Frank “Poncho” Sampedro :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Recent months have been good for Crazy Horse fans. First, we got Archives, Volume II, a deep dive into Neil Young’s insanely fertile mid-1970s period. The 10-disc set features a wealth of previously unheard Horse material, from a one-off 1974 session at the legendary Chess Studios to the Zuma sessions to Odeon Budokan, an incendiary live album recorded in 1976 in London and Tokyo. Then, Young unleashed Way Down In The Rust Bucket, a concert taped in Santa Cruz in 1990, when Crazy Horse rediscovered its mojo after a bumpy decade. It’s one of the band’s greatest statements, a fitting testament to its long-running partnership with Young. 

A major factor in all of this Crazy Horse archival activity is guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, who joined the band in 1973 and remained firmly in place until 2014. Poncho has been forced into retirement by arthritis in his wrists, but his indomitable spirit is forever a part of the Crazy Horse legacy. Today, he’s out in Hawaii, living the good life. 

“I still play, man, I still play,” Sampedro says. “Four times a week with a couple of guys here. Acoustic. I have a little fantasy that maybe one day I could go on an acoustic tour with Neil. But that’s a fantasy at this point.” 

Fortunately, Poncho’s memories remain, and he shared some of them with Aquarium Drunkard in the interview below. | t wilcox

Aquarium Drunkard: One of the things that we just heard for the first time on this Archives, Volume II set is “Changing Highways”, which I believe is your first recording experience with Neil. What do you remember about that session?

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: Chess Records! Yeah. I had never met Neil. Billy and Ralph told him all about me. We were jamming in Echo Park at Billy’s house, and we flew to Chicago to meet up. We went to the hotel and Ben Keith was already there. We went to Neil’s room and Neil started playing all these songs. I had my guitar, so I started trying to play along. I was just naive [laughs]. I gave Ben the guitar and I said, “Hey man, why don’t you play a couple”? He said, “No man, I think you better play!” And I said, “Well, who’s going to roll a joint? It’s me that’s gotta roll the joint!” But anyway, the bottom line was, I had no clue. No clue at all that those were the songs we were going to be recording the next day and I was supposed to be learning. Taking shorthand and paying attention. I was just going, “I don’t know if I like that one. That’s hard.” We went to Chess and it was very cool place. And you know, I was a huge Chuck Berry fan. Just to be there was like, wow, you know? [But] we didn’t do so good. 

AD:  It didn’t come together right away? 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: No. [Harvest producer] Elliot Mazer was recording us and he was, you know… David Briggs was definitely our leader and he knew how to get to us and get things out of us. Elliot was more like a teacher. [He] was technically oriented and none of us had those kinds of chops. Even Neil. Neil knows his songs because he wrote them.

AD: Have you gone and listened back to that “Changing Highways” that just came out?

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: No, but here’s the story. When it finally got recorded and put on a record [in 1996], we were sitting in a studio one day after David passed. I just played “Changing Highways.” Neil said, “Wow, that was pretty cool, Ponch.” I said, “Well, you know, ever since that session, I really wanted to record it with you again and I practiced it all these years. Just in case you ever pulled it out, I’d be ready.” He said, “Well, it sounded so good. We should do it.” 

The other one we did at Chess was “Vacancy.” When I heard Ben and those Nashville cats do it [on the recording that appeared on Homegrown], it kind of tickled me because they did a good job and I like it. I love the song. But our version was so much more out of control and just bashing and crazy. All those little turnarounds at the end of the verses just kind of got lost in ours because it was just distortion and craziness going on.

AD: Next, you guys recorded Zuma. What were those sessions like? 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: We were jamming at Billy’s house in Echo Park and Neil came down there and said that he wanted to start recording at Briggs’ house in Zuma. But that’s one of the crazy things that everybody almost always says: [that] I was in the band since 1975. That’s bullshit. We started playing there and recording there in ’73. Billy, during the midst of it, was trying to break up a dogfight on the beach and his hand was bitten so he couldn’t play. So, we waited almost like 6, 7, 8, 9 months for him to heal and then we started recording again. We still jammed a bit; we did what we could just to know each other better. It was a different Crazy Horse. It was like the rebirth of a band. We all just learned a lot about each other and just hung out and had a lot of fun really.

