Available to buy now in ebook format 'Change Partners - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young' by clicking here!
“Graham Nash, David Crosby” (1972)
Southbound Train/Whole Cloth/Blacknotes/Stranger’s Room/Where Will I Be?/Page 43//Frozen Smiles/Games/Girl To Be On My Mind/The Wall Song/Immigration Man
Many fans were surprised when Atlantic chose this little known, under-rated gem from the CSN back catalogue as the trio’s representative for the record label’s 50th anniversary reissue series of 50 CDs in 1998. Surely boss Ahmet Ertegun would favour a Buffalo Springfield album (the band he first fell in love with), the original pioneering best selling self-titled ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ album or the first (and most successful) Stephen Stills album (boss and artist had always had a special bond, with Stills the golden boy until he blotted his copybook somewhere around 1974). After all, why re-release an album that had already been a fairly poor seller on CD, had taken 12 years since the invention of the CD format to appear and, even in 1972, had seemed to pick the short straw of all the fuss surrounding CSN, at a time when most reviewers and fans alike were turning their attention to higher profile releases by Stills and Young? But if you’re a ‘real’ fan of CSNY – and Ahmet Ertegun, more than probably any record label boss, was a huge fan of CSNY and a vast majority of the music he released – then most probably you too have a soft spot for the Crosby-Nash records, the quiet heart and social conscience of the CSNY back catalogue. More understated than the all-singing all dancing trio albums, under less commercial pressure than the quartet albums, less individual than the solo albums, but full of heartfelt protest and heartfelt love songs and a fair bit of pioneering work that sounds like nothing else ever made, the four studio Crosby-Nash albums are a forced to be reckoned with (Well, the first two are anyway – see our review of ‘Wind On The Water’ (no 67) for their peak as a duo). There’s only the one hit on this album (‘Immigration Man’) and by the standard of past achievements this album wasn’t a big seller, but you overlook it at your peril as it still contains some of Crosby’s most striking material and some of Nash’s deepest work. Listening now, in 2012, it seems like Ahmet Ertegun was spot on again, just as he was for pretty much all of Atlantic’s first 50 years in the business.
On the face of it things don’t look too good I grant you. One of Crosby’s songs has a publishing date of 1968 (‘Games’, a song which may well have been written for The Byrds before Croz got turfed out of them unexpectedly) and one of Nash’s 1969 (‘Stranger’s Room’, one of his first songs written to be written after leaving The Hollies) and we know for a fact that some of the other songs here had been gathering dust for a while. If these songs were any good then, surely, they’d have been released long before now, right? Well, had these songs been written by another band – or even C/N at a later date – I might well be advising you to steer clear, given our usual feelings about re-using old songs that weren’t good enough to make old albums. But the truth is that no one, not even the Beatles, enjoyed the purple patch that all of CSNY enjoyed between 1968 and 1972. It speaks volumes that, already on this site, we’ve covered every single CSNY release of the period bar a few Neil Young records – they really are all that good (give or take the lower moments of ‘Harvest’ and ‘Neil Young’ anyway). The songs that got left out of Crosby and Nash’s solo albums and the CSN/Y albums are for the most part every bit as good as the songs we all know and love. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this album – and Stills concurrent ‘Manassas’ album the same year (see review no 51) plus Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ – represent the very end of the period when CSNY could do no wrong, collectively or apart. The perfect group for the early 1970s, they fall slightly out of fashion with glam and, despite a slight rise in fortunes come 1975 for all four members, are sunk for good by punk rock come the end of the 70s. Indeed, Crosby won’t released another song till as late as mid 1975’s ‘Wind On The Water’ – an eternity for the period considering this album came out in January 1975.
