Monday, 11 January 2016
Crosby-Nash "Whistling Down The Wire" (1976)
Spotlight/Broken Bird/Time After Time/Dancer/Mutiny//J B's Blues/Marguerita/Taken At All/Foolish Man/Out Of The Darkness
"The Byrd (and Hollie) you saw dying we saw flying..."
Every successful album has an evil twin; a record that takes the same ingredients that made the last one special and ends up forgetting to turn the oven on/gets the timings wrong/finds the world has moved on and is asking for a very different recipe as soon as it's ready. Sometimes the creators realize this and try to add to it ('Smile' is a huge leap over 'Pet Sounds'), other times they release it half-cooked to get it out the way ('Magical Mystery Tour'), other times they pause partway through and go in as opposite a direction as they can manage (Neil Young's 'Time Fades Away' is a whole other species to 'Harvest'). And sometimes the albums come out anyway because, well, the creators aren't quite sure what the heck it was they came up with last time anyway and it takes a long time and a lot of effort to make an album so why throw out some good ideas after bad? 'Whistling Down The Wire', Crosby and Nash's third album, is one of those records. Released a mere nine months after the unexpected hit record 'Wind On The Water' (the quickest turn around for studio albums either man will manage post their sixties careers in the Byrds and Hollies), 'Wire' is proof that great albums take time and inspiration and cannot be released to order just because your new record company wants another hit. So far Wire's reputation amongst long-term fans has fallen to the point where it shares with missing partner Stephen Stills' 'Thoroughfare Gap' the distinction of being the only CSN-related product of the 70s not automatically rated 'gorgeous' or higher.
Having not known of this album's reputation - and actually finding it out of sequence, as the first of the duo's work but behind most of the actual CSN albums - I must confess to also feeling a bit underwhelmed, without ever quite knowing why. It's not that any of the songs on it are bad (although goodness knows I don't play the likes of 'Foolish Man' on repeat) or that their twin voices are anything less than pristine (though it would have been nice to hear Crosby and Nash together a bit more) or that the group of session musicians have suddenly lost the ability to be the perfect backing band in nine months. There's just a slight feeling about it of 'will this do?', with the added problem that released in the 'year that changed everything' that was punk's 1976 this most youthful of bands is beginning to sound a little middle aged (CSN are traditionally more 'punk' than you might expect - have a listen to 'Almost Cut My Hair' or Stills re-inventing himself on a 1976 tour of Cuba - but this is their least punk LP released just at the wrong time, in every way that 'Wind On The Water' was the perfect album for prog rock's last great year, with just enough bared teeth to sound contemporary too). Middle aged is understandable from a band who were by now in their middle-thirties though and complacency is inevitable when you make as music as these guys do. So why this album so reviled and ignored, unavailable on CD until as late as 2000? (and currently pout of print except via MCA's pricey but popular 'print on demand' service - that's most likely how you'll find this album on Amazon and the like if you're after a copy).
Well, the bad timing doesn't help. The sudden speed with which Crosby-Nash go from making one of their most inspired collections of music to one of their least is a shock we hadn't really had from this band before. And given that the CSN ethos has always been that nothing less than your best will ever do in life and love and your record collection, the slight air of complacency does come as a shock. But a weak album by a great band is usually deserving of a second chance at the AAA and so it proves with this one. Truth is, we've been reading this album the wrong way. There's nothing here as inherently musical as 'Wind On The Water's title sequence, as rabble/rebel-rousing as 'Fieldworker' or as poignantly gorgeous as 'Carry Me', despite the very similar chord sequences and session muso stylings, because this isn't that sort of an album. 'Water' is an album that wore it's heart on its sleeve - it is after all an album that found Crosby 'naked in the rain' and found Nash similarly honest and open. 'Wire' is an album that works by a whole other set of rules, foisted on the duo by circumstances. On the one hand Nash has fallen in love big time with his future wife Susan, but he's not sure if he wants the world to know about it yet until he's ready, so instead we get the craziest set of love songs he ever wrote, full of in-jokes and references even long-term fans might not get. Crosby is having a miserable year, sliding into drug hell at speed and it's the first year his friends actually notice how out of control things are getting. Many of his songs are full of feelings that sound forced by his own high standards, in denial or couched in false optimism or reckless humility ('Out Of The Darkness' must be the saddest sounding happy song ever written). 'Wind On The Water' is an album written in code, to be deduced only with a firsthand knowledge of the events of the time, without the usual political commentary or heartfelt love songs. Even the title sounds like a spy story, a message 'whistling down the wires from pole to pole' without the pair's usual directness of speech.
