Friday 4 July 2008

Crosby, Stills and Nash "CSN" (1977) ('Core' Review #77, Revised Review 2014)

Available to buy in ebook format 'Change Partners - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To CSNY' by clicking here! 

Crosby, Stills and Nash "CSN" (1977)

Track Listing: Shadow Captain/ See The Changes/ Carried Away/ Fair Game/ Anything At All/ Cathedral// Dark Star/ Just A Song Before I Go/ Run From Tears/Cold Rain/ In My Dreams/ I Give You Give Blind (UK and US tracklisting)

If you'd have told the average fan in 1969 that CSN - still showing distinct signs of brotherliness and closeness - would take eight years (and a lot of 'nearlies') to follow-up the album they'd just made they'd have shaken their head and told you to quit smoking something that strong. And yet here we are, at the height of punk and an era that couldn't have seemed less like the stage CSN/Y had waltzed off during their first split, with only the second three-way album by the partnership. The odds for a record as good as the first from CSN in 1977 weren’t good. A second attempt at a CSNY reunion in 1976 had gone badly sour (Stills allegedly slashed the near-completed master tapes with a razor blades after an argument and Nash ended up throwing Stills bodily out of his house at one stage), with the blood between the brothers as bad as it had ever been. Crosby and Nash had now become a big name as a duo and no longer needed the 'family firm' to stay financially afloat ('Wind On The Water' from 1975 had been the biggest CSNY-related release since the heady days of 1971). All three had suffered something of a creative slump recently: Stills had wobbled during the making of his second Manassas album and fallen over completely during a troubled 1976 that saw the release of his two weakest projects thus far (the Stills-Young Band's 'Long May You Run' and his own 'Illegal Stills'). Crosby and Nash, too, had fallen off their pedestal slightly with 'Whistling Down The Wire', a lacklustre record the best of which were outtakes from 'Water'. CSN fans were beginning to lose patience in their once golden heroes and the band weren't likely to find many new ones, with their glorious polished harmonies and saving the universe reputation now deemed unnecessary in punk’s year zero. A nervous Stills, his career in tatters, wasn't quite sure what to expect when he called on the pair to mend his bridges with him and apologise for his treatment of them during the making of 'Long May You Run' (when weeks of work was wiped by Stills after an argument). Half-expecting a punch, Stills got a warm hug instead: the CSN brotherhood was too strong to turn down an apology.
If you’ve come to this band from one of their late 1980s or 1990s releases, (well, somebody might have done!)  then you’d be forgiven for thinking that that was that; glorious as individual tracks are on the trio/quartet’s latter-day reunion albums, the consistency that made the group’s first batch of albums together so magnificent is missing. Yet, somehow, CSN turned in one of their most satisfying and rounded albums here, with all three members bringing their best songs, ideas and harmonies to the project and arguably working as a fully fledged three-way partnership for the first time in their history (instead of a record dominated by Stills or Nash as is often the case in their early or later years). In many ways it's actually an improvement on the first album: that record was light on filler but CSN has even less dodgy tracks and runs for 12 instead of ten. While CSN come up with better songs on some later songs, never again do they sound this close, with some wonderful tales of the sessions (the only time the trio all lived together while they were working, each keeping to their own inner 'time zones' and trying not to wake the others up in between recording times; another tale has Neil - not exactly banned from the sessions but unanimously not invited after events of 1974 and 1976 or refusing to attend depending who you ask - standing outside the rehearsal room windows to hear the music himself and being chased away by the studio owner who assumed he was a tramp). The days of Stills doing all the work are long gone: everyone has lots to do and does it well, with the disappointments of 1976 long forgotten.