That’s in the future though. For this album it must have appeared a little weird to fans that Crosby and Nash were working together again at all. Both Crosby and Nash had scored highly with their first debut albums, Crosby gathering much respect and applause for the more out-there songs that featured on the still unique sounding album ‘I Swear There Was Somebody There’ and Nash enjoying the commercial success and grudgingly good reviews for ‘Songs For Beginners’. After the heartbreak of CSNY, who promised much but fizzled out after one album as a trio and one as a quartet, why go back through all that heartbreak again? Well, technically, it wasn’t Crosby and Nash that fell out – that’s all to come later in the decade when Crosby’s drug abuse escalates – and the pair shared a special bond. For all his ‘star’ image of the long haired rebel that nobody could tame, Crosby still felt keenly the rejection from the other Byrds circa 1968 when they kicked him out of the band and, even in CSN, suffered something of a crisis of confidence when it came to writing his more original, pioneering, ‘alternatively tuned’ songs. He’s remarked many times in interviews since that it was only when Nash – a songwriter he’d long admired – whooped on hearing Crosby’s wordless spiritual ‘Critical Mass’ that he began to believe that he really was a good songwriter. Nash, for his part, found a kindred spirit who wanted more from the rock and roll industry than simply a way of making money and having some hits as he’d done with The Hollies. We’ve written many times on various Hollies/Nash/CSNY reviews what a wrench it was for Nash leaving his band, his wife and his home country to work with his new friends in 1969, but the truth was CSNY had a bigger scope and offered a louder, deeper voice than potentially any other band had ever had. To some extent money and power struggles killed CSNY off before they had a real chance to prove their mettle, but whilst Stills and Young were content to go solo for Crosby and Nash the thought of never hearing CSNY play again to that big an audience on subjects that wide must have been horrific. In short, they needed each other and its actually a surprise that they don’t work together again as a duo until 1975 (when yet another series of CSNY recording sessions falls through).
It’s important to remember that this album was the first to be recorded when CSNY’s split seemed permanent, not simply the first of many opportunities ‘wasted on the way’. In concert, at least, the pair were really prepared to develop a ‘new’ sound as a partnership, playing a fascinating series of concerts featuring a few songs from this album alongside CSN/Y and solo hits (though no Byrds or Hollies songs as yet), with no other performers except themselves. Stripping back their songs, some of which – like Marrakesh Express and Long Time Gone – had been tremendously produced in the studio, with layers of clever trickery, they seemed to find their purpose again and anyone who was there at one of the pair’s 1971 shows seems, to a man, to have experienced a life-changing experience. (Johnny Rogan, author and CSNY follower, is not a man given to hyperbole and is as likely to kick his icons as praise them, but even he has called these concerts ‘the most emotionally charged’ experience of any concert he’d been to). We can only hear it now on bootlegs, such as the notorious ‘A Stony Evening’ or its close cousin, the officially released ‘Another Stony Evening’ (as released in the late 1990s) – never the same as actually being there when some of the songs were brand new - but it’s still a revelatory experience. One of the ‘songs’ (its 58 seconds long) on this album ‘Blacknotes’ was even included from this tour. As a result there was a real buzz about this record. What on earth could Crosby and Nash do in the studio if their live shows were that good?
Well, alas, Crosby and Nash didn’t produce a record that bare. The bad news is that there are parts of ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (note the distancing from CSN in that title, which even lists the names the wrong way round!) that are as overproduced as the trio/quartet albums. Nothing, not one, performance on this album is up to the ghostly synergy of their stripped-down tours. There is also some awful filler, such as ‘Girl To Be On My Mind’ that, deservedly, never actually made the tour set list. But on a brighter note Crosby and Nash were sensible and sensitive enough to rope in ‘The Section’ a group of West Coast session musicians who will end up as the pair’s main working partners for much of the 70s. Their playing – particularly Danny Kootch’s fiery guitar and Crosby’s future writing partner, pianist Craig Doerge - is a good match for even CSNY and gives the band a solid base for their harmonies and space for their characteristically philosophical lyrics. The record also continues the tradition started on the Crosby and Nash solo albums of special guest appearances, including Flying Burrito Brother Chris Etheridge, Jefferson Starship drummer Johnny Barbata and no less than three members of the Grateful Dead.
One of the few other artists from the rock/folk world to have their work re-released in an Atlantic ‘birthday’ edition that year was Joni Mitchell. We’ve mentioned her a few times already on this site (notably on Nash’s first two solo albums, when the pair were boyfriend and girlfriend and inspired many of the other’s best songs) but she looms particularly large on ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’. Alas in this period the happy foundations of ‘Our House’ are shown to be less solid than either of them realised and many of these songs have an unusually doomy gloomy sort of feel, especially Graham’s. Many of Nash’s best songs from this vintage CSNY era were inspired by troubled and uncertain times that made him question the solidity of the world around him and fans of songs like ‘King Midas In Reverse’ and ‘I Used To Be A King’ will find much to love here. It’s worth pointing out, too, that Joni has already spurned Crosby’s affections for Nash’s as early as 1969, despite the fact that David effectively discovered her and helped her find fame and fortune during his ‘year off’ in between the Byrds and the first CSN album and that might well be her loss Crosby is mourning alongside the better known story of Christne Hinton (who died in car crash while taking her cats to a vet) that runs through the eerie sound of heartbreak on ‘Where Will I Be?’. Back to Joni, though, and the fact that the ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ record is dedicated to her shows what a spell she still cast over the pair and it’s interesting to note how similar many of the songs herein are to Joni’s own, with more acoustic instruments than usual and a rawer, confessional tone very much in keeping with Mitchell’s mega-album of that year ‘Blue’.
