Certain Songs #1236: Neil Young with Crazy Horse – “Cowgirl in the Sand”

Album: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
Year: 1969

Recorded at Wally Heider Recording Studios, Hollywood, on January 18, 1969

Remember the last time you got really sick with the flu? And you were running a fever of 103? Do you remember what you did that day? Probably planted yourself in front of the TV and were waited on hand and foot. I’m pretty sure that’s what I did.

I know one thing for sure: I didn’t create anything that day. Or any day I was that sick. Not so much Neil Young, who famously wrote “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down by The River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” on a day where he was stricken with that kind of fever.

That, kiddos, is some kind of sickness.

The amazing thing about “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down By The River” is that while they are both very long, jammy songs that alternate verse/chorus with solos, they are in no way redundant. So while “Down By The River” is gloomy, moody, a death march about death, “Cowgirl in The Sand” is upbeat, sprightly, moving ever forward like a cowgirl riding a (crazy) horse.

And it’s almost instant: after a short instrumental, “Cowgirl in the Sand” kicks off with a jumping drumbeat by Ralph Molina, massive notes from Billy Talbot, and stuttering rhythm from Danny Whitten, over which Neil almost instantly unleashes a whirlwind of notes. Don’t worry about finding the guitar solo on “Cowgirl in the Sand,” because the guitar solo is going to come to you. And it’s an all-time great one before he even opens his mouth.

Hello cowgirl in the sand
(Hello cowgirl in the sand)
Is this place at your command?
Can I stay here for a while?
Can I see your sweet sweet smile?

Old enough now to change your name
When so many love you is it the same
It’s the woman in you that makes you
Want to play this game

One of the more interesting things about “Cowgirl in the Sand” is how is slows down every single time they get to the verses — addressed to the “cowgirl in the sand”, “Ruby in the dust” and “woman of my dreams” respectively — only to pick things back up after the problematic final line of each chorus. That said: the lyrics take up approximately 1/5 of ten minutes of “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and even with the call-and-response vocals and roughly pretty harmonies, Neil’s guitar is far more eloquent, even during the choruses.

But especially inbetween the verses: pick any one of the four(!) guitar solos that dominate “Cowgirl in the Sand” and he’s doing something utterly insane: slamming the same note together over and over, then he’s spiraling cascading sheets of noise skywards, spinning cyclones around Whitten’s ever-more-frantic riffing, leaving whole universes of space between notes.

You can’t really call it virtuosic, because at any moment it seems like he could hit a note or notes that smashes the whole song against a cliff. In fact, that’s one of the beauties of “Cowgirl in the Sand:” the feeling like they just happened to be rolling tape and it just happened to come out this great. So maybe you can call it virtuosic.

“Cowgirl in the Sand”

“Cowgirl in the Sand” w/ Crazy Horse, Japan 1976

“Cowgirl in the Sand” live at Red Rocks 2000

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