With the refrain of "I shot my baby - down by the river," this song gets your attention. In a 1970 interview with Fusion, Neil Young cleared it up: "There's no real murder in it. It's about blowing your thing with a chick. See, now in the beginning, it's 'I'll be on your side, you be on mine.' It could be anything. Then the chick thing comes in. Then at the end it's a whole other thing. It's a plea... a desperation cry."
Fans have come up with many interpretations of the song, including the inevitable suggestions of drug references. Here's one we got from Dean in Alabama:
On the surface this song appears to be about a mad psychopath who shot his love and suffers regrets. However, if the love is seen as a metaphor for some addictive drug, (or anything someone might obsess about), then the song is about banishing this addiction. The first verse is about the acceptance of the addiction; that is why there is no reason to hide. But the chorus brings in the contention; even though she could take him over the rainbow, he shot her: He quit using. The second verse is a lamentation to his addiction and a justification for quitting the drug. The last verse is the same as the first verse because no addiction is ever completely banished. The chorus is repeated again to show that he must banish this addiction every day. Each day he has to shoot his baby again. What happened down by the river? He realized his addiction and began the struggle to stop. Who? Anyone, me, maybe you...
In the liner notes to Young's 1977 Greatest Hits album Decade
, he explained that he wrote this song as well as "Cinnamon Girl
" and "Cowgirl In The Sand" in one day while sick with a fever.
Young recorded Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with his band, Crazy Horse. Soon after the album was released, he was asked to join Crosby, Stills & Nash, and he spent the next year dividing his time between that group and Crazy Horse.
Neil elaborated the song during a lengthy introduction before a September 27th life performance in New Orleans: "I'd like to sing you a song about a guy who had a lot of trouble controlling himself," Young began. "He let the dark side side come thru a little too bright." The explanation goes on the describe the murder, the killer's arrest and, finally, the guilt he feels as he realized what he's done."
Crazy Horse evolved from the folk-rock band The Rockets, comprised of Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, and Raplh Molina, plus Bobby Notkoff and George and Leon Whitsell. The Rockets used to do long instrumentals, but "Down By The River" was the first time they did one with Young. "We were playing the song and it opened up into this long jam," bassist Billy Talbot recalled to Uncut magazine in 2021. "The three of us were used to doing that and Neil just stayed there with us."
Neil Young and Crazy Horse tried to lay down "Cinnamon Girl" and "Down By The River" the same day: "Cinnamon Girl" came easily but they couldn't crack "Down By The River." "We wondered how to play it, tried it a few times, but it wasn't working," Talbot recalled to Uncut. "We went home and Ralph and I talked about it and we thought it should be played more in half time instead of double time. That decision went into shaping the song. That stretched it and gave it space to breathe."
He added: "Ralph and I had only been playing bass and drums for a year, so we had this one beat that was a bit advanced for us and we decided to use that one - it worked! It was the first time the four of us ever did that, and I guess we did that for another 50 years on a bunch of songs! It's a fun song to play for anybody, but nobody plays it's like Neil Young and Crazy Horse."