A diamond of the times, again courtesy of the dark forces of Atlantis. (Ah, but what’s troubling you is THE NATURE of this GEM.) Similar in spirit to Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills & Nash was that duo cubed: three songwriters with unique personalities. Instrumental hotshot Stephen Stills wrote complicated odes to lost love, David Crosby strummed his guitar while spinning magic and social unrest, and Graham Nash injected a dose of British charm into the whole thing. In a sense, CS&N were like The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and Jimi Hendrix swirled into one. That it came together so well so quickly is amazing: “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Marrakesh Express,” “Guinnevere,” “Wooden Ships” and “Long Time Gone” are birthed titans. The remaining tracks sometimes feel unfinished, but there are surprises among the tracks you don’t know (“49 Bye-Byes” for example prefigures Steely Dan’s first album by a few years). The arrangements are solid considering that Stills is often multitracking guitar, bass and organ, and Dallas Taylor provides as solid a backbeat as Ringo ever did. The real story, of course, is the harmonies; that three voices could mesh so well is still astounding today. They may lay things on a little thick with “Helplessly Hoping,” but used in moderation (“Wooden Ships”) the three voices tuned to one another simply soar. Though their next album, which reunited Stills and Neil Young, theoretically ups the ante, the trio’s first album remains a towering achievement. The music from the Summer of Love seldom burned brighter than it did here. It was the beginning of the end (natch), but don’t be troubled, Little Dreamer. Rest your heads on the soft, harmonious clouds of social destruction and sleep, sleep, sleep…
A heavier, earthier, more ragged record than their debut, the cause of which is called Neil Young. His voice adds a not unwelcome sourness to the choirboy harmonies of CS&N’s debut, his cranky guitar work pushes the band squarely into the rock half of the folk-rock movement. And yet Neil Young isn’t the story here, just an interesting chapter in it. Déjà Vu is one interesting chapter after another. The opening “Carry On” aligns with the multi-part “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” in form, and perfectly sums up the contrast in styles between the two records: the harmonies are lower but no less beguiling, the music more informed by Santana than Simon & Garfunkel. Turn the page and you get the first of Graham Nash’s lovely fables, “Teach Your Children,” featuring the steel guitar of Jerry Garcia. We keep our guard down for “Almost Cut My Hair” only to discover that David Crosby has much more on his mind. It’s really an anthem, marvelous because it questions its own motives for allegiance even as it praises the cause. When Neil Young’s “Helpless” rolls around, we’ve already made the acquaintance of his cantankerous electric, so this disarming country song is met with a raised eyebrow. The real Neil emerges on the opening moments of “Woodstock,” kicking up dust like a bantam rooster, and it’s here that you get an idea of what the first album might have sounded like had he been aboard. The title track weaves its familiar spell, and just as we’re convinced that the album couldn’t get any better, it does. “Our House” is simply one of the prettiest songs ever written, on a par with any of Paul McCartney’s romantic confections (“I Will,” “When I’m Sixty-Four”). To me, it’s the peak of a nearly perfect album. Things unravel slightly at the end, beginning with the Stills solo piece “4 + 20.” The three-part “Country Girl” from Neil Young is very good, but his ambitions have always been a little larger than his skill as an arranger. The closing “Everybody I Love You,” credited to Stills and Young, sounds like a holdover from Buffalo Springfield. As brilliant as it is, Déjà Vu is a balancing act. CSN&Y wasn’t a band so much as an open market where each member could shop their finest wares. Competitive natures may have spurred them on, and they clearly benefited from bartered skills, but we should have seen the planets slowly slipping from alignment. They wouldn’t approach this level of artistry again as a unit, instead splintering off into solo ventures and earlier couplings. But the serendipitous moment was captured for eternity, and Déjà Vu won’t let us forget.
Time to feed the mythology monster living in the basement of our collective conscious. CSN and if you look real closely Y play Woodstock and the world is forever changed, or so it would seem. Joni Mitchell misses the landmark event, but after talking to the group pens “Woodstock” anyway. In March 1970, the band releases the song and the world is changed again via perspective or historical revisionism or myth-making or whatever you want to call it. Joni’s sere rendition of her own song appears one month later on Ladies of the Canyon. Somehow, not unwittingly I suppose, CSN&Y become the spokespersons for a generation, in a sense appropriating Woodstock with this tune. Toss in Young’s “Helpless,” and you have a little slice of history all to yourself. Me, I never bought into the Woodstock mystique, but then I’ve never met a mob I liked.
