Ralph Molina: In The Saddle With Crazy Horse

ralph molina playing drums

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.

ralph molina bandmates

(Above, left to right) Billy Talbot, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, Neil Young, and Ralph Molina

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Thirty years ago, Molina had no idea he’d be sitting here, in traffic, snaking up this California highway, headed north for the umpteenth time, gearing up to tour with Young again. Back then he was just a scrappy kid growing up in New York City, crooning along to 45s. Until, not long after his family relocated to Florida, the phone rang. And in a moment that seemed to foreshadow every turning point thereafter in Molina’s life, on the other end of the line came an unexpected proposition.

“It’s weird how I got started,” Molina recalls, laughing. “I got a call from my cousin Lou, who was singing with Danny [Whitten] and Billy [Talbot]. He asked me to come out and sing in Danny & The Memories; that was in ’63.” Molina spent those early days crooning doo-wop harmonies until the dawn of the British Invasion. “When The Beatles came out, that was it. Before that most of the groups were just vocal groups,” he remembers. “Some had backup musicians, but they didn’t play. After The Beatles came out everyone started picking up instruments. That’s when Danny picked up guitar, and he said, ’Billy, you play bass. Ralph, you play drums.’ Of course, I had more rhythm than Billy and Danny both, you know!” And thus, The Rockets were born.

Before that, Molina’s sum total drumming experience consisted of a single year playing snare in the high school band. “My first set was some boxes, a spaghetti strainer, and a hi-hat. From there, I got a little set and we just started playing. It was no big deal, really. We were just kids having fun.” Along the way, The Rockets picked up guitarist brothers George and Leon Whitsell and violinst Bobby Notkoff, settled on the West Coast, and released a self-titled debut. “We used to play all day in the garage with the door wide open — you could do that in those days, so that’s where we come from musically,” Molina recalls. “With Billy and Danny, we loved each other. We went so far back, we were like brothers. With Neil, it was different.”

The Horse Is Born

“I probably did steal them from The Rockets, which was a perfectly good band.” — Neil Young in The Year Of The Horse

Trying to look back through the thick, heady cocaine, marijuana, and Tequila-drenched haze of those early days — to reconstruct the tale of how, where, and why it all happened — how The Rockets met and fused with Young, emerging from loose jam sessions in a fireball of intensity to be ultimately reborn as Crazy Horse — it’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment, the exact details.

“I was like probably 21, 19, 20, something like that — eons ago!” Molina jokes. “In the beginning, when you’re starting out and eating spaghetti for breakfast and you’re broke and you’ve just gotta do what you gotta do just to keep going, you pay your dues. A lot of things have happened. I don’t even remember some things!” As with all legends, there are various versions, all vaguely similar. But in Molina’s memory, the initial spark came from a perfect cocktail: a girl, a garage, and a gig. “We knew Neil had left [Buffalo] Springfield and he used to come up to Billy’s house and just play with us and sing,” he says.“And he was looking for a rhythm section, which happened to be me, Billy, and Danny.”

After an impromptu electric night together on stage at the famed Whiskey A Go-Go, Neil asked the trio to help him record. “We told the other guys we were going to do this thing with this guy Neil,” Molina says. “And we thought it was just going to be a couple of songs up in his Topanga Canyon house, and so that’s how it started. We got together at his house and his little studio and we just started playing. I was so, I guess, naïve. We were playing; it was so fun and we just kept recording. That’s how that album happened.”

No timelines, no roadmaps, no big plan, just some guys jamming with the tape running. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere emerged, a seminal record filled with classics like “Down By The River,” “Cowgirl In The Sand,” and Young’s breakout hit, “Cinnamon Girl.” The Rockets died. In their place the loose, propulsive triumvirate of Whitten, Molina, and Talbot was reborn, and rechristened Crazy Horse.

ralph molina band playing

Don’t Think … Just Play

“I’m looking for a way to go deeper. How am I going to lose myself? How can I get to a point where nothing matters? How can I stop thinking? How can I lose track of what’s going on and still be in synch? Thinking is in the way; it’s all about feeling.” — Neil Young on NPR in 2004.

Don’t think; just play. Whether on stage or in the studio, it’s the Young-ian way. It has been since those earliest Topanga Canyon jams and continues to be to this day. You almost don’t need Molina to say it. Just listen to live recordings like Weld and Live Rust, or witness the whacked-out, ten-plus-minute jams and mind-melting guitar leads in Jim Jarmusch’s documentary, Year Of The Horse. Listen and you can more than hear it — you can feel it. With Neil Young And Crazy Horse it’s all about tossing the rule book out the window and jamming in an expansive, no-holds-barred way Molina describes as “almost like jazz-rock.”

