Monday 26 February 2018

Janis Joplin Essay: 'Little Pearl Blue' - Who Was The Real Janis?

You can read more in 'Little Girl Blue - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Janis Joplin' in e-book form by clicking here

Ah yes, a [61] 'Combination Of The Two'. We touched on duality in our George Harrison essay but it feels like it's even more true of Janis who, from her childhood, was never quite sure who she was. Or that she did know who she was, but nobody else seemed to recognise it and not recognising it hurt. Most people who come to the Janis story without really knowing much about her expect her showbizzy image assume that she was a daredevil in life as well on stage. See any moving or still image of her on stage and chances are she's howling out her soul, letting all her emotions fly and daring the world to take notice of her. She even died the ultimate daredevil 'look at me' rock and roll death if you're into that sort of thing. But Janis was not your typical rock chick and - at least compared to the closest competitor to her crown Grace Slick - she was a lot more vulnerable and a lot more complicated than most people ever realised.
'She dares to be different' an article on her by her college newspaper once ran - but Janis was not your natural rebel. She rebelled because she hated seeing how minority groups were treated and because she couldn't stop being true to herself, that cutting off her 'true' side hurt her a lot more than giving in to other people did, even though that side hurt too. So many of these songs in this book say something along the lines of how Janis never wanted to be a star, to have fame, to have money or power - she just wanted to be understood and accepted. Unfortunately for Janis she was born in the 'wrong' skin colour and gender to be 'allowed' to be her 'real' self (you sense the stork that brought her to Port Arthur, Texas, was drunk on Southern Comfort!) Afraid of speaking out, but more afraid of not speaking out, Janis learnt to wear a suit of armour that she still hated to wear - a suit of armour called 'Pearl' that could do everything 'she' copuldn't. She didn't have a name for it at first, but it was her louder self she could 'act', especially when fuelled by drink and drugs, that allowed her to speak her mind and be reckless without consequences - even so the 'little girl' inside her still found it difficult speaking out and having more people hate who she was and put her down. It caused problems for the rest of her love life too - people were never dating the 'real' Janis and you sense her college boyfriend and her rock and roll star boyfriends would have seen two very different sides to her. neither though were strictly Janis - in fact both were.
The 'real' Janis, as recorded in her classmates' memories and high-school yearbooks, is what modern day commentators would call a 'nerd'. Janis adored reading and was good at learning, devouring more books in her spare time than supposedly more high-falluting musicians like Paul Simon or Bob Dylan. Right up until her death the people who met her were amazed at how she was knowledgeable on pretty much any subject, but would keep her knowledge under wraps because she'd learnt the hard way that people didn't like intelligence in a 'girl'. For me, reading Janis' many biographies and seeing her many documentaries, it's this intelligence that made her stand out so much from her peers, far more than the fact that she spent most of her teenage years a little overweight or that her acne-scarred looks saw her voted 'best man on campus'. For Janis came from an upper-class family where girls weren't meant to think for themselves or have opinions. She dated boys who expected her to be pretty or if not then pretty silent - and on first meeting the bookish shy vulnerable Janis, who hated upsetting people, probably seemed like the perfect candidate for the role. But there was one driving force that Janis would never ever compromise over for anybody: authenticity. She hated it when smart-alecky boys parroting things their dads said showed up their ignorance about society and politics. She was horrified when her female classmates started using their sex appeal instead of their brains. She had too big a heart to laugh at the hippies, the homeless, the werirdoes in her inner circle - because she felt their pain and understood their problems, as well as the narrow-minded prejudices of her own little world. She was deeply frustrated at the idea of having to do what everyone in her inner circle was doing and being trapped there forever. She was a misfit who realised it and partly relished it, but who also longed more than anything else to fit in. Most of her career feels, in retrospect, like a chance to prove the people around her 'wrong', that she could be loved on her own terms for who she was. And it's a tragedy that it ended so soon, before Janis truly found that.
Even so, it took more than a few goes to 'escape' this life because Janis was, until the end of her life, more than just a shouting extrovert. It took two separate times of running away to first California then san Francisco to find the life that she was meant for, mixing with the sort of people her Port Arthur family would have crossed the road to avoid. The first ended in disaster when Janis, desperate to block out her pain, found herself succumbing to the more careless and carefree aspect of her personality, nearly dying from a drug overdose and being sent back, by her new friends, back home to recuperate. People assume that Janis was chomping at the bit to come back and relive this hippie lifestyle again, but no - Janis was a little afraid of what she'd unleashed, I think. She'd seen her uninhibited self in full swing for the first time and it scared her just how far she was prepared to go - how many boys she was prepared to sleep with (back at a time when pregnancy was career-ending), how much booze she could swig back and just how desperate her addictive personality needed to fill that gaping hole in her life of being misunderstood. This 'Pearl' side, her extrovert self, got what she thought she'd always craved: company and acceptance. But it came at a price: people only accepted her or her company when she performed the way they wanted her to and she was prepared to go to the point of potential death to get it. 'Pearl' enabled her to be what she always wanted to be, but it came with a price and she wasn't sure she was prepared to pay it. Instead she returned home, to pick up the life she left off, hooking up with an old boyfriend who expected her to be meek and mild and to raise a family - which, for a time, it looked as if she would do. But the 'Pearl' side became an itch she couldn't scratch and Janis had to be true to herself, thankfully having better luck a second time when she ended up falling in with Big Brother and The Holding Company. But which side was really Janis? Most reviewers assume the 'Pearl' extrovert side was - while those who met Janis assumed her quieter, softer side was the 'real' her. For our part, we believe that it was both.
