Crazy Horse Guitarist Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro: 'My Gut Tells Me This Is the Last Tour'
Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro has been playing with Neil Young for 40 years, but he's worried their current world tour might be the last one. "I just think once it stops it's going to be kind of hard to get it rolling again," he says on the phone from his home in Hawaii. "My gut tells me this is really the last tour. I hate saying their ages, but I'm 64 and I'm the baby of the band. I love playing and we're playing as good as we ever did, but at any time something could go down with any one of us."
Young and Crazy Horse have been touring heavily since last August, playing gigs that sometimes stretch beyond two-and-a-half hours. "Our shows are physical," says Poncho. "It takes a lot of energy to play that much. It just seems at some point something is going to break. I already had an operation on my thumb. Neil's wrist bugs him, and he has to tape it when he plays. You can't fool time. You can't count on this happening again in five years."
Whatever happens in the future, Neil Young and Crazy Horse have a long European tour in front of them. They just wrapped up a leg in Australia and New Zealand that featured some welcome additions to the setlist, including a ton of rare songs from Zuma and Re-ac-tor. Rolling Stone spoke with Poncho about the tour, his early days with Young and his long and tumultuous history as a key member of many of his backing bands.
When you guys toured last in America last year it was the same basic setlist night after night. What caused you to extend the show and break out so many rare songs when the tour his Australia?
It's funny you say the setlist is the same almost every night. When I came home from the tour, my girl picked me up and she had a new car. I said, "Let's listen to your sound system." She had Psychedelic Pill and we put on "Walk Like a Giant." I listened to it and said to her, "We don't play that song anything like that anymore."
So, they were still brand new songs. They were evolving and changing, and it was pretty interesting. Then all of a sudden, one day at rehearsal Neil said we should change up some of the older songs. We played one or two of them one night, and then all of a sudden he just played five of them in a row without stopping. He just ended one, started the other…We all looked at him like, "What the fuck are you playing man?"
We had no idea he was going to do that. We did rehearse "Prisoners of Rock & Roll," but we didn't really rehearse "Love To Burn" at all. He played it in the dressing room on a piano, and then called for it that night as the second song. That was, like, insane, especially since Neil made more mistakes on it than anybody else.
I loved seeing "Barstool Blues" in the setlist.
Oh, that was cool. We rehearsed that once at sound check. We didn't rehearse "Sedan Delivery" at all. We played it at rehearsals before the U.S. tour last summer and it was always kinda suckin'. When we played it live it was like we always played it. It was so much fun. We had a great time. "Danger Bird" was really cool. The only time we did that was sound check and Lake Tahoe.
Do you know what causes Neil to decide something like, "OK, tonight is the night for 'Barstool Blues?'"
I have no idea, but what I really felt is that on this tour we're not able to ride buses because the distances between places was too far apart. We had to fly, and that meant a lot of days off, and pretty easy going days. I think everybody was feeling too relaxed, so I thought Neil just pulled those songs out and said, "Let's shake it up. Let's see what we can do."
He also extended some of the shows by a full hour.
Tell me about it! [Laughs] What happened to "we're only going to play two hours?" [Laughs]
What was it like to play "Like a Hurricane" in a torrential downpour?
Oh, that was so crazy. It was raining off and on, kind of sprinkling all day there. Then we we started playing "Hurricane" and a torrential downpour came. I mean, literally the organ stopped working it got so wet. I had to play guitar on that song for the first time in history.
All that gear took a hit. It almost looked like hail was falling. I was drenched, and I couldn't move because I was attached to the organ. Those guys got to take a step back and everyone was quickly covering all the amps. The monitor console got totally soaked. A lot of things stopped working. It was crazy, but it's not the first time that happened during that song. It's amazing.
I love that you're doing all those random songs off Re-ac-tor.
Yeah, we have a lot of songs. We had to eliminate a lot of the old songs to make way for new ones. Let me ask you a question. What do you think the people would rather hear: the new ones or just a show of the old stuff?
Unfortunately, I think most fans just want the old stuff. People react stronger to material they know, and it reminds them of their youth.
