Friday 4 July 2008

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young "Deja Vu" (1970) ('Core' Review #34, Revised Edition)

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Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young "Deja Vu" (1970)

Track Listing: Carry On-Questions/ Teach Your Children/ Almost Cut My Hair/ Helpless/ Woodstock// Dé Jà Vu/ Our House/ 4 and 20/ Country Girl/ Everybody I Love You (UK and US tracklisting)

‘To sing the blues you’ve got to live your dues….carry on!’

There was a time when just about everyone of a certain age and disposition used to own this album, which was at the time a landmark release for music in the way that albums like ‘Pet Sounds’, ‘Sgt Peppers’ and, err, Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ are still highly thought of today (how the Valhalla did that happen?!?) The fact that this album managed to stay in the US top sixty for a ridiculous year-and-two-months also shows just how respected it was at the time(most  records sold by name and reputation alone fell within the month even back then). Seen as the high water point of an important band everybody should hear, it was celebrated and treasured at the time as everything fans had longed for after the first album – even though later hearings reveal just how torturous the sessions were compared to the easy natural breeze of the first album. It’s a measure of how low CSN/Y’s stock has fallen since the 1970s that hardly anybody talks about this album anymore – and when they do, it’s usually reckoned to be not a patch on CSN’s first. Well, looking on the bright side, if De Ja Vu were to be restored to its proper and rightful place in pop and rock hierarchy I wouldn’t be able to talk about it on this list (note: this is one of the AAA's original 'core 101' under-rated records) – so watch me talk myself out of an album review and tell you why this album should be back in the ‘too well known’ listings where it belongs. Alternately spooky and sombre, yet at times light and uplifting, 'Deja Vu' is more variable and less consistent than its predecessor, yet it still seems like a 'whole' experience - the sound of 1970 as interpreted by four different musicians in four very different ways.

The biggest change since the last album is, of course, the obvious one of the credits. Having played everything on the first album except the drums and Nash's acoustic guitar on 'Lady Of The Island', Stills was unable to re-create the first album live. The band clearly needed someone else in tow if they were to become a touring band, although actually I've always been surprised that CSN were so keen to tour after years together in differing splintering bands, their fragility worsened by tiring concerts. Their first choice was someone who could play a little bit of everything: guitar, organ, bass - whatever Stills wasn't playing at any particular time. Legend has it that CSN approached Steve Winwood after the split of his band Traffic but he turned them down (the band remained fans with a cooking version of 'Dear Mr Fantasy' released on the CSN box set in 1991). Another legend has it that they then tried The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian, but got nervous when he tried to become a full-time partner with equal songwriting credits (he does nevertheless play some excellent harmonica on this album’s title track). The trio then did what they usually did in times of trouble: they asked one of the few people whose opinions they collectively revered, Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun, for a suggestion. Perhaps Buffalo Springfield’s biggest fan, he suggested Stephen’s old sparring partner Neil Young: the trio laughed; Stills wasn't going to back there again in a hurry - they wanted someone reliable who would assist rather than compete with Stills for the music and wouldn't quit the band to fulfil his own agenda every few minutes. The others thought that was that – but somehow, behind the knowing laughter, Stills was fascinated. Neil was his polar opposite and yet his equal in a way Crosby-Nash, as songwriter-singers rather than musicians, weren’t quite. As much as Stills hated the way Neil would duck out of responsibilities, change his mind and generally get all the girls and attention he craved, there was also great respect and understanding between the two. They both lived for their music and art in a way nobody else ever quite did. And what’s more things would be different this time (wouldn’t they?) with Stills in a position of power where he called the shots and for a time Neil was going to be listed as a junior member alongside drummer Dallas Taylor and new bass player Greg Reeves, a teenage American Indian that Stills knew.

Crosby, who knew the Springfield well, was intrigued and thought Neil had a real talent that could only help the trio but doubted Stills would ever agree after listening to Stills moaning about him across most of 1967 and 1968. Nash for his part was horrified: he'd never even met Neil and while he had long admired him from a distance (with many a Hollies track loosely based on Neil’s Springfield work) why should he get to join the hottest act on the planet effectively for free? The quartet met in a run down cafe one day to loosely discuss plans, mainly so Graham could meet this mysterious stranger so many people talked of. Neil was in an uncharacteristically charming mood and had with him a more characteristically set of strong freshly minted songs which helped convince Nash, who reported later 'that by the end of breakfast I was asking to join his band'. It helped that at first Neil agreed to be the band’s organ player with Stills the band’s de facto guitarist. This won’t last long: Neil has a habit of somehow getting his own way despite shouting more quietly than everyone else in the room and his addition will cast a long shadow over CSNY: at first because his darker edged vibe and more recalcitrant nature brings such a different feel to this band of brothers and later because he had such a different career to the others, using CSNY as one of many facets of his sound rather than living and breathing it the way the others did.

