Successes and Failures
Neil Young was brought into the line-up—along with a drummer (Dallas Taylor, who had already appeared on Crosby, Stills & Nash) and a bass guitarist (Greg Reeves)—ostensibly because the trio that did so well in the studio needed to beef up the live shows. The band and its sound changed as the slick harmonies favored by Stills and Nash were counterbalanced by Young’s nervous, brooding style; the smooth acoustic cords and Stills’ mellifluous organ were challenged by Young’s driving electric guitar. Young’s sullenness and versatility added depth and scope; the material and its presentation reflected the increase of talent. Appearances on stage were at first shakey, if one is to believe the bootleg ratings posted on the Internet—great shows such as were witnessed at the Woodstook festival, in the unprecedented series of sell-out concerts at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, or at the Winterland in San Francisco were followed by some less than mediocre performances, which wanted the precision needed for the complex vocal harmonies and intertwining guitar riffs. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were billed, besides The Rolling Stones, as a major attraction at the festival held at Altamont Speedway, Dec. 6, 1969.
The increase of talent, responsible for creative tension on stage, proved disruptive in most other matters. The addition of Young led to a fundamentally different conception of what Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—as opposed to Crosby, Stills & Nash—were to be all about. They were to be a fiercely democratic formation, in contrast to the aristocratic line-ups rock music was breeding. The notion that they were not really a band, that each was free to work outside the group, was a beautiful, hippie type of thing originating in their previous bad experiences in bands; yet their own share of responsibility for those bad experiences seems not to have been considered; and for all their hippie ethos, sharing turned out to be a difficult thing to do, especially in studio work. As they spent an unprecedented two months recording, the different tempers came to the fore in personal wranglings. Since each was plotting a solo career, in the weeks they spent in the studio, they rarely worked all four together; several times, the band almost broke up over the tensions building in incessant bickerings, endless retakes, hours of remixing. (Stills’ perfectionism in the studio proved especially annoying to the others.) Withholding their best songs for solo projects—while nominally a band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young published separately such extraordinary solo efforts as If I Could Only Remember My Name (Crosby), Stephen Stills and Stephen Stills 2, Songs For Beginners (Nash), and After the Gold Rush (Young)—they seemed to be four artists in search of a jumping-board. Crosby, Stills, Nash & and Young were on their celebrated “Carry On” tour when Déjà Vu came out in March 1970; but unofficially they already had broken up.
Despite these drawbacks, Déjà Vu seemingly lived up to the high-flung expectations; after a release shipment of 2 million copies, the album rose to #1 in the U.S. charts. Its significance was bolstered by inspiring guest appearances of friends like Jerry Garcia (steel guitar on “Teach Your Children”) and John Sebastian (mouth harp on “Déja Vu”). The band were playing it safe on the carefully arranged opening tunes, “Carry On” and “Teach Your Children”; tellingly, Nash’s song was fast becoming a hippie anthem ( audio clip “Teach Your Children”). Young’s presence shows, though less than wholesome in his own mediocre contributions “Helpless” and “Country Girl”; it is most forceful in David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair,” a tense and nervous song evolving on “my paranoia” that is triggered by small things “like lookin’ in my rear-view mirror and seein’ a police car.”
The tunes on Déjà Vu abound in road imagery. Nash’s “Teach Your Children” begins, “You who are on the road / must have a code that you can live by,” and seemingly follows Stills’ introductory “Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but / To carry on” ( song list and lyrics of Déjà Vu). Looking ahead, however, is not a key pose of Déjà Vu; rather, the name of the album and the title song written by David Crosby foreground a sense of reiteration, as it is prefigured by Crosby’s glimpse in the rear-view mirror and is also addressed in the invocation of what happened on “Yasgur’s farm . . . by the time we got to Woodstock” ( audio clip “Woodstock”). The backward glance is maintained also in Stills’ brooding “4 + 20,” and is brought to a pompous flare in Young’s “Country Girl.” It must have been this retrospective element that had a critic arrive at a nice piece of incidental insight when proclaiming of Déjà Vu: “one of the best albums of the Sixties, that epitomises an era of love and peace.”
If, with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, American rock music was indeed beginning to discover and test its emerging political and economic power, then Déjà Vu hardly affords sufficient evidence in support of that grand assertion. For all its successes, the album sags in moments and falls short of showcasing the members’ talents. A collection of second-best solo efforts, it lacks the unifying bind, a concerted group effort. More often than not, the political awareness displayed and the political activism propagated were blue-eyed, of a hippie naivité that borders on the inane (e.g., “Everybody I Love You”) and is noteworthy chiefly for the strong emotional connection established with the audience. With regard to Young’s contributions, it might indeed have been better, as a critic quipped from hindsight, if the band had waited with the album for a few more months—until “Ohio” and “Southern Man” were written.
Déja Vu’s soaring sales demanded that the band retract from the break-up, abandon solo aspirations, and join to go on a grand tour of the big halls. By May 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were on the road in the U.S. and heading for Europe; and in that summer, the spirit of Young’s two new songs made all the difference. The stage shows were electrifying. “Ohio,” an immediate response to the news of the killing of four students at Kent State University (May 4), recorded and released within a few weeks, parted ways with the sweet Sixties hippie naivité that had been the hallmark of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There was a new urgency in the rage over “Four dead in Ohio” ( audio clip of “Ohio”) and in the anger propelling “Southern Man” ( audio clip of “Southern Man”—the song provoked a rash response from Lynyrd Skynyrd in “Sweet Home Alabama”: “I hope Mr. Young will remember / A Southern man don’t need him around”).
Even Graham Nash became insistent in the stage shows. Pounding the piano, he pleaded in “Chicago,” a song dedicated to Mayor Dailey:
the worldWon’t you please come to Chicago,
It’s dying—if you believe in justice
It’s dying—and if you believe in freedom
It’s dying . . .
Stills also turned to pounding the piano, adding to “49 bye-byes” the “poem” “America’s Children,” a drawn-out and spiked-up (he thought) rewrite of “For What It’s Worth.” The hammered chords, the indignant rhythm and the rasping, breathless voice (“. . . you’ve got to go out in the streets, children, . . . and you’ve got to be brave . . .”), as well as the attendant incongruities inherent in seeking to salvage from the Sixties as much as was possible and rescue it over into the Seventies, had a special charm.
Four Way Street, the live double album released in 1971, comes belated, a post-mortem tribute to an outstanding series of concerts played by an extraordinary assembly of musical talent in summer 1970, just before Crosby, Still, Nash & Young disbanded once more. The title is ominous—though the band’s performance, or what comes down from it in the recordings, negotiates for once quite neatly the demands of yielding the right of way on an uncontrolled intersection, the dangerous crossing on the threshold from the Sixties to the Seventies. All four musicians (aided by replacements Calvin Samuels on bass and Johnny Barbata on drums) contributed some of their best stuff. Nash did “Teach Your Children” and “Chicago”; Stills, “Judy Blue Eyes” and “Love the One You’re With”; Young, in addition to “Ohio” and “Southern Man,” did “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” ( song list and lyrics of Four Way Street). The burst of talent to all appearances derived from the awareness and resignation coming with the knowledge that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were irrevocable, the termination sealed. The a capella encore, “Find the Cost of Freedom,” grew to an anthemic farewell.
After Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young broke up again in fall 1970, attempts at reunion were frequent, though usually short-lived and never really satisfying (especially when compared to Stills’ Manassas project or most of Neil Young’s subsequent activities). While the “Old Hippies” could still do those pretty harmonies, their songs became increasingly irrelevant, somehow out of tune with the pulse of the times, their chords and cadences but coated in bittersweet nostalga.