Neil Young: Ranking The Best Versions of “Cowgirl in the Sand”

by Peter Wendel
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NeilYoungCowgirlintheSand SongMango.comThe expansive improvisational jams in “Cowgirl In The Sand” will take you places you never knew existed – transporting you to dreamscape destinations on the wings of Neil Young’s manic lead guitar.

The structure of “Cowgirl In The Sand” – short, almost mournful, vocal passages punctuated with explorative distortion-packed jams – would become a defining trademark of Mr. Young’s extraordinary and lasting career.

Noted music author Nigel Williamson says this about “Cowgirl,” it contains “some of the most powerful and untamed lead guitar playing ever recorded.” This is raw, out-of-body abandon at its very best.

Neil in '69 [photo: Henry Diltz]

Neil in ’69 [photo: Henry Diltz]

Neil’s heavily distorted, chaotic guitar style would give rise to “grunge” in the mid-’80s – a new sound embraced by bands like Nirvana, Alice In Chains and Stone Temple Pilots. For his enormous foundational contribution, Neil earned the title, Godfather of Grunge. (Don’t forget to kiss the ring.)

Rock critic Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone refers to “Cowgirl In The Sand” and “Down by the River” as the “key tracks” on the platinum-certified album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), describing them as “long, violent guitar jams, rambling over the nine-minute mark with no trace of virtuosity at all, just staccato guitar blasts sounding as though Young is parachuting down into the middle of the Hatfield-McCoy feud.”

In a massive burst of creative energy, Neil wrote “Cowgirl In The Sand” – as well as “Down By The River” and “Cinnamon Girl” – in one day while suffering from the flu and a 103-degree temperature. Not too shabby for a day’s work. He should get sick more often.

THE MEANING

NeilYoungEverybodyKnowsMain SongMango.comAlthough the meaning of “Cowgirl In The Sand” isn’t easily accessible, the lyrics seem to be addressed to a woman, who is old enough to marry (i.e., to change your name) but may choose sexual freedom and promiscuity over monogamy and marriage (i.e., When so many love you, is it the same?). Author David Downing suggests that central question – is it the same? – “reflects ambiguity as to whether increased sexual freedom is a blessing or whether it is a curse.”

Could it be Neil is making a statement on the “sexual awakening” of the late-’60s?

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

Another interesting interpretation is more autobiographical – perhaps tying into Neil’s departure from Buffalo Springfield in May of 1968 (see full song lyrics at bottom). From the Wikipedia entry on “Cowgirl In The Sand”:

BuffaloSpringfieldAuthor Ken Bielen suggests an interpretation of the lyrics, in which Young is singing about himself. The sand in the title could be a reference to young people coming to California, which has many beaches. The woman in the first verse could be a veiled reference to Young, since Young moved from Canada to California. Lines such as “Old enough now to change your name” and “Has your band begun to rust” could be references to Young’s departure from the band Buffalo Springfield. The line “When so many love you, is it the same?” could be a reflection of Young’s own ambivalence towards fame, and… “it’s the woman in you that makes you want to play this game”, could be a reference to Young believing that his own feminine side is causing him to seek fame despite the harassment that fame attracts.

Without further ado, here are the finest versions of Neil’s masterpiece – starting at the top of the heap.

RANKING: 1st

LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
March 1970 (recorded)

The complete package! This one will take you places you never knew existed. It’s 14-plus minutes of the grittiest, grungiest, gale-force jamming you’ll ever hear. Neil and guitarist Danny Whitten (of Crazy Horse) trade mighty licks on their way to burning the Fillmore to the (fucking) ground. The vocals are right on, but it’s the expansive dreamscape jams that make this one so very special. Live At The Fillmore East is compiled from the tour supporting Neil’s second studio album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969). Sadly, it would be the last tour to feature Whitten on guitar. He would die of a heroin overdose in November of 1972. Gone, gone, the damage done…

RANKING: 2nd

LIVE AT MASSEY HALL 1971
Neil Young
February 19, 1971 (recorded)

Stripped down to the core – no props or pomp just a man and his acoustic guitar. This one has a haunting intimacy to it, like you and Neil are the last two people on the planet (if you can ignore the brief periods of applause). Granted, the acoustic performances don’t have the rawness and abandon that the electric versions have, but they more than make up for it with the simmering strain of Neil’s stark vocals – and nobody can play acoustic guitar like him. The emotion that Young is able to draw from his guitar is riveting, and there’s always a little extra magic in his music when he plays Massey Hall (in his Canadian homeland).

RANKING: 3rd

EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
January & March 1969 (recorded)

The definitive version – a 10-minute, in-studio masterpiece with all the raging improv energy of a concert performance. Top-shelf, all-around vocal effort from Neil and Crazy Horse-backers Whitten, Talbot and Molina. This is where grunge began.

RANKING: 4th

4-WAY STREET
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
June 2-July 5, 1970 (recorded)

Acoustic perfection! Flawless execution both instrumentally and vocally. Can I see your sweet, sweet smile? The only problem with this one is it’s too short, clocking in at just under 4 minutes. The absence of an expansive jam leaves me wanting.

RANKING: 5th

ROAD ROCK VOL. 1
Neil Young
September 25, 2000 (recorded)

The Godfather of Grunge gets busy! Red-hot, 18-minute version that gets deep down in the groove.

“Cowgirl In The Sand”
Neil Young

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

Hello ruby in the dust
Has your band begun to rust?
After all the sin we’ve had
I was hopin’ that we’d turn back

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

Hello woman of my dreams
This is not the way it seems
Purple words on a gray background
To be a woman and to be turned down

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

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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