Even so, for now everyone involved agreed it was a good idea: the Stills-Young guitar duels of the Buffalo days were legendary and most fans had considered that they had ended way too quickly, whilst Neil’s songwriting was coming into its own with ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ out in shops and ‘After The Goldrush’ ready to follow. Nobody doubted that Neil was a talent and adding him to an already talented group would surely help not hinder the band’s ability. Under the surface though that isn’t strictly true and adding Neil still seems like a strange thing to do after all this time – not because he isn’t worthy of being there, but because he never sounded as if he wanted to be there. 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' had been an impressively unified group effort partly because all three men got a more or less equal share of the writing credits and lead vocals and partly because Stills' ideas and performances had gone largely unchallenged, allowing him to shape the band sound from scratch bar a drum or harmony part or three. Adding Neil's ambience changes the whole sound completely - and not just in a harmonic sense, with his songs not necessarily belonging naturally against CSN's as their songs do with each other. Most fans generally regard Neil's songs as 'darker', which is true of his solo catalogue but not his CSNY one: his two songs for 'Deja Vu' for instance are a sleepy nostalgic ballad and an epic prog rock tonal poem about one of his periodic unattached muses that he'd been trying to finish since the Springfield days. No the difference really is that Neil is a poet, able to say a lot without actually saying anything, with a beautiful turn of phrase and image and metaphor that surpasses anything Dylan can do. For all of Crosby's sci-fi adventures, Stills' lessons in alliteration and Nash's tales of island beauties the first album showed all three men expressing themselves through autobiography to some degree, opening their souls and their hearts. Neil doesn't ever really do that: the only times he's come close to telling fans what is really on his mind have been the 'doom trilogy' (the best of which, Tonight's The Night' - a eulogy for fallen friends - came with a less than explanatory booklet declaring to the listener 'I'm sorry - these people will mean nothing to you!'  and 'Trans' (an album about communication written for son Ben who suffers from cerebral palsy, with heartbreaking lyrics sung by a bunch of robots to each other using vocoders that make the lyrics impossible to hear first time round). While CSN's style is one of the widest and most varied of all, Neil's solo style is even bigger with each and every album he creates part of a larger overall jigsaw with CSNY only ever reflecting a small piece of that the same size and importance as other bits of 'Neil' doled out to Crazy Horse, The International Harvesters, The Shocking Pinks, et al. The notions of brotherhood were changed too: as Stills once put it CSN turned to rock music after seeing The Beatles and took that as a template on how to behave in music, whereas Neil always saw the loner Dylan as his mentor. Though Neil does indeed play on live versions of all the largely sunny songs from the first album (one of the few rock albums where all the songs were played live somewhere or other, except perhaps [21] ‘Lady Of The Island’) its hard to imagine any of them turning out quite so…hippieish with Neil one of four hands at the tiller ([12] ‘Wooden Ships’ would have had a much uglier ending with ‘screaming sheets’ for starters and [18] ‘Marrakesh Express’ would have surely derailed!)

The change is even bigger than that though somehow. Many reviewers have picked up on the fact that, at its most basic, the first album is a happy album and 'Deja Vu' is a sad one, the contrast between day and night where anything is possible and where everything is suddenly impossible. For a record that starts with the cry ‘love is coming to us alllll’ ‘Déjà vu’ is a surprisingly ‘down’ album, full of doomed romances that never quite happen, of men who are born into and die in poverty their lives unchanged, where you have to fight society for the right to let your freak flag fly and where you know you got to run, know you got to hide. On the first album only [19] ‘Long Time Gone’ and [16] ’49 Bye Byes’ were quite this bleak and both of those came with an extra hippie smile of hope. Many assumed that influence was down to Neil, but actually there's w hole host of reasons why CSNY were less happy than CSN were. The problems just kept mounting, eroding away the Woodstock brotherhood of the first album. Stills put himself out of commission for months after a bad fall while out riding one of his collection of horses (fan tales of him waving his crutches round the studio like a madman trying to get people to do things that he'd normally done without a second's thought have the ring of truth about them). Nash, having recently split up with Joni Mitchell ('Our House' is the last of his songs about their time together) is busy moving out to live on his own in America for the first time since 1963 when he met first wife Rose and is in a dark place all round. Happily, he's already found the new love of his life: singer Rita Coolidge. Unhappily, Stills was going out with her first and is furious that the person he thought was the love of his life could be charmed away so easily and so soon after losing Judy Collins, adding a second run of doomed romances and relationships to the CSN theme. As for poor Crosby, his life is turned upside down late on in the sessions when his girlfriend Christine is killed in a car accident, caused (so the coroner concluded) by Crosby’s cat she was taking to the vets getting loose from his box and running amok around her car. While Crosby was at his least monogamous in this period (she's one of three girlfriends depicted in the song [13] 'Guinevere' for instance), it's safe to say that his relationship with the one-time head of the Byrds fan club was one of the most special the singer ever had with anyone and her sudden dramatic death - mere hours after the pair had last spoken - affects him more deeply than he perhaps let on at the time, casting a shadow over him for much of the rest of this book (Crosby wasn't in a fit state for many of these sessions and was often sent home, sometimes with Nash on 'suicide watch' to make sure his new friend was ok). Young, meanwhile, was suffering from his own problems - a first disintegrating marriage to Susan Avacedo and his gradual realisation that his soulmate, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, was now a junkie and declining fast, with the fear that there might not be a band to go back to when and if CSNY broke up. The Making of 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' had been fun, with new friendships formed and a 'one for all and all for one' mentality. 'Deja Vu' was torture, with all four men caught up in their own struggles and trying to cope with difficult times. The fact that the band now had the money and the prestige to do exactly what they wanted – which in Stills’ case was endless retakes – added to the tensions between the quartet and the idea that actually maybe they should have gone solo after all.

What's more the spooky vibe of the album was also in its own way as linked to the times as 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' had been to 1969. Released at the exact halfway point (March 1970) in between Woodstock (August 1969) and Altamont (December 1970), this record is a little of both: 'Rejoice!' is the album's 'hello';  'Everybody we love you!' the record’s goodbye, cried with its dying breath, but in between we get the paranoia of the police car in the rear view mirror, the painful tale of a man aged eighty-four 'who starts and ends with nothing', the urgency of 'Country Girl' and the lyrics 'borrowed' from another darker Stills song that runs 'Know you've got to run, know you've got to hide...'; had this album had a song called 'Altamont' to go with the cover of Joni Mitchell's 'Woodstock' the balance couldn't have been better. As a farewell to the hippie era, then, De Ja Vu takes some beating and is still a glorious template for what music should have been like for the rest of the 70s, the decade that taste largely forget and which for the most part failed to deliver on the promise of the 1960s. It’s as much a part of its time (civil unrest, escalation of troops in Vietnam) as the first album had been about 1969 and the moon landing and the sense that mankind had a ‘future’, only this time it feels as if humanity is being swallowed up by its past.