One of the major themes of the album that you really need to know to understand it is what was happening to CSNY as a family unit in 1976. The quartet had last tried a foursome back in 1974 and had gone on a lengthy and productive tour before finally falling apart just two or three (the number varies depending whose telling the story) newly recorded songs for their studio album. By 1976 the band have tried again after the only Stills-Young album in the band's history 'Long May You Run' started going wrong. Realising that the record sounded a bit too rough and needed harmonies, Stills called a halt midway through and called the duo who agreed to add a few new songs and turn it into a four-way project. 'Run', though, fell apart at the seams with old problems between the quartet creating tension and leading up to the point where Nash queried a vocal line on a Stills song he thought was rather hard and unwittingly created an argument that blazed on for hours, ending with Stills supposedly taking a razor to the master-tapes to cut the pair's harmony work out (one track, 'Black Coral', was released in full CSNY harmony on the Stills box set 'Carry On', mind, so he certainly didn't wreck them all). Neil also goes on one of his infamous un-announced walkabouts away from the project round about this time. By the end of 1976 the quartet have split back into pairs, most of the music world blissfully unaware how close they came to the long-delayed sequel to 1970's 'Deja Vu', but still the bitterness lingers on as heard in several tracks on this album, particularly Nash's. 'Spotlight' is about how fame does funny things even to great people, 'Taken At All' is a CSNY abandoned album projects name-dropping prelude to 'Wasted On The Way', 'J B's Blues' apologises for letting everyone down - again - and 'Mutiny' a couched story of the bitterness he feels at the betrayal, set in 'Sailboat Bay' - the unlikely name for the holiday resort he was staying in to cut the 'Long May You Run' songs. Less bitterly, 'J B's Blues' is a reference-filled song of love to CSNY friend, fan, photographer and cataloguer Joel Bernstein, which is almost an apology for having come so close to the album so many fans want made - although it speaks volumes that Nash's close pal is mentioned only by his initials on this of all albums, where nothing is direct anymore.
By far the most interesting 'code' to sort out, though, is Nash's new love story. Before now Nash has been one of the most openly unworriedly romantic writers of them all - you only need 'Our House' to know what being in a relationship with Graham is like (when it's going well, at least) while Nash will in time write even more oozingly romantic love songs than that for his new girlfriend ('Song For Susan', on 1982's 'Daylight Again', is perhaps the ultimate Nash ballad). Here, though, he's simply enjoying having Susan to himself, after having met her in the cafe both he and Crosby loved popping into while making 'Wind On The Water' (actually forget the record company pressure thing, which C-N usually didn't pay heed to anyway - making another album so close to the pair's favourite breakfast place was probably the main reason for making this record!) Take 'Broken Bird', the elliptical, obscure and so un-Nash like song that's left fans and reviewers scratching their heads: it's actually Graham's first love song for his wife, a potter, who was busy making a pretty bird statue for her new boyfriend at home to remember her by. Graham walked in un-announced, saw his girlfriend hard at work and was so overcome with joy he went up to give her a big hug and yell 'I love you!' in her ear. Susan jumped, the broken bird smashed - and went up on the mantlepiece anyway an even greater memory of their love than the 'vase' in 'Our House', 'real' in it's very broken state, a symbol not of a love 'dying' but 'flying' (sadly the revelation of this story put an end to my wonderings if this was another song about Crosby a la the first draft of 'Wind On The Water', a 'Broken Byrd' if you will or that this was a sequel to Nash's solo 'Wounded Bird' - ah well, that's reviewing for you!) 'Marguerita' may also be about Susan too, the album's one and only 'Wind On The Water' outtake where a man goes out for a drink and falls in love instead, but as with most of this album it's hidden in such codes and name-changes we'll never know.