As for the songs themselves, well, if there is a theme that fits this album its one of confusion and loss, both personal and that felt by a generation, tiring of the seemingly endless Vietnam war and a world still suffering from the same narrow minded prejudices that the 60s were all set to solve for good. Nash, the singer usually known for his lovelorn ballads and commercial pop, is in a particularly snappy mood: the singalong ‘Immigration Man’ is as angry a song as he ever wrote despite the catchy tune, while ‘Southbound Train’ wraps seething fury in a Dylanesque ramble about things going wrong, ‘Stranger’s Room’ is a song of infidelity that finds the narrator more lost victim than preying adulterer and ‘Frozen Smiles’ is a song directed at Stephen Stills that’s as effective a ‘goodbye’ kiss off song as any you’ll hear. Crosby is more thoughtful and bewildered than angry, still feeling the loss of girlfriend and band, if not quite as desolutely melancholic as ‘I Swear There Was Somebody There’ (which is at least a nomination for the best album about coping with unexpected loss). ‘Games’ and ‘Whole Cloth’ continue Crosby’s run of songs pondering who is in charge of life and why it gets so messy, ‘The Wall Song’ is about hitting brick walls every time you think you’re close to the truth and the jaw-dropping one-two punch of ‘Where Will I Be?’ and ‘Page 43’ appears to suck all hope and optimism out of life before, joyfully, offering it all up again in the following song. Many fans and critics have lost sight of it, hidden behind the typically pristine glowing harmonies and the occasional pop hook and catchy riff, but this is a dark album. The light of optimism that burned so bright on ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ and continued to flicker throughout ‘Deja Vu’ is here all but extinguished, with Crosby and Nash admitting their dreams of a peaceful, equal, happy future for planet Earth might be out of reach. Interestingly, it took both Stills and Young longer to come to that conclusion (it’s not till the second Manassas record that Stills sounds this troubled and Young won’t get there till ‘Harvest’, released later in 1972) and it’s a measure of how brave and at times pioneering this album is for it’s day.
That said, there’s still an air of lurking disappointment in this album. At barely 34 minutes, this isn’t by any means an epic or carefully planned album. The enjoyable moments on the record are enjoyable indeed and add a good half dozen wonderful songs to the ridiculously stuffed ‘classic CSN songs’ directory. But at other times this album seems thin compared to the rich tones of both the group and solo albums Crosby and Nash had already released, missing perhaps two or three extra career-defining moments to rank alongside their best work. Fair enough, you think, as Crosby for one was never the most prolific of writers (we add again that he has a three year gap until his next album, again shared with Nash, back in an era when artists still released at least one, if not two, albums a year). What’s odd about that is how many strong songs the pair still had waiting to be used. Concert favourite ‘The Lee Shore’ popped up at nearly every gig Crosby played in the 70s so its odd to think that this lovely song about the sea never made it to a studio record until the CSN box in 1991 (there’s an even lovelier CSNY version from 1970 that still hasn’t seen the light of day!) Nash’s ‘Right Between The Eyes’ another live favourite captured on CSNY live album ‘4 Way Street’, is also a song ripe for rediscovery, a wordy Dylanesque ballad in a similar vein to ‘Southbound Train’ about how courage comes not from superhuman deeds but from the bravery of looking loved ones and enemies in the eye when we tell them home truths (there’s a lovely solo studio version of it on Nash’s box set ‘reflections’). There’s also a small handful of sketchy songs known to have been tried out at both men’s solo records (notably Crosby’s whimsical ‘Is It Really Monday?’) and in retrospect its odd that neither man ever returns to the demos created in their ‘golden period’ at all for their later albums (with the exception of this album’s ‘Wall Song’, perhaps the sketchiest of all the demos Crosby made during sessions for his solo album). Add even a couple of these songs to the track listing and the album’s looking a lot better (and a lot longer) already!