AD: That must’ve been when you got to really know Neil. What were your impressions of him at first? He was definitely a big rock star at that point. 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: Yeah, yeah. I’d played along to his records. But our first real night out…You know, it’s funny. I can’t remember whose car we got, if it was mine or his, but anyways we got in the car went to the closest bar by my house. It was really a straight place. We went in and had a drink and we started talking shit. Then we drove up the coast, went into the next bar. And we went into every bar up the coast. By the time we got to this place called The Crazy Horse Saloon, we were toasted. If I remember right, he was dancing with people. I was just like, “Wow. I didn’t know he danced.” Because I don’t dance. He had a lot of fun that night. We got to know each other.

AD: What was the recording setup at Briggs’ house? 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: It was really in like a den or a family room. That was the playing room. It was off to one side of the house. We didn’t really see outside. We couldn’t really see what was going on in the so-called control room. That was like the dining room or something like that where they were all having fun, but we didn’t see them. There were no windows to the control room. We just played and played and played and were having a pretty good time just goofing off. Then one day, Neil comes in and goes, “Hey, man. I just stepped outside. Check this out. There’s a van parked in the driveway. This guy listening to us.” “No shit!” And he goes, “Yeah man, check it out”—and it was Dylan. 

Dylan lived around the corner. He heard the band playing. I guess he found out it was Neil, so he was sitting down listening to us. So that happened a couple of times and then he came in and played with us one day. We screwed up all his songs. [Laughs]

You know, we had a good time. He was really a regular guy. I wish we would have got “Tangled Up In Blue” because I was having a blast playing that song. But somebody kept missing one of the changes. Neil was killin’ it with the lead guitar. We all had big smiles on our faces. We just weren’t that accomplished of a band to pick up a song in three minutes. 

AD: You recorded “Cortez The Killer” during those sessions—one of the ultimate Crazy Horse epics. 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: Both of my parents are from Spain. I grew up wanting to be a bull fighter. My home wasn’t a typical American home. I lived in Mexico for over three years. When we recorded “Cortez,” I had just smoked some angel dust when Neil walked out into Briggs’ backyard and said, “Come on, Poncho, I got this song. It’s easy to play—just three chords. Let’s record it now.” At the time, I was a junkie and high on smack and blow, plus the angel dust. We went in, put on our guitars and just played the whole thing and that was the take. The power even went off in the control room but not in the room where we were playing. Briggs got the power back on. We listened to where it dropped out and then punched back in right in the right place. We did lose the third verse. Something about “a rocky grave.” Neil never sang it again. 

In my stoned dream, I imagined the song started on the D chord. It starts on the Em. So, Neil emphasizes the Em and I emphasize the D. But what I’m getting at is—“Cortez” lives in my hands! I’ve listened to many different versions of that song and Neil has played it with a few different configurations. None of them get it! I can play with someone who only knows a couple of chords and it sounds just like the recording from that day. I can play it over the phone to you and you will ask if that was the record! It’s just a part of me! “Cortez” lives in my hands. I’m not trying to put anyone down! It is just something I can’t understand why others don’t get it.

AD: What was David Briggs like? Even though he wasn’t a musician, I get the sense he was almost a member of Crazy Horse. 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: He was the compass, man. He gave us all our direction. He’s not just our compass. He’s a compass of rock and roll. He believed in it with all his heart. He can get us to do things just by…It wasn’t nice. He wasn’t nice and he played guitar a little bit, but he wasn’t a musician, and he wasn’t an engineer. He engineered some. He was just a guy and a motivator. Just a music motivator and he wasn’t afraid to tell any single one of us, including Neil, that we weren’t giving 100 percent. Or he’d come in and say, “Look, you guys are really playing over the top right now. Do you think you can go further? Let’s rock it hard! We’re rolling in there! Don’t stand around!”