Crosby, meanwhile, is struggling to come up with half an album's worth of material so soon after his last record (he's never been the speediest of writers, at least compared to his CSNY colleagues who are all more prolific than average). On the plus side that means the world finally gets to hear the gorgeous 'Time After Time', a ballad premiered on the CSNY 1974 tour and which is one of his prettiest, most overlooked songs. 'Dancer' too is a fine instrumental that's the last in his scat-singing jazz-chord series that's run since 'If Only I Could Remember My Name' in 1971 and 'Out Of The Darkness' would have been a fine song if it were true, only of course it isn't and that sense of 'lying' comes over into the final recording, unusual for Crosby (it might be significant that Nash's song about Crosby's addiction in 1982 will be named 'Into The Darkness', the nasty ugly yin to this song's breezily hopeful drug-riddled yang). 'Foolish Man', though, is one of the few unlikeable songs in the Crosby canon, an angular confessional piece that's trying hard to be another 'Homeward Through The Haze' but ends up a blues holler with an unusually weak rhyming structure instead (it will lead to the gorgeous 'Anything At All' on the 1977 CSN reunion mind, so all is not lost). At four songs to Nash's six, though (a few extra lyrics on 'Taken At All' aside), Crosby has never felt less like an equal partner. Sadly he won't be one again until as late as the 1994 CSN reunion 'After The Storm' (named after a song that sounds like the 'real' 'Out Of The Darkness'), but this is the first time he's had to hide the fact and with only Nash to 'cover' for him it makes the album sound rather more unbalanced than it would a CSN album.
You can generally tell how involved C/S/N/Y are with a record by how much they tend to play on it. It might speak volumes, then, that around 95% of the performance on this album are performed by The Mighty Jitters - the sadly un-credited-by-that-name backing band who play almost all the instrumental parts across this album, with Nash reduced to a little guitar and a bit of harmonica and Crosby all but instrumentally mute. To be fair, the Jitters are a great little band who rightly won a lot of plaudits for the Stills/Young/Dallas Taylor sound they brought to 'Wind On The Water'. Once again David Lindley and Danny Kortchmar between them are a fine guitar duel, their double solo on 'Mutiny' a gorgeous exercise in chaos and noise, while the chance to play flamenco on 'Marguerita' proves that they can do soft and delicate as well. Craig Doerge's piano is central to this album in a way it never really has been to CSN before now, picking up on the lead of 'Bittersweet' from the last LP by adding a whole new texture to the till-now guitar-dominated CSN sound. Russell Kunkel finds new ways to combine rock and roll strutting with mellow vibes on the spooky drums. And Tim Drummond, on 'loan' from Neil Young's backing band (and who first partnered Crosby-Nash when they helped out on the 'doom' tour for 'Time Fades Away') proves why he was so in demand in the mid-70s. Usually turning CSN ideas over to backing bands is a terrible idea - look what happened to 'Live It Up' in 1990 - but this is a band who are sympathetic to the duo's ideas and who, thanks to a number of period band performances on other people's records (see our AAA review on Art Garfunkel for more, sometimes with Crosby-Nash guest appearances to boost) are nicely tight. A Jitters-backed tour of this album and a live album will follow, but the Jitters are clearly more of a 'studio' band, the biggest difference between them and the CSNY bands being their preference for set arrangements rather than improvisation. Sadly that live album will be the last will hear of Crosby-Nash as a duo until as late as 2004 (an aborted album in 1989 notwithstanding).
I wonder how well this album might have gone down without a million-seller to compare it to. Many reviewers picked up on the fact that 'Wire' seems deliberately made to seem as much like its predecessor as possible - the only time any of CSN really do this - with a similar full head-and-shoulders picture shot (albeit with the duo looking grumpier) and a very familiar looking running order. 'Time After Time' is 'Bittersweet', the chance to recover with a breathy ballad after the intensity of the opening tracks; 'Dancer' is the oh so Crosby moment right where 'Naked In The Rain' was before; Nash's 'Mutiny' ends side one on a screaming slow-burning rocker similar to Nash's 'Love Work Out'; 'Foolish Man' almost is the same song as 'Homeward Through The Haze' chord-wise anyway, even if the directions both songs take their 'hurt' in are very different; finally 'Out Of The Darkness' almost sounds crafted by Crosby to sound like the dreamy 'To The Last Whale'. In a way that's a shame: 'Wire' has been so hard done by down the years partly because it's so long been treated by the same 'rules' as 'Wind On The Water'; obtuse, dark and symbolic rather than open, honest and emotional, these albums are twins only in sound and 'feel', linked like twins to a specific point in time and much of the same DNA. It's what they choose to do differently with that DNA that's so interesting - and if you can understand that then you can appreciate this troubled album much more.
