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Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Tour Is a Tribute to a Titan From Their Past

Neil Young and Crazy Horse are about halfway through their North American tour, and there’s already a strong fan consensus that this is their best run in recent memory, perhaps even going back to the Nineties grunge era they helped kickstart. A big factor at play is the addition of guitarist Micah Nelson, who has deep respect for the material and an uncanny ability to emulate the distinct styles of both Danny Whitten and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, his two main predecessors in the band.

Just two years away from his 80th birthday, Young is playing with a fierce, wild-eyed passion and mixing up the setlist practically every night. Some critics have labeled this a “greatest hits” show since nearly every song in the rotating repertoire was recorded between 1969 and 1979 (or during their early Nineties resurgence), but something more profound is happening onstage than boomer nostalgia.

This becomes apparent every night when Young addresses the crowd before “Scattered (Let’s Think About Livin’),” which is often the newest song in the set. “The songs we’re playing here tonight were all produced by this guy whose name was David Briggs,” Young told the crowd in Mansfield, Massachusetts. “A long time ago, he left us this planet and went outward. He’s still out there. When he disappeared, we played our first album. We went in there without him, and we were feeling it.”

Young met Briggs right around the time Buffalo Springfield dissolved in 1968. “I was hitchhiking,” Young told biographer Jimmy McDonough in his book Shakey. “He stopped to pick me up. I just wanted to check out the vehicle. Briggs was a unique individual. He was as crazy as I am. I called him Mr. Briggs most of the time. Monsieur Briggs.”

Young hired Monsieur Briggs to produce his 1968 self-titled debut solo LP. In the years that followed, Briggs was behind the board for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night, Zuma, American Stars ‘N Bars, Comes a Time, Rust Never Sleeps, Trans, Ragged Glory, Sleeps With Angels, and many other classics. If you love a Neil Young album other than Harvest, odds are very high it was produced by David Briggs.

“Briggs went on the trip — whatever it was,” Young told McDonough. “Stayed with it. As long as it was happening, he was there. Hard to describe, really. The thing is, he knew how much work went into this. If it was a record or a song or somethin’, he knew the effort that went into making it right and the care it took…Very few people understood that. Particularly very few people around me. He was as tenacious as I am. Maybe even more. When he got an idea in his head that somethin’ was fucked, it was fucked. He wasn’t going to change his mind.”

As Shakey reveals, Briggs was a complex guy with a titanic temper. He went through brief periods where he barely spoke with Young, but they always patched things up. He was also fearless. “David chased [Charles] Manson off the grounds of his Topanga house,” arranger David Blumberg said. “Manson wanted his truck. David told him he’d shoot him if he didn’t get lost. Manson was scared of Briggs.”

“Get on his wrong side, forget it,” Briggs friend Bobby Morris said. “He’d probably kill you before he’d fight you. Just shoot you dead.”

Briggs was just 51 when he died from lung cancer on Nov. 26, 1995. Young and Crazy Horse headed right into the studio to record Broken Arrow in the aftermath, where they poured their grief into the music. And even 29 years later, Young still looks a little pained every night onstage when he delivers “Scattered (Let’s Think About Livin’).”

“I’m a little bit high,” he sings. “I’m a little bit low/Hear your name wherever I go/I’m a little bit wrong/I’m a little bit right/Hear your name all day and night…I’m a little scattered everywhere.”

Young’s music has been more than a little scattered since Briggs left the Earth. He’s made some great records like Silver and Gold, Prairie Wind and Psychedelic Pill, but there’s also been a lot of duds that likely wouldn’t have passed the Briggs test.

When David Crosby spoke to Rolling Stone in 2016, he hinted at this without naming any names. “Too often artists just hear, ‘Oh, sweetie, you’re fantastic!’” he said. “They’re not your friends. They’re just kissing your butt. There’s a perfect example of that, a person we both know. I’m not gonna say whose name it is, but it really fits…There’s probably been three or four bad records in a row.”

We responded by telling Croz that a person used to be in Young’s life that would tell him harsh truths, but he died. “Yes!” Croz said. “That person! Oh, so you know exactly who I’m talking about!”

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We were talking about David Briggs. It’s not a name you hear too often these days unless you’re speaking to a diehard Neil Young fan. Briggs almost never gave interviews, and was content to live far outside the spotlight. But all these years later, Young is honoring him on a tour where he plays “Down by the River,” “Powderfinger,” “Cortez the Killer,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and other timeless songs he created with him. The cheers all night are partially for Briggs.

The most moving part of the show is easy to miss if you don’t listen carefully. It too comes during “Scattered,” when Young sings, “hear your name all day and and night” and “I’m a little scattered everywhere.” He adds in a pained “Dave” at the end of each line. It’s a beautifully subtle ode to a dear friend.

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