As evidenced by the title, this record spends a lot of time mulling over where mankind had once been, tracing patterns about why the world was as messed up as it was to go alongside the first album’s pure delight at the here and now. ‘De Ja Vu’ is itself a scary little song about how we might be simply repeating our past mistakes from a former life and even seemingly innocuous tracks like ‘Teach Your Children ‘seem to be pointing out how terrible our future will be if we don’t teach our youngsters how to respect one another as human beings, whilst ‘4+20’ is a tragic tale of our possible futures, not just Stills' unfortunate old man. The theme of the first album was ‘freedom’, but this album is all about responsibility and karmic due; no wonder Crosby sings that ‘I feel like I owe it to someone’ – on the first album we were all one living in peace and harmony; on this album we can’t live in peace and harmony if any one of us is suffering unfairly. If we don’t get things right now, say the band, then our past will always follow us and haunt us – and sadly that much is as true for the world today as it is for CSNY, who lost so much of their power when they split for the first time just after this album’s release. We have all been here before, with humans destined to repeat the same old mistakes generation after generation until somebody puts that's right. As the cover makes clear, one of the places we have been before is civil war, with the front sleeve depicting the American Revolution. Recreating the de ja vu mood of the album’s title, the band plus drummer Dallas and bassist Greg (the only time CSNY’s ‘extra members’ will ever make it to a front sleeve – both will be replaced before the end of the year, mostly at Neil’s urging) are shown posing in a sepia-tinged photograph with civil war-era clothes and weapons. Fiercely protecting their homeland, it's easy to see parallels in this photograph with what CSNY were all about in the politically-charged early 1970s and all six look scarily suited to the period costume (especially Nash surprisingly—he really hails from Manchester of course and is the member of the band least likely to have ancestors who fought there!) While the first album was a celebration, this second album is a warning: we won't always be able to 'carry on' and it’s time to take sides. The sheer joy that made the first album the true classic album it was is long gone by the time the opening chords of ‘Carry On’ (the last song written and recorded for the album) violently switch to a darker place.

Which is not to say 'Deja Vu' is a bad album. At the time critics considered it greater even than the first one and most of the songs people associate with CSN/Y are on it: 'Carry On' 'Teach Your Children' 'Almost Cut My Hair' 'Helpless' Woodstock'...and that's just on the album's first side. The poor mix that threatened to sink the first album has been corrected to twinkling clarity and the album has much more of the true CSN/Y sound, as it features far more band performances and far less of Stills’ multi-overdubs. The harmonies are a bit more wonky, the acoustic playing is largely replaced by a less wondrous electric sound and the all-in-it-together ethos of the band has sadly disappeared, but even so CSN/Y are still at their peak as songwriters, musicians and singers and at least half of this album is made up of the band’s most famous material from their nearly fifty year history. While the hiring of Young never quite paid off the way the trio had imagined it with the quartet all largely working on their own songs, the rare times when the quartet are all in the same room together ('Hair' 'Helpless' Woodstock') are electrifying: the full unedited take of the former was released on the box set and it's thrilling, with all four men bouncing off each other and pushing each other to their absolute best across nine exciting minutes (cut to four here sadly). The foursome are still more than the sum of their parts and on this album they are all up to speed, providing two songs each (plus a S-Y collaboration and as Joni Mitchell cover) that are each individually amongst their best work. It’s just that this album doesn’t quite hang together the same way the debut did and some of that extra time and endless repetitious takes get in the way.

You could hardly call this album a goodbye – CSN/Y had only been going a year and two albums after all – but ‘De Ja Vu’ is also a tying-up-loose-ends album in much the same way as ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ is a glorious hello-and-look-what-we-can-do type album. The past is never quite this integral to the band again, a quartet that all specialised in writing cutting songs about the present day after all, and in a way that’s no surprise – CSNY probably instinctively knew they would never get together as a four-piece for a long time after De Ja Vu, following what all four musicians have called some of the most torturous sessions on earth (bet they didn’t think it would take them eighteen years to record again as a four-piece though!) There's a sense of closure about 'Deja Vu', though, that's surprising: CSNY were at the time the biggest band on the planet, inheritors of The Beatles' crown as the songwriters everyone looked to for guidance. They couldn't possibly let that much fame, attention and money slip away...could they? Sadly they could and CSNY's ascending star diminishes a little with each return after this one, to the point where their solo albums are generally more interesting than the rare occasions when the four get back together again to recreate the feeling and power of this album. 'Deja Vu' might quote 'we have all been here before', but really it's a one-off perfect for the times that can never really be returned to: the perfect record for 1970 that still manages to more than hold its own in 2017 but would sound silly if anyone tried to re-create today.

There’s little in life  worse for a reviewer to do than to review another reviewer, but the perfect response to this album has already been taken by someone else and is distinctly Alan's Album Archives-ish. In the article from the NME a passing alien comes to 1970s America, buys a copy of this album and considers it a form of mass hypnotism: CSNY are false prophets who don't have all the answers they claim to have and everyone should stop listening to them immediately. With a by now gathering crowd wanting proof, the aliens point to the fake gold lettering which is already peeling off (it's come away almost completely on my original vinyl copy): this album is 'fool's gold', not the genuine article. Heartbroken because they genuinely love the four musicians, the crowds agree and begin to look for another band to cling to, unable to live lives without some guidance somewhere. However , when a former devotee goes to visit the alien to ask him something else he finds – to his horror – that his new space-age friend has a pair of headphones clamped to some of his many ears, a blissful look on his face and 'Deja Vu' on his interstellar turntable. ‘But you’ve just told us that everything on this album is untrue! How can you possibly sit there and listen to this album and seem so happy?’ cries the hippie. ‘Yeah I know its all lies’ said the alien – ‘But it sounds so good I want to believe it too…’ 'Deja Vu' does indeed weave a magic spell that's highly powerful when you realise its power. While less immediate and consistent than 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' it's still a massively impressive album from four men all more or less reaching a similar peak at the same time and which contains several of the best songs of the decade. Throughout the vocals soar like no other band can, the 'freak flag' is truly waved on a few angry rants, solo acoustic and major prog rock epic performances alike are treated with the respect they deserve and all ten songs could realistically have been released as singles and would have done conceivably well in the charts. There's only a fraction of other albums I can say that many positives about; the fact that 'Deja Vu' happens to follow a record that is arguably even better is this record's bad luck, not ours; we were well and truly spoiled across those incredible nine months CSN/Y were together. In many ways they're never this potent again, solo or apart, but my friends rejoice rejoice you have no choice - we'll be carrying on the rest of the tale shortly and while never quite this good again there's still many CSNY treasures to be unearthed yet...