'Whistling Down The Wire', then, is a hard album to get a hold of. It lacks the directness of 'Graham Nash, David Crosby' and the heartfelt-sentiment-turned-into-killer-sentiment of 'Wind On The Water'. It's easily the weakest of the three 1970s Crosby-Nash records and probably represents the least extinguished album either Crosby or Nash worked on across their most successful decade. And yet, while I've always been a little underwhelmed by this record, there's no point in telling its creators off for delivering their only A- record in a run of A+s (in this era at least; believe me, there are some 'must try harder' comments coming up for later decades). Over years of listenings I've come to love this record in a whole different way to most of the other CSN items, falling in love with different sections and separate ingredients more than I have the final product: Nash's gloriously poetic verses to 'Broken Bird' so different to his usual style; his warm-hearted lyrics to both his band ('Taken At All') and his fan (and by extensions fans) on 'J B's Blues'; the sense of menace when 'Mutiny' finally puts an end to three whole minutes of sulking and gets on with it - and how, thanks to a glorious solo; the pure fragility of 'Time After Time', a track that could surely only have been written by Crosby; the moment when 'Dancer' stops trying to grunt her way off the ground and goes soaring into the middle distance on some lazy, crazy ethereal harmonies that are truly sublime. No there's no one song here that ranks alongside the duo's best (though 'Broken Bird' 'Time After Time' and 'Taken At All' come close, it has to be said) and few CSN albums get it as wrong - or at least as bland - as the pair do on 'Spotlight' or 'Foolish Man'. But the chance to hear the pair do 'cryptic' in a way they never will again for more than a song at a time is a welcome one - with just enough of that message to whistle down the wire back to us to keep things interesting (well, I'd guessed 'J B's Blues' before Nash spoke about it anyway; I wasn't even close to 'Broken Bird'!) and proves that the band weren't simply making a sequel to a hit album. It filled a big hole in our young souls, right between two of the finest releases in the CSN canon - sometimes that's enough.
'Spotlight' is such a Graham Nash song. Half humble apology, half egotistical rant, it's at one with his other stormy songs about the ongoing CSNY saga, only marginally less angry than the better known 'Frozen Smiles'. Nash has been asked why he's bothered to come along, guitar in hand, and is challenged that he's after the spotlight - but isn't that what writers do? Singing 'about places that you've been too so you can see them once again through me'; all Nash is after is a chance to pass on his way of seeing in the world of hoping it will touching another soul, throwing in a 'but it's only me' for good measure. Nash sounds as if he's addressing Stills or Young or both here (the same way he once did on 'Chicago', telling them that they should know the thrill of having a platform to share their music because they do the same. Nash is half apologetic, half proud as he informs us that singing in the spotlight is all he's ever known: 'I've got to do it almost all the time - it fills a big hole in my young soul!' If my reading of this song is right (and, hey, I've been wrong before) then 'Spotlight' suggests that the aborted CSNY reunion of 1976 might have had more to do with Crosby/Nash refusing to join as anything less than equal partners after being hired purely as backing singers. 'Taken It All', at least, was written for the 1976 CSNY sessions (it seems to have been the only song close to being finished after being started from scratch - you can hear it on the 1991 box set) which suggests that the idea was considered whatever Stills was thinking about their 'status' on the album. This song sounds like Nash angrily heading home or to pick up the pieces of this half-finished album trying to make sense of what's just happened. He's earned the right to co-billing by now hasn't he, surely? Why should alone - least of all a friend - question his need to be in the spotlight, as isn't that what they're all doing? Alas what sounds like an intriguing lyric is slightly cut short by a song that has only three verses and no real chorus and a melody that simply patters along without the anger or urgency of the lyrics. Nash's Dylanesque harmonica puffing hasn't got any better with the years either, though on the plus side his vocal is excellent, caught between adult outrage and little boy lost puzzlement. This is also one of the few tracks on the album that features Crosby and Nash singing together throughout.
