Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stopped making sense: CSNY 1974

I've been spending a lot of time with CSNY 1974, a new 3CD/1DVD box set culled from the famed folk-rock group's arena tours of that year. I've been a fairly casual Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fan for a long time, but a fan of a certain type—namely a Neil Young obsessive with a lesser regard for the rest of the group. Yesterday's heavy listening to this (fucking awesome, I should say up front) box shifted my thinking significantly.

When I first spun CSNY 1974 a few months back, I remember taking note of the vast chasm separating a Neil contribution like, say, "On the Beach"—one of his deepest and most haunting songs—from a Graham Nash tune like "Our House." The difference between Young's uneasy existential meditation ("I went to the radio interview / But I ended up alone at the microphone"—whew!), and Nash's wholly placid campfire-singalong love ode. My impulse was to rank, to set up a snobby hierarchy, pegging the former as clearly more weighty, and thus more valuable, than the latter.

But what I was overlooking was the weird alchemy of the so-called supergroup. The way that the coexistence of disparate talents can shed new light on each one, even if, for a moment, one seems like the obvious sun, with the others acting as mere minor satellites. I'm not sure CSNY quite rivals Fleetwood Mac in this department, i.e., in the sheer depth of their genius arsenal. Seeing Nicks, Buckingham and Christine McVie on the same stage a few weeks ago reminded me how unlikely it was that those three pop magicians, each with such a different appeal, ended up in the same band, but CSNY have their own special kind of wonder.

Listening to this new box set, you really feel the cycle of personalities in this band. I've spent countless hours with Young's solo work, and a lot of time with Graham Nash's excellent 1971 solo debut, Songs for Beginners, but before I got ahold of CSNY 1974, Stephen Stills and David Crosby were both a bit of a mystery to me. This set has made me an ardent fan. There's something so soulful and plainspoken about a song like "Almost Cut My Hair," Crosby's meditation on "letting [his] freak flag fly" after nearly stowing it for good, or Stills's ragged roots-rock jam "Love the One You're With." There's a sense in which Nash and especially Young are operating in this sort of ethereal realm due to the riveting, angelic qualities of their voices—sounds that it's hard to imagine are coming out of actual humans. The other two, though, personify these sort of hard-living bros, the kind of musician who has to really work to get off the ground.

And when you stop trying to reconcile it, and just let it happen, the contrast between Young's eccentric lone wolf—recounting this tour in his great new car-themed memoir, Special Deluxe, he writes about how he traveled separately from the main CSNY entourage on this very tour—and Nash's bleeding-heart protest singer starts to seem revelatory. To hear Young's "Revolution Blues," (where the narrator confesses that he hates the "famous stars" that have flocked Laurel Canyon "worse than lepers," and threatens to "kill them in their cars") back-to-back with Nash's "Military Madness," during which he leads the crowd in a "No more war!" chant, drives home the essential hodgepodge nature of this band, and how the members' decision not to smooth over their differences and distinctions, but to simply present them alongside one another in sprawling night-long performances, was the source of their genius.

Crosby, Stills & Nash without Neil Young was a highly skilled but essentially harmonious (pun-intended) group; Crosby, Stills & Nash with Neil Young was a weird, brilliant ragtag assemblage—a band whose performances present the exact opposite of a unified front. Perhaps—given the widely reported dysfunction in the group—even men united, during a tour like this one, in a sort of money/power/fame alliance, or for some other crass end. While many great rock bands work as a single mighty engine, CSNY were like four separate motorcycles cruising down the highway in a temporary alliance, holding their formation long enough to make a record or complete a tour, before Lone Wolf Young decided, yet again, that he'd had enough.

And from what I've read, that dynamic continues to this day. C, S and N always keep their door open to the possibility of touring with Y, but Y, as he seems to do with all his creative partnerships, follows his own star, returning to earth only when he's ready, and who knows when that will be. But what CSNY teaches me is that he gets as much from him as they do from him. The CSNY context humanizes, popularizes, arena-izes Neil Young. Yes, say, a Crazy Horse concert is always going to be this monolithically awesome event, but it is an event shot through with Young's inherent stubbornness and lack of interest in the art of crowd-pleasing, of inviting an audience to sing along and smile. 

Those populist arts are right in Graham Nash's wheelhouse—and in Stills's and Crosby's, in slightly different ways—and they are the gifts embodied in an immortal song like "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." You put that open, communicative force together with Young's borderline-hallucinatory introspection, and you have something volatile, just shy of nonsensical. (Even the relatively innocuous "Old Man," for example, means something entirely different—more extreme and dire—here than it would at a solo Neil show.) You have the tension that separates the supergroup from the non-. You have men who may not even belong on the same tour bus, let alone stage, making it work for whomever's sake—their kids', their record company's, their wives', maybe their own, but who knows. And weirdly, paradoxically, you have magic. A byproduct of this whole messy jumble. You don't know how it got there, but it's happening. CSNY 1974 is all of that—a band, a tour, a box set that makes no sense until you stop trying to make it make sense.

1 comment:

Howard Barnum said...

Nice piece, I think you really get what made this a great group. I recently read the Neil Young bio "Shakey" by Jimmy McDonough, and while I thought it was very enlightening I found his near-dismissal of CSNY annoying. You capture what he missed, which is also there in the studio work. Déja Vu runs the gamut from fluffy sweetness (Our House) to portentous and maybe pretentious brooding (4+20) to both of those together (Déja Vu) to jam-rock (Almost Cut My Hair) to uncategorizable poetic masterpieces (Helpless). Better for running together at the edges. Granted, the masterpiece on that album was Neil's...but the whole thing is its own kind of masterpiece, too.