It’s notable, too, that only ‘Immigration Man’ will ever make it to CSN/Y’s regular concert setlist, despite the fond regards that band and fans have for several of the songs here (‘Southbound Train’ and ‘Page 43’, both songs played live occasionally, are high on fan favourite lists). What impressed me most about second due album ‘Wind On The Water’ – see the list of links below if you want to read that review – was it’s consistency, with every track – give or take ‘Cowboy Of Dreams’ – a highlight. This album is one of peaks and troughs, with too much filler material, albeit not just the ‘old’ songs as you’d maybe expect. Many a fan has also come to this album straight from the ‘Stony Evening’ sets (official and otherwise) and expected to be completely blown away. That said, even only half blown away this album still packs a punch and is many fan’s favourite, with Crosby at his most casually poignant and Nash at his most autobiographical and bewildered. It’s also wonderfully diplomatic and equal, with Crosby and Nash split right down the middle (aside from ther 58 second ‘Blacknotes’), in stark contrast to the CSN/Y records where Crosby – generally – gets a raw deal compared to the more prolific Stills. In other words, there’s much to enjoy on this album – but its not the career defining magical moment that fans hoped after hearing C-N in concert or longed for after hearing the greatness of the pair’s first solo albums. Still, it goes without saying that even half-cooked CSN is still better than a good 99% of all records ever released and there are many moments here that sum up better than any other record just what the soul-searching peace-seeking life-affirming CSN family were all about it, without the usual ego clashes that got in the way of many of their group LPs. No wonder Ahmet Ertegun loved it!
‘Southbound Train’ is an unusually serious place to start, a wordy Nash ballad that looks at nothing less than the history of America to date. As an ‘outsider’ Mancunian looking in, Nash must have been struck by the comparative recent history of his new homeland compared to Britain and the pride the locals felt for their heritage (as opposed to Britain, whose fading empire and the atrocities committed in its name were something to be ashamed of in 1972, not proud). Nash has revealed since that he wrote the song after thinking about the Vietnam war and the way Americans had even less sway over politics than in the UK, helpless passengers on a train running its course oblivious to public opinion (the song made a welcome return to CSNY's set list in 2006 on their anti-Bush 'Freedom Of Speech' tour, where 35 years on it sounded more like soothsaying than stark warning). The melody is much starker and sombre than is usual for Nash and sounds every bit like a slow-moving mammoth train that’s relentless in its slow swagger down the road. The lyrics are some of Nash’s most poetic, too, including a first verse that imagines the Statue of Liberty as a real person ‘laughing and shaking your head’ at the stupidity of what American politicians were doing in the name of ‘freedom’ before visiting her less well known cousins ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ in the next two verses. Nash’s vocal does a good job at sounding muted and detached, but the quiet fury of the song is there if you look for it, with such great lines as Equality ‘quietly facing the fist, angry and tired that his point has been missed’. Unfortunately there are as many poor lines as good ones, with such as odd rhymes as ‘phone’ and ‘down’ and a confusing farewell line about how the hapless passengers have ‘helped pay for a crown’ (a line surely more relevant to UK politics and wars?) Also, while the image of a train running to a set of rails that can’t be changed is a strong one, summing up man’s less humane qualities as the industrial revolution came to bear technological fruit, the idea of a ‘Southbound’ train is less ideal, sounding like a mixed metaphor where the train is heading for the ‘heart’ of America in a positive way rather than running off the rails (Nash means South as in ‘downwards’, but it’s not that strong a metaphor). Still, even if only partly successful, ‘Southbound Train’ is an undeniably strong and poignant song and gets the album off to a strong start, even with a typically out of tune harmonica part from Graham that makes for rather uncomfortable listening. Talking of poor harmonica parts, Nash was thrilled when Bob Dylan met up with Crosby and Nash backstage and asked them to sing some of their new material. Nash had just written this song and played it for him before Dylan promptly asked to hear it again. It’s no wonder that Dylan, famously unimpressed by the antics of CSNY (when asked by a reporter if he thought the quartet were right in thinking they’d helped end the Vietnam war with music, Dylan is meant to have replied ‘they always struck me as those kinda guys’), should like this song in particular, as its a song very much after his own heart, where symbols of our past speak volumes about our present and the words are arguably more important than the tune. Listen out for special guest Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel for more or less the last time on record (which is fitting, given that he first played the instrument on Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children’).
