Q&A: Crazy Horse Bassist Billy Talbot on Neil Young, New Solo Album
Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot has been playing alongside Neil Young for the past 45 years, but he's kept such a low profile that few people outside of hardcore fans even know his name. "Anonymity is a good thing," he tells Rolling Stone. "Neil's gotta take all that stardom, and we get to walk down the street with hardly anybody recognizing us. That happens occasionally, just enough to make it fun."
Talbot has spent the last year touring the world with Young and Crazy Horse, but he took some time off to chat with us about his long history with Neil Young, recording some of their most beloved works and his new solo LP On the Road to Spearfish.
Where are you calling from?
I'm in South Dakota. The prairie is all around me. Everywhere I look, it's grass.
Sounds nice. Do you think you're one of the few rock stars that live in South Dakota
[Laughs] I don't think of myself as a rock star, but I guess you could say that. I don't know of any others that are hanging out around this way.
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I'm really enjoying your new album. It's not at all what I expected from you, but I want to start by going through your life a bit here. Can you start by telling me how your first met Neil Young?
The first meeting was at my house. He came because of this friend of ours, Autumn. She brought him over and Danny [Whitten] and I were in this back room, playing some guitar. He played "Mr. Soul" for us, but not the way it was recorded by Buffalo Springfield. It was in a different key, in B, and he just strummed the guitar. I thought it was a cool song.
Then I went to see him another time when he lived in Laurel Canyon. I took a walk up to where he lived, and he had just recorded something with Buffalo Springfield. He showed me how he used this sustain pedal that would make this note last through the whole song. Then another girl, Robin Lane, brought him back to our house, and we just got together and talked and stuff. We probably played a bit, too.
I forget exactly what happened, but around then we recorded the [pre-Crazy Horse] Rockets album, and he was then living in Topanga Canyon. We brought the record out to play for him, and he wanted to sit in with us while we were playing at the Whisky. Then he called [drummer] Ralph [Molina], Danny and I up to his house in Topanga to try playing "Down By the River." He wanted to record right away.
You guys were your own band at this point. Was there any hesitancy about becoming his backing group?
We didn't really talk about any of that stuff. We just went up to his house and he said, "Let's go into the studio and record some of these songs. Maybe we'll call the band Crazy Horse." He didn't talk about us being a backing band or anything. He just said it was Crazy Horse. The four of us went in and recorded. At the end, though I don't remember exactly when, he mentioned that his managers and everyone wanted it to be called Neil Young with Crazy Horse. He was kind of embarrassed, but we were fine with it.
That first album has really stood the test of time.
Yeah, I think it's really good. I think it's also a reflection of the Rockets. I have to mention all these years later that Danny and I and Ralph and the Whitsell brothers and Bobby Notkoff would play two-chord, three-chord, one-chord jams for a long time. Sometimes an hour. We just naturally did that. Bobby would solo on the violin and George Whitsell would play the heck out of the guitar. So would George Leroy. Danny, Ralph and I would keep the rhythm going.
When Neil called us in to to do "Down By the River," we just went into the instrumental. We just naturally did what we do, and it went for a long time because Danny, Ralph and I would do our natural dynamics. Neil is a very emotional player, like Bobby was and we were, so it really fit together. We all did it together.
There are a lot of people, like David Crosby, who have been very critical of your playing, arguing you don't sound like professional musicians. Does that drive you crazy?
It doesn't bother me. As a matter of fact, I like it a lot.
Because I never wanted to be like anybody else. I have always figured that if you just be yourself . . . Who knows what yourself is until after the fact? So you just go moving along. I don't know how odd it is to be playing rock & roll at 70, rocking and having people think that you're as good as you were in your twenties and thirties. I don't know if that's different, because I've never lived before. I never expected to be doing what somebody else did, particularly.