Certain Songs #1257: Neil Young with Crazy Horse – “Danger Bird”

Album: Zuma
Year: 1975

Recorded at House, Point Dume, CA on June 3, 1975

Ahh. My favorite song on Zuma, and one of my top 10 Neil Young songs period, “Danger Bird” has long been overshadowed by its fellow long song, “Cortez The Killer,” but it says here that “Cortez The Killer” only comes alive in front of an audience, whereas the doomy “Danger Bird” finds its apotheosis right there on Zuma.

And sure, there had other songs with long guitar solos since Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, but unlike “Southern Man,” there wasn’t any speeding up for the solo, unlike “Words” there wasn’t a time signature shift, and unlike “Last Dance” the structure of “Danger Bird” was pretty straightforward. So while shorter than the epics on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, “Danger Bird” is cut from the same cloth: verse / solo / verse / solo / verse / solo, but at the same time is . . . so . . . much . . . slower.

The opening, dominated by Billy Talbot’s massive bass, reminds me of the the opening of “Dazed and Confused,” but at half speed, and Ralph Molina has barely even established a beat before Neil comes in with the first verse:

Danger bird, he flies alone
And he rides the wind
Back to his home
Although his wings
Have turned to stone

Out of all of the songs on Zuma, “Danger Bird” is also the one that keeps closest to the aesthetic of the ditch trilogy: just listen to how fucked up he lets the phrase “turn to stone” end up being. Also, at this point, what he’s got to say is almost too unbearable, so he lets Billy Talbot & Ralph Molina sing it for him.

(And we used to be so calm
Now I think about you all day long)
That’s the moment that he cracked
Long ago, in the museum with his friends
(Because you’ve been with another man)
Here you are and here I am)

That’s some pretty heavy shit right there, especially the way that the production emphasizes the word “mannnnnn” while trying to obscure it with Neils counterpoint vocals and a quick searing guitar. It takes a bit for Neil to get to that first solo proper: first he has to play a terribly lovely sustained riff that doubles back upon itself, almost as a way to center himself prior to taking off for places unknown with his guitar. Every single note is both totally unexpected and makes perfect sense.

The second verse might even be more harrowing, and follows the same pattern as the first, starting with Neil all by his lonesome, barely able to stay in tune while remaining totally on target.

The jailbird takes the raps
And he finds himself
Spread-eagled on the tracks
But the training that he learned
Will get him nowhere fast

And once again, Talbot & Molina come in.

(And I know he should be free
But freedom’s just a prison to me)
With the rain pounding on his back
He recalls the moment that he cracked
(Because I lied to keep it kind)
Long ago in the museum with his friends
(When I left you far behind)
And like those memories
The rain keeps pounding
Down, down, down

The second solo is wilder, more unhinged, no direction home, bombs bursting in air world without end amen. It’s hard to describe how amazing the guitar solos on “Danger Bird” are because it’s almost impossible to get to the bottom of them: every time I listen to the song, I get something else, something new from it.

“Danger Bird”

“Danger Bird” performed live, 2004

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