Monday, 15 January 2018

CSNY Essay: The Superest of Super Groups? Plus Updates

Available to buy in ebook format 'Change Partners - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young' by clicking here!

It used to be easy didn’t it? A ‘band’ was a group of musicians who grew up on the same corner of the same street, went to the same schools, hung out in the same clubs and ended up playing in the same groups. The only difference between you and your bandmates was the instrument you played – otherwise you had the same interests and passions, had the same kind of vision and dated the same kind of girls (or boys). CSN though represented a change. If you were a kid growing up in the 1950s and playing at being in a band yourself then you picked your ‘leader’ – usually the frontman, occasionally the guitarist – whose name would go up on the posters and who would go up on all the posters and be seen in big on TV to make all the girls (maybe some of the boys) swoon while their mates got on with actually making music behind them. Think Cliff and the Shadows, Marty Wilde and the Wilde Three or Rory Storm and The Hurricanes. The Beatles changed all that – as they changed most everything – even though ironically they too started life as ‘Johnny and the Moondogs’ and ‘Long John Lennon and The Silver Beatles’ before McCartney’s talent overtook the gap in age between him and his musical partner. Even so, for most of the 1960s the idea was that as equals you had to think the same thoughts, in Graham Nash’s words on The Hollies to ‘make love to the same woman in the same room night after night’. You couldn’t have any individual identity – your group was your identity and you shared it between you. This is the era when bands all had the same haircuts, the same uniforms, the same pose and the same, well, everything.

CSN were the first to change all that (with perhaps the special exception of Cream, though only Eric Clapton was truly a household name at the time of their first single)  – and they did so deliberately. They were, after all, three such strong personalities that they’d outgrown the idea of being in a band singing to the same hymn-sheet a long time ago. Indeed, CSN were writing very different hymn-sheets to anything anyone else had ever written before. They also looked completely different, each with their recognisable silhouettes: there was Crosby all fringed jackets and droopy moustaches, Stills with tight-lipped blondeness and Nash with his thin goatee Manuncian look. If you had been beamed down from outer space (you won’t have met Catalunia the Third yet but she’s coming in these pages – it’s probably her planet!) you’d have wondered how these guys met and how they became friends – never mind have their surnames linked together for all eternity as one of the world’s grooviest sounding rock and roll law firms. That was the point though really: this was a firm of opposites who came together because that’s what the music demanded – not a brethren brotherhood who all shared the same sound and who always thought alike.

This was CSN’s greatest strength – and their greatest weakness. At their best it enabled them to sound like no other band out there with some of the widest range of influences out there and a sense that this trio could go anywhere and do anything. At their best they did do anything and broke more ground than they’re ever given credit for, especially in terms of political protest which was a genre they more or less created (in rock and roll terms, if not folk). At their worst it meant they couldn’t see eye to eye on anything – and all three were used to getting their own way. While CSN have many great qualities, none of them are what you might call ‘team players’. They weren’t very good at biting their lip and getting through the music business machines the way that you have to in order to have a successful career. But then CSN wasn’t a career – the biggest difference between this band and any that came before it was that music was a vocation, a calling. The pop stuff in their respective bands had just been the warm-up act for the ‘real’ job of making politicians afraid and making hippies of all ages, races and generations feel loved and hopeful. CSN were the hippie town criers, spreading hope around the globe – and throwing in a few stinging barbs when the people in charge of our world let us down. They didn’t merely want to be in a ‘band’ – which was what every other musician of their generation and taste longed for – they had all outgrown the need.

It’s worth having a quick recap for anyone whose missed our earlier books on The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and who hasn’t read our forthcoming book on The Hollies. David Crosby had been kicked out of The Byrds for seeing life differently to his band-members. While few people can compete with Crosby in the most liberal of bands, The Byrds were hardly the natural bedfellows for his way mind worked: he wanted to shake things up and they wanted to preserve it; The Byrds had a very eclectic sound but they veered towards establishment country when Crosby wanting to go places that were very new; they had to schmooze people in front of and behind the camera to stay in the top forty – something that Crosby hated with a passion. When the other Byrds kicked him out their famous line was that ‘we’ll do better without you’ – commercially they probably had a point without David around to mess up the pop-star bandwagon anymore, even if critically they clearly got it very wrong. The result was that by 1968 Crosby hated the idea of being in a band and vowed to never be in one again.

For Stills the idea of being in a band was a little bit different. He’d enjoyed the camaraderie that went with being in a band, especially one like Buffalo Springfield who were shaped and moulded in his image and largely consisting of his friends. But the powers-that-be decided that Richie Furay was a more marketable frontman and got him to sing lead or co-lead on many of Stephen’s songs. Then that pesky Neil Young began writing his own material and singing it too, not to mention getting more guitar solos and close-ups and much of the girls. Then Neil went and quit his band – his band! – six times in three years, leaving them in disarray and killing off their big shot at fame. Stills didn’t need the hassle – he wanted to be on his own.

