30 Years Ago: Nicolette Larson talks Neil Young, Eddie Van Halen, and roommate Linda Ronstadt
Thirty years ago last Friday--on February 22, 1983--Nicolette Larson played the Commodore Ballroom. It wasn't a major concert event by any means, but it was definitely a potential night out for Larson fans who'd been following her career since '78, when her debut album Nicolette spawned a hit version of Neil Young's "Lotta Love".
Hardcore Young fans were already aware of Larson's singing talents through her work on his 1977 Crazy Horse album, American Stars 'n Bars, where she and her close friend Linda Ronstadt--dubbed "the Bullets"--had contributed vocals to the tracks "Old Country Waltz", "Saddle Up the Palomino", "Bite the Bullet", "Hold Back the Tears", and "Hey Babe".
Young brought Larson back a year later to sing on all but two of the tracks on his Comes a Time album, including the moving version of Ian and Sylvia's "Four Strong Winds".
Before teaming up with Neil Young, Larson had honed her vocal chops touring with Hoyt Axton and Commander Cody, and doing session work for the likes of Jesse Colin Young and Emmylou Harris.
In advance of the Vancouver show, Larson talked with me on the phone from Ronstadt's L.A. apartment, where the two had just recently become roommates. "It's kind of like a sorority house now," she said, "borrowing lipstick and makeup and sweaters. But it's great because we wear the same size clothes!"
Here's some excerpts from our chat.
Have you ever been to Vancouver before?
I lived there for a while actually, in 1974. There used to be a club called The Egress on Beatty Street, and I used to help out there. As a matter of fact it's one of the first places I ever sang. I did the worst show in the history of music, probably, when some friends of mine who were booking the club said they needed somebody to open for Eric Anderson. They said, "Oh you should do it, we've heard you sing along with the radio." I said, "You're kidding. I can't sing in front of people, I've never performed." But when they said I'd get $200 I thought, "Gee, maybe I could sing a few songs after all." It was a long time ago, but I remember the Georgia Straight being around even then.
What was it like singing backup for Hoyt Axton, and then later with the Commander Cody band?
Well, Hoyt was a tough old bird--he's a very colourful character. It was kind of the background vocalist School of Hard Knocks crash-course division, but it was a really good experience. The Commander Cody gig was a little nicer because I got to sing some lead.
Did meeting Emmylou Harris have much of an effect on you as a singer?
Yeah, because I really studied what she was doing, and Linda Ronstadt as well, just to see how they did what they were doing. I learned a lot just from watching them and listening to them, about vibrato and breathing and all those things. I started out thinking, "Okay, I'm going to sing", but I had no concept of how to do it properly. I guess it's like sports or anything--you watch the people who do it good and pick up things on how to do it better.
How did you come to meet Neil Young?
When he did American Stars 'n Bars his initial concept was to get two unknown singers and do the album with them, but he tried that and it didn't work at all. And then he decided to take the other route and get Emmylou and Linda, but Emmylou wasn't available to do it, so she and Linda recommended me.
Neil kind of functions on cosmic operations, you know, and that was cosmic enough for him. If everyone had recommended me then I was supposed to work with him. So Linda and I went up to his ranch and sang backups on that album, and then when he did Comes a Time he called me again to come and sing on it.
Did you release your own version of "Lotta Love" before he did his?
Well, this is what happened. He recorded it first, and I heard it and said "Gee that's great. How come you don't put that song out?". And he goes, "Oh, do you want it? It's yours." That was what he said with every song of his that I admired. It was kind of like, "Don't ask me why I don't put this out. You want to put it out, you put it out."
So I recorded it, and got it all ready to put out, then at the very last minute he changed his mind on Comes a Time and put it on that. So we both released it the very same day, actually. I changed it around quite a lot from Neil's version. His is a lot different with all the "la la la la's" at the beginning.
Also on your first album is a tune called "Can't Get Away From You", and on that song's credits there's a question mark where the lead guitarist's name should be. Who was that mystery player?
Eddie Van Halen. He didn't want his name used because they were Van Halen and that's all there was to it. That was when they were just starting, and they were very much into being just Van Halen and nothing else.
Sadly, Larson passed away in L.A. on December 16, 1997, as a result of complications arising from cerebral edema triggered by liver failure. She was only 45. A tribute concert for her two months later featured performances by Ronstadt, Harris, Dan Fogelberg, Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffet, Carole King, Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.