‘Whole Cloth’ is the kind of song that gives non CSNY fans the jitters. Like many of Crosby’s pieces, the song has a peculiar convoluted, irregular time signature, more akin to jazz than rock and pop. It also has lyrics sketched over the top, seemingly at random rather than fitting a regular verse-chorus-middle eight sequence. The lyrics themselves are also among the most impenetrable of Crosby’s career, returning back to his favourite theme that the human race is running around planet Earth like a headless chicken, unable to progress or learn from his mistakes. If you’re a fan, though, it’s the song’s uniqueness and intense atmosphere that make it so enjoyable, one of the most Crosby-ish of all Crosby songs. Asking his audience what they ‘base their life on’, Crosby says that trying to plan our lives is futile because we can’t see ‘what’s around the bend’. His doubt about his role in the hippie ethos of peace and love comes into doubt by the last verse too, with Crosby admitting that ‘although I always thought that I meant what I said’ really all his 60s generation were doing was ‘making up’ the new rules about how to behave, carving up their own ideas out of the ‘whole cloth’ of human potential. The result is a stark, desperate song that in one fell swoop undoes all the peace and optimism of the 1969-70 CSNY releases. The song’s jagged angular feel and its relentless instrumental coda, where even Danny Kootcgh’s guitar can’t find a way out the prison of chords, offer a fine companion to the bleak lyrics and makes for one of the toughest yet most rewarding moments of CSN’s career. The song is also well arranged, starting with an extraordinary Crosby-Nash harmony part sung in their more usual sunny tones and ducked in the mix behind Crosby’s lead, like a ghost of a sound that can’t possibly live in a 1972 full of Nixon and Vietnam (the duo weren’t to know that Watergate will signal the end of Nixon barely a few months down the line, when their work starts to get happier again). A brave song which, while often a struggle to listen to, is nonetheless extraordinarily prescient and honest in its understanding of the world circa 1972.
‘Blacknotes’ is a simple, silly song made up on the spot by Nash at a CSN gig at Carnegie Hall while waiting to end his solo spot and for Crosby and Stills to walk back out on stage. The song really is played on just the black notes and is, in fact, the easiest way to learn how to write songs (the black notes on a keyboard are so harmonically in tune with each other that it’s impossible to hit a ‘wrong’ note while improvising, something I learnt during my piano lessons where ‘composing’ was always my favourite part). Nash offers this advice up to the audience in a kind of ‘Plastic Ono Band’ you-are-the-audience idea, but sadly his actual rushed playing and rather basic runs up and down the keyboards are unlikely to have inspired many wannabe singer-songwriters. It’s a curious addition to the album, lasting not quite a minute, and doesn’t really fit the album’s epic and poetic downbeat feel (it’s also odd that the Chicago CSN concert has never been released, even on bootleg – clearly the band were taping it for some project or other although to date this 58 seconds is all we have).
‘Stranger’s Room’ is the closest any song on this album comes to sounding like The Hollies and was in fact one of the first songs Nash left after leaving his first band, summing up his early years in America when his heart told him he was in love with Joni Mitchell but his head hadn’t quite caught up with that thought yet. Basically a song about adultery, with Nash waking up in the bedroom of a person he only remembers hazily from the night before and wondering how he ended up here ‘lost’. Alas the song is too short to really do the idea justice, but there are several impressive moments, from the opening delightfully subtle French Horn part (a unique sound for a CSN/Y record) , some clever lines (‘my eyes were full of morning and my mouth was full of night’) and a killer chorus complete with blistering Crosby-Nash double tracked harmonies and a Kootch guitar part that sound suspiciously like Hollies guitarist Tony Hicks. The song ends with a clever metaphor, with Nash’s narrator looking for a lightswitch, summing up both his lack of understanding of the room and surroundings and his more spiritual need for ‘enlightenment’ as to which girl he really loves. Had this song had a couple of extra surprises and lasted longer than its stingy 2:28 running time it would undoubtedly have been remembered as one of the duo’s better songs of the period.
‘Where Will I Be?’ is for me the highlight of the album, another Crosby song that breaks every rule ever made about composition and yet couldn’t sound more perfect if it tried. Like much of his solo album from the year before, ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody There’ its a near-wordless, rather choral song written in memory of Crosby’s lost love Christine Hinton who died that year in a car crash and sounds like one long musical sob. Like many a Crosby narrator, this one is looking for direction and can’t find it anywhere, but this song is much more personal than Crosby’s typical song and asks directly ‘what am I going to do?’ not on behalf of a country or a generation but on behalf of himself. A whole series of wordless ‘ahhhs’ feature next, including some of the most breathtaking harmonies Crosby and Nash ever put together, expressing in music the fear, pain and confusion that even a songwriter as strong as Crosby is unable to put into words. Full of hidden shadows, a quiet flute part and lots of twinkling synthesisers, the backdrop to this track is extraordinary and surely unique. Given the circumstances, Crosby’s lead, almost wordless vocal is exceptional, brilliant at conveying the hopelessness of the song which builds in power with every note. A spiritual prayer, seemingly made to a God the narrator doesn’t believe in, this is David Crosby at his very best. You only wish that he hadn’t had to have gone through such hardship to have been inspired to write one of the most heartbreaking songs ever made.
