The formation of the band with the name like a law-firm was, to quote the song (albeit out of context), “a long time coming”.
Crosby and Stills had been hanging out and jamming long since before the Byrd was ousted from the nest. The Croz’s inevitable dismissal towards the end of ’67 had merely been accelerated by his collaboration with Buffalo Springfield at Monterey (subbing for Neil Young). The very fact that he had to stand in for the gig was also a sure indication that their days as a band were similarly numbered, with Stills and Young clashing on virtually every point (if talking at all). By the spring of 1968 the split was official.
In the mean time, Graham Nash was finding life with the Hollies increasingly prickly. While it’s understandable that Crosby’s “Triad” had ruffled his bandmates’ feathers (a permanent threesome is still a pretty shocking proposition!), the mere mention of a lady undressing in Nash’s “Sleep Song” was enough to horrify his fellows. Furthermore, Allan Clark and the other Hollies had somehow managed to pass through the Summer of Love without even really finding out what a joint was! Nash’s sensibilities, in contrast, had been heightened to the extent that he was more than ready to leave “Carrie Ann” and “Jennifer Eccles” standing at the “Bus Stop”.
Artistic and ideological differences all round.
One night at a party sometime in ’68, Nash threw in some high harmony on a Croz/Stills jam of “You Don’t Have To Cry”. None of them can agree exactly when or where it was (probably due to whatever Mr Crosby had to smoke at the time!): maybe Joni Mitchell’s place, maybe Mama Cass’s. But all of them still tingle with the magic of knowing that something very special had come together. To quote Nash, “Anyone can sing the same notes — but I don’t think anybody sounds like we do.”
Each of the band with the name like a firm of accountants had their own, very well-founded reasons to hate being part of a band. For that very reason, CSN, from the start, didn’t function like any other group. The surnames just got put in that order because they thought it sounded best that way. Rank-pulling was never part of the set-up; more of an ideological alliance than a rock band. Three perfectionists who intuitively realised that, together, they could actually approach perfection. The priorities were — and remain — the music, the songs and (Nash again), “Being true to ourselves.” In the pursuit of these goals, Crosby, Stills and Nash became the social commentators of the counter-culture, continuing to point out — as Stills had sung on “For What It’s Worth”- that “there’s something happening here…”
Hippie shit? Beyond the shadow of a doubt. But, as any self-respecting Hippie will always take pains to tell you, “It’s good shit, man!”
The debut album was released in May ’69 on Atlantic — having been rejected by Apple. Ahmet Ertegün is listed on the credits for his ‘spiritual guidance’. The LP was an immediate success, standing out from its contemporaries both for its eclectic mix of musical styles and for the content of the lyrics: deeply intimate, personal revelations; bitter reflections on the state of society; snapshots of the Life and Times. Complemented by drummer Dallas Taylor, each track is a painstakingly crafted gem. The musical genius of Stephen Stills shines out in particular, as — of course — do those vocal harmonies.
Crosby, Stills & Nash — Crosby, Stills & Nash: Track-by-track review
1. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”
Anyone who’s been inside a relationship that’s stopped working knows what this is all about. All that stuff flying round your head that you want to say, if only you can find the right moment. And knowing deep down that the moment’s past and gone, and will never arrive again.
Stephen Stills’ jumble of thoughts and feelings about his crumbling romance with Judy Collins covered several months and filled several notebooks. What are you supposed to do with a pile of disjointed reflections and speculations like that?
What the hell — mash ’em all together and call it a suite, a “Suite for Sweet Judy”: “what have I got to lose?”
The urgency of the high-tuned acoustic intro, deftly counterpointed by the bass (both the work of Stills) wastes no time in “getting to the point”: the realisation that the whole thing is way past the point of no return. The Movements of the Suite shift musically as the torrent of changing sentiments spills out over 7 1/2 minutes: sorrow and regret, pleading for one last chance, a list of lovey-dovey nicknames which’ll never get shared. Being in love (“I am yours, you are mine”) is an entirely different thing to loving someone (“that’s for always and forever”).
Crosby and Nash drift in and out with their guardian angel harmonies, Dallas Taylor exercising his self-professed telepathy with Stills in his inobtrusive but oh-so-right percussion work. As for Stephen Stills’ playing, I’ll leave it to Michael Hedges to comment: “Those people who thought Clapton was God hadn’t heard Stills play acoustic guitar.” At times he dazzles with his spellbinding frenzy, at others there’s a near-hypnotic intimate delicacy (oh, those harmonic ‘pings’!) I think it’s Crosby who gasps “Beautiful!” as they’re hovering ready for the big finish.