'Broken Bird' is a real breakthrough in Nash's writing. Till now he's been dismissed as the 'obvious' writer out of the four, the 'poppy' one as if that's something bad (it's s necessary part of their dynamic: Crosby's, Stills' and especially Young's darker songs sound much better for coming after Nash's, while Nash's work is only simple by comparison to his colleagues). But 'Broken Bird' is as surreal as anything by Crosby, as epic as most of Stills' work and as mysterious as Young at his peak, an elliptical song about a romance he isn't quite sure about letting onto just yet. Nash's tale of pottery-driven angst is more about the pair's blossoming romance hanging in the balance between the awful moment when he realises he's broken something beautiful with his carelessness and the split second later when his new girlfriend realises it's him and laughs. The seconds are stretched out to an infinity as Nash pauses, waiting anxiously for his shocked girlfriend's re-action 'who hardly said a word'. An unusual chorus, repeated twice in succession separated only by a guitar solo, enhances the idea of this song being about communication, Nash waiting for Susan's response to flicker on her face and trying to read the outcome of the 'broken bird'. By the end of the song the pair have made it up, with hazy recollections of the pair 'reading in the dark' (each other's emotions perhaps?) and learning to communicate. Until the end 'Broken Bird' has been musically sleepwalking, it's wings clipped as if it's waiting for something to happen good or bad, surreal and dreamlike. Finally in the last half of the last verse the song breaks off unexpectedly, making its decision to soar towards the sun: 'It's ok! She laughed! She doesn't hate me for spoiling her pottery project with my love for her!' The song suddenly soars off into the middle distance as 'the bird that you saw dying' only a few precious seconds and two verses earlier has been turned into a symbol of their love, a 'funny story' to tell their children and grandchildren about (the song even starts with the line 'I'd like to tell you a story...' as if that's what Nash is doing to 'us', his Graham grandkids). Ironically the broken bird is the moment when the pair's romance is truly 'flying' having taken on the next stage. An impressively dense track enhances this lovely and unusual song, with some excellent sparring between Lindley's purring electric question marks and Kortchmar's sorrowful slide guitar, while the use of both Crosby and Nash at the bottom of their register in tandem on the chorus also enhances the song's ghostly, mysterious feel. One of the real hidden classics of the CSN canon.
Crosby's 'Time After Time' is another album highlight, his most blissfully sleepy and delicate song since 'If Only I Could Remember My Name' and without the darkness of many his immediate post-Christine Hinton 'tragedy' songs. It's a track that dates from 1974 and that all too brief moment when the darkness of her fatal accident hadn't yet run into the darkness of the full-on drug period head on. Like 'Broken Bird', it's a track that plays with our ideas of time (something much more typical of Crosby's songs), as he finds himself 'running in rhyme' and synchronisation with a loved one who makes him forget all about the usual human pressures of time. Many of Crosby's later songs use the metaphor of life not as a long and winding road (as so many writers do) but as a mountain to climb, full of peaks and troughs. That imagery seems to start here, as at last he finds a quiet path of his own personal cliff-face to navigate and enjoys a 'slow, easy climb' now that someone's path has coincided with his (Crosby was having his own 'happy' period back in 1974 after meeting future wife Jan Dance), unwinding in the pure joy of love. In two tracks, then, we've had Nash sounding like Crosby and now Crosby doing a Nash by sounding more in love than he has in years. Nash adds a lovely harmonica part to this lovely track, so fragile it feels like it's about to break at any moment, Crosby still in awe that 'part of the puzzle has fallen in place'. Crosby's written far deeper, more emotional and way more groundbreaking songs than this, but sometimes simple and slow is enough and 'Time After Time' is another of this album's songs that doesn't get the respect it deserves.
'Dancer' is the fourth instrumental-with-wordless-voices piece of Crosby's career and his last until 'How Does It Shine?' in 2004. Interestingly, it's by far his rockiest of the five pieces, with a harder edge than the 'Remember My Name' songs, less reflective than 'Where Will I Be?' and less poppy than 'Shine'. Usually when Crosby's giving us pure music without the words it means he has something so colossally huge on his mind that mere words aren't enough and so it feels here, with a track that's forever twisting and turning, 'dancing' it's way through a rather challenging set of chords that by the middle feels like a battle going on, heightened by Crosby's almost-screams. The question is, does the huge theatrical scale of this piece mean love or war? Crosby's never spoken much about this track, but it seems fair to say that it's about either love or drugs, perhaps even both twinned together, his main muses of the period. His partner's maiden name of 'Dance' might be a clue, with romance a series of increasing challenges separated by some truly lovely reflective bits of music. Or is the dark and evil edge on this track more in spirit with Crosby's increasing drug habit, the 'lost child' of future song 'Delta' realising for the first time that he's hit muddy waters he can't navigate a way out of? 'Dancer' is an unusual track which of all of Crosby's similar works feels most like one that's speaking in tongues, with scat words that sound like another language rather than this being a song that could only have been an instrumental. There is perhaps one shift too many from laidback stargazing to caveman grunting, but Crosby's harmonies and Lindley's snarling animalistic guitar (matching him note for note) are strong. The strings overdubs that drift in and out as if breaking through from another dimension are well handled too, less lush than on 'To The Last Whale' while still in keeping with the mood. It's a shame though that this sounds very much like a solo Crosby song with very little Nash heard - the pair of singers were always best when they were together and they'd already proven on 'Tree With No Leaves' that they had the right telepathy to carry this off.
