Shakey – A Neil Young Biography (Excerpt)

Interview with Larry Cragg excerpt from Shakey – A Neil Young Biography by Jimmy McDonough:

“I asked Young’s guitar tech Larry Cragg what the hardest tour had been. “All of ’em,” he said. “They’ve all been rough, every one of ’em made workin’ for anybody else real easy. The tours are out of the ordinary, the music, the movies, everything’s out of the ordinary. We do things differently around here. That’s just the way it is.” 

Cragg was tinkering with Young’s guitar rig, which sat in a little area to the rear of the stage. A gaggle of amps, a Magnatone, a huge transistorized Baldwin Exterminator, a Fender Reverb unit and the heart of it all: a small, weather-beaten box covered in worn-out tweed, 1959 vintage. “The Deluxe,” muttered amp tech Sal Trentino with awe.

“Neil’s got four hundred and fifty-six identical Deluxes. They sound nothing like this one.” Young runs the amp with oversized tubes, and Cragg has to keep portable fans trained on the back so it doesn’t melt down. “It really is ready to just go up in smoke, and it sounds that way flat-out, overdriven, ready to self-destruct.”

Young has a personal relationship with electricity. In Europe, where the electrical current is sixty cycles, not fifty, he can pinpoint the fluctuation by degrees. It dumbfounded Cragg. “He’ll say, ‘Larry, there’s a hundred and seventeen volts coming out of the wall, isn’t there?’ I’ll go measure it, and yeah, sure he can hear the difference.”

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Shakey’s innovations are everywhere. Intent on controlling amp volume from his guitar instead of the amp, Young had a remote device designed called the Whizzer. Guitarists marvel at the stomp box that lies onstage at Young’s feet: a byzantine gang of effects that can be utilized without any degradation to the original signal. Just constructing the box’s angular red wooden housing to Young’s extreme specifications had craftsmen pulling their hair out.

Cradled in a stand in front of the amps is the fuse for the dynamite, Young’s trademark ax Old Black, a ’53 Gold Top Les Paul some knothead daubed with black paint eons ago. Old Black’s features include a Bigsby wang bar, which pulls strings and bends notes, and a Firebird pickup so sensitive you can talk through it. It’s a demonic instrument. “Old Black doesn’t sound like any other guitar,” said Cragg, shaking his head.

For Cragg, Old Black is a nightmare. Young won’t permit the ancient frets to be changed, likes his strings old and used, and the Bigsby causes the guitar to go out of tune constantly. “At sound check, everything will work great. Neil picks up the guitar, and for some reason that’s when things go wrong.”

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One thought on “Shakey – A Neil Young Biography (Excerpt)

  1. Folks who swirl in, out, around and through the idiosyncratic phenomenon that is the life of Neil Young are like storm chasers and Neil, he’s like a hurricane riding Old Black into the sonic gales with the bypass toggle switch set on “stun”. The rest of us are storm survivors blinking rapidly amidst the ruins left in the wake of another feedback drenched solo.

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