Crosby Stills Nash & Young
Looking Forward in Y2K
© Debbie Kruger 1999
Graham Nash is by nature an ebullient man, but maybe this time he went too far. Such was the anticipation of the long-awaited new Crosby Stills Nash & Young album and tour that when someone passed on the old showbiz adage to break a leg, Nash broke two for good measure.
Nash is a polite Englishman with a keen sense of humour. Responding to the many get-well messages he received after a boating accident late last year, he sent thank you cards bearing a photograph of himself modelling his matching plastered legs.
He uses the words thrilling and exciting in a way that might sound hollow coming from any other musician of his vintage. But another of Nashs renowned traits, and one he shares with his band mates, is sincerity. And, back in the late 60s, a palpable intensity.
Age mitigates intensity, and the rear cover of CSNYs new album Looking Forward shows four very middle-aged, very jolly men laughing. They have plenty to laugh about. More than thirty years on from their mesmerising Woodstock debut, these musical compatriots are marvelling at their good health and good fortune, and working together again as a foursome for only one reason: because they want to.
Despite popular misconception, this is not a reunion. It is not even a reformation or a resumption a la the Eagles. CSNY never broke up, because they were never originally formed as a conventional group, using their own names because they all intended to pursue solo careers while working together. They have continued to work together, in different configurations, for the past three decades, Crosby Stills & Nash being the most visible and prolific.
Spontaneity has always been key, and when ex-Byrds member David Crosby and ex-Buffalo Springfield leader Stephen Stills got together in 1968 to make music, they were not thinking beyond a duo. Mama Cass Elliot introduced wayward Hollies member Graham Nash to them one day, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It was as a threesome that the seminal album Crosby Stills and Nash or the couch album, as it is known by fans was recorded in 1969, and it was that threesome that planned to debut at Woodstock and take on the world with their eloquent harmonies. A fourth member was never part of the plan, but by the time they got to Woodstock (as the song goes), Neil Young, Stills former Buffalo Springfield band mate, was on board.
Thirty years on, the same thing happened. CSN were happily ensconced in a Los Angeles recording studio, putting down tracks for a new trio album, when Young dropped in. Soon he was playing guitar on a number of tracks, then adding harmony vocal, then offering tracks of his own. The other three were elated that Young wanted the project to become a CSNY album, the first since 1988, and only the third studio album by all four together.
The chemistry that the original three have with Young, and their willingness to have him back in the mix at his will, goes back to his first being invited into the fold. Nash explains, In 1969 when CSN had finished the album, we knew that we would be going on the road. Stephen, as a great lead guitarist, needed someone to play off, to inspire him to play better. Neither David nor I were that person. We play good rhythm guitar but lead guitar is something different altogether. We decided that we would ask Neil to come along and join the band. At first I was a little reticent to have this happen; I thought that we had a complete band and a wonderful vocal blend.
I spent one morning at breakfast with Neil on Bleecker Street in New York City and when we were finished I was completely sold on Neil joining. He was incredibly funny and very committed to music. He wanted to be a full member of the band with equal billing. This made sense to me and so we became CSNY.
Although CSN had established a pure and distinctive sound on songs like Suite: Judy Blue Eyes and Hopelessly Hoping, they were willing to embrace the changes that Youngs voice brought to the mix. Says Nash, Neils effect on the band was immediate and very fulfilling. He adds a certain edge to the sound and, of course, hes an incredible musician. We became a better band because of the inclusion of Neil Young.
The resulting album, Déjà vu, was a landmark in contemporary popular music, but those were not happy days. Crosbys girlfriend had just been killed in a road accident, Stills had split with his Judy Blue Eyes folk singer Judy Collins and Nash was breaking up with his great love, Joni Mitchell, with whom he had shared a cosy life in their house off Laurel Canyon. (She poured her heart out after their relationship ended on her venerable Blue album.)
Thirty years on things are less turbulent. Recording Looking Forward was joyful.