After seven years of off-on reunions and sniping in the press at each other, it’s amazing to hear just how much of a unit CSN are on this album, with glorious CSN harmonies on practically every track and a much greater involvement of all three men in the backing tracks. Determined to make this a 'CSN' record rather than a collection of solo recordings, the band sensibly decided to add harmonies throughout and these are spine-tingling: arguably the best of their back catalogue ('Shadow Captain' especially). The trio’s harmonies are never less than spine-tingling whatever the period, but they really are at their best here – this is one of the last times the group used the old Beach Boys technique of singing round just one microphone (well, Mike Love’s nasal whine was always recorded separately, but that’s what the rest of the band did) and the way all three voices blend with each other and instinctively follow the others, covering up for any slight mistakes and changing pitch and melody lines as one, is a master-class in harmony singing. No wonder the trio call it ‘flying in formation’ - the band are wing-tip to wing-tip here, following each other in the most marvellous counterpoint, that it really is amazing that they never crash into each other’s lines and really do sound like one voice singing for most of this record, so indistinguishable are the harmonies at times. A similar thing happens on the backing tracks, which are led by old friends of all three including Craig Doerge, Russell Kunkel and Leland Sklar but feature lots of Stills solos on the other's songs, Nash's piano and harmonica and a touch of Crosby in the  unusual guitar tunings that crop up throughout this album. Those who saw the reunion unfold claim it was the happiest the trio were outside the making of the first album - it sounds it too; just as 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' is pure Laurel Canyon sunshine and  'Deja Vu' comes attached with a metaphorical storm-cloud whenever you play it, so does 'CSN' come accompanied by a truce-making rainbow. With all this, the wonder was that it ended up a single album and didn't lead to a more longer-lasting reunion (the band won't make another record for five years).

 CSN has its critics, those who complain that the record isn’t anywhere near as pioneering or as groundbreaking as the first two group albums and that's true as far as it goes: if I want my friends to see what all the fuss is about I tend to play them the game-changing first record, which breaks more ground than even the boat on this album cover can handle. But it would be unfair to knock a second great painting for no other reason than it wasn't the first: when you have a back catalogue as wide and varied and amazing as the trio's undoubtedly is, there’s nothing wrong with consolidating your strengths. And this time around CSN really are into utilising their strengths instead of hoping for the best or relying on outside producers or writers for the magic spark, as so often is the case later. Best of all, the trio have returned to a largely acoustic sound, putting this album ever closer in touch with their 'roots' in the late 60s folk boom and in this context when the electric guitars or Stills' beloved latin rhythms do come into play they sound stronger than on a whole LP of unchanging styles. Once again, the sheer range of styles on this album is impressive, veering from the screaming rage of 'I Give You Give Blind' to the laidback jazzy humour of 'Anything At All' to the enjoyable pop of 'Just  Song Before I Go'. As listening experiences go this album is a joy, bringing together all of the qualities that made CSN great in 12 tracks of pure spellbinding magic.

Each member of CSN has reached something of a writing peak on this album too and all of their individual idiosyncrasies are in perfect synch with each other here. Crosby’s self-deprecating humour about his ego is off-set by two of the most poetic and elusive lyrics in his back catalogue on 'Shadow Captain' and 'In My Dreams'. Stills is at his head-wringing best, giving us two of his most inward-looking troubled songs ('See The Changes' and 'Run From Tears') to go with the happier autobiography of 'Dark Star' and bursts of pure pop pleasure that he also adds to this album. Nash, meanwhile, is reaching a career-high, with the stark beauty of Cold Rain, and the pop story-telling of Just A Song Before I Go off-set by the complex drama of Cathedral and the simple yearning of Carried Away, all four of which approach his greatest work. Future works will have different members in the ascendency (Stills on 'Daylight Again', Crosby on 'American Dream, Nash on 'Live It Up' and 'After The Storm...') but on this record all three are hitting if not the peak then certainly a peak. In the grand snack bar of CSN delights this is one of their more substantial meals, offering a little something of every recipe they've had on display till now.

 Interestingly, this most CSN-ish of CSN albums has precious little in the way of social debates and political finger-pointing; styles that were horrendously out of fashion in 1977, even more than they are now alas but which are usually read by the general public as the only things CSN can do. We do learn much much more about the trio’s inner workings than normal, however, with another string of wives/girlfriends/partners to catch up on since the last run of recordings. Perhaps not co-incidientally with the sudden spikes in their performances, all three seem to have undergone some sort of life-changing events: Stills has split up with his wife and is (temporarily) back to his on-off relationship with singer Rita Coolidge. Nash has just met his first wife Susan and is hopelessly in love for the first time since the Joni Mitchell era. Crosby, meanwhile, is rapidly approaching the point of no return in his drug dependency which will make this the last album he completes until 1982. As a result Still's songs are full of that wonderful mixture of arrogance and doubt he made his own and seems to be going through all stages of 'denial' over  his break-up here at once: the anger of 'I Give You Give Blind', the hurt and humility of 'See The Changes' (actually an earlier song first recorded for 1974's abandoned 'Human Highway', but we'll let the point stand as Stills must have felt a 'connection' with it to revive it again after three years), the defiance of 'Run From Tears' and the enjoyment of new horizons in 'Fair Game' (on the pull) and 'Dark Star ' (being pulled into someone else's orbit). Nash is taking stock of his life as he looks to settle down and have a family, reflecting on his past (the gorgeous 'Cold Rain', about a recent return to Manchester), his present ('Just A Song Before I Go') and his possible future ('Carried Away'), as well as tapping into that ever-present CSN sense of re-incarnation on 'Cathedral' (a scarier ride even than 'Deja Vu'). Crosby, meanwhile, sounds peaceful on the surface but underneath is very scared indeed: while 'Anything At All' cracks a smile at his character as 'the world's most opinionated man', his other two songs on the album are all about his usual theme of not having all the answers. 'In My Dreams' asks 'who will steer?' and complains about being 'stuck here with no instructions', adrift at sea. 'Shadow Captain', written by his subconscious on board his boat 'The Mayan' in the middle of the night, also has Crosby losing control but enjoying it, 'trying to give the light the slip' and pretend everything is fine while asking who guides the ship he travels on ('Speak to me, I need to see your face' is the single scariest line in CSN's back catalogue). Even 'Anything At All' makes reference to having time only for 'one more question before I go...'