Graham had the most interesting journey to CSN. The Hollies weren’t just a few musical mates he’d bumped in his twenties but his best friends from Primary School, at least in the case of singer Allan Clarke. They were successful, hitting the charts far more regularly than The Byrds or Springfield has ever been and they had weathered many storms: changing fashions, the end of Merseybeat, critical backlashes from own label-mates The Beatles and being pigeon-holed as a ‘singles band’ in the era of the long-playing record. But Nash seemed to have it all: he was the lead writer by 1968, was frequently referred to in the press as the band’s ‘leader’ and unlike Crosby his band looked to him to make trouble, while unlike Stills he didn’t really have the competition for creative control. But Nash found himself at odds with his bandmates. His other famous line was that the difference between his hit bands was that ‘David and Stephen never go to bed – and The Hollies go to bed at 8.30!’ In practical terms that meant that Nash was always high and thinking up mystical thoughts that turned into songs, while his pals were down the pub drinking. A rift grew between them – and Nash realised that being in a band could be a right drag.

CSN agreed, then, that their next band would be different – and maybe not be a ‘band’ at all in the Beatles ‘all in it together four musketeers’ sense. What all three had in common was that each of their respective bands had tried to dictate their identity – and they were desperate to grow and explore the idea of who they were. They wouldn’t necessarily agree with each other in interviews (indeed most fans read them to see how badly they’d disagree with each other!) They certainly wouldn’t wear the same clothes (could you see Nash in Crosby’s fringes? Or Croz in Stills’ American football T-shirts?!) They didn’t always share the same politics (as time went on Stills got more conservative, Nash got more liberal and Crosby broke all the rules – until settling down with a family late in life and renouncing or at least excusing most of his past). The only thing they really shared, alongside the music, was a similar kind of goofy humour that allowed them to soften the blows when they violently disagreed with each other (CSN’s stage patter is, John Lennon aside perhaps, the best).

From the start then, when CSN first sang together at that party (be it in Joni Mitchell’s living room as Stills claims, Mama Cass’ kitchen as Crosby and Nash say or – through some quirk of time – both, CSN were adamant that if they were going to spend the rest of their lives singing together, then it had to be on their own terms. And under their own name. Crosby and Stills had been playing around with the druggy name ‘The Frozen Noses’, given to them by a radio disc jockey who agreed to play their demos over the air for feedback without revealing who the duo were. When Nash joined in and things got more serious they discussed having a band name, but quickly opted out. What band name could possibly sum up three such different people?  Their sound was ‘real’ – it wasn’t contrived, it wasn’t an act and they didn’t want to be known as a ‘Byrd’ or a ‘Hollie’ forever. Instead they would just be themselves, sticking to their real names (although even there it took a lot of arguments: Crosby somehow expected to be at the front, while with only one syllable to his name Nash found himself out-argued that his name sounded better after ‘and’). Before this the only band that had come close was ‘Simon and Garfunkel’  and they weren’t really a ‘band’ in the same sense (not least because they were two guys and a guitar; Stills alone was an entire orchestra!)

Many people find it odd that CSN keep splitting and getting back together. I’m not sure even they expected to break up quite as many times as they have across fifty odd years, but some kind of flexibilty was always part of the plan – and for me part of what made them great. Instead of some big reunion or split the trio would just keep getting back together or departing for new musical avenues when they wanted to, going where the music took them. Sometimes their songs were too personal for mass consumption and epic harmonies; sometimes they wanted to prove to themselves that they could sell records on their own; often-times they hated each other’s guts and didn’t want to spent weeks locked in a studio with two (sometimes three) other loonies. But even at their most bitter, it wasn’t until 2016 that a split seemed final, that the trio (indeed quartet) were talking about never being able to work again with each other, ever. This wasn’t that kind of a band: however cross they got with each other, no matter how much hostility, no matter how many girlfriends had been chased off, CSN always knew that one day the time would be right and they would ‘return to the mothership’. There weren’t many things bigger than the egos of Crosby, Stills and Nash separately and yet somehow those initials CSN were. All of them saved their best music for when they were back together. All of them guested on each other’s solo albums to make them better. And all of them could offer anything they wanted on stage, no matter when they had written ir ot who with – after a lifetime spent in 1960s bands where everything had to be agreed on, CSN meant ‘freedom’ – suddenly everything was ‘allowed’. Though CSN frequently trampled on each other’s feelings, the one thing they never lost was their respect for each other – whatever they wanted to do was fine by the others, because they trusted them not to mess up (and even if they did, at least they messed up by being too ambitious, as opposed to not being ambitious enough!)

