Chapter Two. Their eponymously titled debut album had been an enormous triumph for Crosby, Stills & Nash, spawning two top-thirty hits and thrusting them to the forefront of the sixties’ tail-end scene.
It also, however, presented them with a very practical problem: whilst Stephen Stills’ multi-instrumentation on the LP had been (and remains) impeccable, he clearly wasn’t going to be able to handle guitars, bass and various keyboards in a live context.
Motown bassist Greg Reeves was bought in to share the rhythm section with Dallas Taylor. In the quest to incorporate a keyboard player, Steve Winwood was approached to join the trio on a permanent basis. When he declined, Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegün proposed Neil Young: equally adept on keyboards and guitar. Despite Stills’ initial reservations (déjà vu of their previous clashes in Buffalo Springfield), Young gelled immediately during studio auditions and was brought aboard. His condition was full-partner status, so the ‘law-firm’ band name was duly extended. Their second gig, “scared shitless”, was a little fest you may have heard of by the name of Woodstock.
And so, as the new decade beckoned, they returned to the studio to begin work on what was probably the most eagerly-anticipated follow-up of the era. With Neil Young thrown into the equation, no one really knew what to expect (CSN included!). He was, and always will be, a complete wildcard. If Crosby and Stills were self-designated spokesmen for the youth of their own country, Nash’s English perspective and that of Young as the boy from next door (Canada) added a further edge to the commentary.
The result is an album even more diverse in its range than its predecessor, jumping between and fusing the styles and influences of its creators. With all four being audio-obsessives, the production is as much a part of the product as the music, Stills in particular working overtime to squeeze out every possible sonic nuance.
Their efforts were rewarded by the number one spot on the Billboard chart, three hit singles, and a legacy that continues to this day.
Sit back, skin up, and ENJOY!
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — Déjà Vu: Track-by-track review
1. “Carry On”
Stephen Stills’ ringing acoustic guitar sounds out like a clarion call for the whole album (if not their entire career). In comes Reeves’ lolloping bassline and Taylor’s shuffling percussion, both synchronised with the hermetic three-part vocal. Your heart starts to soar:
We have no choice but to carry on
And ‘carry on’ it does, all the musical elements constantly evolving around the acoustic riff. Stills’ overdubbed electric wheedles in and out of the maintheme, he and Nash adding congas to the drum textures.
Then, mid-solo, out drops all the instrumentation, leaving just those glorious voices:
Love is coming
Love is coming to us all!
You have to remember, of course, that back then as the Woodstock Generation was only just awakening, ‘Hippie’ was a mission statement, not an insult…
The congas bring us into the bridge, an arch-psychedelic cocktail of trippy organ and electric guitar, leading into part two, “Questions”. It’s a reworking of a track from the final Buffalo Springfield LP: quite literally a list of unanswered queries and speculations:
All the questions of a thousand dreams
What you do and what you see
Lover, can you talk to me?
That’s CSN for you (with or without Y): ever questioning, always seeking answers. Carry on!
2. “Teach Your Children”
This twee country-tinged Graham Nash tune (Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia on pedal steel) was the most successful single from the album, another CSN(Y) hymn for the times. To quote the composer, it’s “so personal that every single person on the planet can relate to it.” Ostensiby written about his relationship with his own father, it does echo the universal conflict of the ever-widening generation gap, though seeking reconciliation rather than confrontation:
Of tender years
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by
And so please
Help them with your youth
They seek the truth before they can die
Just as it was heading for number one, the band blew it out of the water with yet another, completely different anthem. Neil Young’s blazing “Ohio”, hastily written as an outraged reaction to the shooting of four students during a demonstration, was recorded and released within a week. Backed by Stills’ “Find The Cost Of Freedom”, it remains one of the most powerful 45 releases of all time, and a testimony to the band’s integrity.
3. “Almost Cut My Hair”
The Croz announces that he “shall now proceed to entangle the entire area”, and omygod he does! A blazing assault of triple guitars (CSY) opens his impassioned homage to hippiedom, N providing the organ part. Taylor and Reeves hold it all together, but they aren’t content to play it safe either — 110% commitment from everyone involved.