The Songs:

Things start off with Stills’ churning  [30] Carry On: the last track recorded for the album, it’s Stills’ parting message; first to his colleagues to get them through a last gruelling tour and session and then to us with the last original ‘group’ song offering the very CSN-ish message to the world, ‘carry on, love is coming to us all’. CSNY were busy collecting together the songs they already had for the album and Nash, as the ‘organised’ one, was trying to put them into some order. ‘We don’t have a really strong opening number’ he told the others (was ‘Déjà vu’, shifted to the start of the second side, in its place I wonder?) and Stills, aware that he was a ‘song down’ on the album thanks to his vocal on ‘Woodstock’ set off to write one. The only song definitely written for the album after things had turned sour, he adapted his folky original ‘Questions’ for the second half (a song already released on final Buffalo Springfield album ‘Last Time Around’ and actually about Judy Collins) and added a much more hopeful opening part that urged his band and his generation to effectively keep calm and carry on. Despite the3 sudden enegerteic utopian rush of CSN Harmonies though, this is a very different sort of hippie utopia to any on the first album, a world that’s always changing under our feet and where the only way of maintaining momentum is through a gutsy angular riff that’s physically painful to play it takes in so many notes. Perhaps inspired by The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ send-off line ‘and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’, the band find a last burst of optimism to complete their farewell duties and carry their audience through the long wait till the next record (not that they knew there was ever going to be another one), even though the state of the group at the time, full of egos, back-biting and bickering, couldn’t have been further away from the sentiments of this song. The music is – of course – gorgeous, with Stills’ bouncy acoustic riff catching the ear from the start (watch out for the opening which plays only in the left channel, giving more than one CSNY collector apoplexy that his record equipment has stopped working!) and the CSN harmonies are at their glorious peak. When the track suddenly turns a capella for the song’s middle section they and you both truly believe the message, which somehow manages to overcome the rather sinister air of the backing track without sounding contrived, really sounding as if love is coming to us all, if only we keep believing. More true though is the message ‘you go your way and I’ll go mine, carry on!’) Stills isn’t even finished yet, cross-fading the song into the ‘Questions’ sequence, which turns the by now heavy-rock number into something far more bluesy and Stills like. Sadly the song doesn’t have space to use all the verses from the original version : The missing lines are as follows; First verse: ‘Love I would go along, what are you feeling?, now that I’ve caught my love, my head is reeling, with the questions of a thousand dreams…”(then as per released version); Third verse: “Now that we’ve found each other, where do we go now?, I’d like to know what you’re thinking, answer me slowly now”)  but Stills makes up for that by transforming what was already quite an impressive arrangement into a tour de force of dazzling harmonies, swirly organ and gurgling guitar. In fact, the song’s composer turns in some of his greatest guitar work here (chances are Neil doesn’t play on this track at all, as all the many parts on this track sounds like Stills’ characteristic fills to me) and a final send-off of those CSN harmonies make for one hell of an opening number. Later live performances will turn this song into a monster jam, but here what’s impressive is how compact everything is, the song doing exactly what it needs to before making a u-turn and going somewhere else.

One of CSNY’s more famous tracks [27b] ‘Teach Your Children is song number two on the album and we’ve all heard this song so many times over the years it’s hard to forget how revolutionary and forward-looking it is. Like his comrades, Nash must have known that CSNY were on the verge of bowing out by 1970 and wanted to leave a parting message to fans to keep the faith and to educate the world’s children about how to really run their lives, not just blindly follow the rules of a crackpot Government in the bad old days of Vietnam and Watergate that were quickly killing off the CSNY ideals of free speech. He had already given up on trying to change the minds of the grown-ups, but he has a good feeling about their off-spring, seeing the young of the day’s youth movements as the ones who can really change the world (he isn’t to know that they will mostly end up disillusioned punks!) Nash deserves high praise for the song’s groundbreaking and forward-looking lyrics, which have got just the parents teaching the children but the children teaching their parents too, in an age-long cycle of learning that never ends but just gets passed on from generation to generation. ‘Their children’s hell will slowly go by’ is a pretty cutting line for such a hippie dippy song and there’s just enough surface here through the most-Hollies like melody Nash had given CSN so far, ending with the line that everything will be alright if both sides remember the others ‘love you’ which is borderline trite. However but again it’s Stills’ genius that turns this song from a rather ordinary poppy demo into a country tour de force, with the guitarist spending many hours re-arranging the song and adding his own Byrds-ish country guitar picking over the top. The effect is also helped by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia who pops up on pedal steel, creating the song’s distinctive opening lick and throughout the song provides some gorgeous musical icing on an already rich cake. CSN and all their ideals and optimism in a nutshell, this song features yet more superlative harmonies and – for the second song in a row – Neil is notable by his absence.

