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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2004/04/29
by Pat Buzby

Down By The River

None of my bands have held auditions in a while, but
my alt-country band’s lap steel player is moving to
Los Angeles to become a comedian (no lie), so it’s
that time again. At the first audition a few weeks
ago, we ran a few of our songs with a guitarist from
Minneapolis and then asked him if there was anything
he wanted to play with us. Since he had shown off a
Neil Young photo from E-Bay earlier, it wasn’t a
tremendous surprise when he launched into two familiar
chords, which I’ve jammed on many times since around
1998 and which other bands have been exploring since
For me, one definition of a classic piece of music is
a song that gets away with something, that presents
something on the border of ludicrousness but makes it
work. "Down By the River" falls into that category.
The vague hippiespeak of the verses ("This much
madness is too much sorrow/It’s impossible to make it
today") gives almost no insight into the bewildering,
arresting punchline of the chorus: "Down by the
river/I shot my baby." And when the vocals are over,
we’re left with two chords and (in Young’s original
studio recording) an intense but fragmented guitar
solo over a very minimal groove, a groove that seems
insanely passive to be supporting a story about
someone shooting his lover.
Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young bio, is one of
the most useful rock books ever. McDonough has his
biases (this book is not recommended to CSNY fans) and
gets hyperbolic, but he’s right when he says that
"Down by the River" sounds like nothing else that was
happening in rock improvisation in 1969. There was
the space noise of Pink Floyd and the modal acid
visions of the San Fransiscans, but nothing that made
such a point out of having almost nothing happen.
McDonough’s book also includes Young’s thoughts about
guitar soloing and rhythm sections, and some debates
and testimonies from his sidemen and contemporaries.
In the book, Young mentions that he doesn’t care for
"musicians showing off," which may explain why he’s
stuck with Crazy Horse (drummer Ralph Molina, bassist
Billy Talbot, and, at the time of "Down by the River,"
guitarist Danny Whitten) all these years. These
players don’t seem inclined to show off, possibly
because they can’t.
As a drummer and a listener, it hasn’t always been
easy for me to play in this style or put in a lot of
time with Crazy Horse records on the turntable. For a
long time, Young’s idea of "showing off" has been my
idea of making good, eventful music. Some of my
recent playing experiences have been an education in
this regard. So has dealing with some of the more
recent shows from Phish, who can show off but have
been trying not to. (One of these days I’ll track
down the show where they accompanied Young on "Down by
the River.")
Some of Young’s songs, including another of his guitar
epics ("Southern Man"), tell us a lot. Many of the
most famous ones, though, leave a lot out – aside from
"Down by the River," "Cortez the Killer" is another
strong example. Young has also spoken of songs where
the guitar solo fills in space that the lyrics leave
open. (Richard Thompson is one of the few others who
have united songwriting and improvisation this way.)
And, after all of this listening and playing time, it
gets easier to understand that it’s not the rhythm
section’s role to fill in that space any further.
At the audition, the guitarist sang and played in a
style similar to Young’s. The bass player, who can
also "show off" when the time is right, played
Talbot’s bass line. And at that moment, behind the
drums, it was all but impossible for me to play any
more than what Molina played back in that 1969

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