A “supergroup” in rock music is generally taken to be a formidable band whose front members have achieved fame in their own right. The subtitle of David Browne’s new book on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young claims that they are rock’s greatest supergroup, and it’s hard to argue with that assertion. If Browne’s book doesn’t convince you of that, it will at least shed light on what made these four musicians. each stars in their own right before, during and after CSN&Y, so incredibly in intriguing as a foursome. As he writes, “each sang in a distinctive voice and had a songwriting style his own, yet still managed to create a unified sound together”.
First let’s remind ourselves of the musical origins of the iconic group members. Stephen Stills and Neil Young came out of Buffalo Springfield, with their best known hit the haunting For What It’s Worth.
Stills and Young reunited as Buffalo Springfield at the Fox Theater on June 2, 2011 to do an hour and a half set live, that included For What It’s Worth at the 1:18:40 mark of this video:
Graham Nash emerged from the Hollies, and had the high voice of the harmony ladder that would make CSN&Y so unique in the range of their vocal blends. My personal Hollies favorite was Bus Stop.
Allan Clarke was the lead singer of the Hollies, and in 2011 he joined Graham Nash to sing Bus Stop at the Royal Albert Hall in London, with David Crosby joining in.
David Crosby formed CSN&Y after being kicked out of the Byrds’ nest by Roger McGuinn. Their biggest hit was written by Pete Seeger in the late ’50s, but the lyrics of course were lifted largely from Ecclesiastes.
Here is Crosby doing Turn, Turn, Turn at The City Winery in New York City on January 29, 2014, as recorded “from down under”.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were best known as the vowels of Rock n’ Roll because they were C, S, N, and sometimes Y. It was Cass Elliot, of the Mamas & Papas, who encouraged Crosby & Stills to get together (they were known as The Frozen Noses due to their cocaine habit) and their mutual friend, John Sebastian suggested that Graham Nash would be a perfect complement to the new band they were looking to form. It was in mid 1968, at the home of Joni Mitchell – a paramour of both Crosby and Nash – when Graham Nash first sang together with Crosby and Stills. Listening to a song that Steven had just written, “You Don’t Have to Cry”, Graham offered to add his harmony, and the mellifluous sound of Crosby, Stills and Nash was born.
At that moment, to paraphrase another song on the first album (Helplessly Hoping), they were one person who were two alone while being three together and for each other. Although it seems obvious in hindsight that these three together had something special, Browne relates that George Harrison and Peter Asher, in charge of procuring talent for Apple Records, dropped by Nash’s apartment in London to hear the trio play acoustically and decided to pass on signing them. “They didn’t get it”, Crosby related. “Everyone makes mistakes. They made a mistake. We were good.”
The group formally formed at the end of 1968, and the songs for the first album were finalized in March, 1969 and released in May. The album was dominated by contributions from Stills, and inspired by his tumultuous relationship with Judy Collins, most notably Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. They decided to use their names for the band, like a law firm (though not in alphabetical order), signifying that they were free to work on independent projects at any time. They made their public debut in Chicago’s Auditorium Theater on August 16, 1969, and were already big enough to command the second highest pay day for appearing at Woodstock two days later. They were stardust and they were golden and, and they would manage to get themselves back to the Garden in 2009 to commemorate that special event.
When CSN looked to add a bass player, they considered Steve Winwood (involved in his own supergroup with Eric Clapton, Blind Faith) and John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, but they both declined. Ahmet Ertegun, head of Atlantic Records, suggested that they invite Neil Young to join, and the sometimes Y was born. It’s fair to say that Young was the least committed to staying with the band, and his tendency to drift away was fueled by the fact that he enjoyed the most success as an independent artist. Very little of what Crosby, Stills, or Nash did independently could be considered commercially viable. Their eggs would always remain most productive when pooled in the CSN basket. In contrast, Young enjoyed a significant following and financial windfall with classics such as My My Hey Hey, Rockin’ in the Free World, and Harvest Moon.
As far as we know, Neil never blew his mind out in a car, but he’s the only one of CSN&Y to continuously record with the same band (Crazy Horse) independent of the group from 1969 ’til today, with a wide range of covers such as this rendition of A Day in the Life during which he blew the strings off his guitar on stage with Sir Paul McCartney.
CSN&Y followed up their debut album with Déjà Vu, which would turn out to be prophetic on several levels. The band would experience a volatile existence in the ensuing years, with breakups due to Young’s exiting and entering and most notably Crosby’s terrible drug addiction, punctuated by periodic reunions for benefit concerts and sometimes just the need to pay bills. After all, Alan Dershowitz doesn’t come cheap, and he was one of the attorneys who helped keep Crosby’s prison time to a minimum after he was busted.
In Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffet initially notes that some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, but I know it’s nobody’s fault. He then faces the reality that while some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, now he thinks, – hell it could be my fault. And finally owning responsibility that while some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, I know, it’s my own damn fault. While no one takes direct responsibility for the initial breakup of CSN&Y, David Crosby lays the blame squarely on Rita Coolidge who Browne suggests in a strange way might be considered the Yoko Ono of CSN&Y. Although some have claimed that it was the failed triangle between Coolidge, Stills and Nash that put a fault line between the band’s unifying forces, others insist that it was the band members’ own damn fault. Although the band’s joint existence has been plagued by excesses and disagreements, there’s no doubt that their original CSN album and CSN&Y’S Déjà Vu are two of the sweetest compilations of music you’ll find anywhere.