No harmonies this time, but Crosby belts the vocal with enough force for the four of ’em. One take, according to Neil Young: as close to a live recording as you can get in the studio. Crosby himself has said that there have been many times when they’ve clicked into something musically which simply blows him away. This was surely one of those magic moments! If you’re left with the energy for more, check out the unedited cut on the box set!
As trailblazers of the newborn ‘counterculture’, the pressure to straighten up and conform to the norm must have been enormous. “It increases my paranoia; like lookin’ in my mirror and seeing a police car…” Just ‘cos your paranoid, it don’t mean they’re not out to get you: Crosby was busted in the mid-80s, having driven through the crash-barriers, out of it on crack. Nash had already refused to work with him again unless he cleaned his act up. He spent a year in jail in Texas, where he successfully kicked the habit.
He may be drug-free these days, but I don’t think Crosby will ever cut his hair, any more than shave off his trademark moustache, and will continue to “let his freak-flag fly” to the very end. As he’d probably still affirm, “I feel like I owe it to someone” — if not to himself.
Neil Young’s first contribution to the album remains one of his most enduring themes, effortlessly, if not helplessly, evoking his Canadian childhood. “Dreams, comfort, memory to spare … all my changes were there”. His new-found colleagues gently oo-oo along with his vocal throughout the verses, helping with their ever-impeccable high harmonies for the “helpless, helpless” chorus. The shimmering guitar pedal and Stills’ piano meld with the acoustic guitars, “throwing shadows on our eyes”.
CSN were substituted by Young’s compatriots the Band and Joni Mitchell for his performance of the song in The Last Waltz in ’76 and it has remained a key feature of his live repertoire ever since. His 1993 Unplugged version — complete with accordion and harmonica — is an exquisite example.
Mind you, you do still have to crack a smile and think of Sesame Street (which also began life in Canada) as he sings “big bird(‘)s flyin’ across the skies”!
Though not their anthem (it was written by Joni Mitchell, who missed the trip because of a dose of the flu), CSNY rock it up and make it their own. It’s certainly the best known version of the song about the legendary event, which also happened to be their second public performance. “Half a million strong”, no wonder they were “scared shitless!” There is a story that the band insisted if their version wasn’t used for the movie, they wouldn’t allow any of their performance to be released.
CS+Y’s distinctive electric guitar styles fuse to drive it along, perhaps reflecting the disparate contributions to the festival itself. It should again be borne in mind forty years down the line that however derogatory the term ‘hippie’ may have become, back then at the outset it was a declaration of a new hope for the world:
We are stardust
We are golden
We are caught in the devil’s bargain
And we got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
God knows, we could still use a bit of peace ‘n’ love!
6. “Déjà Vu”
You know that ‘woooaaah!’ wave of weirdness that comes up from your guts and sets your head reeling when you find yourself in the middle of a déjà vu? That indefinable and inexplicable realisation that you’ve lived this situation before? The offset rhythms and wordless voices in the intro to the album’s title track catch it to perfection.
Crosby counts in the start proper and the vocal kicks in the freaked out adrenalin that usually accompanies the sensation: frantically fast, disorientatingly high:
Just as suddenly the voices drop you back into that overwhelming swimminess that comes with the realisation “I feel like I’ve been here before.” John Sebastian weaves some spooky harmonica in and out of the intertwined vocal harmonies: Neil Young’s a great player, but this ain’t his style.
Crosby takes the line that we’re remembering experiences from past reincarnations (the law of conservation of energy). Maybe it’s the only explanation for CSN (and Y)’s instant and intuitive telepathic bond.
