, it was more like 11 shows in 12 days. How do they do the math on that? I don’t know. [Laughs]

The shows were still amazing. Weld and Arc are incredible documents. It’s surely one of the best eras for the group, even if it was hard.
I thought it was pretty good too. Like I said, I was coming out of surgery. I went into it in a stupor. Maybe for that reason, I never recognized it as such a good record. But later on, as I talked to other people, they all told me that was it; that was the record. I started listening to it, and it was pretty good.

In the aftermath of this tour, there was suddenly a huge musical shift and grunge was everywhere. I’m not saying all those bands sounded like Crazy Horse or were even directly influenced by you, but did you feel that shift as it was happening?
Yeah. I felt that shift. I didn’t think we had a lot to do with it. It always amused me when people said we were the “Godfathers of Grunge.” When we started out, when I first started playing with Neil, we were a folk-rock band. [Laughs] It’s all titles given to us by you, the writers. We didn’t make any of those up. When I hear all that stuff, I’m like, “Oh, they’re putting a twist on this.” We don’t focus on trying to do any of that. We’re just being ourselves.

Neil has really ramped up his output of archival releases. He’s doing one a month. What do you hope he releases in the near future?
That’s a good question. I want to hear the stuff with Steve and Charley, the SNL stuff. And then I’d like to hear the live Alchemy record [from the 2012–14 Crazy Horse tour]. To hear the Rust Bucket and then that would really tie a lot together. You’d see a transformation of us over the years. I’d like to hear the differences. I’ve definitely learned how to play guitar better and was more in tune to what my role was on the Alchemy tour. But I don’t know if that was good or bad. I’d like to hear it.

How about Toast, the 2001 record you guys cut and then shelved?
I like that record. It seems like we spent a lot of time there. I don’t know. It felt like there was something wrong. Neil had trouble writing. We spent a lot of days watching him sit on the floor with a yellow pad. And then we’d play. I don’t know. I’m sure there’s good stuff there, but it was never … Briggs wasn’t there. We just didn’t have our compass. Something was different in those sessions. I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it.

Oh, another thing that happened is that in the middle of the Toast sessions, we took off and went to South America [in January 2001]. We had a great time. We rocked hard down there. I’d like to hear that. The Rio show was good and Argentina was phenomenal. The people there were humming the melody of “Hurricane” while we were soloing. I remember Neil throwing his head up the sky and then just blowing solos. They were singing loud enough for us to hear [hums “Like a Hurricane”] like a soccer chant through the whole song. It was so uplifting.

Anyway, we came back from that and everything we played on Toast had a Latin feel. That was another twist that happened. And the next thing I know, we were out of Toast and I was recording with [bassist] Duck [Dunn] and Booker T. [on the Are You Passionate? sessions], which is another highlight of my musical history.

Right. It was the short-lived Poncho and the M.G.’s.
Yeah. One night, we were having dinner at the studio and I looked at Booker and I said, “Hey, man. I probably shouldn’t do this, but I want to thank you for letting me in the band. That’s really cool of you to let me be a part of the M.G.’s.” Booker looked over at Duck and was like, “Hey, did you tell him about the band dues?” [Laughs]

Speaking of the Alchemy tour, I was just watching a video that Neil posted from that where you guys played “Like a Hurricane” in the pissing rain for over 30 minutes. It’s amazing.
That song seems to make things rain. [Laughs] We had some crazy shows we played in the rain, but that’s a really good one. Once things like start happening, you have to get your antennae up and be on alert for any crazy thing that could start happening onstage. Believe me, we had some crazy things happen. When all the power goes out, what do you do?

Fans are curious to know why you left the band. What happened?
Basically, I hate to say it because I’m too macho of a Spaniard, but I have arthritis in both of my wrists. Right now, today, if I had a new carton of milk and I had to screw off that little top, I can’t do it. I have to get out the pliers.

It became painful for me to be on the road. When we were on that last tour [in 2014], I was rolling down the road with both of my hands in ice buckets and one foot in an ice bucket, every night. That’s really not that much fun. Then I got my finger slammed in the door [on the 2013 European tour]. There were too many signs saying it was over for me. It wasn’t for any other reason. I’d love to go on the road right now.

I was messing things up on the last tour during the early songs in the set. I just couldn’t slide my fingers the way I used to when I played those lines. I was firing roadies because I thought they didn’t have my guitar in tune. Looking back on it after I left the band, I was like, “Why was my guitar in tune for the rest of the show? How come from the fifth song song on, I had no problem and it was in tune?” That’s because by that point, I had enough adrenaline going to overcome my arthritis.

Do you still play guitar at home?
Yeah. I have one right here. [Strums a note] I play all the time, but I don’t think anyone wants to hear me make mistakes. When I play with my friends on the couch, we all make mistakes and just laugh it off. Nobody is paying $100 a pop to watch me screw up.

Since the end of the last tour, I have not left this island. I haven’t even gone to Oahu. I’m very happy to stay home and be healthy. I think I have a great musical history. In my mind, I accomplished more than I ever dreamed of when I started out as a little kid in Detroit playing guitar. I’m happy with it. I’m very thankful to Billy, Neil, and Ralph. We all gave each other the opportunity to take music to a couple of different levels and make a lot of people happy. God bless all the fans that came out and enjoyed our music so much.

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