They were called the American Beatles. No one took that too seriously, but for a time they were the biggest band in the world, leaping into the vacuum created by the dissolution of the famous Liverpool quartet. For some, they were the classic supergroup, with four bona fide stars (hey, the Hollies had a lot of hits). For others, they were the personification of rock and roll excess. All of that means nothing to me because I write about music, and when it comes to music, you either have it, or you don’t. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had it, in spades.
We all know the stories of how Crosby and Stills met Nash at Cass Elliot’s house one night in July, 1968. After hearing Crosby and Stills perform Stills’ new song, “You Won’t Have To Cry,” Nash asked for another run-through. This time he added a harmony part. The rest is history, or rock and roll myth. Take your pick. Atlantic Records released the trio’s first album in May, 1969. More history.
Adding a keyboard player was next on the band’s agenda, and they approached Steve Winwood, but Winwood was busy with his own supergroup, Blind Faith. Atlantic chief Ahmet Ertegun then suggested that they add Neil Young instead. Neither Stills or Nash liked that idea very much, especially Stills whose war with Young had led to the demise of their previous band, the Buffalo Springfield. Nash was concerned simply because he was unfamiliar with Young. But when Ahmet Ertegun spoke, people listened. Neil Young became a full partner in the enterprise (while retaining the right to continue his solo career) in time to play with CSN in Chicago on August 17, 1969. Their second gig was, famously, at Woodstock. While that Woodstock gig is fondly remembered, no one seems to recall that they also played at Altamont a few months later.
The tour lasted into January, and when their first album as a quartet, Deja Vu, was released in March, they were on top of the world. The album topped the pop chart, and spawned three Top 40 singles, each of which became an anthem for the baby boomer generation. Those songs were “Teach Your Children,” “Woodstock,” and “Our House.” The album was recorded, and recorded, and recorded, essentially as a collection of solo projects. Each member held individual sessions for the songs they had written, with the others contributing whatever was needed. Dallas Taylor played drums, and Greg Reeves bass, and their names appear on the cover – in noticeably smaller type. That’s Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel on “Teach Your Children,” and John Sebastian adding the harmonica part to the title track. No, Neil Young is not on all the tracks.
We are so familiar with these tracks that Deja Vu almost feels like a greatest hits album rather than a standalone work. Aside from the hit singles, the album includes classics like Young’s paean to his childhood home, “Helpless,” Crosby’s freak flag anthem “Almost Cut My Hair,” and Stills ominous, agonizing acoustic plea, “4 + 20.”
The real masterpiece for me, on an album crammed with classic tracks, is Young’s three-part suite, “Country Girl.” The suite’s first movement, “Whiskey Boot Hill,” is a mournful waltz tracing “winding paths through tables and glass,” to the end of innocence. Part two, “Down, Down, Down” concerns itself with the end of a relationship (“If I could stand to see her crying, I would tell her not to care. When she learns of all your lying, will she join your there”), before giving way to the epic concluding section, “Country Girl,” in which Young states his case for romance with Sebastian’s aching harmonica wailing away in the background. The entire song is a perfect blend of Young’s blazing lyrical talent, his keen sense of melody, and the overwhelmingly beautiful vocal harmonies that are the trademark of Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Crosby, Stills & Nash remain a popular touring attraction to this day, but they never made another album as good as Deja Vu. Neil Young went on to be a legend, and every now and then he calls his old friends up and they take the show back out on the road. But it’s this album, this moment, that captures Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at their peak.