I haven’t listened to every solo CS&N record, but this is the best of the lot so far. It opens with the most popular of the solo bits, “Love The One You’re With.” In the middle, Stills holds his own with guests Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton on guitar and Booker T. Jones on organ. It closes on a Beatle-y treat with Ringo Starr on drums. An auspicious start indeed. Solo releases from Graham Nash and David Crosby followed, each helping to bring into sharper relief the different musical personalities of CS&N’s members. Stills took most of the trio’s musical chops with him; he could have made a fine living playing keyboards and guitar and never opening his mouth. “Do For The Others” makes plain what a shame that would have been. The songs here range from thoughtful, acoustic bits sans support to electric blues-rock numbers with rock royalty. Those two sides of Stills won’t surprise anyone. Stills with strings (“We Are Not Helpless”) and Spector-al pop (“To A Flame”) might, but they’re also two of the more interesting avenues on here. Like Clapton’s coming out party, which also featured Rita Coolidge on backing vocals and Bill Halverson behind the boards, this debut had been a long time coming: Buffalo Springfield, the Bloomfield/Kooper session, CS&N. It’s tempting to speculate on whether some of these songs had been rolling around in Stills’ head for a while. “Black Queen,” rendered here in a fiery live acoustic version credited tongue-in-cheek to Jose Cuervo Gold Label tequila, was first recorded in a 1968 demo session unearthed 40 years later. Several of these tracks have since been folded into the extended CS&N canon (“Love The One You’re With” was featured on 4 Way Street), and no harm done if you want to cross that Street and come directly here, since it has the most to offer of the early CS&N solo albums (Young, of course, being another story entirely).
“I don’t know if I want White America to remember or to forget that Jesus Christ was the first non-violent revolutionary. Dig it, oh, dig it, oh, right on, dig it, yeah.” – Stephen Stills, “America’s Children.”
Kronomyth 3.0: CROSBY, STOOL, NASH AND YOUNG. This is one of the best concert recordings you’ll ever hear, in which Crosby, Nash and Young come out smelling like flowers and Stills comes out smelling like fertilizer. That last point is a shame, since Stephen Stills is far more talented (and, one would presume, less annoying) than 4 Way Street lets on. Credited to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the shows were a mix of solo performances and group performances, divided pretty evenly between the acoustic set (the first side) and the electric set (the second side). It’s an interesting approach that effectively brings the solo material (“Love The One You’re With,” “Chicago,” “Laughing,” “Southern Man,” etc.) into the CSNY fold. The record begins with a tease: a snippet of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” that, if captured in full, would represent Stills’ best performance. (You have to wonder why he didn’t block the release of this album, or at least listen to it before signing off on it.) The solo performances are often arresting and shine a charming light on their authors’ personalities: Nash comes across as gracious, Crosby as spacey and funny, Young displays a dry sense of humor. The remaining trio provides minimal accompaniment while the other is playing; Stills adds some tasteful guitar to the proceedings, Crosby and Nash provide supporting harmonies as needed. Neil Young’s songs sound as good as you remember; highlights include his introduction to “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and a epic performance of “Southern Man.” Crosby delivers mesmerizing performances of “Triad” and “The Lee Shore” that stand with some of the best work he’s ever done. Sadly, this is probably the last great recorded performance of David Crosby, as drugs would soon take their toll on his voice and mind. Nash debuts a new song, “Right Between The Eyes,” and does a good job on “Chicago” (the expanded compact disc reissue adds a nice version of “King Midas In Reverse”). As for Stills, it quickly goes downhill after “49 Bye Byes” as he launches into the political patter of “America’s Children,” proving nothing except that the man can’t preach and play piano at the same time. The electric side is consumed mostly by two 13-minute performances, and “Carry On” does for too long. The performances from Crosby (“Long Time Gone”) and Nash (“Pre-Road Downs”) are good, and I’ve never heard a performance of “Ohio” I didn’t enjoy (Stills should have learned a lesson from Young and let his music do the talking). My grousing aside, about eighty percent of 4 Way Street is brilliant (or at least very good) and belongs in any serious shortlist of the best live rock albums from the era. As its name implies, the performances represent an intersection of four individuals who were each going in their own directions musically. You’re invited to stop and listen for a while, since it’s a rare alignment of stars you’re witnessing.