The noisiest song on the album by far is 'Mutiny', another of Nash's songs of anger and betrayal over the 'Long May You Run' sessions (it's interesting that he's so much more hurt by it all than Crosby is, perhaps because the finishing argument was directly between him and Stills). Picking up from 'Crosby's own 'Cowboy Movie' (about the first CSNY split in 1970), Nash paints a dark sea story about betrayal, pirates and mutinies. For years we didn't know for certain what this song was about - it sounded like Nash had got carried away on holiday again (see The Hollies' 1967 songs 'Postcard' and 'Wishyouwish' for what a beach holiday, a little imagination and a lot of drugs can do between them). But then he revealed in his 'Reflections' box set that he'd stayed in and had to then cancel his reservation in Sailboat Bay, North California and suddenly the whole song made sense: 'Long May You Run', which Nash would have heard a good half of, is after all a 'nautical themed' album ('Ocean Girl' 'Black Coral' 'Midnight On The Bay'). So trust Nash to write his own song to fit the album's 'theme' in absence, while subverting the idea to reflect his feelings over that album (was this song even started on a watery theme to better match where the album seemed to be going?) Nash the narrator is being forced to walk the gang-plank by 'two monkeys who can do the two-step (two faced step?) very well' who must surely be Stills and Young and being rescued from the water by a captain ('shadow captain' Crosby? He officially became a sea 'captain' legally in 1971) who takes him on a course for 'shangri-la'. Along the way we also see cannibals on the shore (record company executives pushing for a CSNY reunion before Stills was ready and risking the Stills-Young album being 'eaten up' too perhaps?), 'blue birds over my head waiting for the sea to dry' (Stills' usual reference to Judy Collins on many a Buffalo Springfield and solo song - interesting it's not a 'raven' given that's Stills' image for Rita Coolidge, who'd been the girlfriend of both of them at different times) and most puzzling of all a 'farmer standing on the bridge' nonchalantly looking on (is this ranch owner Neil Young?) Alas, apart from playing 'Where's Wally?' CSN style, this track feels a bit less dignified than some of the others: there's no real resolution to the song and it just stays in the same cod-disco-funk rhythm throughout the track, with one of Nash's simplest and least inviting choruses ('It's mutiny on sailboat bay, mutiny so far away!') Once again there's comparatively little Crosby here - not a good sign - though on the plus side the closing instrumental meshing of Lindley and Kortchmar guitars is well handled, suddenly burning after four minutes of waiting to catch fire. It's a pretty neat memory of the Stills-Young guitar duels - in fact it sounds very much like what fans were expecting the Stills-Young album to be like (it is instead mainly an album of pretty ballads and whatever the heck 'Fontainebleu' is meant to be).
A much happier song written in code, 'J B's Blues' is a tribute/apology to longstanding friend Joel Bernstein, who started his career as a photographer before getting lumbered with the job of becoming CSNY's unofficial archivist (though I'd like to think Nash was writing about toddler racing driver Jenson Button as well). The apology, for whatever reason (another band split perhaps?) must have worked because the pair still work closely together now and have done all three of the C, S and N box sets plus the 'CSNY 74' one. Nash, certainly, is adamant that he's a 'friend' talking to a friend openly and honestly, asking for forgiveness 'if I've ever disappointed you' and admitting 'I've said some things you might not like to hear - but it's only me and how I feel about you!' There are lots of 'in-jokes' here for those who can work the identity of J B out (the fact he shot the album sleeve and thus gets a credit not that far from the track title helps, by the way): 'looking through the glass at shooting stars' (a pretty good description of a photographer), wanting the world to 'see' who 'we are' (the rejoinder 'It's not 'So Far' referring of course to the hated 1974 compilation thrown together by Atlantic) and JB finding his own girl to 'watch the sunset with' (he'd much admired the unused 'Human Highway' cover shot of CSNY on holiday in Hawaii, shot by Nash himself). Alas at two verses this song doesn't get much space to say anything beyond 'you are my friend' - we could have easily had a verse each per CSNY reunion/disbandment and turned this into a concept album and the vocal lines are a little tricky for Crosby and Nash to sing in tandem, with Nash the 'lead' and Croz pushes unnaturally high. Instrumentally, too, this country-ish song (clearly modelled on 'Cowboy Of Dreams') rambles slightly and can't quite match the words. No matter though, it's a sweet song of friendship sung with just enough of a knowing wink.