Right. Well, it's funny. In the middle of that five-song barrage [of obscure older songs] that Neil laid on us we took a little break and I heard someone in the audience yell out, "Play something we know!" [Laughs]
That's great. It would be so easy for you guys to play "Down By The River," "Rockin' in the Free World," "Cowgirl in the Sand" and the other hits every night, but to leave them out in favor of obscure 1980s stuff like "Opera Star" is pretty awesome.
Yeah. "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze" came off pretty good. I think we played it better than ever. We've opened up every show of this tour with "Love and Only Love," but one night in Australia he started with "Powderfinger" and then went right into "Love to Burn." We'd never even played that with our guitars on once. Neil blew the first chorus. He played it wrong. I was going, "Shit, what are we going to do?" Then it played it wrong again! He didn't go back to the verse. He played the first chorus three times. He goes, "I was just trying to get it right."
You guys have a ton of shows coming up this summer in Europe. Do you think the setlist is going to keep changing around?
Well, I hope so. It's nice to pull songs out of a hat and just play them. It keeps the band on it's toes. In the beginning, it was a little shocking. They came just so fast. He did "Prisoners of Rock & Roll" and then started to do "Opera Star" right after it, and Ralph [Molina] was still playing a shuffle because we hadn't really stopped. It took us a minute to adjust. It was insane. But imagine if you were in the audience and you just saw this weird ending, which was a barrage of music, and another song just grew out of it. It was probably pretty cool.
That's the thing. When you come to see us, you really don't know what's going to happen. There's no pattern. We just kinda learned the changes and then the solos start happening. It could go anywhere.
Are you prepared to break out any song in the catalog? What if he calls for something really rare like "T-Bone?"
[Laughs] It's funny you say that.
Every night before the show we do a vocal warm up. We just sing scales together. It's really more about being united as a group before we go out there than anything else. One night Neil was on the keyboard and I said to him, "We could always do 'Mashed Potatoes.' He was like, "Oh yeah, we could do that."
I want to talk to you about the distant past now. Were you a fan of Crazy Horse before you joined the band? Did you buy Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere when it came out?
Oh yeah. I even used the album cover for rolling big fat hash joints. I used to listen to them and say, "Gee, I wish I could play with them." [Laughs]
How did you first meet Neil Young?
I met [Crazy Horse bassist] Billy [Talbot] first. He just got back from the Tonight's the Night tour in Europe. One night at a friend's house we were all talking, and I told him about Mexico because I was living down there. At the end of the night he said to me, "If you ever take a trip down there I'd like to tag along with you." So I got some money and I called him and we drove down there and we stayed at my house. Then we drove all the way down to the Baja Peninsula and then caught a ferry over to Mazatlan and hung out there.
That was the first time I ever played with Billy. He didn't even know I played guitar. We ended up being another cheap guitar in town and we played. He said, "You know, when we get back to the States you should come by the house and jam sometimes." So I started playing with them and I met George Whitsell and Ben Keith and other people.
All of a sudden, Billy called me one day and said, "We're driving to Chicago to play with Neil. We told him about you and he wants to play with you." So I met Neil at Chess Records. No, wait, it was in his hotel room the night before. It's really kind of funny. I wasn't used to the whole rock & roll machine Neil was in at the time. We were in his hotel room and he was playing some new songs on a guitar. I was trying to figure them out. I played on one or two and then handed the guitar to Ben Keith. I said, "Man, here you play for a while." He was pushing it back and going, "No, man, you should play." I didn't realize these were all the songs we were going to record the next day. I just thought we were jamming and smoking weed. [Laughs]
By the way, this was 1973. Zuma didn't come out until 1975. It took us over a year to make it because of some silly stuff that happened. Billy tried to break up a dog fight and the dog bit him and he couldn't play for about five months. Crazy things like that happened.
You were essentially taking the place of Danny Whitten. Those were some pretty big shoes to fill. Was that stressful?
