The Ducks

Summer of Neil: Who ripped off Neil Young’s guitar?

Ben Marcus, Sentinel, March 3, 2002

During the Summer of Sam, 1977, Neil Young slouched into Santa Cruz, hooked up with old friends and cranked it up, putting on million-dollar shows at $2.50 venues, jazzing three local musicians and thousands of fans who were in on the gag.

Young rocked the house all summer long, and Santa Cruz said thank you by stealing the hood ornament from his Woody and one of his guitars.

The second theft bummed Young’s voyage, and he split town.

Who were the dingalings that drove away the Godfather of Grunge?

Jim Mazzeo knows the whole story. Now 57 and a resident of Aptos, Mazzeo became a one-man psychedelic light show in the ’60s.

He flashed strobes and projectors and melting images for Janis Joplin, Moby Grape and Buffalo Springfield.

"We all worked together on a lot of shows, and the pay was free huevos rancheros at 3 in the morning," Mazzeo recalled. "Everyone knew each other, and we were friends. It was a fun gig, and it led to better things."

Those better things were jobs with the Animals, the Beach Boys, the Mothers of Invention, the Doors and Andy Warhol.

Mazzeo graduated from special effects to road production and managing when light shows fell out of popularity, working with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and The Band.

By the early ’70s, Mazzeo was Young’s right-hand man and road manager, and they were living together in Malibu, near Trancas Canyon at Broad Beach.

"Neil had just released Zuma (1975), and I did the art on the album cover, which Rolling Stone gave an honorable mention for the Most Depraved album art," Mazzeo said.

"I heard that Blackburn, Mosley and Craviotto were playing up in Santa Cruz as the Jeff Blackburn Band, and that their guitar player, Eddie James, quit the group. I told Neil, and he said, ‘Maybe they need another guitar player.’ So we headed up to Santa Cruz for the summer."

Mazzeo and Young rented two bungalows (for $400 a month!) on the cliffs above Castle Beach, across from the museum.

"Great spot," Mazzeo said. "Just perfect. We would rehearse in the afternoon on the cliff; and after a while, we had 150 kids down on the beach listening to us play.

"Girls would wrap notes in rocks and throw them up the cliff. We bought bicycles and would cruise around town when we weren’t rehearsing or playing."

As the band catalyzed, Mazzeo was in on the hunt for a name. "We would drive around town in Neil’s Packard and call out names.

"We considered Silver Wings, Blue Moon, Buckin’ the Odds, the Blazers and Santa Cruz. We tried everything, but they all sucked.

"One day we were driving by the lagoon at Twin Lakes, and someone yelled out, ‘Ducks!’ And that was that. It was just Ducks."

Ducks became a top-secret local institution. All of their gigs were unannounced. It was Mazzeo’s job to find a club where another band was playing and pay off that band to let Ducks take the stage.

"The standard door was about $150 a night back then," Mazzeo said. "We never charged more than $2.50 to get in, which was the door at the Ark 10 years before."

As the Fifth Duck, Mazzeo was entitled to an equal share of the door, which amounted to $35 or $40 a night.

Neil brought his recording engineer, Tim Mulligan, down from the ranch and taped every Ducks performance.

"We had a secret deal where if people came up to the door and winked and said ‘Cool Duck,’ they would get in for free," Mazzeo said.

Or if you brought a duck call, you also got in for free.

"Ducks got into three or four gigs a week, and we would only play in the city limits of Santa Cruz," Mazzeo recalled. "We didn’t even play Capitola, which had seven clubs at the time.

"The Crossroads was in the Sash Mill. The Steamboat was at Harvey West Park. For a long time Neil refused to play the Catalyst because of all the fights, and it was harder to buy off the bands."

While the Ducks played a gig downtown, someone stole the swan hood ornament from Young’s Packard Woody.

"That bummed Neil out a little bit," Mazzeo said. "He loves his old cars and hates thieves.

"He loves his guitars as much as his cars, and he had some fine axes in the house, including a Martin that once belonged to Hank Williams that was worth well over $10,000.

"One day we rode our bicycles downtown and were poking around Union Grove Music when Neil saw this old, solid-body Kay electric that had been touched up really nice.

"Someone had done a loving $400 refinish job on that guitar, which was worth about $50. Neil bought it and set it up in his house as a decoy.

"It was right there on a stand in the middle of the living room, in case any one broke in and tried to steal things."

This was the Summer of Sam, the summer Elvis Costello released "My Aim Is True," and "Star Wars" was setting the world on fire.

"Neil Young made us see that movie every other day," Mazzeo said. "We watched it at least nine times that summer."

The Ducks played 18 gigs from July 15 to Sept. 2, including a benefit for the United Farm Workers at the Santa Cruz Civic, with Crosby and Nash.

The guitar was stolen in late August, and Young was gone from Santa Cruz within a couple of days.

Maybe he was planning to go up to Alberta, because the weather is good there in the fall, but the theft drove him out a little quicker.

And who, you might ask, were the dingalings that drove away the Grandfather of Grunge, who shooed the Golden Duck out of town?

Mazzeo had to face the crooks in court to reclaim his own stolen property.

"They were two motorcycle kids not even 20 years old, and they were on their own little rampage that summer," he said.

"These guys had held up the Crow’s Nest at gunpoint and forced everyone to lie on the floor. They even held up the Skyview Drive Inn.

"In between the Crow’s Nest and the Skyview, the Gang of Two broke into our bungalows and robbed us.

"Luckily, they missed Hank’s guitar in the back closet."

The thieves eventually got caught.

"The cops found all our stuff in the house of one of the girlfriends," Mazzeo said. "These guys were nuts. Who would rob the Crow’s Nest at 4 in the afternoon?"

Neil Young left Santa Cruz with a sour taste, but took away at least two good songs.

Jeff Blackburn got credit for "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" and receives a regular royalty check.

Mazzeo says that Neil wrote "Sail Away" while in Santa Cruz.

It’s easy to think of Neil up there on the cliffs above Seabright Beach watching the Wednesday night races within the beautiful bowl of the Monterey Bay, staring wistfully at the Salinas Valley beyond that, and coming up with the likes of this:

As long as we can sail away
As long as we can sail away
There’ll be wind in the canyon
Moon on the rise.
As long as we can sail away.

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