You know, I think it really helped me. He’d come in and we could tell he was on a bummer and he’d get nose to nose with you when you’re just noodling around. “I don’t know what that last solo was, but it sounds like you’re not projecting. Not singing. You want to just record tomorrow? I don’t know what’s up. Are you into this or not?” And we would all see that going on and say, “No, no, no, no. We’ll do another one. I’ve got more than that.” And then as soon as he’d walk out of the room, we were like, “OK, goddammit. We’re going to blow your ears off.” It would pump us up in a kind of like reverse psychology way to get us to do better. It’s rock and roll, man. We’ve got to make people dance.

AD: At some point in ’75, you guys made it up to Neil’s ranch. 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: Neil said, “You know, I got to go back up to my ranch in San Francisco.” We didn’t talk about the ranch. We didn’t think about the ranch. We were just recording at the beach in Zuma, and it was wild times, and we were having fun every night. So, I was like, “Well, why should we leave here, man? It’s really cool.” I mean, there are Playboy Bunnies, Hustler Girls, and movie stars. But he said, “I got a lot of friends up there. I got a lot of people on my ranch, you know, and it’s really beautiful. I think you’ll like it.” I was reluctant in a lot of ways, but then we went up there and that became a whole ‘nother thing.

The ranch is beautiful. It’s big. And there’s nothing around. Talk about my first experience with quarantine. There was no internet then. There were no smartphones. There wasn’t even a phone where we stayed. We’d all take turns driving over to the studio and calling home or calling our friends once in a while. It was really a different experience. But all we did was play music and record. Neil kept writing songs and we kept playing and recording and there was no rhyme or reason to it at all. Nothing. And then one day Neil came and said, “Hey man. Warner Brothers just called. They said we got to turn in a record.” [Laughs] And to me, it was like, “Wow.” We didn’t have a concept. We didn’t have a goal. We didn’t have any of that. We were just playing music, you know?

AD: Once Zuma came out, you guys went on the road. We finally get to hear some of that tour on the new Odeon Budokan release. One thing that’s great about it is that the mix really allows us to hear how you and Neil really complemented each other on guitar. Rust Bucket is the same in that regard. 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: You have John Hanlon to thank for that. He came along, right around Rust Bucket and that’s when we first met him. Once Briggs was gone, he always said to me, “Poncho, this is a two-guitar band and I’m going to make sure everybody hears it.” I don’t want to name any names, but all the mixers before that had the philosophy, “People pay to hear Neil. People want to hear Neil. Don’t worry about it, Poncho, if you don’t hear yourself. It’s no big deal.” You know, Neil and I go to different places together and he can take me, or I can take him. I never really tried to push him to other places. I didn’t think, “Oh, this is a good place.” I just went with what was going on. If I saw him starting to act crazy, I would get crazy.

AD: The Budokan show has become pretty legendary over the years. 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: Billy and I both dropped acid because that night, after the show, we were flying to Copenhagen. We didn’t want to carry any drugs with us and I had these two tabs of acid. We each took one. It was so funny. We went there in the van and everything was starting to get crazy. Psychedelic patterns and shit flying around. We get out of the van and I’m walking around going, “Are you cool? You cool? You cool, man?” And everyone goes, “Yeah, man. I’m cool.” [Manager] Elliot [Roberts] and all of the Japanese promotors; everybody’s walking in with us. We step into the hall and Billy goes, “Damn, there’s lots of smoke in here!” and there was no smoke. I was seeing a yellow pattern and I was like, “Shhhh. Don’t say that. Just stick with me. Be quiet. Don’t tell anybody.” 

Well, we made it to the show. We made it to the stage. And literally, I didn’t talk to anybody all night on-stage. I kept my eyes closed most of the time. Only a couple of times I opened them. The first time was horrific. I hit my guitar strings and I saw them bounce off the floor and up to the ceiling in rainbow colors. I was just like, “Oh, shit.” I kept feeling them on my arm! The vibrations coming off the strings. This was so strange. And then finally, towards the end of the show, we ended a song and it really sounded good. I walked over to Billy and we were both smiling, getting close together. I was getting ready to say something to him, but Neil, in like three giant steps across the stage, put his head between us and said, “Man! We’re really getting psychedelic tonight!” and he took off. I didn’t say anything to him. The whole time in my head I was wondering, “Did you tell him, Billy?” I asked him after the show and no, he hadn’t told him. Neil didn’t know. Ralph didn’t know. It was just Billy and I. We did get psychedelic that night. 