'Marguerita' is the closest to a straightforward love song on the album, a tale of love at first sight over a 'Margarita' cocktail (although I'd like to think the couple had a 'Margarita' pizza for afters). A 'goodbye but I'll be back' song, this slow romantic ballad pulls all the heart strings with fiddles, flamenco guitars, keyboards and bar-room piano but never quite gives us enough context for any of these being here. Officially all that happens is he offers her a drink, she asks for a Margarita and they hold each other while later they get out of a nearby pool and she order the same - not enough for a full verse or even a full night together, never mind a full song. There is though the symbolism - again unusual for Nash - of her asking for 'no salt', something reflected 'in her eyes' which are 'unadorned' 'unseasoned', pure and full of longing and the curious factor that 'she held me - and never asked me why', a question we never actually hear Nash ask (though it sounds like 'I'll be gone for a little while). Given that this song is the only 'Wind On The Water' outtake and is, like much of the 'Wire' album, couched in deep symbolic gestures and a romance, could it be that the entire record was written round that Terminator-style promise 'I'll be by/back' so that Nash could once again record close to where his new girlfriend lived and worked? Nash certainly sounds in love, with a slow and hypnotic quality to his voice - not unusual to be fair - but he probably wished his girlfriend had ordered a different drink given how many times he has to sing the un-rhymeable 'Marguerita', a word he seems to have uncharacteristic trouble pronouncing ('Margaweeta!') That's quite cute, though, and adds to the pure and innocent nature of the song. Like many of the 'Wire' songs, though, this short song is at least a verse away from excellence and was probably the right track to drop from 'Wind On The Water' to be honest.
The easiest song on the album to de-code and the only Crosby-Nash collaboration here is the charming 'Taken At All'. Originally Crosby-Nash were meant to sing the intro of this song about unity and parting together, with Stills and Young joining in on the second 'Lost it on the 'Highway' verse (as heard on a glorious outtake included on the CSN box set). This re-recording lacks the extra strength of the vocals and the intimacy of the all-acoustic performance, but gains from another charming Mighty Jitters backing heavy on the guitars. Though recorded at the 1976 sessions before the split, it was actually written for the one in 1974 on 'Human Highway', the place where CSNY's brotherhood was 'lost'. Nash always seemed to feel the CSNY splits more than the others - at least in song, with 'Wasted On The Way' a song partly about the 1976 split - and is a mixture of petulant and determined not to let it happen again here (this is mainly his song, with added Crosby 'jokes'!) Asking his brothers to 'take another look' and see him for who he really is, Nash sighs at splitting up over something small ('Is that all you thought it took?') and sums up the 1974 split with references to legal 'dotted lines' and the fact that 'you were going your way - I was going mine'. Wondering what's best for himself and for the others - working as a band, as a duo or as a solo act - he asks which road is the right one to be 'taken' and asks Stills/Young to re-think the rows 'in the lonely light of day'. A clever, sweet song that's just ambiguous enough to be a 'love' song (especially if you had a row on a 'highway'), it's one of Nash's cleverest songs and inspires a great vocal, warm and generous. Crosby's cheeky grin too sounds great alongside and it makes sense that, 'Spotlight' aside, this song about belated unity should be the album track to feature the pair singing together the most. Another nice string arrangement enhances the song nicely, though for this song at least less is more and there is perhaps a bit too much going on here compared to the CSNY original recording from earlier in the year.
Poor Crosby, who always struggled with deadlines, is having a really tough time when asked to write for another album so soon after the last. So we get the start of what will become a Crosby tradition with 'Foolish Man', the bluesy song written to order when an album needs to be recorded in a hurry ('After The Storm' alone will feature two of these). The most regretful and guilty song on quite a guilty album, Crosby complains about having 'grown up wild' and 'not doing well in school' - two of the things he used to be most proud of when in The Byrds. He's become paranoid, expecting 'things that don't happen'. Time is passing him by as he's unable to 'seize fortune's moment' and count his blessings - he's too busy looking over his shoulder at the future and he berates himself at every turn for his 'foolish' actions. As things will turn out, Crosby was probably right to feel that something bad was about to happen and you sense that this is the first of a run of coded 'help me!' songs, the drugs in his system having overtaken his ability to enjoy life. Blaming no one but himself, Crosby tries to laugh at his pitiful state but finds he can't 'because it cuts so damn close to the bone' (thankfully this song's smarter, closer cousin 'Anything At All' from the 1977 CSN album will prove that he can laugh at himself - and how). Unfortunately this song doesn't really do anything except wallow in the self-pity: though Nash sweeps in for the slower, sweeter middle eight ('Time just flies...') the song starts sleepwalking its way down the same ugly chords again, on a ride to nowhere that we know can only end in trouble. The result is an oddly unlikeable song - one of the very few unlikeable Crosby songs - but then it seems that that was the whole idea, with Crosby berating himself. Unnecessarily of course: there's no one as smart as someone who knows they still have so much to learn about life and Crosby is one of the smartest people there is, however badly he did at school.