All together now, “doo-doo-doo-doo…” Don’t forget to clap along too! And don’t worry too much about trying to decipher the ‘Spanish’ underneath, which — by Stills’ own admission — was intended to be obtuse.
Oh yeah: “what have I got to lose?” Stills did actually perform the song for Judy, she of the sapphire eyes and “Send in the Clowns”, in her post-gig hotel room one night. She left him for Stacy Keach all the same, but still recognises that “this magnificent creation” remains their legacy.
2. “Marrakesh Express”
Graham Nash’s former colleagues the Hollies had previously rejected this jolly jaunt, based on an actual trip to Morroco in ’66. After all, “blowing smoke-rings” might be interpreted as a drugs reference, for heaven’s sake… No wonder Nash felt the need to get off their train.
With C+S, he made it their first hit single and the first of their (limitless) anthems of hippiedom, or at least one aspect of it. The song’s a perfect piece of radio-friendly psychedelic pop, its crafting preventing it from being ‘throwaway’. The torrent of images conjured up by the tongue-twisting lyric really do “just take you there”: you can almost “smell the garden in your hai-ai-ai-r” (not to mention the smoke-rings!). The combination of electric piano, organ and guitars gave it a retro feel even then: it doesn’t sound dated, it’s just vintage… and great fun: “All aboard!”
A pared-down “Judy Blue Eyes” was the second single from the album, and maybe the complete contrast betweenf these two tracks is the best possible indication of the diversity of the trio’s creativity: an early sign of what was to continue to come.
“Guinnevere” is a gentle tale of Courtly Love, the interweaving acoustic guitars and impeccable vocal harmony carrying you effortlessly “through the warm wind down by the bay.” The gallant Sir Crozbye has been bewitched by the mysterious Milady and the even more enigmatic Guinnevere, enchanted by their pentagrams, by their green eyes and golden hair. It’s all-too-easy to fall under the spell as you listen!
Crosby says he was trying to combine his pre-Byrds roots of jazz and folk in the creation of this slice of mesmeric medieval magic. Whatever it is, it’s a haunting theme, which is hard to get out of your head, compelling you, like him to “sing in silent harmony: we shall be free!”
He had already recorded the song as a demo, pre-Stills+Nash, with Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady playing bass. It’s on Disc 1 of the CSN box set if you’ve never heard it, and well worth checking out.
4. “You Don’t Have To Cry”
The song that forced the alliance to be forged. Nash joined in with the other two at a party, and immediately knew he’d found Life without the Hollies. Crosby and Stills similarly realised that there was ‘something happening here’, which simply couldn’t be ignored.
Ostensibly, it seems to be another of Steve Stills’ reflections on his by then finished relationship with Judy Collins:
In the morning when you rise
Do you think of me and how you left me cryin’?
Yet there also seems to be some allusion to the new definition of ‘band’ which CSN would establish, making their own decisions over the whats, wheres and whens of their careeer(s). Calling the shots over “telephones and managers and where you got to be at noon…”
As ever with these three, the playing is impeccable. Whether or not you agree with them about their harmonies is purely a matter of taste, but time does seem to have borne them out.
5. “Pre-Road Downs”
Nash gets rockier, and Stills’ electric guitar sizzles behind him. The organ part is equally immense (Stills again!). Nash’s short, tightly-rhymed lines and verses urgently blurt out all those last-minute things you have to say to your lady before you head off on tour:
I have kissed you
So I’ll miss you
On the road I’ll be wantin’ you!
Declarations of undying love, promises of fidelity, anticipation of the times together to come. Making the very most of the very final moments, and some very practical advice:
Don’t run the time approaches,
Hotels and midnight coaches:
Be sure to hide the roaches!
6. “Wooden Ships”
This was one of the first songs Crosby and Stills worked out together, stoned out of their brains on the former’s sailing boat The Mayan during their period of enforced unemployment, along with Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner (originally uncredited due to contractual hassles). I’m not going to talk any more about the Volunteers version here — that’s what ‘comments’ is for, after all. The credits business has long since been sorted.
The CSN cut opens with some electric string-checking, reminiscent of another of Stills’ jam-buddies, one JM Hendrix. Mr H had, a couple of years earlier, unsuccessfully sought him out in London, to play bass in a band called the Experience. God, what different histories we could be writing now… but I digress.