In fact staying or going is the half-theme that crops up time and time again on this album - not surprisingly if CSN wrote a lot of these songs during the 'missing years' wondering if they would ever work together again. 'Shadow Captain' sets off to destination unknown, a ghost ship as dark as night. 'See The Changes' is about the ravishes of time, how some things get harder with age when you have to pick yourself up again after another fall but how the narrator's partner stays by him, even though 'it isn't easy re-arranging', the destination 'farther away as you get closer'. 'Carried Away' mourns a passing moment of adoration with a stranger who so moves Nash's narrator that he drops everything as quickly as he can to be with her before lamenting 'soon you'll be gone'. 'Fair Game' comes with the chorus 'just relax - enjoy the ride!' as if relationships are a journey that will only last a pre-meditated length. 'Cathedral' is about a journey through time rather than space, Nash waking up from an acid trip on his 33rd birthday to find himself spread-eagles in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral, his eyes opened to all the bad things done in the name of religion and his own re-incarnated part in the tragedies that haunts his present state still (the trigger point being when he came to sand saw the gravestone he was next to had his date of birth on it). 'Just A Song Before I Go' is the famous one of course, written by Nash in a manner of minutes while he was waiting for a flight home: a last message of warning that may or may not have been written with Crosby and his drug take in mind ('travelling twice the speed of sound it's easy to get burned' is a neat pun on being high, especially for one of the three writers of 'Eight Miles High'). 'Run From Tears' isn't about leaving - it's about staying, even though your heart tells you to get out of somewhere fast! Stills is surely being a bit generous with the truth here about refusing to throw in the towel (we could write a book about his many romantic tristes over the years) but nevertheless most likely his last song for wife Veronique Sanson does find him stubbornly refusing to go even when she tells him. 'Cold Rain' is a Nash song about being glad he didn't stay - in Manchester, that is, where a rare CSN concert in Britain saw him walking the streets of his old home-town. It suddenly struck Nash that it looked exactly the same and that he even recognised some of the sad, lonely figures mingling in the rain: the exact opposite of the last nine years of Californian sunshine he'd been enjoying, in all senses of the word. Finally 'I Give You Give Blind' has Stills being spurned, 'left alone', with her absence the ultimate betrayal because he believed so hard and faith has let him down again.

One other major theme of travel is summed up the cover, of course. There were in fact two covers printed for this record, both of them featuring the threesome sailing out to sea on Crosby’s boat The Mayan: a lovely shot of the band looking serious and another lovely shot of them giggling their heads off taken seconds later. (Hang on to your copy if you’ve got the former cover on vinyl; it means you’ve got one of the first 5000 pressings and its becoming something of a minor rarity - perhaps because the CDs are only available with the second picture). It's a highly apt portrait of a band at ease with themselves and a very CSN-ish cover (with Crosby and Stills both keen sailors - presumably the band chose this cover in deference to 'Shadow Captain' but the sea is a theme for much of their work, from 'Wooden Ships' to 'The Lee Shore' through to 'Southern Cross'; that's also why we used boats on our title page for this book). While we're talking about the sleeve, the back portrait, with CSN in black and white belting their hearts out around the same microphone, is another classic shot that sums up the album well:– never have three such different-looking expressions been captured by musicians singing the same song! Additional trivia: for possibly the only time on a CSN record (write in if I'm wrong!), the trio are also seen in the right order on both pictures.