No wonder everyone else was left scratching their heads - no other band did that, getting back together again when they felt like it rather than when their bank balance dictated it. Even Cream took forty years (and a lot of money) to get back together again for one last hurrah. In fact nowadays, when CSN have been missing for what seems like decades (but is actually only six years) is when arguably they need the money most with back taxes, drug habits, aliony and new teeth to pay for – but it’s now they choose not to get back together again. That seems strange to believe now – despite the many changes CSN brought onto an unsuspecting public, ever since the mid-1970s it’s been taken for granted that any member splitting for a group will go solo (before rejoining the band again – it’s only a matter of time before Robbie Williams gets sucked back into Take That). But CSN wasn’t an ordinary group, from the very beginning, given that they were born from the giant furnace of pop stardom and they refused to ever get anywhere close to its brightness again, preferring to lurk in the shadows where the real music was. CSN were special for many reasons – for always telling the truth as they saw it for one thing, for keeping the crooked and the greedy on a leash and for having harmonies that couldn’t have been designed to fit any better together. But it was the template of their design that also made them special. CSN worked differently, not being prepared to play the pop game even when it meant we had lean years with only obscure solo albums on private labels, while all the time the trio would save their best music until they were all together and people would take note of what they had to say.

Neil Young’s chemistry changed everything, the way Neil always does. Added to the band as a touring extra, he slowly grew to the point where he eclipsed the trio’s fame – unfairly so in my eyes (this is a band of equals; having one of them as a superstar defeats the idea somehow, but then Neil doesn’t seem to have played by the same unspoken ‘rules’ as the other three). His dark and edgy edge gave CSNY a whole different sound to their original one as a trio, sucking the happiness and hope out of the room (which is odd because even though Neil tends to err towards the darker side of life solo, that’s hardly true of most of his CSNY work like ‘Helpless’ and ‘American Dream’). It also destabilised the dynamic: CSN always sensed that were meant to belong together and would return together eventually, but Young was a mystery who always worked to his own timetable and set his rules. There have only ever been three CSNY albums in fifty odd years, which is strange to think but not half as strange as how the last two turned out, with ‘American Dream’ and ‘Lookin’ Forward’ easily CSN/Y’s cosiest of albums, as if the quartet were too afraid to address their history or the darker edge Neil brought them. Even in a band who didn’t want to be a band, Neil was the least likely band member you could have.

You see, what’s wonderful about CSN – as opposed to CSNY these days - is that everyone is (roughly) equal. In other bands that might not have mattered, but CSN were meant to be equal – it’s what they sang about in their songs all the time and the need to respect other people’s opinions when they were so different to your own. They even had an African-American bass player at a time when bands didn’t tend to mix race much and more Spanish-speaking players than you could shake a conga at. The fact that the trio were walking the walk as well as talking the talk made it oh so real. I mean, if three nutcases who were so extremely different could get it together – some of the time – then why not the world? CSN were in many ways as different as you could get, with very different characters all jostling for position (Crosby by being a natural counter-culture rebel leader, Stills by being a forceful workaholic and Nash via friendly persuasion). The trio also had very different backgrounds (Crosby’s was a rich Californian lifestyle; Stills was a middling Texan one where his family moved a lot; Nash came from bitter Manchester poverty). Nobody who worked with one would ever have guessed that they could be in a band together through work-rate either: Crosby wrote six songs a year and was happy to let the others change them around, Stills wrote six before breakfast and they were all fully formed and Nash wrote six before each deadline to make sure the band had something to sing when they got the studio. Compared to getting CSN in the same room together, solving the cold war was a doddle. But each of them was roughly equal and – nearly always – respected, with one track by one of them treated much the same as one by the other two (or in the early days three).

There were always similarities too, something that’s all too often dismissed when discussing the trio. Crosby felt abandoned and dismissed during his childhood, overlooked in his posh Hollywood family house by an elder brother Ethan who seemed to have everything while a young David was a fat bullied kid and not a particularly determined scholar. Stills was a swot and eager to please his military parents, but his family kept moving every few terms that left him finding it difficult to make friends and with all the love in the world Stills was never going to agree to a life of service for an institution he didn’t believe in (even if the discipline paid off in his musical career). Nash had responsibility young after his dad died after a spell in prison he should never have been inside for (not grassing up a friend who sold him stolen goods if you haven’t read the review for ‘Wild Tales’ yet!), close to his family but somehow ignored by then simultaneously. All three men wanted to make their mark, were hungry for success and for all three of them the only thing worth living through their pretty brutal teenage years for was music and the chance of escape. Music mattered, it wasn’t just a chance to make money or pull girls but a chance to save the world and make it a better place. That vision was bigger than any difference between them all – at least until Nash ran off with Stills’ girlfriend, or Stills started dictating how the music went, or Crosby ended up high as a kite and Stills wiped the Crosby-Nash harmonies off his and Neil’s record and and and….anyway, usually the pull of taking on the world as town criers and making it a better place, brick by brick, was usually enough to keep CSN on the straight and narrow.