‘Page 43’ is for me less successful, Crosby’s ‘answering’ song to the last track, trying to imagine a mythical instruction booklet that gives all humans advice on how to cope with what life throws at them. Many fans love this song for its casual Crosby vocal and its lyrical understanding that life has to be lived whatever has happened in the past, but for me the moment is too soon, both on this record (where it undoes all the goosepimply majesty of ‘Where Will I Be?’) and in Crosby’s life, where it was clearly too soon for anyone to recover from such an awful tragedy (had Crosby been given space to grieve there’s a chance he wouldn’t have succumbed so spectacularly to drugs throughout the rest of the decade). Crosby’s wandering vocal and the slow, piano-led backing sound a little too crooner-ish in places, even if the harmonies are way above anything supposedly brilliant singers like the Ratpack members could manage. The idea of an instruction booklet granting humans ‘permission’ is a fun one, though, and to this day I often use ‘page 43’ as my random selection when trying to pick out a book I don’t know from a library or bookshop. There’s also a clever opening where Crosby’s vocal repeats the opening instrumental refrain to the letter on the words ‘look around again...’, although on the other hand his uneasy close to each verse with the lines ‘or else you’ll find [life] has passed you by’ sounds uncomfortable, ill fitting with the rest of the song’s puzzling message and leaving that threat hanging in the air at the end sits badly with such a breezy, happy-go-lucky song. Crosby later said that he wrote the song in an attempt to sound like James Taylor, a singer-songwriter he admired who based his songs around passing chords – as a result ‘Page 43’ sounds quite unlike anything else Crosby ever wrote; whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up to you. For me, Crosby always sounds at his most ‘real’ on his sadder, more heartbreaking songs and Crosby’s advice that ‘life is fine, even with the ups and downs’ skates too lightly over the turbulent lives some of us – Crosby included – can lead.
Side two starts with ‘Frozen Smiles’, which sounds like a personal grievance the listener can’t join in with until you learn that the subject of Nash’s wrath is none other than Stephen Stills. With that fact in mind this is a fascinating look at the troubled CSNY partnership who often wrote about themselves (Crosby on ‘Cowboy Movie’, Stills on ‘Change Partners’ and Young on ‘The Old Homestead’ amongst others), with Nash even using Stills’ own imagery to get back at him. Many a Stills song used the metaphor of living ‘behind walls’ long before Pink Floyd made the idea fashionable and here Nash tries in vain to reach beyond Stills’ ‘walls’. He goes on to say that he dropped everything and ‘flew a long way’ at the chance of making music – only for Stills to wipe it all and reject it (presumably this refers to the troubled CSNY sessions although, eerily, it fits the later incident of 1976 – when the Stills/Young Band album was intended as a CSNY album, with Crosby and Nash abandoning sessions for ‘Whistling Down The Wire’ to fly out and work on it before having their vocal wiped in a spur-of-the-moment decision by Stills – to a tee). Nash painfully tells Stills ‘you’re supposed to be my friend’ in exactly the same huffy way as a child at a school playground, but clearly this song cuts mightily deep, Nash using the memorable image of the ‘music in my veins’ turning to ‘stone’ over the incident. The line ‘does it get you off to act so all alone?’ will strike anyone whose ever studied the career of Stephen Stills as a particularly apt one – something that Stills himself has admitted in his darker songs like ‘Witching Hour’, written in this same period for Manassas who were rehearsing their double album at the exact same time this record was being made. Nash then ends the song by asking Stills ‘to take my advice...not to take advice’ from others who don’t have Stills’ friendship at heart like Nash does and to ‘have faith in who you are...and your goodness’, a nice softening of the blow of the song that might well have inspired Neil Young’s ‘Tired Eyes’ from the following year (‘Please take my advice...’). Nash admits, though, that such temper tantrums and coldness ‘make it much too hard’ to be Stills’ friend – who’d have guessed that, in less than a year after this record, CSNY would get back together again at a Manassas gig in 1973? To be fair to Stills, he’s admitted many times that it was insecurity and a military background d-instilled work ethic that made him act the way he does and whenever there’s a CSNY row (which he nearly always causes) he’s – usually – the first one to apologise. As you can hear in the song even Nash is trying hard to make excuses for him, although there’s no denying that Stills’ ‘showboating’ during 1970-71 did put many of his friends – and even his fans – off his work (the most famous incident is Stills calling up Humble Pie, then working to a tight deadline, and telling them he’d written them a song he wanted to play on, before working for eight hours straight recording and mixing the song and passing out at the controls; bear in mind Stills had never even met a single member of the band before making the offer. There are many other favourite Stills stories doing the rounds too!)