In some performers' cases that's because the personality they take on stage isn't really them at all. Meeting him in private you've never think that the quiet shy Ray Davies was really the beer-swilling arm-waving demonstrative performer in the dressing up box of The Kinks' heyday or that the arm-windmilling Pete Townshend had a softer, shyer, introverted self. Both men grew to fill up the stage when they started performing, as an extension of themselves, but Janis is more complicated than that. The woman on stage belting out blues songs 'feels' like her real uninhibited self in a way that the shy, awkward girl who cared too much of what people thought of her off-stage doesn't. By the last year of her life Janis even had a name for this contradiction: 'Pearl', her showbiz alter ego for whom her final posthumous album was named for and who she regarded as being as real as her 'other' self. 'Pearl' was in many ways a wish fulfilment: you wouldn't hear pearl talking about 'going home alone' after 'making love' to that many people on stage as per the most famous and most revealing of all Joplin quotes. Nor would you imagine 'Pearl' wounded and scarred for life because of some low-brain bully attacking her for her looks, her brains and her love of the blues. But 'Pearl' was a part of Janis, perhaps the self she always longed to be - the self that got back in control when the dregs from her Southern Comfort bottles gave her confidence or from the shot to her system when the heroin kicked in. This Janis took no shit from anyone and far from being quietly spoken and shy could scream what was bothering her like nobody else. It was also this side of Janis that helped kill her, when after six long months of being 'quiet' Janis the girl, Joplin became 'loud' Janis the Pearl, taking one last shot of the drugs passing through the neighbourhood that killed her. The quote she offered to her friend and interviewer Dick Cavett ('If I went back to heroin who would care?') might be revealing - Janis just couldn't take being quiet humble Janis for any period of time. But at the same time she couldn't stay in her 'Pearl' character for too long because that wasn't her authentic self either - and if Janis got too carried away with that personality she risked going too far the other way and being reckless.
People assume that all Janis could do was scream and shout, but that is so not true. The reason I - and probably so many of you - adore her is that when her two personalities were working together, rockstar Pearl and lost little girl, that's when her music truly took off. The best moments are when there's a real intelligence behind that pure passion, when we see that sense of vulnerability peeking out behind that fierce persona, when things go oh so wrong that it hurts - while Janis vows not to give in and that she's going to make it go oh so right. I'd like to see the 20th century's other shouty singers match that level of sophistication or dimensions. For an example, Janis' own songs work best, where she can put both halves of her personality together. Even as early as her teenage years [1] 'What Good Can Drinkin' Do?' is fascinating, in that it shows how self-aware Janis is of her split personality. Hangovers the next morning for Janis must have been a horrific experience, as her little girl side, full of thought and reasoning, chastises her 'Pearl' side full of instinct and self-destruction. This is the sound of a girl who can out-drink you under the table - and out-think you over it - decrying it as a waste of time and yet you still feel it's so necessary to her life. Most teens would write their first or at any rate their first recorded song about booze in an attempt to show off. For Janis it's a prescient warning given that it's another drug taken to excess that will kill her, years later.
Other self-written songs that peek at the 'real' and 'hidden' Janises include [2] 'So Sad To Be Alone', a desperate song of emptiness and despair, written by the 'girl' Janis for the 'Pearl' Janis to sing, inviting company however unsavoury because she needs to be loved so badly. [9] 'Empty Pillow', if it is indeed another Janis original, feels like another take on the same theme, with Janis writing a thoughtful, intelligent song about emotions that's driven by feeling, of hunger for company. Her 'Pearl' side clearly wrote [18] 'Mary Jane', a song not about drugs so much as the changes it creates in people - though Janis doesn't sing about herself as much as the 'boys' around her, it's intriguing to note that she sees drugs not as a way of exploring her inner psyche or theirs but as a way to speak more freely and openly. Skipping on a bit, [56] 'Women Is Losers' is a fascinating song for the times. It's Janis, the new Queen of the San Franciscan jungle, remembering her sad and lonely former self and all the people like her that the hippie dream is moving too slow to change. Sung with a sly grin, it's also her bluesiest saddest moment as she acknowledges that men get to make all the rules and any woman who disagrees or out-thinks him is doomed to a life of being different, the only alternative to a life of subservience to a gender that's dumber and more ignorant than her own. [53] 'Intruder' is a sillier take on the same theme, Janis slowly realising that men feel this longing for company and to belong as much as women, but resenting their more aggressive way of going about it. Janis turns that soulful need into a pure physical re-action, watching that need 'grow and expand' with her boy's erection.