“You just feel it. If you think, forget it. There’s times when I think, and I say to myself: Don’t think! If you’re thinking, you’re not playing — you can’t think. If you’re a feel player rather than a studio musician, you know what’s happening,” Molina continues. “If you get into the song enough and don’t think, it just happens. It happens with any musician really. We’re not chops players. We’re not studio musicians. We just play what we hear.”

For Molina, riding the groove and keeping locked-in means keeping a close, constant eye on Young for nonverbal signals and spontaneous changeups. “On stage or not on stage, I’ll look up occasionally. If I see him walking up to the mike, I know he’s going to start singing. He plays these solos and then we have to start singing, and there’s really no cue. He says, ’On the record I play the solo times six,’ and I go, ’No, it was only three. I’m just going to keep my eye on you like I always do!’ Because when you play live, he might do the solo eight times, so you always have to keep an eye on him! Sometimes if you do a long solo, you’ll get lost in it and you’ll forget to look up. He’s playing all this great stuff, you just get lost in it.”

But Molina wouldn’t have it any other way. “With songs like ’Cortez,’ ’Down By The River,’ and ’Show Me The Way’ on this CD, every night is different — the solos are different, that’s what I love. Songs like ’Cinnamon Girl,’ it’s more of a part — you know what it is. But ’Down By The River,’ he just starts playing and it’s not the same every night. It’s great. I love songs like that. Those are, to me, the great Neil Young songs.”

Year Of The Horse

In 1971, riding high on the release of Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere and the high-octane tours that followed, Crazy Horse inked their own recording deal with Reprise while Young went off to play with Crosby, Stills & Nash and to sew his mellow, country roots with Harvest. Danny Whitten took the singing and songwriting reins — steering the wild, unbridled, garage-rock frenzy. And with guitarist Nils Lofgren and pianist/producer Jack Nitzsche on board, Crazy Horse ran free of Young, pursuing a course, an identity all its own. An intense creative flurry took over, and the band produced a legendary self-titled debut, featuring the solo hit, “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” (later covered by Rod Stewart). Plans were in the works for a world tour, and it seemed for a while that Crazy Horse might go its own way, separating entirely from Neil Young.

“That was an awesome time,” Molina recalls, a hint of nostalgia coming into his voice. “It was hard because Danny was doing heroin. I mean he played great and sang great, but it was hard because there were times where he couldn’t tune his guitar so Nils had to do it for him. Sometimes he was so out of it, Nils had to straighten his headphones out.” In 1972, wheels were in motion for a Crazy Horse tour, and Danny headed to Nashville, rejoining Young to gear up for the post-Harvest outing. But he only lasted two weeks before Young had to send him home to L.A. “He started doing methadone and drinking and he called me up and said, ’Ralph, you gotta let me back into Crazy Horse.’ And I said no. I wish we were older and wiser and we’d said, ’This is what we’re going to do, you’re going to go into rehab.’ But that’s not what happened,” Molina says, his voice trailing off. Whitten ODed shortly after, prompting Young to pen “Needle And The Damage Done,” and leaving Talbot and Molina shattered.

“Who knows what would have happened if Danny was fine, and if we had gone out and toured with that album. There would have been a next album and a next I’m sure. Maybe in between we would have played with Neil,” he says. “But Danny was too into heroin at the time. Who knew what would have happened if he wasn’t into that? Would we be playing with Neil? Would Crazy Horse be its own separate entity and doing well? Who knows? But like I told Neil, ’If I had 10 million in the bank, I’d still want to play with you.’ I love playing with Neil.”

Crazy Horse had a few forays of its own after the tragedy — shooting off from Young to record Loose At Crooked LakeCrazy Moon, and Left For Dead, but it was never the same. And every time the wheels got rolling, Young would inevitably call, and pull one, two, or all of them away. After they halted work in the ’90s to record Broken Arrow with Young, they never produced another solo album. Instead, Crazy Horse became Young’s band first and foremost — the firecracker pulse behind his washy, loose, emotive, solo-drenched, improv rock. Together as Neil Young And Crazy Horse, they’ve made 13 albums, including the acoustic-meets-electric epic, Rust Never Sleeps, its amazing live companion, Live Rust, and recently pulled from the vaults, Live At The Fillmore East.

