In all the ensuing excitement, we forgot to mark the 30th anniversary of the Woodstock festival's most popular attraction. No, not the Port-O-Sans -- I'm talking about Crosby, Stills and Nash! Or, as its lazier followers prefer to call the band, CS&N. Or as they're sporadically known when Neil "Sonic Youth loves me" Young re-enlists for the odd mortgage-paying tour, CSN and sometimes Y.
CS&N marked the big 3-0 late last year with the release of the lackluster Looking Forward, featuring several convoluted contributions from Y, making it only the third studio effort with ol' Neil in as many decades. Like Paul's grandfather in A Hard Day's Night, Young is a "king mixer," the snake in their midst, the loner who manages to get everyone bickering because group unity goes against his granola. For every aborted CSN & sometimes Y album attempt, there were at least three solo albums waiting in the wings to carve up the outtakes, a considerable number when you add it up. While you're taking off your shoes to count the spoils of war, consider the 1992 CS&N boxed set, which distinguished itself by being the first four-CD group retrospective consisting of more than two and a half CDs worth of solo material! That's like the Beatles putting out a boxed set filled with selections from Goodnight Vienna and Ram!
Therein lies the secret of the band's longevity -- do everything apart. Commending the group for hanging together so long is like congratulating a couple for staying married for 30 years when they've lived on two separate continents the entire time! And still they bicker! But it's always about the music, man. And yes, occasionally, chicks. At least one CSN & sometimes Y album (the follow-up to Deja Vu) was canceled because English gentleman Graham Nash tried to "Change Partners" with Rita Coolidge while she was still Stills'. In its place we got two Stephen Stills albums, two Manassas albums, one Nash and David Crosby together, one Crosby alone, one Nash alone, a live album, a greatest hits and Lord knows how many Neil Young records. But you've gotta break a lot of egos to build one supergroup. So sit back, rewind back 4+32 years ago and see how much of an achievement it is just getting these guys in the same photo. What have you got to lose?
So You Wanna Be an Ex-Byrd?
To understand the pecking order in CS&N, you gotta understand the dynamics from the beginning. According to a recent Mojo article (in which not one pre-1977 photo was dispatched), Stills named Buffalo Springfield the best of the three pre-CS&N aggregations, Crosby and Nash said it was the Byrds and no one said anything about the Hollies that wasn't condescending. Of the three earlier groups, the Byrds tower in stature, as arguably the most influential band of the '60s. They combined Dylan's smarts with Beatles instrumentation and harmonies, inspiring Dylan to go electric and the Beatles to go folk. Roger McGuinn, an even bigger egomaniac than CS&N combined, made sure early on that the Byrds' album credits noted his role as "guitar and leader."
After Gene Clark left the group in 1966, Crosby rose to second in command. Yet he ran afoul of the control freak in granny glasses when he made political manifestoes about the FBI's role in the JFK assassination during the Byrds' set at the Monterey Pop Festival without first clearing it with the Rogemeister. The Byrds love fest continued when Crosby decided to replace the sometimes Y factor in Buffalo Springfield for their Monterey set, following Young's first spontaneous departure from the group. Young had already established his king mixer reputation by sewing the seeds of dissent in two great groups. Crosby's brief stint with Springfield, during which he didn't once mention either the FBI or JFK, infuriated McGuinn and Chris Hillman. The angry Byrdmen then refused to record Crosby's song "Triad" on their next album because they suspected it wasn't about free love but rather a sexually self-centered Crosby wanting to bed two women at the same time. Its sleazy chorus "Why don't we go on as three" actually inspired the other three Byrds to boot Crosby out of the band!
He's Too Heavy, He's No Holly!
Graham Nash was experiencing similar operating difficulties in the Hollies. The group refused to record his "Sleep Song," which, like "Triad," alluded to the fact that grown men and women like to disrobe and sleep together, a definite no-no if you're in the Hollies, a band whose credo in the bedroom was "Stop! Stop! Stop!" They also nixed "Marrakesh Express," probably because they thought it was about smuggling hashish. The pot-smoking, love-beaded Nash had little choice but to flee the lager-lovin' Hollies, who wasted no time adopting matching white suits and recording an album of Dylan covers. Those tasteless, Vegas-styled renditions gave Dylan the idea of ruining his old songs himself, something he's been doing ever since his Live at Budokan album. No doubt behind the closed doors of CS&N, Nash gets blamed for that, too.
Monkee Sí, Monkee No!