I never thought of it like that. To me, this was just a whole new thing that was starting off. I had a lot to learn just to fit in. I remember being in Chess Records and after about four hours, one of the sound engineers came up to me and said, "Where did you come from?" They had a whole family of people that had been working together for years already, and just fitting in took a little bit. [Longtime Neil Young producer] David Briggs was really supportive and helped me a lot. I just kept trying to remember the chords. Also, at that point in time I was pretty stoned.
When did Neil first tell you that were hired?
I got fired! I got fired first!
[Laughs] I guess because I wasn't paying enough attention! [Laughs] We recorded a few days there in Chess, and then [Neil's manager] Elliott [Roberts], in the middle of the session, told Billy and Ralph that they could split. Of course, he didn't even address me, but if they were going I was going. And so that night they got really pissed off. They didn't know what was going on. I guess it was the country stuff. He was playing "Stars of Bethlehem" and those songs they ended up recording in Nashville.
I remember going back to the hotel room and seeing that Billy and Ralph were really upset. They were saying, "I don't know why this happened." I said, "Well, why don't we just talk to Neil?" And they were like, "Well, I'm not going to talk to him!" I said, "Why not?" That's how naive I was. I just wanted answers to these questions and you gotta ask the guy who knows. They wouldn't go, so I said "Well, I'm just going to go talk to him. I might be the cause of this whole problem, so just let me go up there and I'll rap to him."
I went up there and he was with Elliot Mazer. We started talking and he said, "Well, let's walk down and talk to the other guys in the room." As we were walking down the hallway to get into the elevator Neil said, "You know, don't worry about any of this. This is another project I was already working on. I'm going to Nashville, but playing with you guys is something I'm going to remember. I know well it's going to come together." We then talked to Billy and Ralph and smoothed things out, and then went back home and worked on Crazy Horse stuff, and then all of a sudden Neil called and we got back to work on Zuma.
Your first tour was Japan in 1976. What was it like to suddenly face these huge audiences?
If you look at the pictures, I just stood in the back and tried to play the chords! [Laughs] I wasn't overwhelmed, but at the same time I knew I had to buckle down and get into it and just be supportive. Luckily, Neil had such a huge presence, that's all he needed at that point. He just needed someone to support him and the whole band. Billy and Ralph were singing good and we pulled it off. As we went along, we got better and better.
But then halfway through he bolts and forms the Stills-Young band.
Not exactly. We finished the tour in Japan and then did Europe. We came back . . . this was in the middle of 1976, the bicentennial and all that. We were going to do a big tour and Neil was working on a Crazy Horse record with us. Then he just kind of disappeared from the ranch. We were working on it ourselves, not getting a lot done. The next thing we heard he'd been in Florida with Stills and they recorded a record and they were going on the road.
All those dreams about our record coming out and doing the big tour were just gone. That was the first time I had my heart broken by Neil. I don't know if I should say by Neil or just by the business in general now that I understand it more. But from that day one, whenever Neil called I would go and put my heart into it, but the day that anything was over I would instantly start working on something else. I never sat around and waited for Neil. I knew he had a lot of things to do and they weren't always going to include us. I figured that out pretty quick.
But he always comes back to you guys.
Oh yeah. And he will, he always will. But it's just that . . . if you sit there and wait, years and years can go by and you haven't done anything. At least that's the way I feel. Billy and Ralph feel like they're staying true to the music and they just wait. I just like to work too much. Even before I called you, I've been up all morning trimming palm trees.
Tell me about recording "Like a Hurricane." Neil wrote in his book that you guys got it on the very first take.
Well, that's true in one sense. We tried it with two guitars. I think one day we tried it once at the end of a session, another day we tried it all day with two guitars, and the third day we tried it with two guitars. It was just . . . He was upset with it. I sat down at the keyboard. He had an organ and I started playing it a little. He said, "Well, let's try it like that." So we played it like that one time, and at the end of that tape, you can even hear it, Neil goes, "Yeah, that's how it goes I think. That's it."
I guess he's not a believer in overdoing something. If it sounds right, you're done.