You would think that by 1967 and  her post-Monterey fame Janis would never be lonely again. But actually her songs from this period onwards get more desperate, less cerebral and more from the gut than the mind. The trouble wasn't getting men but getting the right man who could handle both sides of Janis' personality, who could keep up with both her drinking and her thinking. Was there ever a sadder AAA song than [62] 'I Need A Man To Love'? Performed by 'Pearl' but clearly written by the 'lost girl', it may well be the ultimate Joplin composition as a timid and shy creature, unable to connect with anybody on her wavelength, turns a song about being lost into a song where Janis is purely in charge, preening and purring seductively. If pearl gets to sing the verses, though, it's the 'girl' that gets to sing the lengthy middle eight full of terror : 'It can't just be this loneliness!' As silly and dumb as it is, [65] 'Turtle Blues' is quite interesting too in this context: Janis' take on love is that it's something people keep hidden, 'beneath a horned shell', until they find the right person to open to. She's still looking, petrified that she's going to be entombed within that shell for the rest of her life. [66] 'ball and Chain', while a cover song, also makes it clear what the Joplin philosophy is: love hurts and Janis fears becoming a slave to her feelings, losing herself in the sheer size of her love as it grows, something the carefree 'Pearl' side of her personality dreads.
By 1969 Janis has two sort-of boyfriends on the go: Kris Kristoffersen and Pigpen, of the Grateful Dead. Both appeal to both sides of her personality: Kris is a flashy celebrity who adores appearing on stage - but he's also cerebral, writing some of the wordiest songs Janis ever covered. Pigpen, meanwhile, knows (and feels) the blues every bit as much as she does and spends his career on stage with the Dead improvising long great raps about love that bring out his inner extrovert, usually whilst drinking. But Pig, too, was a 'thinker' and was actually shy and quiet offstage, a similar outcast in a society that said white people couldn't understand the blues. Both relationships were good for Janis when they started (especially Pig's) - and devastating when they ended (especially Kris', who sounds a bit of a pest to be honest, leading Janis on for his career with no desire to understand her the way she appears to have understood him). Janis never lived to sing a Pigpen song (shed have sounded great doing 'Easy Wind', the song of carefree living learnt the hard way as written for Pig by Dead lyricist Bob Hunter) and sang [104] 'Me and Bobby McGee' as her 'goodbye' song to Kris, where in what could have been a Joplin metaphor 'freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose'.
In the last two years of her life, though, Janis wrote songs about feeling more alone than ever, as the feeling of insecurity and loneliness overpowered her. [76] 'One Good Man' is a slow chugging blues that despairs of ever finding the 'right' one. Janis isn't greedy, one man who has all the right things will do, but she can't find even one, telling us in the opening verses that she's getting bored of going to parties just for 'fun', she wants something deeper. 'It ain't much' she sighs, 'it's only everything!' [79] 'Kosmik Blues' even sees Janis singing about herself and her love life in tatters in the third person, unable to quite believe things are still this bad: 'I keep pushing so hard and babe I keep trying to make it right, though another lonely day...twenty five years and just one night!' Most of her 'Kozmik Blues' cover songs deal with loneliness too - [78] 'To Love Somebody' finds her sobbing that 'you don't know what it's like' because nobody feels as deeply as she does, while the jaw-dropping [81] 'Work Me, Lord' (by close friend Nick Gravenites, possibly written directly for Janis) finds her making a pact with God that she'll do anything he wants if only he could, please, somehow, someday, give her somebody who loves her as much as she loves him, cursing herself for 'never feeling satisfied'. Only near the end, with [96] 'Move Over', does Janis sound as if she's turned a corner, that her 'Pearl' side is in charge and is kicking out the men in her life for not being good enough to please her.
It would have been fascinating to know where Janis might have gone next. Following her 'Monterey' performance, when she was finally granted the celebrity she craved and the success she deserved, feeling a part of a movement bigger than herself, it feels as if she was 'allowed' a mandate from her 'crowd' to be herself. The more vulnerable she was offstage, the louder she was onstage, the more she looked in charge on stage and the more helpless she sounded in her songs, the more her audience lapped it up. To this day Janis is a heroine for outcasts everywhere, who feel lost with the life that was carved out for them and who haven't met the right people to believe in them for who they are. Success is usually the point when singers and writers 'lose' that part of themselves - that they finally feel accepted and 'belong', which tends to be when their audience (who don't feel successful or as if they belong) lose faith in them. For Janis it was different: she'd spent so much of her life trying to hide her 'Pearl' side to her family and friends - and later her 'little girl' side to her fanbase - that she took success as a chance to explore her personality while realising that she wasn't quite as alone as she once was. The shock came in 1969 when she was persuaded to leave Big Brother (the single biggest mistake of her short career) and decided to change the pure sound of her music, substituting the rock fire that she could dance to with the horn section of the Kozmik Blues Band that cried big heavy tears alongside her. This robbed her music of its dimensions for many, but it's a logical extension of what Janis had been trying to do her whole career long: understand herself more. Given the freedom to be 'herself' for the first time in her life, free of the need to be who her friends and family or bandmates needed her to be to sell records, she became the 'purest' version of Janis she could find