AD: It’s a beautiful recording. An amazing performance. 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: I hate to tell you this, but I still haven’t listened to it because I don’t want to lose the memory. I got a good picture of all the times I took acid and I’ve often thought, “Wow. When I was in college, I should have studied on acid.” Because I remember everything really good. Check this out: After the show, they throw us in this car, and we go to the airport. It’s me and Billy and Ralph and this Japanese guy Shorty who’s driving us. The gigs were over, so the promoters were history. Neil’s manager, Elliot, he took off. He went home. We’re there by ourselves, alone. I’m still on acid. Billy’s still on acid. I look over and I see Shorty keeps handing Neil some manila envelope. He’s going like, “Here. You take it. You take it.” Neil’s saying, “No. No gifts. I don’t want anything” and he keeps handing it back.

Finally, I go over. I said, “Let me look at this thing.” I open it up. It’s all our passports and tickets. I go, “I think this is important. I’ll deal with this.” I took it. I put it under my arm. I walk in the airport. First thing I saw was like five soldiers with machine guns. I turned around and walked back out. [Laughs] But we got it together. I was in charge. I had the boarding passes. Billy came by and said, “Can you hold this bag while I go shopping.” Then Ralph gave me a bag. Everybody gave me a bag. I’m going out of my mind. I’m holding all these bags when someone goes, “Where’s our boarding passes?” I say, “I don’t know. I gave them to you. I’m holding the bags, man.” After about 15 minutes of that, I said, “Shit. Let me go look for them.” I put down all the bags and they fall out from under my arms. [Laughs] They were inside, man. All the way. I was in charge. I didn’t lose them. 

AD: Neil went off and worked with Stephen Stills for a bit after that tour—was it hard to get used to how he came and went? 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: I’ll telling you the blatant truth. Here’s the whole deal. In ’76, we were going to tour the United States and the world and every place else. We were going to do a Crazy Horse record and push both the records and da da da da, what a great thing it was all going to be, right? So, I get back to L.A. and I’m hanging out with Billy and Ralph still and we go over to Elliot’s and we play a pickup game of basketball with these people at the park. Then I got my thumb jammed. I got my thumb jammed and I went to the doctor who said, “No, it’s not broken or anything. You’ll be good.” So, I called them because the tour was supposed to start, right? I said, “Hey, Elliott, you know, I went to the doctor. I jammed my thumb and he said I should be fine by the time the tour starts.” He said, “Oh, man. Don’t you worry about nothing, Poncho. Neil’s going on the road with Stephen. Lucky you didn’t break your face. Goodbye”. 

The next day I went out and found some work. That was my attitude from then on. Never, never, never, never, ever was I going to wait for Neil. I was always going to work. I was always going to keep moving. I was always going to be progressing and do whatever I could to better myself and my family and take care of things. Like when I got the job at The Tonight Show [in the 1990s]. Everybody’s like, “What are you doing?” I made a deal before I even signed with NBC. Part of my contract was “You’re hiring Poncho Incorporated.” I could put people in my place to do my job and everything will be taken care of. When Neil calls me, I’m leaving to record and I’m leaving to go on the road. Everyone was cool, cool, cool, cool. All the way around. I made sure I could still play, and I never waited. If I didn’t have the job at The Tonight Show, my son would have never made it to college. I’m glad I took care of it. 

You don’t know what Neil’s going to do. But if you study it long term, there’s a pattern. He’s really not all over the place. He’s just not burning himself out of one specific thing, which is cool. If you accept it and you go take care of yourself, everything’s all right. But if you’re waiting for him, it’s brutal. 