So overall, how good is 'CSN'? It is at this point I must confess just how special this record has always been to me. While a Hollies fan from near-enough birth, it was this record that was my 'real' introduction to the greatest band that ever lived and became my prize possession as soon as I had run out of Hollies albums to buy. They say that everyone has a life-changing experience that opens a door for them that never shuts: for better or for worse, several billion pages of Alan's Album Archives later, this album was mine. I can still remember the magical thrill of the first time I heard this record (bought as a pair with the first album but one I didn't hear till after this one), the shock as the album started at magnificent and got better with each track and left me in a hypnotic trance by the end of the first side (I might still be there had I not had to get up to lift the stylus off the record) and the realisation that music really could be this deep, this original, this powerful, this good. Even though my CSN collection became full to overflowing as soon as I could manage, with many many highlights (all of which, naturally, are in this book somewhere) no other CSN record quite had that much power because it was my 'first' - and the fact that it came from a record that was liked but not universally loved (critics ignored it rather than hated it) and wasn't as well known made it 'mine'. While other works have slightly surpassed or at least equalled it over the years (Brian Wilson's 'Smile' for instance, getting its umpteenth mention on this site!), I still consider it one of the greatest works of art I have ever been privileged to hear and the album cover (the serious one, though I love the other too) has sat there hanging on almost every bedroom wall I've ever occupied since that fateful day (and that's a lot of walls!) I even have it sitting above me where I type, to remind me of why I keep writing this site: to turn people on to music that will change their lives forever, the way mine was changed the night I heard this record.

The Songs:

[216] Shadow Captain is the perfect opener, building from a muted ballad into a full blown harmony epic and being nothing short of a masterclass in how to catch a listener’s ear within the first few bars of a record. Unusually the song is Crosby’s (on CSN records its nearly always Stills who gets the first word) and it’s a typically compelling piece of philosophy using two of David’s favourite themes – the sailing imagery with life a series of choppy seas and the confused captain who is forever chartering waters alien to him. One of many self-described ‘what the hell is going on in my mind’ songs Croz specialises in, the captain tries to navigate his way out of unexpected difficulties while a shadow hovers over him undoing all the good decisions he makes. The lyrics are some of Crosby’s most interesting and poetic, with his unnamed shadow captain and his charcoal ship seemingly controlled by an outside force the navigator longs to see (‘Speak to me, I need to see your face’). Crosby was himself an accomplished sailor by this time, having taken up the hobby with the money he acquired when the Byrds famously ‘sacked’ him in 1968 and this song’s images of night-sailing, unable to tell where you are going because of the dark, is an interesting twist on this Crosby theme (usually sailing is an ’escape’ on Crosby’s songs, such as the utopian imagery of The Lee Shore or the beauty of It Happens Each Day and Dolphin’s Smile).  Sailing gets quite a few mentions on this album in particular—and not just the front cover—being mentioned in the forthcoming Carried Away and In My Dreams too. Like McCartney’s Yesterday, this very Crosby-sounding song which defines his characteristics in more or less the same way as the Beatles classic was actually written in his sleep, with Crosby waking up on his boat at  four am one morning with the words already formed in his head. Crosby’s subconscious must be one of the hardest working in show-business, given the other songs like Delta and Music Is Love that were also famously fully formed in one sitting and like the former of those two songs may well be Crosby’s conscience warning the heavy drug taker against his excesses and the darker side of his character they helped bring out (‘shadow captain trying to give the light the slip’ - see also the line ‘Who guides this ship?’ which may have a double meaning here, citing both the unpredictability of life and the fact that Crosby’s conscious self was effectively ’asleep’ when he wrote this song). Band friend Craig Doerge becomes a band hero, doing his comrade proud here by providing the music for perhaps the greatest Crosby lyric of all as well as playing the superb spine-tingling piano riff on the recording. Just to make the whole thing even more perfect, CSN add perhaps their most distinctive and other-worldly three-part harmonies to the mix, unusually singing together throughout the whole of the track, which sounds spooky and detached in stark contrast to their usual warmth and emotion. The ending especially is a tour de force, the harmonies swaying this way and that in counterpoint before nailing the tune to the mast and going hell for leather into the last line. All in all an impressive track that successfully navigates CSN’s past trademarks while adding something wonderfully new and exciting.