The critical consensus is that the five records that Stills released on Atlantic (six if you count Stills Live) represent his best work. No argument there. Where I tend to part ways with critics is in the put-down of Stills 2 as inferior to the works before (Stephen Stills) and after (Manassas). It is not the beneficiary of stockpiled songs; only “Change Partners” and “Know You Got To Run” are leftovers, to my knowledge anyway. Second albums are often disappointing for this reason. But Stills 2 doesn’t back down from the challenge; it charges into the breach with a dozen new songs that offer something for everyone: ravers (“Relaxing Town”), CSN-styled harmonies (“Singin’ Call”), the blues (“Open Secret”), guitar duels (“Fishes And Scorpions”) and a smartly arranged return to the old buffalo hunting grounds on “Bluebird Revisited.” Honestly, I think these songs stack up fine against the material on the double-album Manassas and rise above Down The Road. As with his first record, Stills invites some of the world’s best guitarists (Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia and a young Nils Lofgren) and more than holds his own in their esteemed company. While the first album had a genuine hit to rally around, Stills 2 has more surprises in store: the retro raver “Marianne” (it’s a shame Stephen Stills and Steve Miller didn’t play together), the funked-up blues of “Nothin’ To Do But Today,” the sweet southern sound of “Sugar Babe.” Unfortunately, it was “Change Partners” that was tapped as the first single, and listeners may have compared it to “Love The One You’re With” and extrapolated the album’s quality from that single data point, which would be a mistake. On Stills 2, I hear Stephen Stills growing more comfortable as a singer, songwriter and arranger. I know, I did pick on Stills for his lackluster performance on 4-Way Street but, as Stills 2 shows, he’s still a significant talent when fully engaged.
Everybody said “Why are you doing a double album?” I listen to it now–it overreached a little bit. It didn’t quite get there, but it was sure damn close. — Stills in an interview with Sounding Out.
Kronomyth 3.0: ALL THING MUST PASS THROUGH MANASSAS. As the CS&N solo albums slowly bled into the bland, Stephen Stills set his sights on a new supergroup featuring a couple of leftover Burritos (Chris Hillman, Al Perkins) and a backing band that included CS&N alumni Dallas Taylor and Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels. Dubbed Manassas (inspired by the cover photo taken during a tour through Virginia), the band released a double elpee’s worth of new material from Stills that represented, to date, the largest single outpouring of Stephen’s creative muse. In a sense, Manassas is his All Things Must Pass, a magnum opus that shows his multifaceted muse in its most flattering light. Country, rock, blues, folk, Caribbean, it’s all in here and spread over four album sides with the best backing band he’s ever had. Although George Harrison’s was the higher achievement, even with an album side of jams, Manassas has a similar effect on Stills fans, insofar as it’s a tower by which his other albums are judged and by which his legend will ultimately be measured. The twenty-two songs themselves range from good to great, sticking mostly to the country-rock sound of the Flying Burrito Brothers, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Eagles and, of course, Crosby, Stills & Nash. Stills tosses in some unexpected surprises, however, and the results sound more like Fleetwood Mac (“It Doesn’t Matter”) and Cat Stevens (“Bound To Fall”) in a couple of spots. Manassas has at least a half-dozen songs that belong in a discussion of his best work including “Anyway,” “Colorado,” “So Begins The Task,” “The Treasure (Take One),” “How Far” and “Johnny’s Garden.” While I was impressed with his first two albums, my estimation of the man as a songwriter grew some after hearing Manassas–and this even after the CS&N albums. If you’re looking for the most interesting of the CS&N solo projects, Manassas will have you seeing double.