Even in the interim — when Young went off to pursue folk or country albums, the rhythmic core of the Horse — Molina, Talbot, and later Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, who took over the rhythm guitar chair after Danny’s death — remained the go-to guys for Young. Crazy Horse became Young’s on-call band, backing him, in various permutations, all together or in part, on every track or on some, on nearly as many solo endeavors, from Tonight’s The Night to Trans to Chrome Dreams II. In fact, the musical lives of Young and Crazy Horse are so intertwined, it’s almost laughable to try to sort them out. After The Goldrush features Molina, Talbot, and Whitten. American Stars And Bars was largely recorded in a living room session with the band at Young’s ranch, yet neither are official Horse albums. Sampedro skipped the Greendale recording sessions — written with and around rhythm duo Molina and Talbot — but the album is still credited as a Young/Horse effort, and Sampedro went on the tour. And so on.

For Molina, it’s all part of the same extended musical family, a kind of ten-armed, musical chairs circus, with Young as the undisputed ringmaster. The rotating cast of musicians, the sudden yet expected phone calls that come every year or two, the sessions that start with a simple seed or an entirely written (in Young’s mind) album, theatrical, intense stage shows, are all just part of a strange wild ride on the Crazy Horse throne, the pulse that drives Young’s lapses into spastic, seizure-like fits of electric guitar riffs.

“I feel like whenever I play, even if it’s just a Neil Young tour and not Neil Young And Crazy Horse, it’s still Crazy Horse. Neil’s playing and I’m playing. This is the first time I played with [bassist] Rick [Rosas] and some things, it’s like Billy’s playing. I’m still playing with Neil. I’m playing music. I’m the Crazy Horse drummer. Neil plays with Crazy Horse and that’s it.”

White Stripes, Rubber Mats, And The Raw Intensity Of Neil Young

Up in the mountains near San Francisco, set beneath the shade of the towering redwoods, is a majestic, sprawling ranch. It’s the kind of idyllic place you might expect to find in the Smoky Mountains or the Blue Hills of Kentucky. Acres of fresh air, intoxicating rural beauty, open space, and peace and quiet. Miles away from crowded tour vans, late night bars, and all-night after parties — those oh-so-cliché symbols of the rock and roll life.

It’s the last place you’d expect to find a recording studio. But then, nothing about the way Neil Young has lived his life, built his career, or swayed from country-folk ballads, to achy love songs, to the haunting beauty of soundtracks like Dead Man, to gritty, loose garage rock with Crazy Horse, has been typical. And in that way, it’s just right. At the ranch’s heart, a newly built barn with redwood walls, rubber floors, and twisting lines of cords and mikes serves as the perfect home studio.

The famed secluded ranch is a place Ralph Molina knows inside and out. Here, American Stars And Bars was captured in a living room. Here, inspired by an idea for an alternate universe and the musical musings of Crazy Horse, Greendale was born. And here, just recently, Chrome Dreams II came to life. It’s not just Young’s home, it’s his source of inspiration, his musical master key, fostering an intimate, electric, improv spirit, a place to let the analog tape just roll. Here, the ghost of longtime Young/Horse producer and collaborator David Briggs, a driving force behind the band’s signature live analog sound, still acts as an invisible guiding hand.

“That’s the way we play and how we record, how Neil loves to do it, live,” Molina says. “When you record live you get that live feel, that magic. Studios with the glass and someone saying, ’Okay, you ready? Take one.’ No, that’s not us. Neil tells the guy, ’Make sure you keep that tape rolling always.’ Because sometimes you go in and you start jamming and this great thing happens and Neil goes, ’I hope you got that.’ And the guy goes, ’Well, I don’t have the tape rolling’ — he’s gone. Neil learned that years ago.”

So did legendary producer Elliot Mazer, who was booted from one of those early sessions. “We were on the ranch recording and something great happened, something magical, and Neil wanted to hear it and Eliot didn’t have the tape rolling — and he was gone. And ever since then, you make sure that tape’s rolling. We start playing, push the start button!”

When it rolls, Molina leans back, takes deep breaths and tries to relax and lock into a solid snare-and-kick groove, keeping his eyes and ears on Young at all times. “We don’t play a song ten, fifteen, even five times,” he says. “A lot of times we’ll get it on the first or second take. Sometimes if there’s a mistake, it’s like a good mistake. Neil could put on a guitar and something happened that he didn’t mean to play but it was great, or I’ll do a fill and maybe put in an extra beat, but it fits.”