Oh yeah, yeah. He's learned over the years that right for us is usually the first, second or third take. We're not a studio band. We can't analyze things and then put it back together in a different way and still have our hearts into it. We lose a part of our emotion when we over-think a song.
You play on Trans. What are your memories of that project?
Well, that was a record where we did a lot of recording, and then Neil became involved with a program for his son Ben. He had to do a lot of physical activity with different nurses and helpers. He kind of got lost in time and couldn't have us there all the time. He ended up getting a synclavier and going back and overdubbing a lot of those tracks. A lot of times we weren't there for all that crazy stuff that went on. We came back up and listened to it and were like, "Wow, what did you do?" [Laughs]
Did you like it?
I liked that record. I was talking about doing "We R in Control." It would be fun trying to do that song now. I think we could play it really good.
Definitely. It was a bold move for Neil to record something so aggressively uncommercial. I guess he just doesn't give a shit about that though.
Nah. It's funny, we were having dinner before a show at catering recently. It was all of us and someone said, "You know what we need? A hit." We just started laughing really hard. I just came out at a funny time. All of us looked at each other and we laughed for about five minutes.
He jumped from one genre to the other in the 1980s – from new wave to rockabilly to country to blues. How did you feel about that as it was happening?
When I'm not working with Neil, I don't pay a lot of attention to what he's doing. I just try to enjoy myself and my own work. I look at it like that's the time where he's out there taking care of himself and his family and everything else, and that's what I should be doing.
In the late 1980s you played in his blues band the Bluenotes. You were switched over to keyboard. How did that all go down?
Neil called me for that and was like, "Come up and play. This is without Billy or Ralph. We got a horn section and this and that." I said, "Neil, you're not going to believe this, but I was pretend fighting with this girl. [Laughs] I went to block a kick and I stuck me hand down and she happened to kick my hand. I broke my finger and my thumb in my left hand. I don't think I'll be playing guitar for a while." He said, "Come up and play keyboard then. Use one hand and maybe use your thumb or something to hit the low notes." I really learned how to play keyboard on that tour.
You guys were playing smaller halls and just doing the new material. It was a pretty bold move.
Oh yeah, that was a lot of fun. There's a double live album of Bluenote material. I can hardly wait for that. I had a copy of it on cassette at one point. I know I have it somewhere, but for the life of me I can't find it.
Was it a challenge playing shows composed solely of new songs. I imagine the audiences weren't too thrilled.
Most of the time it was pretty cool. We warmed up with a couple of smaller shows at bars. I remember one guy in the front just hollering in front of the stage going "Hey Hey, My My!" [Laughs] Neil went up to him and said, "How much did you pay for your ticket?" The guy told us and Neil reached into his pocket and gave the guy 20 bucks and said, "You can leave now." [Laughs]
He said, "Keep your ticket. It doesn't say Neil Young and Crazy Horse." Later on in the show we were really rockin' and everybody was going crazy, really into it. Neil said, "Hey, if anyone sees that guy out in the parking lot, let him back in."
Tell me the story of how you coined the phrase "Rockin' in the Free World."
We were on the road with the Los Dogs in 1989. I was riding on Neil's bus at the time. I was his cook on the bus, so we were hanging out 24/7. All this stuff was going down with the Ayatollah. I don't know if you remember that footage of them passing the casket along over the heads of thousand and thousands of people.
There was a lot of "Hate America" demonstrations and we were supposed to do this exchange. We were going to Russia for the first time. It was a cultural exchange. They were getting us in exchange for the Russian Ballet. [Laughs] And it just fell through. Neil was like, "Damn, I really wanted to go." I said, "Me too. I guess we'll have to keep on rockin' in the free world." He was like, "Wow, that's a cool line." Then I said it again later and he said, "That's a really good phrase. I wanna use it."
He told me he was going to use it. We were checking into our hotel and the manager was like, "That's stuff going on with the Ayatollah and alI this turmoil in the world." I said, "There's a song there, man. Come on, get to it." [Laughs] The next day he came up to me and told me to check out this lyric sheet. I only questioned one of them. I think it was "Keep Hope Alive" or something. He said, "No, no, no. That's a good one." We just started signing it and he taught me the harmony part.
