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Ralph Molina: In The Saddle With Crazy Horse

Ralph Molina

The 1950s marquee on the old Fox Theatre in downtown Redwood City, California whispers a secret tale of grand glory days and champagne-drenched nights gone by. Nights when women swooned to the velvet voice of Frank Sinatra, when couples swayed under sparkling crystal chandeliers to the hypnotic beats of Louis Bellson. From the outside, those days appear long gone. It looks like nothing much is going on here; like nothing quite so glamorous has gone on, or will go on, on that creaky old stage for a long, long time. Staring at that seemingly deserted entryway is like staring into the face of old age: sad, demoralizing, inevitable. Yet something inside yearns to fight, to kick the door open, to turn the stereotype on its head, to burn brightly through the twilight, to say to the world — ’I’m alive!’ Something — or rather, someone. Inside that stately old venue, behind those tinted windows, he’s fighting — fist in the air, every step of the way. Beneath the flickering lights, a genius is secretly hard at work, welcoming the onset of his golden years — with arms wide open, guitar cranked way up, and a good old-fashioned, ass-whooping new CD — rock and roll-style.

On stage, stacks of amps, a wall of guitars, and a classic drum kit tower over an invisible crowd. While at the mike, one of the most gifted songwriters of the century quietly strums his guitar. It’s easy to imagine if you close your eyes: Neil Young, the so-called godfather of grunge — inspiration for seminal rock bands from Sonic Youth to Nirvana — holed up alone, in a secret, closed rehearsal space, his face creased, his voice chafed, rough, and ragged, the lone wolf gearing up for tour, running through his half-hour solo acoustic set, culling from a prolific past and drawing on a new, yet-to-be-written future. The moody changeling, the ultimate solo artist, his infamous intensity burning bright. Yet despite his enigmatic solo persona, Young is also the patriarch of an extended musical family, and thus, one who is at once always and never alone.

As Young strums, his wife Pegi waits in the wings, warming up for her own short set. The engineer scurries to take cues. Fellow musicians patiently wait for the call. And at the same moment, somewhere on the road between here and Southern California — still more than a 100 miles away — drummer Ralph Molina taps his foot and hums the new Young tunes, readying the rhythms alone, in his head, to himself. Or rather, learning them. Because Molina never heard these songs before recording them for the latest Young endeavor, Chrome Dreams II. But then, that’s nothing new. This is how it is with Neil Young; how it’s always been. Take the classic rock band recipe: write/practice/refine parts/practice, practice, practice/record/tour/repeat — and turn it inside out. With Neil Young, everything is the opposite of what you’d expect. With Young, the music moves counterclockwise — at once forward and in reverse. Drummers, bassists, guitarists, and piano players are tossed headfirst into the musical fire — drenched in heavy, half-written, half-improved riffs, pulled, steered, and yanked by powerful guitar jams as they unfold. Alone and together, players struggle to get a foothold on the groove, grasp the emotive nuances of each verse, the dynamic builds of every chorus, feeling their way blindly in the dark into an unfamiliar musical headspace, a brand-new sonic landscape, with Young as their mystical musical guru and guide. Navigating through the rocky terrain of soulful, frayed-at-the-edges country-folk ballads, heart-achingly beautiful, plaintive love songs, and wide-open rock jams, grooving together on the fly to songs they’ve never heard — songs that exist only in Young’s mind. And all the while, the tape rolls on, catching it all live: distorted guitars, spontaneous, extended leads, gritty vocals, off-the-cuff improvisation, bursts of energy, and in-the-moment grooves. It’s raw, emotional, electric — a thing of instantaneous, jagged beauty, heat, and intensity that at moments borders on insanity. Like a Jackson Pollack, the art emerges in the moment, as it’s created, the act of creating as important as the end result.

“With Neil it’s, Get it on the first or second take,” Molina says, his voice raspy, still deeply inflected with toughness, grit, and edge that belies a youth spent running around New York City’s Lower East Side. “That’s how it’s always been, because the magic happens in the first or second take. After that, it’s like you’re playing a part. Since we’re just feel players, Neil will walk in and have some chords or a song, and he starts playing, and we just jump in, and we’ll take it from there.

“We don’t know the songs; we don’t have charts. We don’t read charts; we just start playing. The magic just seems to happen — we’ve played with him for so many years.”

Almost 40, actually. For four decades as the drummer for Crazy Horse, Molina has been at the heart of the intense, magnetic, prolific vortex that swirls around Neil Young. From those late ’60s carefree days in Laurel Canyon, when Crazy Horse was born in Young’s basement jam sessions, to the early ’70s frenzy that saw the Horse recording its own self-titled album with Nils Lofgren and Jack Nitzsche while Young went off to make Harvest, through the tragic death of guitarist Danny Whitten, and onto garage pinnacles, Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust, and Ragged Glory. From “Cinnamon Girl” to “Like A Hurricane” — through tumultuous times, blowouts, and frustrations, weathering Young’s intensity, his notorious musical infidelity, and a temperament famous for sporadic, impulsive hiring and firing — the Young/Horse union has remained strong, steady, seemingly unshakable.

So what, after all these years, keeps Young and Crazy Horse coming back together? And what keeps the musical bond between Young and Molina so strong? The recipe, Molina says, is simple: chemistry, passion, electricity.

“There’s a lot of magic that happens — that’s kind of like a cliché: ’Oh we play great together!’” Molina mocks himself. “But you know, when I’m playing, mostly what’s in my monitors is Neil’s guitar, because I play off of him and he plays off of me.”

The magnetic molitov cocktail of Molina’s loose, dirty, solid, lean-and-mean grooves collides with Young; inspiring, driving, and pushing him frantically, urgently over the edge away from the safe, coddling arms of known paths and into collossal, otherworldly sonic landscapes where all semblance of order caves in and collapses. The process is both brilliant and brutal, producing music that is at once beautiful and bizarre — a fertile collaboration that, whether it’s a Pink Floyd-esque, avant, LSD-laced live show à la Live Rust, or an entire film and score devoted to fictional people in a fictional town (Greendale), spawns creative genius with intense, emotional force.

“The Crazy Horse thing is just when we get together; he gets really inspired. If he doesn’t have songs, he writes songs around Crazy Horse. It’s just a magical thing, and we love playing with each other. And if we had done album/tour/album/tour maybe we wouldn’t be playing together, you know. It always gets space. It’s like, I always knew when he’d be calling — after a year, year and a half, you get a call. It’s a special thing. He’ll go out and do his acoustic thing and his little country thing, but you know we’ll always get together as Crazy Horse.”

It’s not an entirely new paradigm: cheating to stay faithful.

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