As the drifty closing mantra asserts:
We have all been here before
We have all been here before…
7. “Our House”
Our House is a very, very very fine house
With two cats in the yard
Life used to be so hard
Now ev’rything is easy ‘cos of you
It’s another of the band’s polaroid snapshots: “Willy” Nash, in this case, describing his lovenest in Laurel Canyon with Joni Mitchell. Maybe it comes across a little sickly sentimental, but hell; that’s what it’s like being head over heels in love! Light the fire (and a joss-stick while you’re at it). It was all for real: the fireplace, the vase, the stained-glass window and the cats…
The arrangement is simple as as the sentiment, tinkling piano and a la-la-la backing. The relationship didn’t last long, but the song lives on. It was a big hit at the time, and even got used for a mortgage advert in the UK some years back!
8. “4 + 20”
This dour Stephen Stills composition was originally intended to be held back for his solo album, but got included on Dèjá Vu at his bandmates’ insistence, to his great pride. Yet when he was waiting for their collaboration they simply told him to get on with it!
So he did: intricate acoustic guitar and soulful vocal, down in one faultless take. He also did it alone (in his poncho) at Woodstock. It tells the life story of an old man on his deathbed, born into poverty and, despite all his efforts, never managing to escape it. By the end of the song, he can think of nothing better to do than “wishing that my life would simply cease.”
It can hardly be described as ‘a cheery little number’, but Stills’ performance is to be marvelled at.
9. “Country Girl: Whiskey Boot Hill/Down, Down, Down/Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty)”
Neil Young takes centre-stage once again for the album’s penultimate track. Or maybe that should be ‘tracks’ — a trio of unfinished songs pulled together as the chapters of the same story: or, at least, a beginning, a middle and an end.
It’s one of his rolling songscapes, “Winding paths through tables and glass”. Not quite as out there as “Broken Arrow”, nor as devastating as “Down By The River”, but an exemplary example nonetheless. His newly found associates paint on extra layers of texture as we drift through the the component parts of the composition. ‘God Only Knows’ how many production hours went into its construction, but there’s a Wilson-like obsessiveness about the way the sounds are played and played with; listen to this one on phones!
Through the first section, ‘Whisky Boot Hill’, we’re stuck in a bar, acoustic guitars sticking stubbornly, hypnotically with the bass, multi-dimensional piano: classical and electric, and washes of spacey pseudo-strings from the organ, timpani-style percussion. Panoramic sound, mindblowing thrownaway lines: another take on Déjà Vu, for example, picking up also, maybe, on “Questions”:
Find out that now was the answer to answers that you gave later
Part Two, ‘Down, Down, Down’: the intensity going up-up-up on the crashing descending chords, more existential imagery.
The majestically uplifting final movement sounds like the chorus from yet another unfinished song:
I think you’re pretty
Got to make you understand
I got no lover in the city
Let me be your country man!
Perhaps he’d got distracted from the verses by the “Cinnamon Girl”; who knows? In slams the harmonica, up shoots your blood-pressure.
Just as well it’s a fade-out!
10. “Everybody I Love You”
If you’re looking for hippie anthems, you’ve got the right band, and this — even by their standards — is a superlative example. Just read the damn title! There’s no stately introduction “All You Need Is Love” style, however. The former Buffalo Boys whack in electric at breakneck speed, aided and abetted by Reeves’ chunky-funky bass riff. The vocal is equally breathless:
Open up, open up, baby let me in!
You expect for me to love you
When you hate y’self my friend
This is the ‘Battle Hymn of the New Republic’. Melodically crunching chords bring in the triumphant singalong chorus (along with the piano and organ):
Ev’ry-body I lo-o-o-o-ve you
Ev’rybody I do (ohhh ye-ah!)
Don’t let the floral sentiments and tight harmonies put you off: I’ve known more than one hardened rocker be slain by Crosby, Stills and Nash: with or without Young. I remember one guy describing them “Like Simon and Garfunkel with bollocks.”
I think that says it rather nicely: “Oh yes, I really do now!”
Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
“Teach Your Children”
“Almost Cut My Hair”
“4 + 20”
“Country Girl: Whiskey Boot Hill/Down, Down, Down/Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty)”
“Everybody I Love You”