That night we played it in Seattle. It was this cool theater. We didn't even rehearse it with the band. I was telling the chords to [bassist] Rick Rosas as we went along.
The song gave Neil a lot of momentum, and when you launched the Weld tour in 1991 the entire band seemed reinvigorated.
Yeah, that was a lot of fun. That tour and the  Live in a Rusted Out Garage tour kind of blur together in my head. I like that we brought back the big amps. We sold out everywhere and everyone was super accepting of the music we played. I can't remember anything bad happening on those tours.
The Year of the Horse documentary was shot on the next tour in 1996. Do you think it captured the band properly?
[Laughs] That's a funny question. Am I a fan of the movie? In a way, yes, and in a way, no. I think if people really think that's Crazy Horse . . . it's a pretty soft version of us. You don't really see what goes on. But then again, some stuff is so personal you don't want people to see it all. It would be like one of those weird reality shows. There's a lot more turmoil than what you see there, and intensity as well.
But at the same time, it was good that Jim Jarmusch got us to do all those interviews. I never really watch it, but on the DVD they have some bonus footage of interview with us. It's the best group interview we ever did in our lives.
Neil brought you guys back into the studio in 2000 to cut an album called Toast. What happened there? It never came out.
Everybody got sick. [Laughs] We were recording the album and really playing pretty good. Then we went on this tour of South America right in the middle of it. One of them was Rock in Rio. It was a huge amount of people, like 300,000 or something. The audience was going wild and it really inspired us. We did "Like a Hurricane" and they were humming the melody the whole time like a soccer chant. It just blew us away. I looked over and saw Neil and he was gone. He just threw his head up in the air and was just playing guitar. It was gigantic. All of us remember it.
Then we came home and went back into Toast. Everything we tried to play, we kind of played Latin style. [Laughs] We got confused down there. I don't mean we didn't know how to play our instruments or we didn't know what we were doing or Toast is shit, but all of a sudden we were going in different directions. We just weren't in the same place as when we left. We kept playing and recorded some things, but it just didn't work out.
The one song you released from those sessions, "Goin' Home," is absolutely fantastic though.
Yeah, I love that song.
I spoke to Neil about five years ago and he was super excited about Toast. He said he had big plans for a release, but it obviously didn't happen.
I remember during the making of Sleeps With Angels I found myself in the studio without the rest of the band. All of a sudden, here comes [Warner Bros. Records chairman] Mo Ostin and his son Michael with some other cats. They had nobody to talk to besides me, and they basically cornered me and said, "When are the archives coming out?" He was talking about them coming out that Christmas [of 1994.] I said, "As far as I know, man, he's all over it. He says he's got it ready. It's really coming out." And here we are.
He did finally release that first box set a few years ago, but imagine part two is still a ways away. I feel like he lost interest.
Do you think Volume Two will have Bluenotes material?
I think that's Volume Three. I think Volume Two will be 1973 to 1979. It's a real big six years.
I remember once a long time ago, someone around the studio said there's 154 unreleased songs.
What's your favorite song you guys never released?
Well, take "Surfer Joe & Moe the Sleaze." We just did that song in Australia. Afterwards Neil was going, "That was really cool." I said, "What happened to the verse that went, 'You remember my sister Flo and something about the boardwalk and a ferris wheel.'" He was like, "Oh yeah! That's the greatest verse!" Then we listen to the record and it's not on the record either.
You ever hear the song "Eldorado?"
Yeah, I love that song.
Crazy Horse did a few versions of it that I really like. Those never came out.
Oh man, check this out! When we played "Cortez the Killer" in Australia the power suddenly went out in Billy's amp and mine. We were standing there and Neil was just playing it by himself with drums. We lost power on one side of the stage and we just kept it going. I walked over and said, "You're on your own brother. I have no power."
We kept going and the power came back on and we finished it. We were talking afterwards and Tim Mulligan said, "I loved that out there. I thought it was kind of like when we made the record." (A power outage during the recording of "Cortez the Killer" cut off the final verse.)