AD: Around that time, you and the rest of Crazy Horse did make an album, Crazy Moon. That’s a cool record, kind of little gem for fans to discover. 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: We were doing the record with Neil at the ranch. As you can tell, there’s like six tracks where he’s on guitar. “Downhill” is still one of my favorite guitar solos. Briggs and I used to joke about it. We’d call it the great chicken fight because it goes like [chicken noises ensue]. All this shit going on. And then Neil just disappeared, and we didn’t know what was going on. But no one told us to leave, and we still worked, and we still played there. We didn’t record as much, but we used the studio and we jammed, and we hung out at the ranch and we ate there, and we stayed for months. Then all of a sudden, this guy Ranger Dave came by and said, “Neil’s coming home and we gotta clean this place up.” Then we found out that he had recorded a record with Stephen. 

So, we had half the Crazy Horse record done and we had to go out and finish it on our own. We had to find a studio, a producer and all that stuff. Elliott got us a deal with RCA. We got one hundred thousand dollars to make a record. They gave us fifty thousand up front and we got halfway through and we were in L.A. and we ran out of money. So, we call RCA and we said, “Hey man. We want the second part of our money to finish this record.” I can’t remember this guy’s name. He was an older gentleman with gray hair, and he was a very nice guy. He comes into the studio and he listens to it and he says, “Yeah, well, let me see. I have to get back to the guys at RCA and get back to you.” Then he calls us into the office. I go in there and he says, “You know, I have to tell you, Ponch. Nobody here really knew you had a record deal.” 

AD: Crazy Horse hooked back up with Neil later in ’76, though

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: We played at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A., which is like an opera house, right? Our first show. We didn’t really know the songs that well. That’s the first show that my mother came to and actually saw me play. I couldn’t even face the audience. It was a rough night and I remember meeting her after the show and believe it or not, it was like I didn’t exist. She was like, “Where is Neil? Where was he? He’s so cute, so beautiful and so wonderful. He sings. He plays, he does all this. Oh, Frankie. Where is he? Where is he?” She was 60-something years old and ready to ride up with him. 

AD: Let’s jump ahead a little to the Rust Bucket era in late 1990. Have you had a chance to check that new record out yet? 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: In the first interviews I did, I said, “I believe in my heart this is the best Crazy Horse record we ever did.” Right now, after listening to it more and more and listening to stuff we did after it, I really think it’s the best we played. Not technically but relaxed and into the groove. We rocked as hard as all of us could together as a unit. It was something that was happening. We knew all the material. There were no thoughts in our head about not executing the shows. We got to another level and Neil’s playing…wow. I just go, “Wow, man. Neil’s out there.” He wasn’t missing any notes and he wasn’t missing any place to go. He wasn’t noodling. He was driving home the point of every song. It’s amazing and it really makes me smile to listen to. It really does.

We did five sets that night. I don’t know why, but it might have had something to do with drugs. Or maybe we just didn’t know what song to play next. We had to think about it for a second. Some of the breaks are very short. But nobody cared. No one was like, “We’re stopping playing.” We were laughing and going right back out and going at it again. Everything was fine. The more I think about it, it was really just a pinnacle. We all knew each other. Everything finally came together, and we just laid it down. 

AD: You guys break out some deep cuts—“Surfer Joe and Moe The Sleaze.” I’ve always thought of that as a perfect Santa Cruz song. You have a co-write on that one, right? 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: I heard one writer refer to that song as Neil’s slap back at Warner Brothers, Mo Ostin and all this other crap. In all my memory, every time we met with Mo and Lenny [Waronker] and all the guys from Warner Brothers, it was very sweet and loving. We liked each other. There was no animosity. No one ever put Mo or Lenny down. Never. Ever. It was always beautiful. Those guys are really into what they’re doing, and they really supported us and helped us out a lot. So just to clear that up: that song has nothing to do with talking shit about them. I’m sure Neil was sorry that he ever left Warner Brothers.

