When we last discussed Crosby, Stills, and Nash the group’s self titled album had just been released to critical acclaim. You might also remember that it was Stephen that played most of the instruments during the recording of the album…they were a group but not a real band. We hinted in that post that this would become a significant issue once they decided to tour and so it was. Dallas Taylor had been brought in as drummer for the Crosby, Stills, and Nash album but they needed more…here is an excerpt from Shakey (a Neil Young Biograph by Jimmy McDonough) that picks up the story with Stephen and Dallas on the way to talk to Neil after a Crazy Horse concert. (By the way, if you are a Neil Young fan at all you really to buy Shakey and read it!)
“I’ll never forget our ride in the limo on the way to see Neil,” said Dallas Taylor, recalling a 1969 Crazy Horse gig on Long Island they were crashing. “Stephen said, ‘How would you feel about Neil joining the band?’ ‘Wow great – except isn’t that why the Springfield broke up?’ He said, ‘Oh, no, man- it’s going to be different this time. It’ll be cool .’ But there was this tone of doubt in his voice.”
With their debut album topin the charts, Crosby, Stills, and Nash were faced with the necessity of performing live – a bit of a problem, since so much of the record had been overdubbed by one-man-band Stills. Crosby and Nash wanted to keep the live presentation acoustic, but Stills had a fatal desire to hear the trio rock. Many possible musicians had been discussed and even approached before Ahmet Ertegun, at a dinner with Stills and David Geffen, suggested the obvious choice: Neil Young.
At first Neil Young was wanted only as a sideman. Ever the master manipulator, Elliot Roberts laid down the law: full partnership, equal songs. “He’d have to be a Y,” Roberts demanded. Graham Nash balked. “We’d spent a lotta time getting this beautiful harmonic sound together. I mean, Jesus Christ, wasn’t the album a huge multiplatinum success? I didn’t feel like we needed anybody else.”
Nash had never spent time around the reclusive Young, so the pair met to discuss matters over breakfast in New York City at Bleecker Street Cafe, near where the group was already in rehearsal. Young charmed Nash instantly. “Neil absolutely won me over. I came out of that breakfast two eggs over easy.”
This put Neil Young in an amazing position: He could reap the hype benefits of a smash album he didn’t even play on and in the process expose a gigantic audience to his own music. “CSNY was definitely not hurting Neil,” said Roberts. “Neil never had a downside to any of this, never. It could only help us. What we were asked to do is take something soft and give it balls….Neil’s got balls dripping from his shoulders, there’s balls in his hair, there’s balls comin down his back – he’s got balls everywhere.”
Young was definitely the guy with the balls. He gutted one band – the Rockets – to create his own, then walked into a super group with full membership status and continued to work with Crazy Horse. “Neil made it clear that CSN was not his first priority,” said Roberts. “The work was the priority, So the seeds of discontent were always there.”
Once Young was in the group, his power continued to swell. “As soon as they started to rehearse, it was clear Neil was gonna be in charge,” said Roberts. “Everyone was afraid of Neil. Because Neil walked. When Neil said, ‘Fuck you, I’m leaving,’ Neil left. Everyone else goes, ‘Fuck you, I’m leaving,’ and then they to the bathroom, roll a joint and come back. But when Neil said anything, he did it. He really did back out of Monterey. And this was terrifying to these guys because they were full of that – every other thing was ‘I’m not playing, I’m not showing.” Like little kids. Neil wasn’t into that. It was serious business.
You may not realize it but we have already seen an instance Neil’s power. In an earlier post I provided you with a video of Crosby, Stills, and Nash performing at Woodstock. In reality CSNY was at Woodstock, not just CSN but you would never know it unless you were there in person. None of the Woodstock movies or albums provided any indication that Neil was there because he refused to allow himself to be included!
The CSNY band was completed with the addition of Greg Reeves on bass and the recording of the first CSNY album, Déjà vu, was initiated.
Let’s listen to a contribution to the album from each of the four members of the group.
David Crosby – Déjà vu
Stephen Stills – Carry On
Graham Nash – Our House
Neil Young – Helpless (alternate mix)
I have to say that I like the Déjà vu album, but I also need to say that it did not achieve Stephen’s goal of having the group rock! The Rolling Stone review from April 1970 echoes my opinion:
“Along with many other people, I had hoped that the addition of Neil Young to Crosby, Stills, and Nash would give their music the guts and substance which the first album lacked. Live performance of the group suggested this had happened. Young’s voice, guitar, compositions, and stage presence added elements of darkness and mystery to songs which had previously dripped a kind of saccharine sweetness. Unfortunately, little of this influence carried over to the recording session for Déjà vu.”
Later this week, in a Part 2 of this post, we will listen to some examples of the group in concert at the Big Sur Festival in 1969 to appreciate Neil’s additions to the group’s live performances.
For now let’s wrap it up Part 1 of this post by noting that CSNY continue through today to break apart, and come together, at the whim of Neil. Déjà vu, in my opinion, was the artistic zenith for the group.
When Neil, has not been interested, CSN has continued to be very successful at times, although David Crosby’s drug problems in the 70s and 80s created some significant issues for the group. Crosby, Stills, and Nash have also all had successful solo careers and successful side projects. We will check in on some of these side projects in subsequent posts in this series.