[215a] See The Changes is a similarly muted Stills song and is just as much of a one-off in the trio’s canon, although this song was first attempted in a much more typical pop form by CSNY in 1974. Here, the song is treated as a slow ballad and is a welcome return to Stills at his acoustic best. With only Stills’ solemn guitar part as accompaniment, those three-part CSN harmonies dominate this track and thanks to this record’s uniformly strong production their vocals positively glimmer from your CD player like never before – and, boy, is that saying something! The song is one of Stills’ most open and vulnerable, with Stephen’s narrator wistfully looking back on his past when things seemed more simple and wondering why his character seems to change so often that he and his partners have trouble keeping up with him. ‘Changes’ is a key Stills theme which had recently dominated his 1975 album Stills (see review no 65), but here the changes aren’t musical ones (this is one of the few Stills songs to stick religiously to one key most of the way through) but personal ones. CSN’s peak sales period – in truth just a few years down the line by this point – also inspired one of Stills’ most head-bowing lyrics, as he reflects on ’10 years singing right out loud’ that ‘seem like something out of a dream’ now that success is fading (this line caused more than a few scratched heads when this song came out, but makes sense now that we know Stills had written it by late 1974, the 10th anniversary of the Buffalo Springfield’s formation). Like Shadow Captain, this song is part of a CSN opening trilogy featuring acoustic songs about facing in a different direction every time you try to move forward, although the confidence of the arrangement and harmonies on all three songs make this theme upbeat rather than pessimistic.

[217] Carried Away carries on the strong song and harmonies theme, with a delicate tune from Nash and interesting lyrics about falling in love with a passing stranger which envelops the narrator in a hypnotic trance. Like many of Nash’s mid-70s songs, its piano rather than guitar based and interestingly the instrument always seemed to bring out the personal side of the writer’s work. According to the sleeve-notes in the box-set, Carried Away was about a passing encounter the musician really had when he was overwhelmed to start a whole new life with a passing stranger (again! see Butterfly, no 14 on the list) – although in truth the couple hardly ever spoke never mind got romantically involved. Like many a Nash song, though, this track is about the lure of what might have been had our lives turned out just slightly differently and adds hope that these magic moments in life might be waiting round any corner in our futures too. Nash even carries on the theme of the last track with his line ‘moving through my changes as fast as I can’, working out in his mind whether to up sticks and leave his old world behind (as he famously did to join CSN in 1968) or stay where he is safe and comfortable. With just the double pianos of Nash and band friend Joe Vitale, plus some light percussion from Joe Vitale, the emphasis is again on CSN’s solid harmony work. Crosby’s voice particularly shines through the mix and Nash’s lead is one of his best, sounding suitably dazed and hypnotized throughout the song.

[218] Fair Game is Stills returning to his Latin roots, with a tune that seems to be a development of his Suite: Judy Blue Eyes coda. It’s a fun but slightly dangerous-sounding song about the narrator being cast under a female’s spell despite his best attempts to make sure it would be the other way around. It’s unusual to hear one of Stills’ narrators so far out of his depth on this song, but like many of his Latin numbers (1994’s Panama from CSN’s After The Storm springs to mind) the narrator is undergoing a romantic learning curve that will stay with him throughout his life and for once doesn’t come out on top. The tempo of the song is strangely sluggish (a walking pace that’s neither seductively slow or exhilaratingly fast), but the arrangement is very clever, especially the memorable swooping bass riff which mirrors the narrator’s fall to earth at the end of every verse. Again, the song features three-part harmonies for most of the song and again they’re absolutely first-class, with drummer Joe Vitale’s exotic and ever-changing rhythms making him the track’s biggest instrumental star.

Crosby’s up next with the witty [219] Anything At All, a gentle song poking fun at his reputation for having a king-sized ego. Crosby tries, but fails, to answer the world’s problems on a song that’s CSN’s funniest comedy since Immigration Man. Crosby still gives it a good try, however, promising that he can write about any subject and turn it into a good song (he’s not kidding either!) before telling us eventually that this confidence is all an act and ultimately he doesn’t have any answers at all. The line that for many sums up Crosby’s oeuvre is the curt dismissal ‘beneath the surface of the mud there’s more mud here’, poking fun at himself and his generation’s penchant for looking for answers too (and, quite possibly, you and me for writing and reading this, as this website seems a prime target for japes of this kind). A gently jazzy backing, with Crosby singing almost in a whisper, this song manages to be fluffy and delicate in a way that most of Crosby’s equally gentle songs on Whistling Down The Wire couldn’t quite manage. The highlight of the track is the wordless ‘oh-h-h-h-s’ and the characteristically Crosby ‘hmmmmmmmm’ in the middle eight; barring the rather odd Flying Man (on Crosby’s Oh Yes I Can!, 1989) and the it-sounds-so-different-every-time-I-hear-it-Ican’t-tell-if-I-like-it-or-not How Does It Shine? (Crosby*Nash, 2005), this is the last section of wordless music Crosby has produced (so far).