Of course being so different and with such different working practices didn’t always make for plain sailing. No wonder it led to so many fights over the years – three leaders into one band doesn’t often mix. But with CSN it kind of worked because even though the three of them were saying things very differently, they were essentially saying the same thing: that life is better with love and humanity is better with peace. If even CSN could come together because of that and despite all their differences then the world might – just might – have a chance of working together too. Life really is better multiplied, well most of the time. One tacit agreement of CSN was that the trio would never be censored or ridiculed the way they sometimes had been in their earlier bands. All three were free to express themselves and their individual thoughts and feelings without being afraid of how these songs would look when sat next to their colleagues’ work. Therefore a song like Crosby’s ‘Deja Vu’ – with it’s weird time signatures and talk about past lives informing our present selves – sits easily against Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children’ with it’s more straight- forward country tale of learning from past mistakes and guiding the next generation to help them best make their own decisions and Stills’ ‘Carry On’ (with it’s rock moral about how, if only we can hold on through the bad times, ‘love is coming to us all’). They’re all coming from roughly the same place and heading to roughly the same direction – they just take three very different routes to their destination sometimes. 

This is what makes the first (and second) CSN/CSNY albums such a landmark in music history – here we have four very individual writers all working towards the same message but approaching it from different angles. Later albums too, though the formula was never quite as astonishing on returns as it was the first time (even if many individual songs on those albums are better). The closest you get to a previous partnership like this is the Beatles, with Lennon’s droll sarcasm and scattered brainstorms balanced by McCartney’s thoroughness and natural melodic sense. But CSN take this idea to its logical conclusion, adding in a third (and when Neil agrees to join them a fourth) voice to the mix and stressing their differences, rather than have George Martin’s production values smother both Beatles for the sake of ‘album unity’. Almost every track on every CSN album sounds like a completely different beast to its predecessor and successor (even if all three writers do, from to time, rehash old ideas of their own) and that’s exciting to listeners then and now. You don’t know where each of these albums are going next, from one track to another. Have there ever been three more different songs from a debut album than ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ ‘Marrakesh Express’ or ‘Guinnevere’? CSN records can go anywhere and do anything – they can be small and humble, epic and huge, as poppy as the poppiest band, as weird as the most out-there jazzy combo. Whatever the music dictated they could usually provide it between themselves, Stills especially being a dab hand at altering his style depending on which of the  trio’s many roots were showing: pop, rock, folk, blues, psychedelia, jazz, R and B, Latin American influences. The trio all ‘got’ what the other brought to the table too. They didn’t merely tolerate it the way other bands do, they actively supported one another. Though the trio were pigeon-holed as early as their opening three trio songs as the ‘weird’ one, the ‘epic’ one and the ‘pop’ one, they could all do anything – including what the others did so well. All three men were good mimics at each other’s style and were often at their best when writing like each other: when Stills wrote a great hook-laden pop song like [  ] ‘Carry On’, when Nash wrote an epic like [  ]  ‘Cathedral’ or when Crosby combined the two on a song like [  ] ‘Yours and Mine’. The result was a band with a wider scope and a bigger musical playground of ideas and backgrounds and influences to play around in than perhaps any other before or since. Add in a coating of three voices that sounds so perfect together and which was so instantly recognisable whatever the backing was and an interest in politics that meant they told the truth as honestly and fiercely as they could and you have several very good reasons why CSN may well be the most important band that ever lived. At least for a year, until those very differences that made them so interesting blew them so wide apart.

Perhaps modern sanitised bands should take a leaf out of CSN’s book: differences are what cause the artistic tensions within a band but they’re going to show up one day anyway and should be at best encouraged at worst exploited, not extinguished outright as everyone puts on false grins and pretends they haven’t happen. You believe every word CSN say to the world – and to each other with a quite amazing long list of songs directed at each other through the ages ( [  ] ‘King Of The Mountain’ [  ] ‘Do For The Others’ [  ] ‘Frozen Smiles’ and [  ] ‘Hippie Dream’ to name just one each by CSNY). Other songs looked at CSNY as a collective: [  ] ‘Cowboy Movie’ told the tale of the 1970 split via Western spaghetti B-film plots, [  ] ‘Beneath The Waves’ had Nash refusing to prop the goof ship CSNY up anymore and [  ] ‘The Old Homestead’ and ‘Walk Like A Giant’ are contradicting Young views of CSNY as a millstone or a milestone around his neck. At least the band are honest though and respectful, letting us know how they feel about each other – and accepting what the others write as fair game for musical inspiration (I’ve never read any of CSNY criticse another for what they said in a song, though they complain bitterly about what was said in interviews all the time).

