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Why Crosby, Stills & Nash are Overrated

The infamous Woodstock Festival in 1969 launched quite a few careers.  Santana, for example, was an unknown cover band that became a famous cover band after their concert appearance (with hits like “Oye Come Va” and “Black Magic Woman”).  Joe Cocker was a growling cover singer who became a famous cover singer (thanks to a cover of “With A Little Help from My Friends”).  Sha Na Na was a fun nostalgia act that became a very popular nostalgia act.  The list goes on.

The band that might have become most synonymous with the legendary festival, though, and who actually recorded a song called “Woodstock,” was Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN). Interesting footnote to the band’s appearance at the concert: As Stephen Stills acknowledged in the Woodstock movie, this was only the band’s second-ever live performance.

Nice work if you can get it, being an unknown band that gets the chance to play to an audience of 500,000. In actuality, it’s testimony to the band’s veteran insider status of the time. They had connections, and they used them.

In the ensuing decades, CSN has remained a superstar act, reuniting in various configurations to release the occasional album, embark on a tour, or appear at social causes (like the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest, where disenfranchised Americans vented their concerns about the wealthiest 1% of America).  What has propelled the band’s career for 45 years, though, remains their first two much-heralded albums in 1969 and 1970.

So, when music fans talk about CSN, they invariably think of those two highly touted albums, the self-titled debut in 1969, and the follow-up effort in 1970 (with Neil Young added), ‘Déjà Vu.’

Two questions arise: Are these two albums really as good as their historical weight?  And, are they so good as to forever sustain the band’s career, no matter the quality of their later output?

For example: The debut album produced two Top 40 hit singles, "Marrakesh Express" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," and peaked at number six on the Billboard albums chart. 

But is it any good? 

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Well, for starters, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" is indeed a masterpiece, filled with great melodies, great lyrical nuggets, and a doo-wop singalong hook.  But "Marrakesh Express" is annoying fluff—typical of the vapid, happy-hippie ditties that ruled late-60’s radio.  And if "Marrakesh Express" isn’t trite enough, there’s the precious crooning of “Guinnevere” and the bland musings of “Lady of the Island.”  Stills proves to be the workhorse of the album, contributing the album’s other highlights, “You Don’t Have to Cry” and “Helplessly Hoping.”  Crosby’s “Long Time Gone,” however, initiates the band’s penchant for “message” songs, advising the listener to “Speak out, you got to speak out against the madness.”

That madness, no doubt, was Vietnam, riots, assassinations, etc.  But a simple contrast with Neil Young’s far-better “Ohio” demonstrates that what separates generic folk-fluff from creative genius is concise and penetrating wordplay.  (“Ohio” doesn’t worry about “something that’s going on around here.”  No, it nails the heart of the matter: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming.”)

“Wooden Ships” is another popular track from the album, and it became omnipresent on classic rock radio.  But what sinks the tune is more of CSN’s overwrought lyrical warnings about “anguished cries… human feelings die.”

n general, that first album is a mixed bag.  Some great songs by Stills surrounded by Nash’s and Crosby’s lesser musical and lyrical clichés of the era.

So what of the second album?

‘Déjà vu’ hit number one on the Billboard albums chart and spawned three Top 40 songs, "Woodstock,” "Teach Your Children,” and "Our House.”
“Our House” is a catchy ditty, good stuff for the emerging FM radio of the time.  And “Teach Your Children” is a pleasant, though obvious, sing-along tune.  But much of the album suffers from the same problem as the first, namely, inconsistency.  Yes, there is Neil Young’s stark classic “Helpless.”  But Crosby’s banal output is a poor counterbalance.  “Almost Cut My Hair” is now considered his signature tune, but it’s a dumb song.  Yes, long hair was more of a political statement in 1970 than in later years.  But the irony of a wealthy, self-indulgent musician whining about such tedium comes off as irksome.  And while Stills crafts a good melody with “Carry On,” he still retreats into clichéd hippiedom with a chorus that proclaims “Carry on, love is coming, love is coming to us all.”

‘Déjà Vu’ sounds more polished than its predecessor, and contains more industry sheen.  But it also feels very produced and deliberate, something of a greatest hits collection from the different writers.

Here then is the crux of the problem with CSN.  After ‘Déjà Vu,’ the three principal CSN artists drifted into the rarefied ether of super-stardom, issuing various solo and duo albums throughout the decade.  But they wouldn’t reunite until 1977’s ‘CSN’ album, which hit number two on the album charts while featuring Nash’s catchy “Just A Song Before I Go.”

Really, though, there’s nothing much of true significance in CSN’s entire catalog, post-1970.  And therein lies the problem.

Nash’s first solo album featured the track “Chicago,” and promised “We can change the world.”  It was the start of Nash’s run of grandiose statements, best exemplified by his quote in the Robert Greenfield biography ‘Bill Graham Presents,’ with Nash praising Graham because he “understood the social importance of the band.”

Stills released a string of musically adventurous, though sometimes dissonant, albums in the 70s, and enjoyed the accomplishment of a Top 20 hit with the funky “Love The One You’re With.”

And Crosby, well he got high and higher, releasing ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’ in 1971 before gradually sliding into a harrowing decade of cocaine addiction.

What this really points to, though, is how readily the threesome retreated into complacency.  In the above-mentioned Bill Graham biography, Fillmore East lighting director Joshua White lamented the group’s indulgent 1970 performances, when they came out onstage obviously “stoned up the wazoo” and “sang flat.”  Sadly, the audience, primed by the hype of Woodstock and the hipness of the first CSN album, loved them.  White observed that the music industry was changing, enough that the audience was “now applauding the presence of the artist…rather than the performance.”

CSN easily succumbed to the trappings of fame and stardom, never again writing or recording songs as potent as the best material on their first two albums.  But such laziness, or loss of focus, need not have been a byproduct of fame.  Young’s career, by contrast, took off following ‘Déjà Vu’, and saw the release of classic albums throughout the decade, culminating in the 1979 masterpiece, ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’  More importantly, Young never took the easy road throughout his career, instead releasing uncompromising and sometimes harsh musical detours in the 80s.  But his artistic drive also produced late-career milestones, like the tremendous, four-album run of 1989-1994 that resulted in ‘Freedom,’ ‘Ragged Glory,’ ‘Harvest Moon,’ and ‘Sleeps with Angels.’

CSN, by contrast, were already an oldies act in 1989.  It’s commendable that they released albums in the 90’s, but with none of the musical impact that Young achieved.

More recently, Nash published an autobiography that leans heavily on his early history, including his romance with Joni Mitchell, before segueing into proud recitations of his sculpting and photography skills.  Peeking under the surface, though, is a continuing egotism over CSN’s exalted place in the rock pantheon, including frequent observations on the band’s need to "educate" their audience.

The bottom line is that CSN has always depended on the history of their first two albums, with an overall body of work that hasn’t aged well.  Those two albums have remained an overstated calling card, though, and allowed the band to continue long past any point of real creativity.  Nash astutely observed in the Bill Graham biography that it may only be Stills’ “fame and his notoriety” that have “shielded him from being out there on the street.”  That seems a fairly good summary of CSN’s career, too.###

All contents © 2011 by Gene Mahoney