Nash then rides out a near-perfect side with [220] Cathedral, one of his classiest and most breathtaking of songs. This composition was inspired by an acid trip Nash took on his birthday in February 1974, when he woke up to find that he had somehow wandered out of his house and was now lying in the grounds of nearby Winchester Cathedral, as if his sub-conscious thoughts had led him to search for an ‘answer’ to life there. Nash’s answer is not necessarily the one you’d expect him to find; despite the ‘happy birthday’ mood he might have been expected to enjoy this track is actually a fierce condemnation of Christianity and all the wars fought throughout history in the name of religious doctrines that were meant to promote peace and ‘love thy neighbour’ ideas. Interestingly, Nash is the member of CSN who has done most to keep the group’s ethos of social protest going in the last couple of decades (he’s the only member not to speak out directly against anything on the first two CSN/Y albums, but there’s lots of this stuff on his solo LPs) and Cathedral may well be Graham’s best or certainly his angriest song of the genre. Fittingly, the song starts off with a beautiful religious-sounding piano lick and heavenly harmonies as Nash tells us about all the thoughts running through his head between 6 and 7 am that night, imagining the Cathedral he stands in as both a haven for people ‘against the hordes who came to conquer’ and the graves of the soldiers who gave up their lives for crusades, forcing those they might to take up their own beliefs in the name of peace (or, in Nash’s words, ‘the air inside just hangs with illusion’). The chorus then suddenly erupts out of nowhere, with Nash face to face with a gravestone marked with today’s date – his birthday – and terrified that his doppelganger might have been trapped fighting a war in religion’s name two centuries beforehand. Calming down, Nash paints a lovely verse of an Eleanor Rigby-like cleaner working away in solitude inside the church, unaware of the confusion and emotion taking place in the singer’s head before his terror takes hold of him again. A sterling dramatic song, quite unlike any Nash had ever written before, this is another impressive piece of music, with a note-perfect arrangement that makes the most out of its early creepy atmosphere and Nash’s later claustrophobia as the centuries seem to fall in on him. Amazing to think that Nash began writing this piece straight after the incident but never put it on record until here, a full three years after getting the idea. CSN’s harmonies on this track are another candidate for their best work, swooping round the song like a hawk and sounding as scary and dramatic as they ever did. It’s not on record, by the way, if Nash ever did really see a gravestone with his date of birth marked on it—but odds are there would be one with that day’s date on it, presumably.

Side two is a rather more poppy and less no frills harmony-based 20-minutes than its predecessor, but even Stills’ seemingly buoyant and catchy [221] Dark Star is not quite what it seems at first. Another song about the guitarist’s up-and-down relationship with Rita Coolidge (or so I reckon anyway, as this could easily be a Stillsy pun on the dark-skinned singing ’star’, although Stills always gives rather oblique answers when asked about this song - or could it perhaps be about now ex-wife Veronique Sanson, as the timing makes more sense here?!?), this song is rather happier than most of Stills’ romantic epics, with the narrator ‘intrigued’ rather than upset at the way a long-term off-on relationship seems to come and go. Stills himself tells us that his fantasies are ‘shop-worn’, having already appeared on many of his records to date, but the music to this very rhythmic song is pioneering rather than recycling, full of sudden swifts in tempo and based on a jazzy keyboard lick quite unlike anything else the band ever attempted. As for the tune, Dark Star is easily Stills’ most commercial recording since Love The One You’re With and like many of Stills’ more personal songs finds Stephen heavily into his Latin influences once more. The hopeful glimmer in the narrator’s eyes sounds fresh enough, too, despite the fact that the narrator has already been at this stage a few times with her, painting a lovely romantic and intimate picture of two friends together. The encounter even brings out Stills’ idealistic qualities for the first time in many a long year (‘now you got me dreaming girl – it’s been so long I thought that I’d forgotten how’), always a nice thing to hear on a CSN record seeing as this group practically invented idealism in music back in their early days of wooden ships sailing to island havens and flowers sitting in vases on window-sills. Yet then again, even though the mood is upbeat, could the title be a clue that all is not well and that after the song ends the narrator is going to get jilted yet again, with his love going unfulfilled as if flowing into a ’dark star/ black hole’? 

