There’s bands, there’s groups, there’s supergroups, and then there’s legends. Somewhere near the top you’ll find an unlikely foursome, a quartet of musicians and songwriters who came together at the intersection of harmony and society to become the voice of a generation.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young — First it’s very appropriate that the “and Young” is separated from the trio, like an afterthought, an add-on. Neil Young is without a doubt a superstar in his own right, but as a solid corner of the quartet he never seemed to fully embrace.
Before hooking up to become one of the generation’s greatest voices each member had been part of musical success with other well known groups of the time. David Crosby from The Byrds, Stephen Stills and Neil Young from Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash from The Hollies.
After Crosby was forced from The Byrds in late ’67 and Springfield disintegrated in early 1968, Crosby and Stills were unemployed and spending time together making music in Florida. They were cruising the Keys with Jefferson Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner and together they wrote what would become one of their great songs, Wooden Ships.
At the same time Graham Nash was suffering creative frustration with The Hollies and left the band to join forces with Crosby and Stills, forming the first version of the supergroup—Crosby, Stills and Nash. With David Geffen signed on as part of the management team a deal was struck with Atlantic Records and off to the studio they went. The result was their 1969 self-titled album, Crosby, Stills & Nash. Two tracks went on to top-40 success. Marrakesh Express and Suite: Judy Blue Eyes reaching 28 and 21 respectively.
With the success of the album, Atlantic was pushing the trio to tour. To round out the sound prior to touring the trio became a tenuous quartet with the addition of Neil Young. Young’s contract allowed him to parallel the group with his own Crazy Horse band and from the beginning he maintained his independence from the others. On stage he was a solid piece of the music but away from the microphone Neil Young did what Neil Young did. He carved his own path.
Their first gig as CSNY was on Aug. 17, 1969 at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago with Joni Mitchell as their opening act. They mentioned they were going to some place called Woodstock the next day, but they had no idea where that was. They began their second set that night with the same line they uttered at Woodstock, “This is only the second time we’ve performed in front of people. We’re scared shitless.” They opened with Suite: Judy Blue Eyes before launching into a harmony-drenched version of The Beatles‘ “Blackbird“.
Their second show was a baptism by fire at the Woodstock Festival. CSNY’s recording of the Joni Mitchell song memorializing Woodstock would later become a hit and the recording most associated with the festival.
By contrast, little mention is made of the group’s following appearance at the violence-plagued Altamont Free Concert, with CSNY having escaped mostly unscathed from the fallout of the show. The group’s Altamont performance was not included in the subsequent film Gimme Shelter, at the band’s request.
Riding high waves of success, their first album with Young, Déjà Vu, arrived in stores in March 1970, topping the charts and generating three hit singles. Déjà Vu was also the first release on the Atlantic Records SD-7200 “superstar” line, created by the label for its highest-profile artists; the subsequent solo albums by Crosby, Stills, and Nash would also be the next releases in this series.
Young and Crosby were staying at a house near San Francisco when reports of the Kent State shootings arrived, inspiring Young to write his protest classic Ohio, recorded and rush-released weeks later and providing another Top 20 hit for the group.
However, the deliberately tenuous nature of the partnership was strained by its success, and the foursome imploded after their tour in the summer of 1970. Concert recordings from that tour would end up on another chart-topper, the 1971 double-vinyl Four Way Street, but the group could never recapture the magic of past years.
After the quick flash of success in the early 70s, each member would produce their own solo effort of varying success. Still’s self-titled album rose to 3rd in the top-100 charts. Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name had moderate success peaking at#12, and Nash’s Songs for Beginners reached #15.
Neil Young went on to a successful launch of his own solo effort, After the Gold Rush, with an augmented Crazy Horse. The album capped out at #8 with two singles, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and When_You_Dance_I_Can_Really_Love, reaching 33 and 93.
The next few years saw the harmony of Woodstock collapse into egos adrift, rampant drug use, and waning success. Young distanced himself more and more from the other three and in 1976 veered completely away from the collaboration. Young sent an infamous telegram to Stephen Stills that read: Dear Stephen, funny how things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil.
The CSN trio went back in the studio in 1977 and released CSN to high demand and chart success, climbing to #2. It was their first release as a trio since Young’s departure. The album had the unfortunate timing of releasing concurrent to Fleetwood Mac‘s Rumours or it would surely have easily hit the #1 slot.
Over the next few years between Crosby’s drug use and the trio’s political activism, music seemed to take a sideline. Still, they would all produce individual releases and together put out five more albums:
- Daylight Again (1982) —Crosby, Stills, Nash
- American Dream (1988) —Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young
- Live It Up (1990) —Crosby, Stills, Nash
- After the Storm (1994) —Crosby, Stills, Nash
- Looking Forward (1999) —Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young
Following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center the quartet set their differences aside and starting discussing a reunion tour.
[box] “We wanted to tour anyway, but Neil felt, and I think he may be right, that people really wanted to see us. The country went into shock for a little while, just because we really couldn’t accept that much pain all at one time. Then there’s a period of mourning, when you really do accept what the loss was and how bad it was. Then there’s a period when people really want to hold out their hands to each other and feel unity within their community and family and country with their peers. We have always felt that music is a healing thing. We all felt that we had entered that time and this would be a positive force. And, you know, that’s who we are and what we do.” — David Crosby[/box]
So in 2002 the foursome hit the road for their first tour together since the early 70s. The CSNY Tour of America kicked off on February 2nd at The Palace of Auburn Hills. It might have been a healing experience for fans but the reunion was a cash cow for the producers. Everyone wanted to see the foursome and hear the music that defined a generation.
CSN was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997; CSNY is the only band to have all its members inducted into the Hall twice. Crosby has also been inducted as a member of the Byrds (1991), and Stills as a member of Buffalo Springfield (1997). In 2010, Nash was inducted as a member of the Hollies. Young has been inducted for his solo work (1995) and for Buffalo Springfield (1997), but has not been inducted with CSN.
Together on stage or separately in the studio these four artists represents a unique style of music and collaboration during some troubling times. Through their individual successes and failures they have come to this point in life as nothing short of living legends. Our musical foundation is stronger for the experience.
Just a song before I go, a lesson to be learned.