After the release of Are You Passionate? in 2002, there was a brief tour where the backing band was called Poncho and the MGs. Why was it so quick?
We recorded in the studio and it went really well, even though it was a little intimidating. We went on the road in Europe and Neil got really sick. He was just so bummed. I remember I was in his room with him and Pegi after the night we cancelled. He was actually beating himself up. "Why me? Why does this have to happen? Everything sounds so good." I don't know what happened after that. We went home and that was over.
He released Greendale in 2003 under the name Neil Young and Crazy Horse, but you don't play on the album. Did that bother you?
Well, it depends how you look at it. [Laughs] I didn't mind that I wasn't on the album, but at the same time that was a turning point for me. They ended up calling it a Crazy Horse record. I was like, "Alright, then I'm not in the band." They used me on the tour. I don't think they used me so wisely. I just sat there and played a few notes on a keyboard. I guess I was just there to play a few of their hits at the end.
After that, we didn't play again for eight or nine years. That whole time I felt like I wasn't really in the band. It separated us in a way, but at the same time it gave me a place where I could feel independent and I gathered strength from that. I feel a lot stronger playing with Neil, and the whole band concept, to me, doesn't mean as much as it used to.
I'm not saying that I don't love the band, but I'm just saying . . . if you want to look at it black and white, I was out of the band.
Well, you were on the tour.
Well, it depends how you look at it. [Laughs] I never had a thought of, "Oh, I don't want to play with them. They dissed me." None of that came to my head. But when I went to play with them again I said, "OK, I have to bring enough to the table to be independently accepted as me and not as part of the band. I have to make 'me' happen If I want to keep this gig."
The wait after the Greendale tour was the longest ever. Did you ever think it was done forever?
No. A lot of people thought that and asked me about that, even my friends. I said, "No, we'll play again. At least one more time." I had no idea it would be for two or three years in a row. [Laughs]
When he gets into something, he really gets into it.
So when do you think this will be over?
I don't know. I can see you guys doing this in your early seventies. Why not?
No, come on. We're going to tour Europe. We already did the States and Canada. When we come back, what are we going to do?
I think maybe you'll do another leg sometime in September or October in America. Right?
Yeah, I think so too. Something like that toward the end of the year. But I guess they're planning . . . there will probably be a live album. And then what?
Yeah. They haven't played in Europe since a single gig in 1974.
I can't remember why they didn't go to Europe. I guess it's because they became so popular here during the period of political unrest with the Vietnam War and everything, and it wasn't so big in Europe.
Is there serious talk of the current tour coming back to America in the fall?
There's been talk since the beginning of coming back. It's on again, off again, on again, off again. No one's mentioned a date yet. Until I start hearing dates, they're probably not booking it yet. So, I don't know. It's just an idea.
Tell me about playing "Born in the USA" at the MusiCares Springsteen tribute this year.
It was a lot of fun playing with Nils Lofgren. I just never imagined myself playing that song, and I haven't played it since. But it was pretty rockin.' Neil wasn't born in the USA. He was born in Canada, so he delegated us to sing the choruses. I kind of dominated as the lead singer of the choruses, so I got to have fun. I got to pretend I was Bruce. That was my moment in the sun.
You guys did a rare acoustic set at the Bridge School Benefit last year.
I wasn't a fan of that show. I don't think we spent enough time getting a good guitar sound. It sounded when we played together in a room, but on stage we weren't feeling the guitars enough to really project. But I liked the ending with Lukas Nelson.
I know you worked for Jay Leno at The Tonight Show for all those years. Are you surprised that Jimmy Fallon is going to take over and bring the show back to New York next year?
That's such a corporate thing. They've got a five-year plan, a 10-year plan. I remember when Jimmy Fallon first came to our studio there. I saw the heads of Late Night just huddling around him like he was a newborn child. That was a long time ago, but look what happened? He got the show. He's the young face to America. That's what they want.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for the Global Citizen Festival