where her two split personalities met in the middle: she became the 'blues'. When that third record was coolly received, however, she had a re-think and it was her quieter, humbler, more thoughtful self that took over. As popular as it is fourth alum 'Pearl' always sounded as if it was 'missing' something to me - and what it's missing is right there in the title (and on the front cover). This doesn't feel like the showbizzy 'Pearl' side of Janis much - it's a bunch of 'thinking' songs played with a slicker, more refined  take on the 'Big Brother' sound. Naming this third band the 'Full Tilt Boogie Band' also sounds like a similar covering up of the truth - compared to Big Brother and even the Kozmik Blues Band this wasn't a band made for thinking or for going full tilt. Instead Janis feels as if she's holding something back, allowing only one side of herself onto record. I do wonder how this album - unfinished at the time of Janis' death - might have been received as just another 'Janis' album without the extra publicity of her demise. Would it have been as rapturously received and might Janis have ended up making soundalikes for the rest of her career less intense and more thoughtful, 'mature' than what she did before? Or would she have got bored and gone the other way, perhaps releasing a fifth album titled 'Small and Helpless' or something like that, with a picture of her as a little girl on the cover, maybe crying - while the songs within would have featured her 'Pearl' self, living larger than life and fully in charge cackling like the days of old? Or would she have met the man of her dreams at last, one who 'got' both sides of her chaotic personality and loved them both, appreciating the hurt vulnerable little girl who just wanted to fit in as well as the boastful extroverted 'Pearl' who loved being the centre of attention? Alas we'll never know - but maybe even that early death, at the age of twenty-seven, was an inevitable result of the fight going on Janis' whole life long between her two personalities?
I still think, given what people close to Janis reported during her last week on Earth, that it was her old demons from her teenage years that killed her - that she'd returned to her high school reunion a big star, who'd achieved more in life than her little ol' housewife classmates ever had, and still been ignored and ostracised. Janis had at the time been free of drugs and most booze for six whole months, turning her life around after a shambolic 1969 that had seen her lose so much and finding that her 'new' voice, more sophisticated than before, on 'Pearl'. But it's not the 'real' Janis any more than the boozy 1969 had been and so she swings to another extreme the other way, the shock of her high school reception and playing a part for so long causing her 'Pearl' side to go further out than ever, scoring right back to the excessive amount of drugs she'd been taking years before when her body just wasn't used to it. Maybe her 'soul' wasn't too, after thinking she'd 'grown up' and got past that 'Pearl' character for good.
All of this discussion could, of course, be 'wrong'. I never met Janis. She dies a full decade before I was born. She'd have probably told me to get lost with a cackle and told me I needed to get more 'loose, man!' and understand my own life before I start writing about hers. But there must be a reason why, from the moment I first heard that voice I 'got' it, in a way that I never have from any of Janis' other pretenders to the throne (why do people listen to Suzi Quatro or Madonna or especially The Spice Girls when Janis was real girl power decades before, blazing through new ground when all those other acts make such a fuss about squeezing through a door already open?) For it's the contradictions in Janis that appeal to me the most. She's clearly one hell of a singer, with a range and power and fire that few vocalists can hold a candle to, of either gender - but it's what she does with that power, on songs about feeling lost and helpless and vulnerable and desperate that make me love that voice as well as gasp in awe at it. Janis was an amazing on-stage charismatic presence as any moving footage of her or even a still photograph will demonstrate - but you sense, too, that giving her full self on stage took effort and didn't come naturally, it was just part of Janis being 'authentic' to herself.
Janis was a very talented and under-rated songwriter who sadly died before her compositions reached double figures - but she may well be the most honest of all writers too, open about her real feelings and how lost she felt, even living a life that others would have felt fulfilled from a hundred times over. Janis really 'grew' into her 'pearl personality, the way so many singers grow into a persona onstage they feel comfortable with - but you sense Janis never forget the painful outcast little girl she always was either. There's a world of dimensions going on in Janis' recordings - whenever she sings of being tough, you sense the hurt and pain that caused it; when she sings about being lost and helpless you know that Janis is still a 'fighter' and will find a way of digging her heels in; whenever she got the blues singing somehow made everything right and made sense of everything going on in her life. There will never be another singer like her - because female singers don't have to come from the same male-dominated background anymore, while being macho and tough as a girl is far more 'normalised' today. Even so, as long as there are misfits, who are told what to do and who hate hurting people enough to try to be what other people want - whilst hating themselves more for not being true to themselves - Janis will find an audience. Her bravery and courage ultimately didn't come from just her 'Pearl' side, but from her 'little girl' side too and it's allowing herself to be 'human', to show us how sad and small her world really was, that means her appeal will always be huge. Janis was a 'pearl' of a singer then, but there was so much more to her than just her drinking, cackling personality and we 'true' fans are those who learnt to take all sides of Janis and finally give her what she craved for all her life - by loving them all.
A now complete list of Janis articles from this website:


'Big Brother And The Holding Company' (1967)

'Cheap Thrills' (1968)

'I Got Dem Ol' Kozmik Blues Again Mama!' (1969)

'Pearl' (1970)

Non-Album Songs 1963-1970

Surviving TV Clips 1967-1970
Live/Compilation/Outtakes Sets 1965-1970

Essay: Little Pearl Blue – Who Was The Real Janis?

CSNY: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Songs

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

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


I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important, along with one particularly good one that summed up the band's setlist during their live peak (or one of them, anyway). Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to (in some cases) last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! People don’t tend to think of CSNY as a live act so much as a studio one full of perfectionism and pristine-ness, but back in their day the quartet’s live shows were legendary not least for their length – their 1974 reunion tour regularly saw them play for four and a half hours to their fans. Perhaps that was in response to tales of lavishness and budget on that tour where ticket prices broke new records and audience seats could be miles away from the stage, something that seemed to go against the grain of the CSNY ethos while the band walked around in pricey tour t-shirts and went to bed in special pillow cases embedded with Joni Mitchell’s tour logo. This all gave CSNY a bad reputation down the years and yet perhaps CSNY’s most famous ‘doom tour’ has come to overshadow an actually pretty stellar set of performances, ones where CSNY had a relationship with their audience that was quite unlike that of any other. There are obviously a lot of CSNY shows and only so many bootlegs but all of them from every tour seem to feature some sort of comment about the plight of their fans, complaining about the prices they have to pay or offering up ‘insider’ banter that made the C-N shows especially seem like a meeting of old friends, not a performance by multi-millionaire superstars. Be it acoustic, electric or both, be it CSNY solo, in twos three or fours, unlike some bands (including AAA ones like The Beach Boys) there’s usually something exciting about every CSNY gig, from premieres of unheard songs to revivals of old rarities. Here’s our guide to five key shows.  
1) Where: Chicago Auditorium Theatre When: August 16th 1969 Why: First Gig Setlist includes: [2] So Begins The Task [15] You Don’t Have To Cry [20] Pre-Road Downs [19] Long Time Gone [80] Bluebird Revisited [50] Sea Of Madness [12] Wooden Ships ‘Down By The River’ [47] Find The Cost Of Freedom ‘Get Together’
A little known secret of the CSNY catalogue is the semi-official radio broadcast disc ‘On The Way Home’ which features the partial soundtrack of their first ever gig. We know about the second of course (which was Woodstock two days later, with the Dick Cavett TV show that night – now that’s what I call a productive week!) and is in many ways the opposite kind of a gig. Though CSNY even at their first gig are the ‘headline’ act by dint of the success of their former bands the huge success of the CSN’s debut album (out two months by this time) the whole thing feels smaller, humbler, more intricate. CSNY aren’t ‘scared shitless’ playing their second gig in front of one of the biggest audiences ever but sound on top of their game, buzzing with ideas and energy. What’s notable is that Neil, playing his first anything associated with the band except a studio rehearsal take of [2] ‘So Begins The Task’ included on the 1991 box set, is silent for much of the night and not even playing much guitar bar a brief solo set as he sticks to the organ in the electric second half of the show. So much for him being brought in so Stills could have a guitarist to bounce off! This is a reminder of just how few people in the audience would have known Neil back then, with Buffalo Springfield a distant memory and Stills writing and singing their one big hit – such a change to today! The show goes down well, resulting in no less than three standing ovations and the band are forced to come out and play an extra song – after some demurring they agree to come out with support act Joni Mitchell and sing Dino Valenti’s ‘Get Together’ – Crosby had been singing it for a while during his folkie phase before becoming a Byrd. All in all the evening was a big success with the audience adjusting to the less-than-perfect CSNY harmonies heard in person for the first time. The question was what would a bigger audience make of the quartet at their first big gig as CSN play the first of many rock festivals?...
2) Where: Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, New York When: August 18th 1969 Why: Biggest Gig Setlist: [10] Suite: Judy Blue Eyes [20] Blackbird [11] Helplessly Hoping [13] Guinevere [18] Marrakesh Express [30] 4+20 ‘Mr Soul’ ‘Wonderin’ [15] You Don’t Have To Cry [20] Pre-Road Downs [19] Long Time Gone [80] Bluebird Revisited [50] Sea Of Madness [12] Wooden Ships [47] Find The Cost Of Freedom [16] 49 Bye-Byes
CSNY will, in fact, go down rather well – so well that their songs take up a sizeable proportion of the resulting Woodstock movie (with ‘Judy’ performed live and remixes of studio songs ‘Long Time Gone’ and ‘Wooden Ships’ making the early part of the film when the stage is being erected) and the press reports on the festival’s second day claimed that the quartet were the big hit of the festival and that the festival ‘belonged’ to them. It certainly seems that way from their reception: the audience of millions take well to their mixture of big ideas and humble banter, while Stills’ comment at being ‘scared shitless’ was actually more because so many of the band’s peers were curious to hear what they sounded like and had gathered backstage rather than the crowds. CSNY didn’t actually realize how big the show was until they were going home and were flown out by helicopter so they could perform on the Dick Cavett Show – Crosby comments there that it looked like ‘the troops of the Macedonian army’ as the Woodstock crowd officially becomes the third biggest ‘populated city’ in America at that point in time – as far as CSNY was concerned this was just another big crowd and nobody quite expected how swamped the show was going to get. Back home with all the fun and epicness taken out their gig isn’t always the best though. The film features audible re-touching of their performance and it’s still about the roughest they ever played their signature song, while the full performance had such slim pickings for the compilers of the Woodstock soundtrack set that they actually raided a completely different show from later in the year with a performance of [50] ‘Sea Of Madness’ – a song CSNY didn’t even flipping play at Woodstock! Neil, never one to be there at big moments in history, refused to give permission to appear in the film, which is why their introduction tails off ‘Crosby, Stills, Nash….’ And has been trying to pretend he wasn’t there ever since, with digs at the festival and all it stood for both in song (‘Roll Another Number’ from 1975’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’ criticises a ‘helicopter day’ and jokes ‘I won’t be going back to Woodstock for a while’) and in speech (‘How did I spend the 25th anniversary of Woodstock? By painting vultures on the neck of my guitar!’) At the time Neil was blasted for being shirt-sighted, then critics began to see it as brilliance as Young was the only performer at the world’s biggest rock concert who wasn’t stuck in time in the idea of the public ten-twenty-thirty years later. I sense, though, that the tide is moving back again: in the past fifty years there has never been a concert that size which was that peaceful and the fact that the world never followed it up is the fault of the crooked politicians and greedy bankers, not the musicians who gave their all that night – CSNY included.
3) Where: Big Sur Festival, California When: September 13th 1969 Why: Messy Gig Setlist: [11] Helplessly Hoping [13] Guinevere [21] Lady Of The Island ‘Birds’ [30] 4+20 [15] You Don’t Have To Cry [50] Sea Of Madness [12] Wooden Ships ‘Down By The River’ [10] Suite: Judy Blue Eyes [20] Pre-Road Downs [19] Long Time Gone [80]