Crosby’s [29b] ‘Almost Cut My Hair is one of only two songs played live by all four members in the same room and it shows, with this comparatively lesser song turned into something special by being given one of the strongest-sounding performances on the record (Crosby’s is the middle guitar, Stills is on the right, Nash is on the organ and Young’s guitar is on the left). Stills and Young trade off each other’s guitar work to brilliant effect fulfilling the hopes of Ahmet Ertegun who was longing for more duels like this one and Crosby is spurned on to provide one of his roughest, angriest vocals to match his edgy lyrics about clinging on to his ethics of being a rebel outsider despite some strong outside pressure. Possessing the same anger and confrontational qualities as Crosby’s earlier track [19] ‘Long Time Gone’, this song swamps the earlier song’s gradual build up of tension for something rawer and, far from controlling his anger and then making it burn even stronger as before. It’s a full-on rock attack this song as Crosby pours out his heart in one of his most expressive vocals, a spokesperson for a generation who often find it hard to speak up against such a big and powerful menace. Why he almost gave up fighting the system himself and got a haircut, because ‘I had the flu for Christmas and I’m not feeling up to par’. But Crosby didn’t: his ‘freak flag flying’ is not something he wears lightly and just as Johnny cash wore black for the dispossessed, so Crosby wears his long hair proudly as a statement of hippiedom. He feels like he owes to someone, to everyone. Even if it means his neighbours hate him, his elders are scared of him and the police want to run him in Crosby has his own special uniform and wants to be like the people he sees around him and believes in, the artists, the freaks, the hippies and the creatives (the suit and tie generation is over: why do people wear a literal noose around their necks everyday?!) Regretting a momentary lapse of faith when he questioned his own ideals, Crosby sings one of the greatest, most moving lines of all time in ‘I feel like I owe it to someone’ (JFK? Martin Luther King? Earlier protest singers like Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger? His band-mates? His girlfriend? His children? This song is brilliantly ambiguous, applicable to all of these friends and revolutionaries and more—Crosby will go on to co-write the biopic ‘Stand And Be Counted’ saluting politically-aware musicians and the importance of their work in 2002). OK that little lot doesn’t sound much in print, but this song’s snarling statement of intent is superb on record, pointing every accusatory digit it can find at those in power in the 1970s and showing solidarity with all of America’s political criminals and silenced outspoken war veterans of the period. The lyrics are rather juvenile by Crosby’s complex and mature standards and this released take features a terribly shaky vocal compared to CSNY’s more usual polish. However, it’s still great to hear such a raw song as this stripped to its bare bones and played by everyone as if they really mean it and to hear the band replicate their live shows of the era by letting the emotional energy bounce off everybody in the recording room – and the audience at home. The group are heading for a monster jam session by the song’s end (which eventually topped nine minutes and can be heard in full on the CSN box set) and even though it ultimately doesn’t sound much like a CSNY song, the quartet were never more of a ‘band’ than they were on this classic flag-waving identity-defining song. Along with the single-only [46] ‘Ohio’ – Neil’s defining moment with CSNY, out in the shops only a matter of days after the massacre of demonstrating university students on Nixon’s orders – this is probably the defining moment of a band standing up for its audience’s many abused ideals and putting their careers on the line, as opposed to sitting on stools and moaning along to a prepared backing track as most protest bands tend to do nowadays. When Crosby was incarcerated for drugs in the 1980s he really did have to get his hair cut short and his moustache shaved and never was there a sadder sight. However he had the last laugh after he learned that the most hated prison warden really couldn’t stand this song and that the ad hoc prison band’s rehearsal band was right outside his window they couldn’t resist playing it several times a day…

[31] ‘Helpless passes by in a rather slow blink of an eye compared to the blasts of energy on either side of it and it’s easy to sympathise with Neil’s comment in the CSN box set that he kept on and on at the band to re-record this song until the sessions dragged on to 4am and the band were nearly fast asleep, giving this song its lethargic half-speed quality. More lashes of pedal steel suit Young at his most reedy and vulnerable on this rather personal song about his Canadian childhood, another link to this album’s dominant themes of past and future, where he sings of his troubled past as a kind of paradise, full of big birds flying across the Canadian skies of his youth. Most Neil Young songs have seemingly helpless narrators, ones who find themselves in trouble of which they are either entirely innocent or momentarily un-responsible for; usually by the end of the song they have the ‘power’ over their surroundings after all (this song’s near-contemporary ‘Down By The River’ also played live by CSNY is a good example). By contrast this song finds the singer ‘helpless’ with awe at the beauty of his surroundings rather than his ineptitude and even though you sense the narrator might not have set foot in his old town for decades, this song is full of the glorious memories that exist in his head whenever he feels the need to re-connect himself with home and leave him helpless with delight at how utopian it is (it could be that Neil played back the first CSN album and picked up on its hippie idealism, but twisted it for something he could relate to more). CSN are once again the perfect backing band here, adding to Neil’s reminiscences as if they had experienced all of his glorious childhood visions for themselves. Interestingly though, the landmarks in the song are hardly ones peculiar to Canada (or Winnipeg, the home-town Neil is most likely singing about here, although it’s never mentioned by name) - big birds, stars, yellow moon on the rise, we can all see these things from our own homes on a clear night and Neil might well be encouraging his listeners to tap into their own version of nostalgic paradise here, rather than sympathising with his own memories. Those of you who have already read the review for ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ will know about bandmate Richie Furay’s dig at Neil on ‘A Child’s Claim To Fame’ that Neil was something of an indulged spoilt brat; this is one of many replies to that song that Neil made over the years, juxtaposing his genuine helplessness when he was little with the returning feeling of helpless awe he feels stepping back into his half-forgotten past and that actually being a spoiled brat is a good thing to be when you can see the world anew. Stills was so impressed with this song he penned [44] ‘We Are Not Helpless’ partly in reply. One of Neil’s loveliest tracks, this low key composition sounds mighty fine on the Young compilation ‘Decade’ and its other various CD homes over the years, but a little bit lost on this set in amongst two of CSN/Y’s rowdiest rockers.  