Would that this would happen more often: just think how more fun The Spice Girls break-up might have been with songs about what the others were ‘really’ like or Justin Bieber using his failed relationships as a chance to pour out his heart instead of acting like a big headed twonk. Just look at the awful situation we have with today’s girl and boy bands, where the only differences seem to be people’s hair colour. CSN are a prime example of why life is better multiplied and shared. All three men could and did have a good chance at a solo career, but heard together they do so much more and go in so many more directions and together they made some of the greatest music that was ever made, adding harmony to each other’s music even as they add discord to their lives. They belong together, not in the same way that a horse and carriage or fish and chips are made for each other, but in the same way that a sandwich is: you can enjoy the parts separately, but only together do you get the true blend of flavourings that your taste-buds deserve, with so much happening at once your ears strain to keep up. Suddenly everything feels bigger, bolder, better. And who can deny the power when CSN finally put their differences together and combine, as they do stunningly so many times throughout this book (though the best may well be that final surge on [  ] ‘Country Girl’).  Whatever the future of ‘supergroups’ (and let’s face it, there haven’t been many recently have there?!), the birth of CSN is an often overlooked milestone for music – the time when being in a band and making important music was the most sacred thing in the world and when it all seemed so special and plausible it really did feel like love was one day coming to us all. Three very different voices saying one thing will always be more special than one saying the same thing three times and CSN are surely the holy trinity of music, with the power of three. There will surely never be a band like CSN/Y – a band that wasn’t a band but a gathering of like-minded individuals - and no, we hadn’t really been here before.

Plus Updates: 

Stephen Stills in ‘The Rides’ "Can’t Get Enough"
(429 Records, August 2013)
Roadhouse/That’s A Pretty Good Love/Don’t Want Lies/Honey Bee/Rockin’ In The Free World/Search and Destroy/Can’t Get Enough/Only Teardrops Fall/Talk To Me Baby/Word Game
CD Bonus Tracks: High Voltage/Honey Bee (Radio Edit)/Don’t Want Lies (Acoustic Version)
"I’m lost in the shadows, close to the end”
Having recently dusted off his past, here’s Stills back concentrating on the present with a new power trio made up of Barry Goldberg from Paul Butterfield Blues Band spin-off Electric Flag (who were on stage at Monterey shortly after The Buffalo Springfield and who also played with Stills on the ‘Super Session’ LP back in 1968) and guitarist Kenny Shepherd. With CSN broken up, his old session muso buddies mostly retired and/or in rehab and struggling with his new slurred older voice Stills responds in the best way possible by using all this as a strength and doing something he’d never tried before. After decades of sounding old before his time, here Stills really is a gnarled blues veteran and is surrounded by players who have a similar passion for a heavy rock form of the blues, with a band sound that’s big on authenticity over the sort of aural perfection Stills used to stand for. To some extent it works: Goldberg is a fine foil, his tighter vocals bouncing off Stills’ own without diminishing the blues flourishes, whilst the sound is just enough like the spirit of Manassas’ bluesier moments to come off (although you miss that band’s eclecticism across a whole LP). What this debut record doesn’t have is the material to go with it. There are a grand total of four original songs on this album, only one of which is up to the glory days of old, alongside three covers and a messy revival of old war horse ‘Word Game’. It’s all a little loud, lacking the dynamics and harmonies we’re used to from Stills, but at least it’s powerful and there’s a sense that Stephen is enjoying his music again – certainly a lot more than he seemed to on ‘Man Alive’. This time he really sounds alive again.
‘Roadhouse’ is a new song credited to the whole band that has Stills roaring his head off as if he’s been gargling with sandpaper. The chord changes are very Stills even if the setting isn’t, while Stills laments being back on the road again ‘no closer to home’ than he was when he set off as a twenty-something half a century again, bemoaning ‘playing my music’ for a bunch of people who don’t get it.
Little Feat song ‘That’s  Pretty Good Love’ hands things over to Goldberg and it’s a sprightly romantic number with a funky catchy descending riff and a lot of noisy percussion. Not the sort of thing you’d want to listen to often, but OK.
‘Don’t Want Lies’ is the clear album highlight as Stills pours his heart out about feeling depressed and watching his career going nowhere, ‘wondering what it is I see’ when he looks in the mirror at the person who was once going to do so much and sighing that ‘I wonder how I make it through the week’. The blues backing is delicious, with a three-guitar attack rocking from side to side in sympathy while Stills’ vocal is delicious, dripping with a vulnerability that really suits his hardened lived-in voice. A choir of gospel singers chant along in sympathy for a track that’s really moving if you’ve followed any of Stills’ self-destructive story up until this point.
‘Search and Destroy’ is a noisy Iggy Pop cover handled by Goldberg that seems a bit over-the-top with its talk of napalm bombs and desperation not really suited to a band of this age, though Stills does fit in a fiery guitar part.
‘Honey Bee’ has Goldberg singing lead again on a slow boring blues number by Muddy Waters. Stills is having fun playing like he’s been reincarnated as a 1920s blues guitarist, but the backing sound more like Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings than The Rolling Stones, a group of friends playing for fun rather than musicians who mean it.
The days when Stills used to do a Young song on every album to help his partner out during his ‘doom trilogy’ fall from grace seem a long time ago, so a noisy unfocussed take on ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ is a big surprise though, Stephen, of course, had played it many times in CSNY by this stage. Stills shouts rather than sings and doesn’t quite get Neil’s dripping sarcasm, but it’s entertaining in a noisy way. Interestingly Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro gets a co-credit even though he didn’t on Neil’s original, released on ‘Freedom’ in 1989, one of his better LPs.
‘Talk To Me Baby’ is an Elmore James slow blues revved up to sound like any number of rockabilly moments. Stills provides some convincing muscle, but this song isn’t really in his style and Goldberg sounds a bit over-stretched on the histrionic vocal too.
‘Only Teardrops Fall’ is the final original, another soggy ballad played with a heavy guitar attack as Stills laments once being on top of the world and wondering ‘why did I let it go?’ Just like the old days he uses the act of writing a song as his inspiration in a postmodern sense, claiming that back then he was about to write a masterpiece, ‘the pen was in my hand’, but he got distracted. The song isn’t quite as sharp or as ‘real’ as ‘Don’t Want Lies’, though.
The album then closes with Stills’ most poetic and complex song ‘Word Game’ reduced to a shouter, like a champagne evening has been turned into a pub brawl. It works better than it has any right too, though, thanks to a committed Stills vocal that’s still outraged over prejudice and intolerance all these years on.
The result is an album that veers from being the best thing Stills has done since ‘After The Storm’ in 1994 (to be fair there hasn’t been much competition!) and a pale facsimile of ‘The Shocking Pinks’ without the laughter. This is a bumpy ride in truth and Stills might have been better off waiting for inspiration to flow and coming up with a second bunch of original songs to go alongside his own promising work here. The band are fine, though, it’s just the material that they need and it’s good to hear Stills confronting his heavy rocking side after a decade or so of mainly acoustic work. More enjoyable than expected, if ultimately a collection filler rather than a changer, this set is still worth checking out for its best moments.