Meanwhile, back in the States, Stephen Stills was rejected as a suitable candidate for the Monkees because of his bad teeth and impending baldness (Why didn't they just let him wear a green wool hat like Mike Nesmith?). After Stills recommended his neatly groomed pal Peter Tork for the slot, he formed the highly influential Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young, who stayed long enough to break up the combo by leaving. In their brief time together, they released two group albums and a third set of solo songs masquerading as a group album -- which might actually be their best record. When Dan Fogelberg released his first (gasp!) double album in 1978, he credited Buffalo Springfield as its main inspiration. In addition to that dubious distinction, the Springfield-era Stills was the first rocker to wear a cowboy hat, paving the way for everyone from the Flying Burrito Bros. to Nashville Pussy to Texas Jewboy Kinky Friedman to don Stetsons. Unlike the Byrds and the Hollies, Springfield never reunited. Even when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, king mixer Young stayed at home, angry that the ceremonies were being televised.
Until One Day When the Limey Met the Fellows . . .
As luck would have it, these three refugees from successful rock groups decide to form the first "supergroup" (unless you constitute the marriage of rockin' Steve and Eydie as the first all-star union). Unfortunately, when they snapped the famed couch potato cover for their debut album, the boys were sitting in reverse order, ensuring that people would mistake Nash for Crosby well into the '70s.
The group named itself Crosby, Stills and Nash partly to demonstrate how each member was indispensable and partly to prevent what happened later to the Byrds -- having their talentless original drummer touring under the defunct group's moniker. In doing so, CS&N paved the way for other short-lived supergroups that, like Souther, Hillman and Furay, were composed mostly of members from bands CS&N escaped from. This concept of the supergroup would extend into other musical genres: country (Parton, Ronstadt and Harris), opera (Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras), vapid and stupid arena rock (Phantom, Rocker and Slick) and kabuki/TV variety rock (Pink Lady and Jeff).
In order for the group to secure Nash's release from his Epic Records contract with the Hollies, Atlantic Records essentially traded Richie Furay and his new group Poco, who moved on to Epic. Columbia, happy to finally be rid of the pesky Crosby, released him from his Byrds contract free of charge.
When the Egos Fly With the Dove!
The group performs its second show at muddy ol' Woodstock. When Stills admitted to being scared shitless, most people thought it was because of the size of the crowd, but more likely it was because of the late addition of Neil Young to the band at the urging of Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun. Soon after, critics able to count to four inexplicably begin calling the group the "American Beatles," which did nothing to shrink the quartet of swollen egos. Just how full of themselves they became was apparent the week after they performed at Altamont -- that other 1969 rock festival that left four people dead -- when Crosby made the statement, "If a musician were killed, real dues would have to be paid." The implication that mere mortals with no musical aptitude were expendable made even the peace-and-love crowd angry enough to almost cut his throat.
Stormers on the Rider!
Already a concert promoter's worst nightmare, the group decided to give equal time to its two anonymous sidemen. CSN&Y then became -- drum roll, please -- Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Taylor and Reeves! If that wasn't enough, each member insisted on having a different kind of international cuisine backstage. The band's rider also stipulated that each stage CSN&Y played on during its 1970 tour have a Persian carpet for the group to stand on. If the rug wasn't centered on the stage, the band invariably threw a shit fit. This troublesome personality trait led the stage crew at the Fillmore East to dub these prima donnas "the Supremes" for the duration of their engagement. Those shows provided CSN&Y with a shaky double-live album, Four Way Street. To issue this bum-notes-and-all record without any sweetening took a lot of balls -- eight of them, to be precise. It's no surprise that overdubs never happened -- when you have four guys playing guitars at the same time, no one's going to admit it's his 12-string that's outta tune. Maybe it was the rug's fault.
Long May You Run -- OUT!
The postponed CSN&Y follow-up to Deja Vu scheduled for a 1974 release and tour never materializes. The official blame for its collapse is the "More Me! More Me!" method of song selection. Crosby's autobiography corroborated this when he wrote that "an album with nothing but Stills' songs doesn't have enough Stills songs to please Stephen." Stills' method for getting his way in the studio is to wait until everyone leaves so he can do things his way! The infighting leaves Crosby and Nash to team up for a couple of years, with Nash's vocals getting gruffer while his mustache got progressively smaller.
Stills is left to make forgettable solo albums with album covers that look as if he's being de-brained by his guitar. Like an abused spouse who believes her Cro-Magnon mate can change, Stills keeps taking Young back, allowing him opportunity after opportunity to screw him over. The two team up for the Long May You Run album and tour, which doesn't run very long at all. Neil, en route to a gig, instructs his driver to turn the car in the opposite direction of the stadium and keep going. He leaves Stills a confounding note: "Funny how things that start out spontaneous end the same way. Eat a peach. Love Neil." Worse yet for group harmony was the fact that Young and Stills erased Crosby and Nash's backing vocals from the original Long May You Run tracks. That stunt was good for a two-year silent treatment.