[32a] ‘Woodstock’ is another one of those songs that will instantly conjure up happy images for many, most of whom probably weren’t even alive at the time of the great 1969 mudfest. Actually, though, this song is presented here at the midway point of the album almost as if it’s summing up the present; the current pinnacle of man’s achievements (There are mentions of getting back to the garden of Eden in the lyrics too which also fits ‘Deja Vu’s overall theme of returning to some lost paradise). All the more surprising, then – especially given how big and important CSNY were at Woodstock (some of the music papers even called it ‘CSNY’s festival’ in the next day’s press) – that this song was written by someone who wasn’t even there. Joni Mitchell, persuaded by her manager that playing to a bunch of drug-addled mud-baked hippies would do less for her career than an appearance on loveable idiot and TV host Dick Cavett’s interview show, pulled out at the last minute (ironically Crosby, Stills and the Jefferson Airplane managed to do both events, helicoptoring out of the festival at such short notice that Stills even proudly shows Cavett his trouser leg at one point in the interview and cries ‘I still have my mud!’) Stills was so moved by the festival he tried writing a song about it himself, but ended up liking Joni’s better when he heard a demo through Nash (Stephen’s attempt has never been heard to date, if indeed it was ever finished – I can’t think of a candidate in his other released songs). Interestingly, its Stills who sings the powerful lead on this song; it may have been Crosby who ‘discovered’ and first produced Mitchell, Young who grew up in the same Canadian town and started off playing in the coffee-houses with and Nash who was for the time just before this album living with her as her boyfriend, but its Stills – the member she had least connection with – who gets to the heart of this song. A descriptive song of what it was like to be at Yasgur’s farm that day, coupled with a sense of something bigger unfolding (‘WE are stardust! We are golden!’) it’s a perfect celebration, especially Young’s manic guitar solo which bubbled over with joy – something you can’t say many times about his work! This frenetically-paced version of the song is radically different from both Joni’s slow original recording and Matthew’s Southern Comforts funeral-paced cover single, but all the better for it as this is less a requiem and more the sound of a glorious revolution in progress. The CSNY recording – with Stills at his raw, howling best – is light years ahead of either, but this track is actually best heard via the alternate mix which closes the Woodstock film, where Stills’ lead vocals are even rawer and you can hear much more of Young’s inventive guitar-work. It’s said the others, especially Neil, had a falling out with Stephen when he chose to replace his raw and emotional vocal with the more precise one heard on the album – the alternate mix on the box set suggests they had a point.

Side two takes us right back to the past with the title track [23b] 'Deja Vu', one of Crosby’s typically bizarre creations made up of so many strange tunings and multiple parts the whole thing should sound a mess. Of course, it’s not – the whole piece is a masterpiece of arrangement and timing, full of spooky ghostly harmonies and guitars that sound as if they are filtering through from another dimension of time and space (or perhaps I’ve just seen too many ‘Sapphire and Steel’ episodes, to which this song works well as a soundtrack!) The song starts off at a fast paced trot, with Crosby trying to work out if he has been prepared to deal with his current trials by some earlier existence. Unexpectedly the whole song comes to a full stop and Crosby stops puzzling things over and finally commits himself, telling us triumphantly that ‘we have all been here before’ and trying to reflect on what it all means and what he should take from past lives he doesn’t remember directly anymore. In the CSN box set Crosby said that he was referring specifically to the fact that both he and his comrades knew how to sing harmony instinctively – it wasn’t something taught or particularly learned from copying records like many other harmony-led groups on this list – and that Crosby also knew instinctively what all the ropes, masts and sails were for in a boat the first time he ever stepped into one as a little boy. Fascinated by the idea that he was re-learning rather than learning stuff, Crosby here wonders how many times he’s been around the block and what it all means, leading to an agonised song that seems to be going down different avenues at random and yet still somehow makes sense, as if it was pre-planned (as indeed it is). A vague and ambiguous track, its one of those songs you can do anything with and the band have down the years: the mid 1970s Crosby-Nash band turned it into a psychedelic avant garde weirdness, the 1991 acoustic version is sparse and haunting and CPR live recordings brought out its inner jazz. It still sounds best here though as a song that could go anywhere, from the opening improvised scat singing to the massed harmonies and haunting bass solo, easily the highlight of Greg Reeve’s brief time with the band. This part rattles around the song’s main riff seemingly as lost and confused as the narrator before melting into the trio’s harmonies, a magical moment that overcomes the fact that by Crosby’s standards there’s less going on in this song than any of his contributions to the CSN debut. This song is another tour de force for the group, taking us to spooky unexplored places that other songs can only dream of.

As the multi-sectioned ‘De Ja Vu’ fades away, it's quite a relief to get back onto dry land with Nash’s [33] ‘Our House’. It’s a real shame CSNY are possibly most known for this gentle singalong nowadays, considering the bite that nearly all of their other songs have and is rather missing from this track, but if you’re in the right mood then this song is one of the most tender, heartfelt, romantic love songs you will ever hear. Despite the fact that the song was written during Nash’s break-up with Joni Mitchell, the song is full of happy memories about the life the two had playing house together, full of fascinating details that all ring ‘true’ because they are. Joni loved collecting vases and the one she puts on a shelf in the song was actually bought for her by Nash as a present, while they did for a while have two cats (though not, judging by photos of their upper story flat, a yard exactly) while the ‘fiery gems’ were ornaments Joni had brought with her from Canada (Graham moved into her flat, which became a problem when he had an idea for a song and she was always at her piano!) It all sounds so idyllic: flowers, love songs, a lit fire – it’s the hope of the first meeting heard on [21] ‘Lady Of The Island’ turned into a real-life relationship. Nash is at his poppy best with this song’s big fat simple chords echoing comfort and relaxation, the idea heard in the lyrics that ‘everything is done’ and ‘everything is easy ‘cause of you’. Nash’s lead vocal is one of his best, especially the last verse where his sigh on the line ‘life used to be so-o-o ha-a-a-rd’ stands as one of the most moving moments of CSNY’s back catalogue, a sudden slide to the minor key that’s then caught and not just held but hugged by the return to the major key. It was all so difficult but suddenly it’s all become so easy. What makes it sadder though is that it was already a distant memory, sung in the third person and in the past tense as if it’s already something that’s over and done with (until the sudden switch on the word ‘now’ everything is easy ‘cause of you’), the sound of a hippie ideal being crushed underfoot, but tenderly so. Nash isn’t mad it failed to work, he isn’t out to seek revenge, he’s just recorded a beautiful tender romantic love scene for him and for us, so that he can move on to try to find it again. He probably never guessed it would prove quite as difficult as it will though, as Rita gets caught up in a Stills love triangle and the girlfriend after Amy is murdered by her own brother.