[222] Just A Song Before I Go is similarly commercial and is easily the most famous song on the album, a soothing Nash number about a lover serenading his partner as he boards a plane. This song, CSN’s best-seller of all time in America although it’s not so well known in the UK, must have one of the strangest genesis’s for any top ten single. While waiting for a flight to Hawaii, one of Nash’s friends bet him he couldn’t write a complete hit song in the time before driving out to the airport and Graham duly got busy scribbling, surprising everyone with the sincerity of the result. Being something of an in-joke, the song includes references to drugs (it’s not only the plane but the passenger that’s ‘travelling twice the speed of sound’) and music (‘when the shows were over’), but it’s tale of short-term romance ending at the check-out counter is also wonderfully universal enough to tug at the heart strings and doesn’t sound as false as other improvised songs of the sort. Well, if you’re going to win a bet, you might as well win it in style! As we said above, could it be about Crosby? Nash was already anxious for his friend's declining mental faculties after seven years of heavy drug use (the death of his girlfriend Christine in a 1970 car crash being the trigger point) and will go on to write many more to come. It's interesting that even his sub-conscious, looking for a point of reference at speed, should land on both flying (a favourite Crosby activity dating back to his pre-Byrds days) and should have a narrator whose clearly linked to music in some way ('When the shows were over...'). Nash was, of course, bustling to the airport and was seeing his friend after a show - but if that's so then why not carry the plot of the song over ('Just a song before I go, to whom it may concert, my friend reckons I can't write this song in time - will he never learn?') Interestingly, this is the only song on the whole record to feature CSN playing together on the backing track, with Nash’s piano and Crosby’s acoustic well balanced by Stills’ typically spot-on jazzy electric guitar solo.

If Just A Song is CSN at their made-up story-telling best, then [223] Run From Tears is them at one of their soul-bearing peaks. A largely forgotten bluesy song from Stills, it features some of his most ferocious and out of control guitar playing but is more disciplined and together than similar efforts on his solo albums, with the whole thing held together with a swirling organ part and more note-perfect harmonies. The song features some interesting lyrics about Stills’ marital life in 1976-77, trying to hold on to a relationship past its best and equally accusatory (‘are you punishing me for my weakness?’) and guilty (‘I didn’t mean to take you for granted, only knew that it felt good at home’). Effectively an apology set to music, this song is also quite sad in retrospect as Stills guesses accurately that losing his latest muse will be the end of his creative powers because he can’t bring himself to go through all this emotion again in the future (‘the blood rushing through my veins becomes a flood of tears once again’). The song is highlighted by Mike Finnigan’s sensitive organ work, a wonderfully bluesy bass part by Gerald Johnson and one of Stills’ all-time best guitar solos, a passage that channels all of Stills’ hurt and anger into one of the most snarling, desperate sounding licks of his career. The CSN harmonies on the last verse are also breath-taking, even for this record, with all three members blending into each other effortlessly and holding onto the notes for what seems like an inhumanely long length of time. In short, Run From Tears is one of the album’s greatest highlights and one of the last truly great Stills songs (though Southern Cross runs it close, admittedly) – why this funky but heartfelt track isn’t better known is a mystery, as its one of the few tracks on this album to have never appeared on a CSN compilation to date.

[224a] Cold Rain is Nash at his fragile best, another lovely and heartfelt song about a brief trip back home to a cold, dreary Manchester watching other cold, wet dreary people go about their cold, wet dreary day. After a decade spent in sunny California with his CSN comrades, it must have come as a shock for Nash to re-experience the rain of his childhood when the group came to play a concert at Manchester on their first British tour for eons and everyone who has lived in or nearby the area (surely one of the wettest regions of the world) will surely sympathise with this song. (It’s still accurate too; Nash did a rare and very moving solo version of this song as a one-off during Crosby-Nash’s concert in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in 2005 and it brought the house down). The kick-off line in this song is that one of the strangers recognizes Nash, saying that he ‘used to be like someone I knew’ who left ‘when he thought there was more’, hinting that Nash’s narrator could easily have been living the same cold, wet dreary existence if music hadn’t come by to save him. In its sympathy for the downtrodden and hardworking and its hopeful message that it is possible to escape the life that  is seemingly mapped out for you, Cold Rain sounds more like a Ray Davies song than Graham Nash song. Poignant without lapsing into the saccharine-ness that ruins a lot of late-period Nash songs, this mournful track is most notable for possessing yet more downright beautiful harmonies, especially Stills who unusually but very effectively sings falsetto throughout the track while Nash sings in the bass of his register.