By 1977, humbled by the lack of interest in their solo careers, CS&N (and their accountants) decided the time was right to work again. During this period, Nash awakened the rock community to the Atomic Energy Commission's habit of dumping hazardous nuclear waste off the coasts of California and Maine, as well as the danger this posed to ocean life. Eventually, most people came to see Nash as a liberal, alarmist lunatic after his incessant yapping about "mutant sponges" in the 1980 No Nukes film.
Stills Crazy After All These Beers!
Just how far removed from the new generation of rockers Stills had become is clearly illustrated when he and Bonnie Bramlett get into a barroom brawl with Elvis Costello in 1979. When Bramlett implied the English pop star stole his entire act from Americans, Costello reminded them that they were still colonists from the mother country. The few Stills punches that connected that night constitute his last contact with modern music. Later that year, Stills decided to throw one of his backstage temper tantrums while 60 Minutes' cameras were there to document the group's 10 "harmonious" years together.
A Freebaser in Dallas!
But the band had an even bigger problem than New Wave music -- Crosby's incessant freebasing! Nash, wanting to scare Crosby straight, teamed up with Stills to kick Crosby out of the band. This "tough love" tactic backfired when Atlantic Records refused to finance a Stills & Nash album sans Crosby. Vindicated, Crosby returned to the studio with his Gilbert chemistry set and proceeded to freebase throughout the entire sessions. Nice going, Nash!
Eventually, the police car in Crosby's rearview mirror was closer than it appeared, and he went directly to jail, where he would have no trouble smuggling in carbohydrates.
Meanwhile, Neil Young (whose career never needed a CSN & sometimes Y reunion to prop it up) made good on a jailhouse promise he'd made to Crosby to produce a CSN&Y reunion album if he cleaned up his act. Young, however, was already busy hoarding material for his own "comeback" effort Freedom. He eventually contributed four of the worst songs of his entire catalogue to the ill-fated American Dream album, something the other three had no trouble matching.
And We've Got to Get Ourselves Back to Warsaw!
By 1989, CS&N are desperate for relevance. Under the misguided notion they were CNN, they fly to Berlin with a camera crew to show solidarity with the reunited Germans. Once there, CS&N shoots an opportunistic video of themselves performing the deservedly obscure Nash tune "Chipping Away." At the same time, the Indigo Girls were also by the Wall, trying to appear relevant themselves by performing the hippie anthem "Get Together." The entire experience leaves Germans asking, "Why couldn't they have just sent us Madonna?"
For What It's Worth!
The group's artistic integrity continued to plummet when they allowed their songs to be used as advertising jingles. Though no one bats an eye now, at the time the practice was quite controversial, and no one was fanning the flames of rock corporate sponsorship more furiously than the king mixer himself. Young was probably more incensed at his old bandmates' flagrant disregard for their own copyrights than either MTV or the beer companies he lambasted in his "This Note's for You" song and video.
You've also gotta wonder what Joni Mitchell thought when she heard "Our House," the song Nash penned about their years together, turning up in ads for Sears, the Pacific Yellow Pages and Emerick sausages! Nash also rerecords a brief version of "Teach Your Children" for a Fruit of the Loom commercial, a move he defended proudly by saying he wore their brand of underwear.
One imagined Stills must've drunk a lot of Miller Genuine Draft when he allowed "For What It's Worth" -- his classic 1967 song about the LAPD hassling Vietnam war protesters -- to be used in a beer commercial, complete with dancing cactuses wearing cowboy hats. What was he thinking -- hooray for our side?
Madison Avenue never rushed to appropriate any David Crosby songs, even though the Red Cross could probably make good use of "Everybody's Been Burned." Unfazed, Crosby was left to cash in on his notoriety as a drug casualty by appearing regularly as a 12-step graduate on The John Larroquette Show. Couldn't he just say no?
But maybe we should cut CS&N and CSN&Y some slack -- they are, after all, the only supergroup that's made two great albums and probably the only group in which three of its members actually screwed Joni Mitchell, a claim even Led Zeppelin can't make. And name another supergroup where a member impregnated the partner of a well-known lesbian and probably wasn't even in the same state when it happened. To quote zonked-out Woodstocker John Sebastian, "That kid's gonna be pretty far out, man." Far out, fine; just pray he doesn't need a new liver for his sixth birthday. Happy 31st, and don't eat too much cake, boys!
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are scheduled to perform on Monday, February 21, at America West Arena. Showtime is 8 p.m.