Non-Album Recordings #23 2016
Most of ‘This Path Tonight’ does a pretty good trick of sounding like vintage CSN, but the bonus tracks – leftover tracks from the ‘dozens’ Nash and Fontayne wrote together on their tour bus – sound musically like discarded Hollies. That’s odd because after a full album of personal; songwriting, all three songs are political protest – more something that CSN would do.  [458] ‘Mississippi Burning’ sounds the perfect direction for Nash to travel in musically, with its dark folk and sense of foreboding, like the fourth Hollies album ‘Would You Believe?’ where the pop acts as a light to a brooding sense of darkness (think ‘breakthrough’ Nash song ‘Fifi The Flea’, perhaps the first he wrote on his own). Thematically too this is Nash still outraged at the racial lynchings in South America half a century before his birth in a different land and his outrage at the cover-ups that are still perpetrated in the supposedly enlightened modern era. And yet the words are awful, without his usual ability to empathise: ‘Kill me quick or kill me slow, my friends they are still with me’ is the unrealistic last cry of the hanged African American, while the song’s oddly nursery rhyme feel is at odds with the names of his two colleagues Nash reads out as his friends die alongside him. ‘Black and white, white and black, our world will keep on turning’ Nash urges though, determined that the racists won’t win. This feels like it should be a more substantial song than it is though, a big subject dealt with in an oddly small way. Find it on: the deluxe edition of ‘This Path Tonight’ (2017)
[459] ‘Watch Out For The Wind’ is more moving, Nash’s response to the senseless killing of a black student by police in Missouri and the cover-ups and protests that then happened in response. Nash preceded this song in concert with a warning about how ‘military madness’ was taking over America and how the police had more and more control of people. Nash, though, has been here before and sees a backlash beginning, a wind that can’t be seen but is fanned by the flames of the burning fires he sees in the protests. This slow sombre ballad tries hard – a bit too hard perhaps, with some over-written lyrics that are more about poetry than pain. ‘Don’t you forget’ he growls though, determined that this one lost life won’t be in vain and in turn that it’s not too late to ‘save the souls’ of the perpetrators. Again, though, for what should be a really moving song about modern politics sounds oddly unconvincing compared to the personal songs that made the album. Find it on: the deluxe edition of ‘This Path Tonight’ (2017)
[460] ‘The Last Fall’ could be both, as the personal and the political intertwine on a song about lost opportunities and missed chances. Nash has sounded vulnerable most of the album through but usually with a sense of destiny that what he is doing changing his life around is meant to be. This song, though worries. This is his last chance at finding happiness and purpose, just as its probably the world’s last chance to turn left instead of right. Has he made the right choice? Can he trust this wonderful girl who rushed into his life to do the right thing by him? Why does he still feel the ‘heartbeat’ of someone he was close to – be it ex Susan, Crosby or the world leaders like Obama then departing the international scene? For all this song’s inner turbulence, though, there’s a lovely quiet calm at the centre that makes the best of the three extra songs on the album if not up to 9/10ths of the actual record. It’s only human to question the big changes in your life and Nash would be more worried if he wasn’t worried. Somehow in the end this ‘fall’ he worries about is just an easier first small step than he was anticipating and his instincts tell him he’s in the right place. A sweet son that’s bristling with typical Nash chord changes and a folky flavour that suits his new lived-in voice. Find it on: the deluxe edition of ‘This Path Tonight’ (2017)