Usually an AAA member’s first tour is poorly recorded with little picture evidence, never mind audio or visual – they’re at the bottom of the bill playing unglamorous places like Slough, Wigan or Cleveland. But CSNY’s lengthy on-off first tour is easily their most fascinating one, usually for all the ‘right’ reasons, but tonight for all the ‘wrong’ ones. There is, I hasten to add, nothing wrong with the music – the little seen movie of ‘Big Sur’ (which got lost in the wake of ‘Woodstock’) includes a mind-blowing fifteen minute version of ‘Down By The River’ that thrashes any of the longer jams on ‘4 Way Street’ and the few selections we have of this gig on bootleg (this is the definitive ‘Sea OF madness’ too!) suggest that if it wasn’t CSNY’s best performance then there wouldn’t have been much in it. But this gig was a talking point for years to come because so much happened and a month from Woodstock feels like it symbolises the death of an era in as big (if less of a brutal) way than Altamont in December. One of the things you learn to understand as a CSNY fan is the contradictions – this is a band who sang about peace and love yet often seemed at war, while they always spoke out for the good of the common man while acting like divas. A member of the audience decided to call them out on this, interrupting the gig as early as the start of the second song to complain that they are singing songs about poverty while dressed in fur coats and are being paid big bucks to sing about peace and brotherhood. Actually the guy’s jumped the gun (they’re actually trying to sing medieval ballad ‘Guinevere’ at this stage) and usually CSNY handle hecklers pretty well, but this show is still so early on in their formation it catches them rather unawares. ‘We’re actually doing this for free and as you didn’t pay shut up ‘cause we’re not civilised!’ is Crosby’s less than usually eloquent response, before he really winds the heckler up by sighing ‘the human comedy rolls on’. Stills gets ever more heated, rushing off the stage to have it out with the heckler personally. Unluckily for both of them the Big Sur festival has the audience separated from the band by a pool of water and as Stills goes up to have a talk with him they both start pacing round each other. Nash finds it hilarious (joking ‘if you push him in the pool Stephen I’ll never forgive you!’) whilst Crosby is more circumspect (‘don’t do it for real man – don’t anybody do anything like that for real’). The defining image of CSNY for me, in all their great contradictions, isn’t Woodstock or any of their soundtracks but Stills being prodded in the chest with a murderous smile on his face while the rest of the band try to calm him down with the words ‘peace and love!’ Stills is taking it all as a joke until the guy says something we can’t hear and he lunges for him, starting a really nasty looking scuffle that had the guy fallen the other way could have had them both in the pool. CSNY seem suitably cowed for the rest of the gig, Crosby urging the crowd not to beat up on the heckler as ‘he’s as much a part of this thing, unfortunately, as we are, man’ while Stills seems to suddenly come to his senses and try to explain that the guy hit a nerve. ‘We think about, like the guy was saying, we look at these fur coats, fancy guitars, fancy cars and say wow man what am I doing? So when somebody gets up and freaks out like that it touches a nerve and you end up right back in that trap…I had some guys to love me out of it, I was lucky!’ The rest of the gig is interrupted by the sight of a whale (did it inspire [182] ‘To The Last Whale’?) a guest appearance by Traffic’s Dave Mason and even more re-turning and set equipment breakdowns than normal. Going from sublime to ridiculous in the space of a few seconds this is a key CSNY moment and was for many fans their first bootleg when ‘Wooden Nickel’, the soundtrack of parts of this show, became the first widely available set that wasn’t by either The Beatles or Bob Dylan.
4) Where: The Coliseum, Seattle When: July 9th 1974 Why: The First Reunion Setlist: [37] Love The One You’re With [12] Wooden Ships [101] Immigration Man ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’ [3] Change Partners ‘Traces’ [136] Grave Concern [6] Black Queen [29] Almost Cut My Hair [46] Ohio [10] Suite: Judy Blue Eyes  [11] Helplessly Hoping [20] Blackbird ‘Human Highway’ [133] Prison Song [169] As I Come Of Age [173] Carry Me [268] He Played Real Good For Free [13] Guinevere [92] Southbound Train [140] Another Sleep Song [33] Our House [30] 4+20 [4] Know You Got To Run [78] Word Game ‘Love Art Blues’ [206] Long May You Run ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ [157] Don’t Be Denied [168] First Things First [23] Déjà vu [164] My Angel [20] Pre-Road Downs [163] My Favourite Changes [19] Long Time Gone ‘Revolution Blues’ [159] Pushed It Over The End [173] Carry Me [57] What Are Their Names? [69] Chicago
While the rest of the world assumed that was it for CSNY when they announced their split in 1970 (this was the era before bands got back together again as a matter of course), they knew differently. It wasn’t that they couldn’t work together, just that it was getting harder and the sessions for ‘Déjà vu’ had led them to need to escape each other for a time. They regrouped slowly, in twos and threes, by guesting at each other’s shows across 1972 and 1973 before a full reunion at a Manassas gig at the Winterland in 1973. We’ve detailed this elsewhere as it’s a stunning moment for the audience who have no idea when they come back for a second set that instead of half an hour of Chris Hillman and banjos they’ve actually got CSNY with the pressure off them for the first time, previewing new songs and bringing out a couple of favourite oldies. An enterprising fan even filmed it for posterity and very good it is too (stuff pricey box set CSNY ’74, ‘CSNY ‘73’ is the live single disc I really want to see in the shops!) However as space is limited we’ve gone for the first billed comeback gig, because back in the days when fans assumed CSNY would never share the same stage again it was a big deal to actually have the concert ticket in your pocket and see those names on the same bit of paper again. Though history has forever labelled this the ‘doom tour’ and individually at different times CSNY all complained of their poor performances (though nobody was saying this in promotion for the box set I noticed!) the tour started on a high note. For starters the audience had sat through not the usual run of the mill nobodies but Joni Mitchell and The Beach Boys, both acts at particularly interesting and inventive points in their career. The group are in a unique position with nothing new to promote (just the greatest hits set ‘So Far’). When CSNY hit the stage they didn’t just play a few songs but virtually everything from their first two albums including songs not performed in 1969 or 1970 and a ridiculously big bag of songs from the intervening solo years with mass harmonies for the first time. There are lots of new songs heard for the first time too, many planned for the ‘Human Highway’ album that only got as far as two songs and an album cover before the rows broke out again. In total nine songs are sung which the audience would never have heard before – three of Neil’s they never will again past the end of the tour until the release of the ‘CSNY ‘74’ set forty years later. July 1974 was also a very interesting time politically and in retrospect feels almost as if the quartet planned it – they broke up in America’s worst hour with the ‘Ohio’ assassinations and returned for the Watergate victory lap as the hated Nixon was all but forced out of office (he’ll resign on August 8th). The quartet precede tonight’s performance of ‘Grave Concern’ with a unique skit about what has happened to politics since they’ve been away (why oh why was this cut from the box set?!?) Originally planned to end somewhere before midnight, the band are having such fun they don’t get off stage until 1.30am, closing the show with a choral chant version of Crosby’s solo ‘What Are Their Names?’ that won’t be heard again until the ‘Freedom Of Speech’ tour in 2009 that somehow ends up segueing into ‘Chicago’. The longest show any variations of CSNY ever played, with forty songs the most they will ever manage, it may also be the quartet at their best with all worries about whether they could ever reignite the magic of their early days disappearing as soon as the opening song.