But crash-course creativity isn’t always easy. “Since we don’t know the songs and sometimes Neil’s really intense, and we’ll get three-quarters of the way through the song and no one knows if he’s going to go into a verse or do a longer solo, it’s very frustrating. I’ll have to say, ’Neil, we’ve played the song once!’ But he wants to get that magic, and I agree with him. If you play a song four, five, six times, then when you start playing you’re playing a part; you’re not playing from your heart. It’s so mechanical-sounding. We’re not The Archies. That’s what’s important to Neil, the feel, right off that bat.”

Still, sometimes the stress of getting it right, coupled with Young’s intensity, boils over. “It’s like you feel you can’t make a mistake. He can make all the mistakes!” Molina says. “You’re always afraid not to make a mistake and that’s a drag because then you just can’t relax and just play and be yourself. But when you write a song you hear things, and you’re trying to get what you hear on the tape and I respect that.”

Though he gingerly steps around the subject, it would be understandable if Molina feared getting the axe — footage of Young reveals he can swing from sweet to relentless in a second. His dominating nature, insistence on control, and penchant for tossing players aside are legendary — with drummer Kenny Buttrey recounting in Young’s biography, Shakey, how the songwriter’s merciless drive led him to play so hard he bled on the snare before getting fired. After all these years, Molina knows well what he’s in for. But when Young dishes it out, Molina just gives it right back. “We’ll start playing and then we’ll stop and he’ll tell me, ’Try this kick drum thing.’ So I kick my cymbals down, I get pissed, but it’s always been like that. People say, ’How can you talk to Neil like that?’ And I say, ’What do you mean, how can I talk to Neil like that?’ It’s weird, he’ll say, ’Try this on the kick drum.’ And I do it my way in the end anyway, and it comes out right. I just tell him, ’Just let me play the drums, you know. You play guitar.’ It’s sort of a brother thing with him and I.”

Charlie Watts Meets Meg White

“Ralph’s steady as a rock. I love playing with Ralph.” — Neil Young from Year Of The Horse

Molina remembers exactly where he was when the phone rang this time. He was in Pismo Beach when Young spontaneously asked him to dinner. Molina said the two should jam, just for fun. Young nodded. Molina went back to playing with Billy Talbot and George Whitsell, and going through some old Danny Whitten-era tapes, looking for material for a possible Crazy Horse archival (maybe mixed with new material) release. As if on cue, a week later the phone rang again. Young already had a full album in mind, a follow-up to the never-released Chrome Dreams (which the drummer jokes he just managed to wrangle a bootleg of). And just like that, everything else went on pause.

Though it had been two years since they last played together, back up at the ranch, once Young strapped on his guitar, it only took a few moments for that old spark to ignite — proving that the magic, intangible chemistry that keeps Molina and Young in perfect synch is still very much alive.

“He looks at me when we we’re recording the CD and he goes, ’You know, you and I are like the White Stripes.’ And I said, ’Yeah, I know. I said that to you a year ago!’ I told him, I said, ’I’d love to just jam with you before anything happens just to get together.’ I always bring that up. Sometimes he thinks I’m kidding but I’m not,” Molina says. “Anyway — you heard it here first, White Stripes!”

It’s not a bad comparison — Molina, like Meg White, has been chided by holier-than-thou drummers who worship at the altar of speed, showy fills, and blazing technical chops. Both players have been derided for their stripped-down bass and snare, and thumping, garage style. But for Molina, like White, the magic is in the energy, the emotion, the groove. Simple, solid, driving — Molina’s rhythms work perfectly as a launch pad for Young’s intense, explosive, rip-roaring guitar antics and note-bending acrobatics.

“I’m not a studio guy who plays like a machine,” Molina says. “But I think I’ve gotten better, we all have. I listen to these old tapes, Neil’s voice is really high because he’s younger. I can do fills now! Back then I kept more of a steady thing happening. Now when I listen to other drummers, I think, ’Shit, I could do that!’”

But that doesn’t mean he does. Because for many Young songs, it simply wouldn’t fit. “Neil likes a lot of space in his music. He’ll go up to a bass player or anybody and go, ’Give me space,’ while he’s playing on stage. He likes this big air thing — that’s what he loves about me and Frank and Billy and Ben and the other people he plays with — and if you don’t, then see you later!

“But to this day I still get intimidated,” Molina adds. “I don’t know why; it’s my mind. Neil is very intense and Graham Nash and all these people that play with him say the same thing. But you know, that’s why Neil is Neil and that’s why he’s so great.”