I've had a mixed relationship with 'Out Of The Darkness' down the years. It's one of the few Crosby pieces (or CSN for that matter) you could ever imagine being covered by someone else and quite a useful piece for bringing back onside the relatives/friends you've lost from playing the gloriously unhinged nine minute version of 'Almost Cut My Hair' over and over for hours. But should Crosby be sounding like everyone else? Craig Doerge's piano-based melody isn't anywhere close to being the equal of his sterling work on 'Shadow Captain' the next year and for once Crosby the lyricist seems to have followed rather than led. Perhaps enjoying the slightly jazzy but (by Crosby standards) rather normal chord changes, Crosby was led to think in terms of light and happiness, banishing the darkness and living in the moment the way he once promised on 'Foolish Man' and 'Time After Time'. But this doesn't feel like that sort of a track. Crosby's most uplifting lyric prior to his post-prison renaissance sounds as if it's been gifted to the wrong song, coinciding with all the wrong bits - the moment when he sings 'here in the light...' is accompanied by the creepiest eeriest note heard on a CSN song for a long time. It's almost as if Crosby wants us to know that what he's singing is a lie, as if his inner critic just can't let him write a purely 'happy' song when he already knows (as hinted in 'Foolish Man') that life is getting out of control and things are going to get worse. The sudden push on the vocals soaring to the sky (clearly a direct copy of the famous rush of energy on 'Everybody I Love You') sounds inhibited and false by CSN standards, falling back onto a curious instrumental piece that, perhaps symbolically, wavers slightly out of tune once the sugary strings have been layered on the top. And what strings: though pretty, they also have a very dulling effect, the effect being not so much one of someone bursting through from dark into light but of a patient being put to sleep with heavy tranquilisers that numb the pain (surely the closest musical interpretation yet of the heavy drugs coursing through his system). The effect is quite unlike any other track in the CSN canon and I'm still not sure, several hundred playings across several decades later, whether it works or not. Is this a song riddled with errors that could have been so much better? Or is it a highly clever song that, perhaps even subconsciously, is trying to sabotage itself so that we don't read it at face value? That would certainly be in keeping with this most coded and 'locked' of CSN albums and yet I still think the truth might be simpler - that this is the moment when, asked to write a happy song to go with a largely happy tune, Crosby realises that the drugs have taken hold so much he can't quite remember what being 'happy' is anymore and that drugs are the closest thing he has. There'll be oh so much of this sort of thing coming, with Crosby part of only two more albums in the next eight years before his prison sentence, so soon after these heady days when he was making two inside a year...
Overall, then, 'Whistling Down The Wire' is an odd album, less immediate and easy going than it's hit predecessor and clearly in places nowhere near as good. However sometimes an evil twin is only a twin because it's misunderstood and so, I feel, is the case with 'Whistling Down The Wire' which is working to a whole different set of rules than any other CSNY album. Coded songs about the band's core split in 1976, coded songs about drug addiction and coded songs about the romance Nash isn't sure he wants the world to know about yet (following the high profile loss of first Joni Mitchell then Amy Gossage). The open and free 1969 debut this certainly isn't and the change isn't always for the best - it feels like there's a slight barrier sometimes between artist and fan here which Crosby/Nash never do otherwise (though Stills' grows thicker and thicker with each album from around this point on). As a one-off though, an oddity in a shelf of albums that work to a different value systems, this is enjoyable enough and even occasionally great when Crosby resurrects a missing classic or Nash gets inspired to write about band or girlfriend. A telegram sent out to fans without fuss or any real promotion, the biggest failure of 'Whistling Down The Wire' might be the lack of communication we've had about this album, which remains one of the least discussed CSN-related records and could have done with just a few pointers at the time to make fans interested in it more and to realise that there was something here worth digging for. I'm not sure, even with some of the clues now marked out for me, as if this is a long lost treasure and 'Wire' remains, even after rehabilitation, the weakest of Nash's and especially Crosby's work in the 1970s. But given the strength of the competition that's not as much of a fall as many reviewers and fans will let on, with an evil twin who turns out to be not that evil after all and a broken bird that's not all that cracked really, just a bit misunderstood and in the need of a hug.