It’s Deja Vu all over again, and Wooden Ships and Woodstock too. The band was officially over at this point, part of the great crumbling of talent that marked the children of the summer of love (Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Jefferson Airplane). That CSN and sometimes Y would reunite doesn’t change the fact that much of their greatest work (as a collective) was already behind them. For those going back to the garden via So Far, some of the prettiest flowers to bloom from their generation are here: “Woodstock,” “Déjà Vu,” “Teach Your Children,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Listening to those complex harmonies and ambitious lyrics, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I came here originally for “Our House,” arguably the greatest pop song The Beatles should have written and never did. I really am a simple soul though. As rich as the harmonies of “Helplessly Hoping” are, they’re not my cup of tea. “Ohio” is bracing but too bitter for my tastes. I imagine that CSN&Y fans are more quickly polarized than fans of The Beatles because the individual talents were more easily separated with CSN&Y. If it seems profane to compare the two, consider this: the music of So Far is drawn from only two albums and one single (“Ohio”). If you can cobble together a better album from any two Beatles albums, let me know. As introductions go, So Far is far better than most. There are few single album compilations that capture the essential moments of an act as well as this (Jimi Hendrix’ Smash Hits comes to mind). If you buy only one CS&N album, make it this one. And if you don’t own at least one CS&N album, shame on you. Note that the original release (SD 18100) featured a cover with a raised border and brown lettering on back; the subsequent reissue (SD 19119) was produced more cheaply on regular stock with black lettering on back.
After Manassas, Stills went back to recording solo material, signed with Columbia Records and released Stills. The opening “Turn Back The Pages” sums it up nicely, as the album collects material from several sessions including one (“As I Come of Age”) dating back to 1971. The music on Stills isn’t quite as compelling or cohesive as the last two Manassas records, a point that didn’t escape critics. But it’s not a bad record by any means. You’ll find ambitious arrangements (“Love Story,” “Myth of Sisyphus”), sneaky melodies (“My Favorite Changes,” “In The Way”), a Neil Young song (“New Mama”) and what might be the best CSN song that never was, “As I Come of Age.” The supporting players represent a several-year span of time, including some new faces: Donnie Dacus, Marcie Levy, Kenny Passarelli, Rick Roberts. If you’re a fan of Stephen Stills, then Stills is definitely worth a flyer at some point. At least it meets my expectations of a Stephen Stills solo album: solid songs, thoughtful lyrics, some sharp guitar and organ playing, a revolving cast of stars and cameos from Crosby and Nash. You get the sense, reading some of the negative reviews of Stills as the time, that critics had simply soured on the whole CSN and sometimes Y experience. I’ll admit that their hand was overplayed and that the whole country-rock movement (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, Crosby-Nash, Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, Firefall, Poco, The Southern Hillman Furay Band, etc.) seemed to re-shuffle the same cards in endless and often-diluted variations. A world that had grown tired of Stephen Stills, however, was a jaded world indeed. I think there’s plenty on Stills to hold your interest, even if it isn’t the first, second or third Stephen Stills album you need to own.
Kronomyth 4.0: CSNchantment. Something magical happens when those three letters come together. It’s not just the harmonies, although that’s certainly a big part of it. When their voices mesh, it creates a sound that is not simply a greater sum, but sumthing altogether different where the human individual is subsumed by an angelic host. You can’t simply pull apart those harmonies and say this is Stills or this is Nash because it doesn’t work like that. As I said, though, it’s not just the harmonies; it’s the entire songwriting experience that gets elevated. Illegal Stills and Whistling Down The Wire couldn’t hold a candle to the songs on CSN. Yes, “Carried Away” does sound like “Marguerita” and “Anything At All” really isn’t. The rest of the songs on CSN are inspired: “Dark Star,” “Shadow Captain,” “Just A Song Before I Go,” “Cathedral,” “Cold Rain.” They’re some of the best songs that Crosby, Stills and Nash ever wrote, period. In looking for the catalyst to CSN’s resurgent greatness, I’m stumped. Stills was in the middle of a difficult divorce, Crosby was in the middle of being Crosby, Nash was in the middle of a wounded rocker and a hard drug user. Somehow, improbably, it added up to a classic studio rock album that eventually became the band’s biggest seller. Subsequent reunions revealed them to be merely mortal, but for one shining moment in 1977 Crosby, Stills and Nash defied time and even their own personal history to create magic once more.