RCL Talks Drugs, Legacy and Woodstock With Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Biographer
A new must-read book exposes and enshrines the '70s supergroup.
They’re my favorite 70s band. But sometimes I just wanted to slap some sense into the members of it – David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young – while reading “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: The Wild Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup.”
The book’s author, David Browne, echoed that sentiment about C,S,N&Y. “That’s the group’s great underlying tragedy and the recurring theme,” he told RealClearLife. “The way they’d find their way to each other, and get that great blend and magic, and then it would all crumble away.”
Browne has made a career out of writing the book on bands from The Grateful Dead to Sonic Youth. In his latest, out Tuesday from DaCapo Press, the Rolling Stone senior writer surveys one of the 70s most famous and fractious groups in a saga of musical chops, massive egos, and four dudes whose sublime harmonies didn’t extend to their personal relationships.
As Kirkus Reviews assessed this “warts and all” narrative: “Fans of CSN(Y) may find this disenchanting, but Browne delivers an excellent portrait of a troubled partnership.” I dialed in get the full picture from mild-mannered music critic and bestselling author.
Growing up in suburbia in the 70s and dreaming of hippie heaven, CSN&Y was a favorite. What drew you to them?
I’ve been following this story since I first started buying records in the mid-70s. They were iconic and mythological right away with their albums “Déjà Vu” and “Crosby, Stills & Nash.” They combined largely fantastic music, singing and writing and identity. The music always seemed mellow and chill, yet there were constant updates of interpersonal drama.
How did the interpersonal affect the professional?
They would release a great album and a year later be broken apart, then they’d reunite. Their sturm and drang fascinated me. Since it’s a story I’ve been following for decades, I felt it was time to tackle it in all of its tentacles.
There’s a Mount Rushmore effect about these four musicians, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young, carved into the rock mountain, right?
Each of these guys is an archetype: Crosby is the loud mouth, counter-culture rebel; Stills is the driven careerist; Nash is the courtly ladies’ man; and Neil was the guy who couldn’t quite commit, went his own way, sometimes intersected and sometimes didn’t.
Were musical harmony and mutual backbiting the band’s two poles?
There was a lot of mutual dissing – and kissing and making up. They lived their lives out in public, pre-social media. They dissed each other in a way that was startling, often in song lyrics. For example, Nash’s song “Chicago” was a universal call to support the Chicago 8 – and an effort to coax Stills and Young into playing a benefit for the radical defendants. “Frozen Smiles” referenced Stills and his cocaine problems. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” was Neil’s song about Nash breaking up with Joni Mitchell.
With whom do you identify?
I’ve connected with each of them in different ways over the years. Right now, for all of his foibles, it’s hard not to admire David Crosby, 77. Nobody ever thought he’d make it. He’s still got his liver from 25 years ago and he’s made four albums in a row.
As a rock critic, how do you assess his current output?
His and Nash’s voices have aged incredibly well, better than a lot of their peers. The songs they’re writing, are they up to the ones they wrote in their twenties? Maybe, not always. They still have that force of personality, they still sound like they always did.
Are they coming back into fashion?
Yes. They have this integrity to what they do. They’ve settled into their old age: take it or leave it. They’ve almost circled back to where they were 50 years ago before they met. They’re individually trying to tap back into what got them into making music to begin with, to experimenting. They could reunite any day but it’s looking iffy. There wasn’t a 50-year anniversary tour. Crosby will be at Woodstock but none of the other guys will.
Reading your book, I felt an impatience with their behind-the-music tripping over their own feet. Writing it, how did you not want to slap them occasionally?
At this point, it’s part of their DNA. Nash, always the one who tried to keep them together, has said they wasted too much time. But, conversely, I’ll say they made some great records on their own, or as duos. Writing this book made me rediscover a record like Still’s “Manassas,” and Crosby and Nash’s “Wind on the Water.” And yet, these breakups are monumentally frustrating – all the records they tried to make and didn’t complete. “Human Highway” would have been a fantastic record and it’s one of the era’s great lost records.
How did drugs contribute to their dysfunction?
That’s the story of their generation. They entered drug use not thinking it was destructive. Whether it was coke to write better songs and open up their brains and get that second wind. We forget that in the early 70s nobody was saying cocaine was addictive. They were so locked into those habits and, like many of their generation, one day they turned around and thought, oh wait this is helping to destroy my life and my work and relationships — including those with each other.
Does their sound remain influential?
Over the last decade, a slew of groups have revived that type of harmony singing and songwriting, like the supergroup boygenius composed of indie singer-songwriters Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers. One of their songs was recently on Walking Dead. Also Brandi Carlisle; the hot thing Grammy-winner has covered Stills’ 1969 classic “Helplessly Hoping.” It’s interesting to see these guys coming back in vogue. These songs have endured, and a new generation is honoring them in a way that wouldn’t have happened 20 or 30 years ago.
With the Woodstock 50th Anniversary scheduled on August 16th to 18th in Watkins Glen, New York, with Santana, Jay-Z, Halsey and Jack White – and David Crosby – does it feel like a critical moment to reexamine the band?
Woodstock looms so large in their story because it was the second gig they ever played together. It was a big moment for them in terms of a somewhat public debut, and it was somewhat fraught at the same time. Young wasn’t thrilled with the idea of being filmed and he’s not in the finished movie. Stills was worried that all the instruments would be out of tune. Despite the festival’s peace-and-love vibe, some of the friction that would define the group already started to rear its head.
And, yet, watching Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary, backstory aside, they were a supergroup the moment they stepped on that stage.
Yes. In the end, thanks to Co-Manager David Geffen, they had a prominent role in the movie with two songs in the soundtrack. “Long Time Gone” opens the movie. “Woodstock” came out a year later when “Déjà Vu” debuted and that, combined with Young now in the group, reinforced their stature in the culture. And they’ve always been associated with the festival, whether they liked it or not. The hit single on “Déjà Vu” was their version of Joni’s Woodstock. The concert put them on the same level right away with The Who and Jimi Hendrix and CreEdence Clearwater Revival and the Jefferson Airplane. They were instantly elevated by that festival to a first-tier status.
Is there any chance they’ll reunite this summer at Woodstock 2019?
For now, it’s only Crosby. At this point in March it’s not looking good. This would have been a perfect year to do a 50th Anniversary farewell tour including Woodstock. But, partly due to the friction between Crosby and some of the rest of the guys, they haven’t even been a trio for three and a half years. Crosby and Nash still aren’t speaking. Young is never one to want a nostalgia tour. Promoter Michael Lang wanted all four of them – even a couple of years ago he got the sense that the quartet were not going to be an easy get, like they were in 1969. Who knows, maybe between now and August Crosby and Nash will make up. Or not.
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