Stills is back next with [34] ‘4 and 20’, a song he was actually saving for his first solo album until the others heard it and pleaded with him to put it on ‘De Ja Vu’. Stills even worked out some painstaking harmonies for the song (eventually sung by CSN for the first time on their 1990 acoustic tour) but the quartet backed off and decided to leave Stills’ simple acoustic arrangement alone, figuring it was already perfection. And it is more or less: as sparse and empty as the other tracks on this album are full and warm, the simple arrangement of just Stills and an acoustic guitar is perfectly suited to this song’s simple tale of a man who struggled without reward all through his life, only to die alone and lonely at the age of 84 (at least, that’s what fans reckon Stills is saying here and he actually means ‘4 score and 20’. He also might, of course, be imagining a future and seeing how it went wrong with the ripples caused when he was twenty-four, the age Stills turned in January 1969). Another song surely written about the end of his days with Judy this is Stills fearing that he’s destined to be alone and that the one great love of his life has just left and he’s never going to recover from it so you can forgive him for sounding quite so fragile here, in contrast to the strength shown even on last split song [16] ’49 Bye Byes’. He even ends the song wishing ‘that my life could simply cease’, the closest any of CSNY come to suicide across their career, regretting a lifetime ‘lived in strive’ and ‘tired of being poor’. ‘What’s the point?’ seems to be the theme of this song, as even all that hard work and ambition ends up adding up to nothing in the end, all achievements pointless thanks to loneliness. Could it be that Stills is also doing a bit of fortune telling for his generation, talking about the old age that might come about if people fail to take heed of the warning in ‘Teach Your Children’ (the lines about ‘driving away’ his partner is also common to Stills’ confessional songs later in the decade  and the self-destructive imagery is very fitting too given what we know about Stills’ character, usually from songs written by Stephen himself, but the rest is less specific than usual for him). Either way it’s a forgotten, rather neglected song that offers just the right change of pace as the album approaches the final straight. Stills is often at his best on acoustic songs and this track is special, haunting and thoughtful and retracing the poetic steps of [13] ‘Helplessly Hoping’ in an even more autobiographical way. One other possibility: '420' is a slang term for 'pot' - a gang known as 'The Waldos' popularised meeting up after school in California to smoke by a wall at 4.20pm and the tradition continued from there (Grateful Dead fans especially know about this phrase!) The 2003 California Senate Bill for the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes was given the number '420' deliberately to mimic this idea by the way!

Neil’s [35] ‘Country Girl couldn’t be more in contrast to the last track’s simplicity, this being the grunge-godfather’s most elaborate, proggy song in his fifty-albums-plus history (to put the painstaking months spent on just this one track in context, Neil has released no less than three complete records since starting work on this website just over a year ago! Update: make that twelve in ten years…) This song is often spoken about in hushed tones by collectors nowadays, as if it’s probably an embarrassment to him he’s forgotten all about nowadays and a last overhang from the epic overdub fests of his first album out in 1968, but it certainly shouldn’t be – even if the lyrics are a bit dodgy in places, the tune is still terribly involving and memorable and CSN are as ever the perfect choir. The song’s multiple sections date back as far as 1966 (you can hear the second part known as ‘Whiskey Boot Hill’ on the ‘Buffalo Springfield’ box-set), but the recording here is spot-on contemporary, sounding like Phil Spector might have sounded if he’d not become side-tracked partying with ex-Beatles in this period. Stills’ low harmony with Neil’s lead go extraordinary well together - much better than on the Stills-Young album six years later, which is full of vocal harmonising like this – and at the end Stills’ bluesy wailing mixed with Nash’s high harmony and Crosby’s glue-in-the-middle vocals take the song to a whole new level, reaching for the clouds and soaring for as long as they can on one of the most special vocal moments on a CSN album of them all. The lyrics of this song jump around a bit, starting out with some of the surreal poetry that only really gets a hearing on the ‘Doom Trilogy’ of Neil Young albums (1973-75) and is unexpectedly reprised on ‘Sleeps With Angels’ and ‘Mirrorball’ (1994-95). Un-involving on their own, these words sound nothing less than stunning when sung, thanks partly to the recording’s strong production values, which adds layer upon layer of instruments and harmonies and far from being cold and intellectual comes over as being overwhelmingly emotional and claustrophobic. My guess is that it’s another Young rant about fame – ironic given that he’s just joined the most talked about band on the planet in 1970 – with waitresses gossiping about stars who ‘drop by to die ‘cause its faster than sinking’ and being seduced. Keeping with the theme, Neil has the star checking out, ‘too late’ to hold on to the change he’ll need when his career falls apart; ‘too late’ to pay the bill. A gloriously dark middle eight has Neil stepping in before then suddenly holding back again too: ‘If I could stand to see her crying I would tell her not to care…’ Funnily enough Neil will marry a waitress in third wife Pegi, this song being fortune-telling to some extent and it figures that it is a sort of backwards feminist statement, sticking up for a country girl trying to make it big and get attention and making ends meet when everyone else ignores her, impressive stuff. Neil being Neil though he turns the whole thing into a chat-up line with the same ‘what am I really thinking?’ ambiguity of the later CSNY song [159] ‘Pushed It Over The End’ (CSNY were famed for many things, but feminism wasn’t one of them). Even so, like many of Neil’s weirdest songs, the conviction in the room makes it work and it sounds great even if it’s a bit over-written in places. That’s the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian on harmonica, by the way, back in the days when every musician on earth looked up to him and before he squandered his talent writing songs for Care Bear movies (although admittedly, all those songs are better than anything on the last two CSNY LPs). 