‘Games’ is more archetype Crosby and is very in keeping with the other songs written in this ‘golden era’ (1968). Life is seen here as a ‘game’ being played, its just that none of us humans know who with or what the rules are. However, there must be rules because, every so often, we find that we’ve ‘lost’ – cue a memorable middle eight where Crosby’s narrator curses himself for having the ego to think ‘that I loved you, more than you loved me’. Elsewhere the song is more symbolic, studying the way humans behave in the 1970s: ‘The game of gettin’ money, the game of gettin’ more, the ego game of power, the ugly game of war’. Each verse is accompanied by gorgeous Crosby-Nash harmonies so tight you couldn’t fir a piece of paper between the gaps in their voices and another dreamy languid Crosby vocal. The one part of the song that doesn’t work is the ‘love you’ choruses that seem to have come in from a different song entirely (few Crosby songs are love songs in the traditional sense and this one less than most). We hear Crosby’s joking at his ego and his humility several times on later CSN albums (notably ‘Anything At All’), which seems to start here in this very painful period when Crosby had just been kicked out of the Byrds. It could be that this is Crosby’s idea of an apology for his sometimes dramatic behaviour with that band (‘the game was bein’ better, wiser than you, half an inch taller, a deeper shade of blue’ – the latter of which could be a pun on the blues); if so then its a masterstroke pitching this song straight after ‘Frozen Smiles’, a song that more or less demands an apology and doesn’t leave Stills feeling such an outsider. Beautiful in a terribly untraditional way, as only Crosby can be, ‘Games’ is a forgotten gem in his back catalogue, a lovely song that honestly could not have been written by anyone else ever.
‘Girl To Be On My Mind’ is probably the least successful song on the album, a Nash track based around a swirling Wurlitzer organ that finds Nash’s narrator at home alone on new year’s eve. Nash even namechecks his new address at San Francisco’s ‘Haight Ashbury’ , which must have been a huge culture shock for a Mancunian! Nash certainly hasd reason to feel lonely – after marrying young in the Hollies period (to Rose Eccles – note the second name borrowed for the single ‘Jennifer Eccles’) and then taking up with Joni Mitchell straight away on his move to the States, this is the first time Nash had probably been alone since his early teenage years. Nash’s doubts as to whether things will improve by the following new year’s eve are, sadly, well founded (he falls in love with Amy Gossage, a model whose sadly murdered by her own drug addict brother possibly over Nash’s refusal to pay money for his habit; you can read more of this sorry tale in our review for Nash’s album ‘Wild Tales’ and it certainly makes sense of why he takes Crosby’s drug-induced decline so hard). Alas we’ve heard this sort of thing done far better by several other people and Nash’s feeling sorry for himself simply doesn’t cut it (I mean, he’s living in the Haight in 1972, what’s not to love?!) Intriguingly, Nash struggles with his own vocal (he has problems with the rolling ‘r’s in the word ‘resurrection’ in particular) but the song suits Crosby’s vocal harmony very snugly, bringing out the delicious treacleness in his partner’s voice.
‘The Wall Song’ features Crosby at his best too, with the most up-tempo track on the album and a slightly more urgent take on his familiar ‘what the hell is going on?’ type songs (as Crosby once put it, ‘if you had lived my life you would have a lot of these songs!’) Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann from the Dead all guest, which is apt given that the song was at least developed during the infamous ‘Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’ sessions featuring members of the Dead, Airplane and CSNY (where its developed as part of a jam session) and it suits them well, especially Garcia’s darting guitar parts (he and Crosby always had a special bond). It’s a fascinating song, full of some of the best wordplay of any Crosby composition, full of satisfying lines that lead directly into the next line and a pioneering AABBBCC rhyming structure that’s unusual but works really well. You wonder if Crosby, too, had been listening closely to Stilkls’ work as there’s yet more references to ‘walls’ here and although Crosby’s never spoken about the song it could just as easily relate to Stills as Crosby himself (its also, like ‘Frozen Smile’, slightly accusatory, with the riff built around the one word ‘you’...) The wall, a ‘fence made of fears’ is every bit as scary and unrelenting as the better known Pink Floyd obstacle, a mammoth oppressive structure built from fear of rejection and suffering. Crosby introduces a ‘door’ into the wall by the last verse, with his narrator sensing how wonderful life is outside, but instead leaves his paranoid brain left wondering whether the wall itself or the world he sees outside it is real and which is imaginary. It’s a wonderful song, darker and edgier than most Crosby songs of the era, and Crosby sings magnificently, especially the last verse that seems to run forever just when the end appears to be in sight and full of delicious half-rhymes and memorable images (‘Your breath is scraping your brains into dust, your rusty old engine is ready to bust, you cannot believe it that they would not trust you’...) before holding the final line (‘What are lies?...’) far beyond what should be comfortable to sing. Exciting, deep and original, ‘The Wall Song’ is one of the more unfairly forgotten CSN songs of the period and is long overdue a revival on one of the trio’s tours. It’s a shame, too, that the Dead never adopted the song as their own (surprisingly given the two band’s close friendship they never did do a CSN song on stage, despite their love of cover material) as it suits their stop-start rumble rather well.