Stephen Stills in ‘The Rides’ "Pierced Arrow"
(429 Records, May 2016)
Kick Out Of It/Riva Diva/Virtual World/By My Side/Mr Policeman/I’ve Got To Use My Imagination/Game On/I Need Your Lovin’/There Was A Place/My Babe
CD Bonus Tracks: Same Old Dog/Born In Chicago/Take Out Some Insurance On Me Baby
"I don’t know what to call all of this, it seems like a runaway tram”
Stills, meanwhile, was having The Rides of his life, as the power trio returned for a second album that’s more consistent than the first if missing the high points of Stills pouring his heart out. Instead he’s having fun on an album that thankfully throws out most of the cover songs and has much more original material instead (eight songs to two this time, not five and five). By now the band have been on the road a few times and their telepathy is much sharper, especially the guitar-work which recalls the Buffalo Springfield: Shepherd comes into his own as the ‘Neil’ of the group, pouring out intense passionate blues stylings and Goldberg plays the more straightforward Richie Furay rhythm work, while Stills does everything else, adding a range to the band that make them more than just another bad blues band. The result still isn’t quite as major or important as it should be, but it’s worth a ride or three.
Listening to the blues of the original songs on the first LP you might wonder why these three elder statesmen of rock still do what they do for a living. ‘Kick Out Of It’ is the answer, the closest Stills has got to heavy metal yet with a heavy metal stomp about how the world dismisses him as ‘insane’ but Stills adores his ‘oldest profession’ and wouldn’t change it for the world.
‘Riva Diva’ has Goldberg taking the lead on a simple bluesy song about a distant woman who causes the narrator to get the ‘rock and roll blues’. A nicely gutsy guitar part and a blistering solo from Stills elevate it past the ordinary.
‘Virtual World’ is perhaps the best song on the album, Stills and Goldberg in wobbly unison as they consider the problems of pollution and the madness of being on Planet Earth. ‘Someone started a fire’ they sigh, but no one seems to know how to put it out, with everyone bucking the problem of what to do and living in a ‘virtual world’ where its everybody else’s problem to sort out.
Goldberg and Shepherd came up with the moody ballad ‘By My Side’ which sounds more like Humble Pie than CSN. It’s quite hypnotic as the pair conclude that life doesn’t get any easier with age but just ‘goes on – to the bitter end!’
Stills returns for the witty bitter ‘Mr Policeman’ which could have easily been a CSN song in a different setting with a pleasant pop tune and protest lyrics that seem to be inspired by the same Missouri protests (when police killed an innocent black kid for being in the wrong place at the wrong time) as Nash. Stills, who was trained to be so subservient to authority figures in his youth by his military father, has by now lost all respect for men in uniform only taking ‘orders’, even when they’re clearly wrong. A shame the music errs towards another noisy blues thrash, though, compared to some excellent words.
Legendary songwriter Gerry Goffin wrote the words for Goldberg’s ‘My Imagination’ but neither lyric nor tune quite get going on a slow-burning song about making the best out of your life and not worrying about the future. The organ part is very much in the feel of Al Kooper’s on the ‘Super Session’ LP though and it sounds very 1960s all round, which can only be a good thing.
‘Game On’ finds Stills fully grasping the blues feel by the horns on a shouty song about how ‘people just wanna be left alone’ without interference from the politicians and priests who think our lives should be better. There’s a great harmonica part in there, while Stills’ raw vocal is better performed than anything on ‘Man Alive’ that tried a similar sense of straightforward outrage.
‘I Need Your Lovin’ is another Goldberg-Shepherd song that’s an over-simple rockabilly love song made better than average thanks to a brutal Stills guitar part that ought to sound out of place but instead gets the song moving. It’s unusual to hear Stills as the support act rather than the ‘star’ but he does a good job here.
‘There Was A Place’ is a moody ballad that has Stills really struggling with his vocal on what is another album highlight. He once used to be somebody but ‘it’s been a long time’ and he barely remembers what it was like when the world once knew his name. This moving song is easily the second best The Rides have done so far and they really suit this naked emotional honesty as Stills wonders why his fall from grace was so hard and fast, bringing out his insecure and bluesy side most magnificently. Stills has still got it though, at least for songs like these that come from the heart.
The album closes with ‘My Babe’, a Willie Dixon cover that sounds a bit out of place here with its tale of pure unconditional love and how his girl ‘can’t stand no cheatin’. The Rides sound ever more like a pub tribute act here rather than the real thing, which can’t hold a candle to their own songs.
Overall, though, ‘Pierced Arrow’ is a fine album with some interesting tracks that for the most part dig a little deeper than most noisy generic blues songs. It’s interesting that all of CSN should be stepping outside themselves with their 2016 releases, re-defining who they are although still becoming more ‘true’ to the stereotype of what each one had to offer back in 1969 (when Crosby was ‘the weird one’ Stills was ‘the bluesy one’ and Nash was sort of the ‘folky one’ after The Hollies had a bash at that genre). Stills sounds the most comfortable of all though on an album fans expected him to make decades ago, although its perhaps only now that his fading voice and lowered expectations allows him to really fig into the soul of the ‘bluesman’ he once claimed to be. The result is an excellent if flawed second ride that promises even better things to come with album number three (which, scarily, would put the band equal with Buffalo Springfield in terms of discography and one more than CSN/Y the first time round).