A quick farewell to fans, friends and contemporaries, the Stills-Young collaboration [36/4b] ‘Everybody We Love You is less of a song and more of a goodbye hug, with so many false endings it seems that Stills can’t quite bring himself to make the final farewell (when you hear this glorious album you know how he feels!) A brief rocker with full-blown CSN harmonies throughout, its first section started life as a far more serious folky tune re-recorded as ‘Know You Got To Run’ for ‘Stephen Stills II’ the following year. It’s hard to know which bit Neil actually brought to the song (the ‘everybody I love you’ chorus doesn’t seem his style somehow!), although his guitar passages are all over the track, transforming a basic boogie-down rocker into something more substantial. My guess is that this bit got added later as a sort of belated finale to both reflect and counteract the downbeat style of [16] ’49 Bye Byes’. It’s surely a ‘goodbye’ Judy and ‘hello’ Rita song, as Stills blows hot and cold, growling that ‘you expect for me to love you when you hate yourself’ and that he still sees worth in his girlfriend, a ‘great light’ that shines whenever she’s in the room. By the end though he’s desperate and back to pleading: ‘I need your love to get through!’ He knows that she doubts whether he really loves her, but he so does and Stills’ blues hollers really make the point clear with some of his best singing before the song finally fades away on an organ pulse, an ongoing story yet to be fulfilled and finished. Both parties are guilty of chasing the other and hiding, never quite getting it together, while Stills pleads that he’s fed up of running and wants her to ‘open up open up baby and let me in!’ The guitar work sounds exactly like a game of cat and mouse, with three parts all chasing each other and Neil’s acerbic fluid solo the perfect foil for Stills’ rhythmic slashes. Stills’ blues hollerings, backed by Crosby and Nash sailing up to the sky again and trying to throw off the song’s composers’ rock and roll wailings with their harmonies in a fine call-and-response interplay, is a fine way to say goodbye to any album but a particularly fitting one for this fond and temporary farewell.

‘Déjà vu’ then – CSNY had never been here before, at least not quite like this. The signature harmony sound is much the same as is the mix of blues, folk, country and psychedelia but somehow it all sounds so very different, changing to better reflect a world that was completely to the one of the year and album before. I’m surprised in retrospect so many fans took to this major switch in sound quite so readily, with not just Neil but the general downbeat mood all completely new for CSN. However for eighteen months CSN/Y ruled the world and could do no wrong. It was only after this album came out and the breakup seemed final it seemed we were back on our own and suddenly the world became a much darker place, this record more of a warning instruction manual on how to get through the 1970s without them than the invite to a party the first album had been. A last glimpse of light before things became much darker, this album still sounds as if it’s haunted by some inner feeling of doom that it just can’t quite shake off. How sad that such promise and talent ended so soon because by storing their very tracks for each other like this CSNY were truly on top of the world in 1970…but at least there are plenty of classic solo albums to keep us going! 

A Now Complete List Of CSN/Y and Solo Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Crosby, Stills and Nash' (1969)

'Deja Vu' (CSNY) (1970)

‘Stephen Stills’ (1970)

'If Only I Could Remember My Name' (Crosby) (1971)

'Songs For Beginners' (Nash) (1971)

'Stephen Stills II' (1971)
‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (1972)

'Stephen Stills-Manassas'  (1972)

'Wild Tales' (Nash) (1973)
'Down The Road' (Stephen Stills/Manassas) (1973)

'Stills' (1975)

'Wind On The Water' (Crosby-Nash) (1975)
'Illegal Stills' (Stills) (1976)
'Whistling Down The Wire' (Crosby-Nash) (1976)

'Long May You Run' (Stills-Young) (1976)

'CSN' (1977)
'Thoroughfare Gap' (Stills) (1978)
'Earth and Sky' (Nash) (1980)

'Daylight Again' (CSN) (1982)
'Right By You' (Stills) (1984)
'Innocent Eyes' (Nash) (1986)
'American Dream' (CSNY) (1988)

'Oh Yes I Can!' (Crosby) (1989)

'Live It Up!' (CSN)  (1989)

'Stephen Stills Alone' (1991)

'CPR' (Crosby Band) (1998)

‘So Like Gravity (CPR, 2001)

‘Songs For Survivors’ (2002)

'Deja Vu Live' (CD) (2008)

'Deja Vu Live' (DVD) (2008)

'Reflections' (Graham Nash Box Set) (2009)

'Demos' (CSN) (2009)

'Manassas: Pieces' (2010)

‘Carry On’ (Stephen Stills Box Set) (2013)

'Croz' (Crosby) (2014)
'CSNY 74' (Recorded 1974 Released 2014)

'This Path Tonight' (Nash) (2016)

‘Here If You Listen’ (Crosby)

The Best Unreleased CSNY Recordings
Surviving TV Appearances (1969-2009)
Non-Album Recordings (1962-2009)
Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One (1964-1980)
Live/Compilations/Rarities Albums Part Two (1982-2012)
Essay: The Superest Of Super Groups?
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

1 comment:

  1. Stills was 24 in 1969. He was born in 1945 and can be heard singing this for the first time the day after Woodstock on the Dick Cavett show. It is about him and as Chris Hillman commented, a naked self autobiography. He said it takes extreme talent and guts to write about yourself and your family in such an honest way. I think he is right!