Crosby, Stills and Nash have each had their fair share of savaging from the critics over the years, but Young has always been the critics darling. One of the less-than-favourable reviews of Looking Forward referred to a recent joke from television show Saturday Night Live, which called the quartet C,S,N and God-knows-Y.
But Young, midway through recording his own solo album, Silver and Gold, was so impressed with his colleagues work in the studio last year that he gladly dismantled his own record for their collective cause. CSN were recording without a record contract and financing the sessions themselves, having severed their 30-year relationship with Atlantic Records, and Young liked their independent spirit.
Along with his selection of songs, he brought to the studio his preferred method of singing harmonies air mixing as all four stood in a circle around one microphone, rather than overdubbing. The result on Looking Forward is that the harmonies have a different texture to past CSN or CSNY recordings. Neil always prefers earlier takes of songs, Nash says. He believes, as we all do, that after six or seven performances of any song you begin to perform it rather than feel it. We would rather have feeling than perfection.
Their voices have changed and deepened. Stills accepts that he cannot go back to the original key of Love the One Youre With in concert. Young says, In some cases its physically impossible to do the same keys. Well adjust. There are no qualms about this tour, which begins on January 24, playing huge stadiums around the US. It is currently Americas highest-grossing concert tour, and could wind its way across Europe and down to Australia in the latter part of 2000.
The enormous response in the States is because its 25 years since CSN have toured with Y. They are calling the tour, inevitably, CSNY2K. When recently asked what made it possible for the four of them to tour again, the self-deprecating Crosby quipped, Well, lets start with the Im awake part. Then theres the Im not dead. We really like that. Both of these make touring a possibility. Crosby detoxified from an 18-year drug and alcohol addiction in a Texan prison in 1986, only to withstand liver failure, a transplant, and another failure in the ensuing years.
Just as he thought death was finally staring him in the face four years ago, he discovered his wife was pregnant, and the son he had given up for adoption in 1962 was looking for him. That son, James Raymond, turned out to be an accomplished musician in his own right, and as soon as Crosby was on the mend, guitarist Jeff Pevar was recruited and a new group, CPR, was formed. An appropriate moniker, Crosby often remarks.
Nash, who has performed with CPR on stage, comments, Being in a different band always brings great musical experiences to be able to draw on. David being in CPR only made CSNY music stronger because David was stronger.
Stills has another explanation for why CSNY decided they were ready to tour again. We also had to wait for another presidential impeachment and an unpopular war.
While the faithful responded enthusiastically to Looking Forward, some critics compared it to Déjà vu and declared it a failure, disappointed by the less refined vocals and overwhelmingly positive lyrics. A Los Angeles Times critic wrote that the new album demonstrates anew that old hippies dont burn or fade away, they just turn insufferably preachy.
Nash is immune to such carping. Of the four, his songs have long been derided for being the most banal. Yet on Déjà vu it was his Our House and Teach Your Children that became the biggest hits, and have resonated as simple musical truths across the decades. All unplanned, of course.
When I wrote Our House and Teach Your Children I was just writing for myself, Nash says. The first song being a love song for Joni in one sense and a love story for every woman in another sense. The second song was a message for my future self should I have had any children, which of course I did. I wasnt thinking of the longevity of any of my songs, but Im extremely pleased with the lasting effect they both seem to enjoy.
He is indifferent to the critics. If I read or listened to critics of our music Id have been discouraged a long time ago. The only review I recognise is the fans leaving our concerts feeling great. As for the cavilling about the life-affirming themes on the new album, Nash remarks, You hear a lot of music these days about rage and frustration and anger, but not much about hope and love and forward motion. Thats what we want to continue to stand up for.
Young says it pertinently: What people think of us and our music is totally up to them. I dont think we could ever live up to the myth that surrounds us. So we just tried to please ourselves.
Hell has not frozen over; this is just another chapter in a long musical story. Youll remember other tours by groups that are big groups from the past that havent put out a new record, says Young. Its like, okay, fine, theyre here. Theyre good at doing what they did and they should be really good at it, theyve been doing it for a while.
To which Nash adds, We want to do what were doing, and thats a big difference, rather than do what we did.