[225] In My Dreams, a Crosby-Nash collaboration whatever the billing, is a typically elliptical, acoustic Crosby song based on some really weird chord tunings. Even more than the poetic Shadow Captain, this song is terribly difficult to follow. One view is that the lyrics refer to the many formations of CSN down the years and their unique mix of three previous band-leaders (or at least men jostling for command) trying to keep the peace with each other (‘Who gets breakfast, who gets lunch? Who gets to be the boss of this bunch? Who will steer?’) A second line about ‘dancers’ also recalls Stills’ Change Partners, a track dubbed the ‘CSN theme song’ by Nash in view of its characters’ needs to dance with whatever partner they feel like dancing with. Then again, it may be that this is Crosby’s conscience, temporarily hidden behind copious amounts of illicit substances, nagging at himself to stop before it fully swamps his personality (‘I’m hoping there’s someone home’). Either definition fits the superbly upbeat ending (‘in my dreams I can see a love that could be’) – is this Crosby talking to himself? Or to his fellow bandmates? (or none of the above?) In keeping with the confusion, this is a song divided into three parts with no real musical link between any of them, featuring some more of Crosby’s ‘whose steering this ship?’ philosophy from Shadow Captain in the beginning before turning into a fully fledged three-part harmony jazz lick. The ending, with its rousing and repetitive chorus (written by Nash but given to Crosby as his Christmas present for 1976!) fits perfectly and makes for a rousing finish to the song. In My Dreams is slowly becoming better known thanks to Crosby’s concert revivals of it over the last decade and the tune has more than its fair share of fans, but compared to Shadow Captain  it is perhaps too lopsided and just a bit too confusing to have the same impact. Full marks again for the harmony work, however.

Surprisingly, given the acoustic nature of much of this record, Stills ends CSN on a screaming rocker, one of the heaviest of the three men’s recordings to date. Similarly obtuse to the last song, [226a] I Give You Give Blind seems to be more of Stills’ hurt defiance at the way his marriage to Veronique Sanson fell apart so suddenly. The loudly mixed strings threaten to overpower the song (you can hear a different mix of the song without strings on the CSN compilation Replay, which sounds even better without them in my opinion), but it’s the CSN harmonies you remember most, soaring into space on a cloud in contrast to Stills’ earthy snarling vocal and guitar. Another message to an ex-lover, the tone of apology has now turned to anger but Stills sounds uncharacteristically self-loathing on this song, demanding that the pair get back together again before adding ‘fool, listen to yourself – you don’t know even when you’ve been left’. Tough as this song is, however, there’s a brilliantly and typically CSN burst of optimism shining through the storm clouds, as Stills comes to term with his need for a partner - any partner – to share his life with and the three singers sign off with the message ‘you’ve got to believe in someone, if you don’t you will be lost’.

If you’ve read down to here then you must be enough of a CSN fan to agree with me that the group were at least one of the most important and breathtaking we will probably ever have; if I still haven’t converted you yet and you’re really bored with what I’ve been writing on the rest of this website then blame this album – more than any other on this list, its what got me into becoming a raving, passionate music lunatic in the first place (no comments agreeing with that statement please – it’ll only be saying what I know already!) We’ve had plenty of CSN/CSNY re-unions in the years since (in 1982, 1988, 1990, 1994 and 1999 – surely another one is overdue?), but none have ever sounded as pure or as harmoniously three-way as this Herculean effort, which pools together the best songs of the period from three of the brightest and most talented writers the world has ever known. The last truly great CSN album, this is a sterling and most under-rated effort that hardly puts a note wrong all the way through. My jaw hasn’t quite fitted back into its socket in the same way since buying this record and something tells me now that it never will.

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. And yes, I agree with you, they are the absolute best harmony group ever! I believe their music will live forever.

  2. Dark Star is about Joan Baez. David and Graham have both confirmed this. Stephen thanked every woman who inspired his best songs on the 2013 box set. Both Dark Star and Black Queen are about Joan Baez. She was on the list. And yes, they are the most important harmony group who ever lived and are very unlikely to ever be topped.