The album then ends on its best known moment with Nash’s ‘Immigration Man’, a surprise hit single (in America at least) and a welcome song on a thorny subject. Like all good hippies, Nash never believed the old spiel about immigration policies then doing its rounds in the media (as it seems to every generation or so) – after all, are we not all immigrants from one period or another, a mix of saxon, Viking, irish, West and East European, African, Asian, Chinese, Japanese and Indian blood that’s been mingling for millennia? The idea that there should be ‘borders’ on countries is a very modern ideal and doesn’t bear proper scrutiny. Nash was inspired to write the song after playing a CSNY tour in Canada and the quartet were at customs waiting to be let back into America. Despite his raised eyebrows at the quartet’s long hair and musical occupation, the only one he could deny entry to was Englishman Nash, because of the bizarre idea that the singer might be coming in to the country to ‘take their money’. Nash pointed out the huge amount of people asking for his autograph and proved he had the money, but the customs officials wouldn’t budge for hours. When he was finally released he returned, irate, to his Californian house and sat straight down at the piano to thump out this song, sketching the lyrics on the inside cover of a book named ‘The Silver Locust’ by Ray Bradbury (as he had no paper handy at the time – you can see this in the booklet to Nash’s box set ‘Reflections’ as the illustration to this song).
Nobody was singing songs about immigration in 1972 – few people dare even now – seemingly because people have been brainwashed enough into accepting the idea that people are always going to ‘play the system’ (the week I write this the Coalition have just, rather sheepishly announced that they over-estimated the amount of immigrants claiming benefits in the past year by a ridiculous 92%!) Together with Nash’s strongest pop sensibility on the record, some very clever and witty lyrics (‘Here I am with my immigration form – its big enough to keep me warm!’) and a catchy chorus that replaces ‘Immigration’ with ’Irritation’ Nash does more for the pro-Immigration lobby than any politician ever dared to do. A mixture of fun and fury, everything about this song is perfectly poised and features a whole range of guest musicians at their very best. That’s CSNY’s bassist Greg Reeves playing the opening ear-catching riff, Traffic’s Dave Mason playing the fiery guitar solos and the Jefferson Airplane/Starship drummer Johnny Barbata making the most of the opportunity to play on a pop song for once. Best of all, though, is Nash’s lead vocal, ably abetted by Crosby’s harmony, which is one of the best leads he ever recorded. If the Government of the day weren’t frightened by what musicians could do to oppose their policies then they should have been. ‘Immigration Man’ is pure Crosby-Nash, heartfelt, joyous, catchy and with a message no one else would dare touch, the perfect example of a pop song.
In all, then, ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ has a strong beginning and a strong ending but rather loses its way for much of the middle. Had the pair waited a few months longer before making the record and added a handful of great new songs (or even revived a couple of great old ones) we would now be talking about this album in the same breath as such highs as ‘Crosby Stills and Nash’ ‘Deja Vu’ ‘Stephen Stills’ and even the duo’s later ‘Wind On The Water’. It’s probably worth adding that you miss the voices of Stills and Young here more than the later pair of Crosby-Nash albums as a lot of the songs and production work do cover similar themes and need something extra to break them up. But, on the otherhand, when you consider that the duo had already worked on four of the greatest records of the age between them (the first CSN and CSNY albums plus their first two solo albums) within the space of two years and that much of this record features old, unused tracks left off those albums then ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ is still an impressively fascinating and consistent record containing many of the duo’s best loved songs alongside some lesser known songs that are just as good. CSNY fans really were spoilt for excellence in this period and this album really is right up there with the best of them, even though it might have been overshadowed down the years by better selling, more commercial, more worshipped albums. Ahmet Ertegun, that rare boss who used his ears when judging a record rather than his brain or his calculator, knew a good record when he heard one and ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ was a surprise to many when the re-issues series came out, but for all the right reasons. Many people didn’t even know Crosby-Nash had made a joint record this early in their career and were impressed how well it had held up in the intervening 26 years; fans had simply forgotten it, given how spoilt for choice we were back then, with a grand total of 13 CSNY albums (joint, duo and solo – two of them double sets) released between 1969 and 1972, all of them first-class. It’s not the fault of ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ that it was simply a shining jewel overlooked in a magnificent crown.