[On “Surfer Joe”], I added all of the background vocals that go [Ahhhing ensues]. I started singing those and nobody could stop me. I’m not a singer really, but I can sing on stage any time without a microphone and people can hear me. I sing really loud. And then even when we’re soloing sometimes and you see Neil coming over to me, a lot of times I’ll just be humming or chanting the line that I hear in the song.  I’m like [Ohhhhing ensues] and just going along and he looks at me and his eyes go back like, “Oh shit. Ponch is in another world.” But it’s inspiration. The music inspires me. 

AD: Jumping ahead again. The Neil and Crazy Horse album Toast from around 2001 is one of the “great lost masterpieces” that fans have heard about a lot over the years…without actually hearing the album. 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: Toast is whole ‘nother story. Here we are in the Mission District in San Francisco, where we open the back door to the studio and smoke a cigarette and we watch giant rats running all over the place. They’re so evolved. Not just black and brown. They’re pintos. They’re big. The whole neighborhoods is just crazy dilapidated. Usually, Neil would call us, and he’d have songs. [This time] we got to that place and he didn’t have that many songs. He was writing. We spent a lot of days just walking around the studio and watching TV. There was really nothing to do. There was a donut shop on one corner and a Mexican place about a block away. So, we’re in that environment and we’re watching Neil sit there with his legs crossed on the floor, holding a yellow pad of paper and a pen. And that’s not just for a couple of days. That’s for a couple of months. Then out of nowhere, we start playing the songs and we’re not really getting them great.

Then all of a sudden, Elliot says he’s got this tour for us. So, we take off and we go to South America and holy shit, man. That was a blast. We’re playing giant places. One hundred and eighty thousand people or two hundred thousand. In Buenos Aires, the whole crowd got so into it [they were] doing these soccer chants of the melodies and… I’d love to hear some of those tapes. Louder than us. It was really fun. Plus, Billy’s Italian, Ralph’s Puerto Rican, both my parents are from Spain. So, we have this Latin influence in the band. We were big into salsa music. When we got back from that, we went right back into Toast. It’s funny that all the songs kind of have a little Latin feel to them. Things were different. It was like a different session from the time we got back. 

And then those sessions ended. The next thing I knew, we were up by Luke Skywalker Ranch at a studio [with Booker T & the M.G.’s]. A beautiful place. Really nice people. A gate to get in. Bedrooms for people. Fine cooked food. [In the Mission District], we’d order food that would come, but the months we were there, there were never enough forks. So, we had to share forks and it was very funky. Then we got to this other place with Booker T and everything was “Ding Ding.”

[We recorded] the same songs except “Standing in the Light of Love” and “Gateway of Love.” But instead of taking months, it took like ten days. We got all the songs done. Meeting Booker and Duck [Dunn] was just a blast you know. We were having dinner one night and I’ll never forget it. I said, “Hey, maybe I shouldn’t do this, but thanks for letting me in the M.G.’s. It’s really an honor to be in the band.” And [Booker] just calmly just looked over and said, “Did [anyone] tell him about the band dues?” 

AD: One last thing. This wasn’t with Crazy Horse, but it’s one of your greatest moments with Neil: The 1989 Saturday Night Live appearance. 

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro: Saturday Night Live gave us a week in the studio to rehearse for the show. We got together with [drummer] Steve Jordan and [bassist] Charlie Drayton and the second I met them it was like “Ta Da!” Here are my brothers. I hung out with them 24/7. I’d go for walks with Neil in the morning where we’d walk around New York for fitness and then after that, all my time was with Steve and Charlie. Steve had a cool flat with like 100 different instruments and we just hit it off really good. Holy shit, man. Steve was blowing. Shit was flying everywhere. It was just fun. 

Recently, I had to call Neil and I said, “I’ve just seen the Saturday Night Live thing again. Somebody put it up and it was the real version. It was crystal clear. The sound was good.” Like you said, I watched it and went, “Wow. We kicked ass and we were having fun, man. Neil, what’s up with that?” We never toured. We never made a record. We just did that. We did the show and we all said goodbye. Every time after that I see Steve and Charlie, we’re like brothers, but that’s it? I said, “Man, we should have played with that band. We should have done more.” He said, “Well, you know…you’re right, Poncho.” And that was it.

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