5) Where: Oslo Spectrum, Norway When: October 11th 2015 Why: Final Gig? Setlist: [30] Carry On [18] Marrakesh Express [19] Long Time Gone [60] Military Madness [256] Southern Cross [22] Cathedral [33] Our House [23] Déjà vu ‘Bluebird’ [11] Helplessly Hoping [456] Back Home ‘Somebody Home’ [13] Guinevere ‘Virtual World’ [69] Chicago [29] Almost Cut My Hair [12] Wooden Ships [27] Teach Your Children [10] Suite: Judy Blue Eyes 
This is, at the time of writing, CSN’s final ever gig (their last as a quartet being one of Neil’s Bridge Show Benefit Concerts on October 27th 2013). Never say never of course – we have all been here before, you might say – but what with Crosby insulting Young and Nash insulting Crosby in his autobiography it would take a lot for the quartet to get back together again (or maybe just a victory dance on trump’s grave a la Nixon’s?!?) A career that started with such a bang (certainly by their second gig) feels a little like it ended with a whimper. By 2015 CSN haven’t released a studio album in eleven years and they’ve been all but forgotten, with their attempt at a ‘songs we wished we’d written’ album with Rick Rubin being abandoned for good in 2013). By then the group that were once top of the bill at the biggest rock festivals are reduced to playing medium sized arenas across Europe and were struggling to fill those from the UK gigs I went to. By now they’ve become a streamlined band and something of a family firm with David’s son James Raymond on keyboards  and Nash’s future writing partner Shane Fontayne on guitar. There are still moments of magic though, especially when the band step out of their well-worn comfy slippers and stick their rock and roll shoes back on, with occasional bootlegs and youtube videos demonstrating some interesting takes on songs like Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Bluebird’ (Stills’ song for Judy Collins revived now the pair are getting friendly again, now complete with CSN harmonies) and fascinating new songs like Stills’ acerbic ‘Virtual World’ (previewed from the next year’s Rides album) and Nash’s atmospheric ‘Back Home’ (previewed from the next year’s ‘This Path Tonight’). Alas though some things never change, with old warhorse ‘Military Madness’ dusted off for yet another needless war, while sadly the set’s opening cry that ‘love is coming to us allllllll!’ is premature, to say the least. That’s what CSN were here to do though, to bring comfort in times of darkness and their younger selves would surely have been porud that forty-six years later their shows remained so true to their early principles (even if they would no doubt be horrified to still be singing so many old songs – and having to retrace their steps over so many old subjects of racism and intolerance that should have been long over and dealt with). This gig is a good microcosm of CSNY at yet another crossroads in their life, pulled by the weight of the past but also the lure of the new and it ends the only way it could and where it (ever so nearly) began, with a show-stopping performance of ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’. This means that the last words CSN ever sang on stage together appear to be ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo, dit doo doo doo doo doo doo’. And strangely fitting they sound too!


Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) There aren’t as many CSN covers out there as you might expect for such a legendary band. The few that are seem to really like [10] ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ for some reason, which is odd as it is CSN’s longest song and perhaps one of their most personal, inexplicable to anyone who hasn’t been following the Stephen Stills love story! Nobody quite gets it right either. There are just two ‘tribute’ albums around too for the trio, both of them instrumental bluegrass records – ‘Pickin’ On CSN’ comes in two volumes and is nice if you like that sort of thing (although to be honest it’s a style that works better with the Byrds given that lyrics and harmonies are two of the main features of CSN songs!) As Crosby’s always said, people don’t seem to cover his songs very often, preferring to go with Stills or Nash!

1)  [18] Marrakesh Express (Stan Getz, ‘Marrakesh Express’ 1970)

Crosby must have been thrilled when he heard one of his jazz idols was putting together an instrumental version of a song from the first CSN album and naming his album of ‘contemporary’ covers after it too. I wonder what he thought when he discovered it wasn’t one of his own jazz-influenced songs but Nash’s poppy single? Actually Stan plays it well, really getting under the skin of this song’s Eastern Moroccan influences and offers up a lovely free-flowing vibe that sounds like a carnival, perfectly in keeping with the ‘escape’ theme of Nash’s lyrics. The closing jam section, played on an organ on the original, sounds mighty good when played on trumpet over and over. The orchestrator and conductor, incidentally, was Richard Hewson whose next project will be ‘Thrillington’, the instrumental version of Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’.
2)  [12] Wooden Ships (The Ides Of March, ‘Vehicle’ 1970)
Another near-contemporary cover was this song by the 1960s Chicago band, who had branched out from Hollies-style pop into something more prog rock by the time the first CSN album came out. Scoring their biggest hit single that same year (‘Vehicle’), they re-shaped their sound to seem bigger in every way, extending their running times to become lengthy Dead-style jams and adding a horn section. This is a failure more times than it’s a success, but ‘Wooden Ships’ is a song that suits being big (it is, after all, about nuclear annihilation!) and it sounds marvellous here. A lengthy ‘duh-duh-duh’ opening ratchets up the tension as if its nuclear Armageddon time until two minutes in the tension suddenlt explodes and we get the familiar opening from the CSN arrangement (but minus the morse code and full of something sleepier). This version features three cross-over voices not two, incidentally, though the Nash-style harmonies on the chorus suggests the band have learnt their recording from the CSN version rather than the even sleepier Jefferson Airplane cover (skipped as we talk about it so much in our Jefferson book). There’s a terrific guitar solo in the middle that twirls rather than howls as per Stills’ and the urgent tension from a repeat of the riff works remarkably well. There’s even a drum solos, which Dallas Taylor must have been itching to play! Those cheeky blighters in the band title this riff ‘Dharma For One’ and co-credit the song to this, receiving half-royalties on the track. They probably figured CSN were so rich at the time they wouldn’t notice!
3)  [11] Helplessly Hoping (The King’s Singers, ‘Simple Gifts’ 2008)
I love The King’s Singers, the most ‘hip’ of all the ‘square’ Conservative bands around. They were even more eclectic than CSN, covering everything in their half-century-and-counting career from the oldest of Madrigals to the most serious of operas to the silliest of comedy songs to the sweetest of pop songs. They even turn up backing Nash’s replacement Terry Sylvester on his eponymous debut solo record and as the Frog Song Chorus on Paul McCartney’s ‘We All Stand Together’. With their snazzy barbershop harmonies they were always going to favour bands who did similar things and their take on one of CSN’s most beautiful songs is gorgeous. There are no instruments, everything is sung a capella, with pinging vocals masquerading as the guitar as the tune hops between all members of the sextet before those full on harmonies sing the main song pretty darn close to the original. I wonder how many people, on hearing this buried in the middle of one of the band’s more eccentric CDs (and their best, check out gorgeous folk song ‘Black Is The Colour’ too!) went to check which Victorian poet wrote these words – Stills’ stately song certainly has more in keeping with their work by Thomas Tallis and Henry Purcell (he gets your songs whiter than white!) than it does with the other pop songs on the record. With a sense of the vulnerability and hurt pride of the album recording, this is more than just intellectual rock too, with  one of CSN’s best songs given one of their best treatments. A treasure.

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