I guess that the albums that you buy when you’re 16 are the ones that stay with you and choosing a favourite album is as much about recalling your own important moments as it is about the music. Yet, although I could have plumped for another dozen or 20 titles—from releases by the Clash to Joni Mitchell, by Weather Report to Chaka Khan, by the Isley Brothers to Danny Wilson, by Spearhead to Prefab Sprout, by Miles Davis to Steely Dan—there seems good reason for selecting Crosby, Stills and Nash’s auspicious 1969 debut.
While the record, wrapped in soft focus images with a luxuriant velvet feel to its cover, has suffered widespread critical disregard in the post-Woodstock backlash, there are all kinds of reasons why this collection, considered masterful on its appearance yet doomed to spend at least a quarter of a century living in its own shadow, suffered misfortune and now deserves a re-evaluation.
Why did its reputation dip as quickly as it had risen? Because Neil Young, the one rock god to emerge from the Californian singer-songwriter nexus unscathed, was absent from the set and took some time to join erstwhile buddy Stephen Stills in the expanded combo. Also perhaps, because the original trio seemed to so casually and authentically embody the dream of hippie nationhood that stumbled in the moshpit at Altamont and was finally felled in the final, savage years of the war in South East Asia. And I guess, too, because this multi-talented triangle, enlarged when Young squared the circle in 1970, became so enmeshed in their own legend that drug-fuelled egomania and vicious in-fighting became the group’s lasting legacies rather than the sounds they laid on vinyl.
Yet when the ten-track opus emerged, there was a feeling that the first outing of this bona fide supergroup—members culled from Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and the Hollies—was fit to set alongside Sgt Pepper’s and Pet Sounds, as an embodiment of the ‘60s spirit, a vibe carried most potently on the harmonic waves that Crosby and Nash wove over the songs of Stills, the band’s principal composer and predominant instrumentalist.
In fact, it is still hard to avoid the sense even now, that in an age when Lennon and Wilson, Hendrix, and the Morrisons were at their creative height, the record’s opener “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” was maybe the most perfect evocation of the hopes and fears of the Sixties generation, framed in a seven minute odyssey, winding through found love and lost love towards a metaphorical lyrical coda—birds and angels and the celestial spirit—and a heavenly melodic one as the three players soared into a numbingly gorgeous climax.
The fact that CS&N performed the tune in their “scared shitless” live spot in Max Yasgur’s field also marked the piece as an elixir bottled fresh but one that would soon turn sour as the sun set on the ethos of peace and love.
Stills wrote “Blue Eyes”, a tribute to an on-off relationship with folkie Judy Collins, and his contribution to the feast that followed was rich. “You Don’t Have to Cry” was sweet enough but the alliterative wonders of “Helplessly Hoping” and the rich, piano ramblings of “49 Bye-Byes” which appropriately lowered the curtain on the album, revealed the young Texan bluesman as an audacious talent. But, without question, it was the formula based on three distinct elements that produced the alchemy.
Nash had basic guitar skills—the credits suggest he played nothing on the LP—but his ability to harmonise was almost unbeatable. He also sang lead with a distinctive, nasal northern English twang which must have made “Marrakesh Express”—a tune his previous band had axed from their recording plans premeditating his departure—sound even more exotic to American ears. And his handsome looks further made the transatlantic transition all the easier. His affair with Joni Mitchell would spawn a number of minor romantic classics including the wondrous fragility of “Lady of the Island” included here.
Crosby was already the maverick in life and in his approach to music-making. A refugee from the Byrds, his behaviour there had caused rifts with Roger McGuinn, and his songs had hardly helped: dissonant jazz-tinged jousting did not befit the jangling jauntiness of the group and his tunes were sidelined. With CS&N, he found a place to explore his left-field minstrelsy—(the misspelt) “Guinnevere”, a startling hymn to a long-term lover soon to perish in a car crash—and his left-slanted oratory—“Long Time Gone”, an awesome response to the murder of RFK.
Crosby, Stills & Nash, the record, was almost too much, too soon. At a time when rock’s possibilities appeared limitless—society would shift, values would change, the war would end—the album offered a ticket on the bus to a fresh utopia. It melded the buzz of Haight Ashbury to the lush production values of LA; it married the vogue-ish tendency for self-confession with a willingness to share the political burden; and it also suggested that revolution might just come gift-wrapped in a sweet anthem concocted by a sonic choir.
It failed, of course, in every historical respect. Its dream was as shallow as its harmonies were deep. But for a moment, a month, a year or two, troubadour Stills and his two vocal Merlins, hinted that their “wooden music”, as it became dubbed, might just heal the social and political ills of the day. Neil Young knew better and his dark and dangerous presence would not only come to dominate the band but also survive the curse of such good-natured optimism. The greatest albums last; they outlive their era. But Crosby, Stills & Nash is great because it so distilled its time. And it is still, quite probably, my favourite.