Cinnamon Girl (1969)

Neil Young

Written by Neil Young
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Neil Young got a little lost. It all started after Buffalo Springfield disintegrated and continued up until Neil lassoed the Rockets from orbit and turned them into the iconic band, Crazy Horse.

In 1968, his first solo album, self-titled, produced a few notable tunes like “The Loner,” the weird and epic “Last Trip to Tulsa,” the overlooked love cry, “If I Could Have Her Tonight” and two short instrumentals. Otherwise Neil Young was flat, ponderous, poorly produced and generally self-indulgent.

Yet within it were the seeds of his monumental second solo album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (May 1969). 

The album’s opening song, “Cinnamon Girl” breaks out of the gate like a war horse trampling the high grass of the feverish doldrums Neil had been in. It is by far his most pop-oriented song – musically accessible, heavy on the dance groove, and as is habitually his case, impenetrable lyrically, although filled with allusions that manage to stir deep universal emotions.

A dreamer of pictures 

Cinnamon Girl Crazy Horse Band

Neil Young (center) and Crazy Horse

The crunchy, garageband, proto-grunge guitars and the crisp, clean production engineered by David Briggs raise “Cinnamon Girl” out of simple Top-40 territory into the immortal realm of the Top-100 rock-n-roll classics of all time.

The crowded guitar-jam coda that buttons up the song is worth listening to a thousand times over. If you can’t play like Hendrix, then aim to play like Neil Young and Danny Whitten on this cut.

[An aside on producer Briggs: he picked Young up hitchhiking in 1968 in California and their friendship/partnership was formed. Briggs is from Douglas, WY, and is the inspiration for Neil’s “The Emperor of Wyoming,” an easy-going western-flavored tune that captures the open skies and open roads of the ’60s to a T.]

Oddly enough, because Young is so often thought of as “deep” and “cutting edge,” the pop sensibility of “Cinnamon Girl” foils its appeal for many music critics. We mortals are left with a handful of puny answers as to who was/is the Cinnamon Girl.

Cinnamon GirlThe romantics among us know that she is the ideal, the woman of fiction, fancy and reality who looms larger than life. She is Helen of Troy, Guinevere, Isolde, Daisy Fay, Rose of the Titanic; she’s the girl next door; she’s the woman of every man’s dream.

This image – this mirage – is introduced by a closely played guitar duet accompanied by Ralph Molina’s violent, marching backbeat and slightly off-the-beat hand clapping rhythms. Crazy Horse-man Billy Talbot provides a palpitating bass line that is like a lover’s wildly beating heart throughout the whole arrangement. The rawness of the music is in direct opposition to Neil’s first album, which was polished to a nub. The rawness is also in juxtaposition with the off-kilter tenderness of the lyrics.

I wanna live
with a cinnamon girl
I could be happy
the rest of my life
With a cinnamon girl

A dreamer of pictures
I run in the night
You see us together
chasing the moonlight
My cinnamon girl

Besides battling it out riff for riff in their guitar playing, Young and Whitten sing a stirring two-part harmony, Whitten on the high side, Young on the low. The result is, like all great two-parters – the Everly Brothers, The Beatles, David Crosby and Graham Nash’s work together – the singers sound like one voice.

Cinnamon Girl Neil Young smileThe release in the middle of “Cinnamon Girl” is an odd call for money to “Pa,” the singer claiming he’s going to “make it somehow.” Whether he means as a rock star or make it with the girl of his dreams is a question that will always hang fire. The musical and lyrical change of view leads immediately to a unique guitar solo.

While Whiten’s rhythm guitar rumbles, erupts and generally abuses tender sensibilities, Neil repeatedly plays one single note on lead. The solo ends with a bracing splash of feedback from Whitten’s guitar. The coda (mentioned above) brings a curious erasure of any possible resolution to the song.

The listener is left with the distinct impression that it is the song’s narrator who is actually chasing his Cinnamon Girl across the moonlight. The odds feel high that he will never catch her.

  • When Neil Young was a guest on Conan O’Brien’s show, the late-night TV host said that the guitars he keeps in his dressing room were all out of tune. Neil said he had tuned them to “D modal.” When Conan said they were unplayable, Neil said, “Yeah, but it makes ‘Cinnamon Girl’ real easy to play.”
  • Neil Young calls Crazy Horse “The American Rolling Stones.”

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  • Change Your MindThe song is a challenge. It is just the opening 15 minutes of a lifelong internal dialog.