Stephen Stills and Judy Collins “Everybody Knows”
(Cleopatra, September 2017)
Handle With Care/So Begins The Task/River Of Gold/Judy/Everybody Knows/Houses/Reason To Believe/Girl From The North Country/Who Knows Where The Time Goes?/Questions
"Come on lover, talk to me!”
Released the week before ‘Sky Trails’, this is the big development in Stills’ life story and career over the past decade – his reuniting with old flame Judy Collins that finally puts to a close some unfinished business dating back to 1968. The pair had become good friends ever since they stopped trying to be lovers somewhere around 1972 and stayed in touch – far longer than Stills did with any of his other exes. Friends often asked them when they were going to make an album together and there were plenty of hints down the years that it might happen – the pair guesting on Nash’s short-lived talk show in the late 1990s or the sweet comments that Judy Blue Eyes made about the ‘love of her life’ in her autobiography. But only here in 2017, after a well received acoustic tour, did the pair finally tie the recording knot. And the result is…rushed, frankly, for an album that fans had been waiting for across forty-eight years. Most of these songs sound like first takes, recorded so quickly Stills didn’t even have time to get his teeth in (the slurred vocals that suited the blues songs by The Rides don’t work as well on folk, with its precision and bareness). On this album there is just one new song – one of Judy’s, the less than flattering ‘River Of Gold’ about how seasons and partners come and go. There is no less than half an album of cover songs, from the sublime (Tim Hardin’s ‘Reason To Believe’ is a sweet song that’s perfect for the Stills-Collins relationship, where they struggle to live both with and without each other) to the ridiculous (The Travelling Wilburys’ ‘Handle With Care’ is a clumsy clod-hopping arrangement if ever I heard one and Stills’ ‘baby you’re adorable’ is enough to have Judy running for the hills again).
That still leaves half a remarkable album though made up of old songs from both he and she that were written for each other down the years. We never did get to hear a full band recording of the remarkable ‘Judy’, written by Stills and recorded as a quick demo for the ‘Just Roll tape’ that then got forgotten for nearly forty years. It sounds great, with Stills longing to keep his ex ‘company’ and hoping ‘you have need of me’ as he asks to ‘tell you about my life’. ‘Questions’, a playful song early on in their relationship from the Buffalo Springfield days when Stills’ ‘head is reeling now’ wondering where their relationship might go is now answered not with the aching fade-out of first the Springfield then CSNY remakes (as heard on ‘Last Time Around’ and then as part of the ‘Carry On’ single) but with a lovely harmony-fest where Judy now sings alongside her one-time boyfriend with confidence and passion, this half-century chase of cat-and-mouse fulfilled at last. Stills’ lovely ballad ‘So Begins The Task’, about the time he realises he will leave his lifve, had been hanging around since 1968 but really came into its own when the relationship was over on the first Manassas record. Stills’ version here can’t come close to that stunning piece of work, but its healing somehow to hear him start singing  the song with his usual pain and suffering only to be joined by Judy’s still pure vocal as she gives him hope for the future at last. Judy’s own ‘Houses’, the B-side of her song ‘Send In The Clowns’, is also a welcome addition to the album as a woman with a different house for every big change in her life is now accompanied by her ex playing some truly fabulous bluesy guitar.
Even if the suddenly happy couple couldn’t write any new songs together, this is the way they should have gone, re-tracing old life paths they could have taken and exploring their relationship through old songs. There’s a bucket load more we could have had – including, most obviously, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ which seems an odd absentee here not to mention ‘49 Bye Byes’ and ‘Bluebird’, all three of which could have sounded stunning with Collins’ still-youthful vocals. Judy too has more than enough songs from her time with Stills to sing. Filling up half of a short running CD with songs we’ve heard before and better (how many times has Stephen sung ‘Girl From The North Country’ now?!) seems a waste of a reunion fans have longed for in such a long time. Sadly the price, the short length, the antiseptic production values (far worse than the Crosby or Nash albums between it) and Stills’ audible struggles with his vocals will mean that this is a record for fans only, for the faithful few who realise what a big deal it is for these two to be in the same room together never mind making sweet music at last. For that reason alone this album should be treasured, but this album feels less like the sweet Leonard Cohen title track (which is far too syrupy here) than Neil’s confused and lost ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ – it feels like this album is marking time for both halves rather than the career high it could and should have been. Released the week before Crosby’s ‘Sky Trails’ the album feels like it kind of got lost too - and that one wasn’t exactly a best seller…

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

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