Instead of blistering electric guitar, it’s Stills’ keyboard that first makes it mark on the track: but rest assured — there’s plenty of guitar of note to come (“very free”). Plenty more organ, too (“free and easy”). With Graham Nash hauled aboard, the quality of the vocal harmonies goes without saying: “talkin’ ’bout very free — and easy.”
It’s the main theme for a sci-fi movie about the survivors of a nuclear war, taking to the oceans to escape from the fall-out and continuing meaningless ‘cultural’ differences that they’re leaving behind along with the “silver [suited] people on the shoreline”. “We are leaving, you don’t need us…” Crosby and Stills interchange the main vocal, taking the role of refugees from both ‘sides’, once again a meaningless concept as they share those now legendary “purple berries”, setting course for “faraway, where we might laugh again.” When Nash joins them — in unison and in harmony — the sound goes far beyond the fifth dimension cited by the Byrds. One of my absolute faves to blow a bit of harp over…
The plot may well come across a bit dated in these days of digital special effects, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that ‘The Strangelove Scenario’ was a far more real proposition back at the height of the cold war, which always threatened to heat up. David Crosby claims he lifted the opening “if you smile at me, I will understand” from a church noticeboard. I have a vague recollection that it was originally graffitied on the wall of a Nazi death-camp (though in what language, I know not). A smile is a smile: some things don’t have a sell by date.
7. “Lady Of The Island”
Dedicated to two ladies on two islands, Graham Nash wouldn’t have got this one past the Hollies either: “our bodies were a perfect fit in afterglow…” The scenario isn’t exactly difficult to imagine. It’s a lovely evocation of those glorious swimmy-headed commencements of a love affair — and of course that includes sex, Allan Clark!
The gentle acoustic backing is in perfect harmony with the sensitive lyric (Nash’s Northern English accent still very much in evidence). His partners’ glorious floaty vocal assistance compounds the cloud-walking bliss of the situation. No one else can doodly-doo like these guys.
I never want to finish what I’ve just begun with you
My Lady of the Island
8. “Helplessly Hoping”
Once again it’s those three-part harmonies which sound like five that dominate this Stephen Stills composition. The poetry of the lyric is meticulously crafted, a tribute to one of those ladies who will always be just out of reach:
Her harlequin hovers nearby
Awaiting a word
Allegedly, ‘she’ was a schoolteacher on whom the whole class had a helplessly hopeless teenage crush.
As in “You Don’t Have To Cry”, the newly formulated CSN Manifesto also seems to be in evidence here:
They are one person
They are two (too) alone
They are three together
They are for each other
And so they’ve remained, on and off, when we’ve needed them most, for nearly four decades now. May they long continue to have us “gasping at glimses of gentle true spirit”!
9. “Lone Time Gone”
David Crosby’s reaction to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination (written the same night) is the most overtly political track on CSN’s debut album, but certainly not the last of their ongoing career. I have no wish to be drawn into a debate over the ‘new hope’ that RFK represented to the contemporary US, being of the wrong generation, the wrong nationality and of the persuasion “don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters”, but Crosby’s conviction is more than evident in his vocal. His bandmates’ endorsement is no less obvious.
It’s kind of a Blues — what else could you expect from such an emotionally charged outburst — but it’s Blues CSN style: maybe not workingman’s, but certainly thinkingman’s: “speak your mind if you dare!” At the time, The Croz still seemed to hold out some kind of hope for his country, for the future (“you know the darkest hour is just before the dawn”). I’d love to sit down with the man and hear personally what he makes of the scene now, nigh on forty years down the line — along with many other topics!
The chaotic multi-instrument slide-out clash at the end sounds almost prophetic in retrospect. It does appear that there’s still “a long, long time before the dawn.”
“Long Time Gone” is also the title of Crosby’s autobiography. Essential reading for Sixties Nerds!
10. “49 Bye-Byes”
Crosby’s warbled snippet of Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” at the beginning was edited off subsequent releases. The song proper, however, is all Stills’.
Forty-nine reasons all in a line
All of them good ones, all of them lies
Forty-nine reasons for delaying the final goodbye to a love affair, all of them resulting pointless as she takes off with ‘The Drifter’ in spring. Collins and Keach?
It’s a meticulously crafted piece of work, another showcase for the jilted composer’s multi-instrumental talents and — needless to say — the vocal accompaniment. Kind of a country/soul fusion, it’s got quite a different feel to the rest of the album and maybe takes a few listenings to really take in. Stick with it: it’s well worth the effort.
Crosby, Stills & Nash by Crosby, Stills & Nash
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”
“You Don’t Have To Cry”
“Lady Of The Island”
“Lone Time Gone”