The Retrofit Guide: CSNY

Then, and now, Young at heart.

It’s easy to forget now, decades after they first crossed the line dividing seriousness from ego-driven self-parody, but the super-group conglomeration of David Crosby, Stephen Stillls, Graham Nash and sometimes Neil Young were once the gold standard for serious American political/art-driven rock ‘n’ roll.

Chalk up some of that street cred to the times: they were the perfect post-Woodstock, roll up your sleeves and change the world type of band. And a glorious mix of styles and personalities, too.

Crosby: Too radical (and obnoxious) for the Byrds, he combined limpid art-folk stylings with feverish political fury, fueled in part by an energetic sense of paranoia.

Stills: Buffalo Springfield vet, Blues-fired guitar ace-slash-many-handed multi-instrumentalist; also a bit much in the personality dept. (see the chief flaw that comes with talent: outsized self-regard); but also a fine songwriter (at times) and a fiery lefty, of sorts.

Nash: British, high-harmony singer from the Hollies, a romantic who spent the high-corn years of CSN/Y as Joni MItchell’s love.

Young: Another Buffalo Springfield member. The last to join CSNY, also the first to leave, simultaneously weirder and far more genius-calibre than the other guys. Put together.

A truly compelling conglomeration. But also rigged to detonate, which it did repeatedly, often in the ugliest possible way, and usually a result of someone’s drug problem. (don’t believe me? Check out Stills on this 1974 performance of  “Almost Cut My Hair“)

Anyway, theyre easy to ridicule; easier to dismiss out of hand. But then you’d be missing a surprisingly large (and stylistically diverse) collection of pretty good-to-at-times-actually-quite-terrific tunes and performances. Most the direct result of Neil Young’s participation.

Follow the jump to see all the songs you’ll want, album-by-album:

Crosby, Stills and Nash: The first album, from ’69. Maybe four of these stand the test of time, to my ears: Stills’ “Helplessly Hoping.”  is the real classic. I’ve heard “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” about 100,000 too many times on the radio, but still must give it up for the tune’s structural daring; bare-bones production and some pretty excellent singing, too. The original of Crosby’s “Long Time Gone” can be found here, too, but it took on more weight once Neil and his guitar came to town. My final pick: Stills’ “You Don’t Have To Cry,” though I’d actually suggest iTuning it from the “No Nukes” concert album.

Deja Vu: With Neil on board for the second album, everything works: Download the whole thing (though I stopped short at Nash’s pair of hippie-dippie romance (“Our House”) and his cloying pseudo-political nursery rhyme, “Teach Your Children”). Still, any album that boasts “Carry On,” “Woodstock” and Neil’s beautifully desolate “Helpless” and multi-part deconstruction of hippie royals on the Sunset  “Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty)”, is a winner. Neil’s slashing guitar, meanwhile, adds power and depth everywhere it appears. Even a lyric as silly as Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” (which rhymes “not feeling up to par” with “seeing a police car”) makes sense when you’re mostly listening to the Stills/Young guitar duel. See also the sizzling cover of Joni Mitchell’s (!) “Woodstock” and Crosby’s alt-tuning paranormal freakout, “Deja Vu.” Anyway, it’s the best album they ever made, by far. Add the original single they cut weeks later (“Ohio,” commenting on the Kent State shootings b/w “Find the Cost of Freedom,” and it’s five-plus stars.

4 Way Street: Live and all but dead on arrival: the two-album set, recorded on the eve of the group’s first breakup, sounds mostly like a collection of solo perfromances, with only the most grudging collaborations. I snatched up Neil’s “On the Way Home,” and I still need to give a hard listen to the electric jams (which go on and on, if memory serves), but mostly a disappointment, made worse by the insufferable between-song patter.

From there CSNY repaired to individual (or in Crosby-Nash’s case, two-way) camps, reteaming in 1974 for a massive worldwide tour (made disastrous by greed, drugs and an inability to share the proverbial toys in the not-quite-proverbial-enough cocaine box. A planned and labored-over CSNY studio album, tentatively titled Human Highway fell apart soon after, which stings more each time a remnant of what they did together (before Stills/Young notriously wiped the Crosby/Nash harmonies from their tunes, enroute to their brief two-way Stills-Young Band union) leaks.

Just check out the lovely “Through My Sails,” released on Neil’s solo album, “Zuma in ’75 (I think). Released in the CSN box set years later (and also very worth downloading): four-way performances of Stills’ “Taken At All,” and Crosby’s “Homeward Through the Haze.”

Goodbye, Neil, off to neither burn out nor fade away, but to follow his own quirky path. And good thing, too, though he’d be back very eventually. First to no effect and then. . . well, keep reading.

But whatever sizzlingly bad blood they had, CSN reunited in ’77 for the creatively titled CSN, which is far better than anyone the right to expect. Particularly given that Nash’s songs lead the way (“Just A Song Before I Go” was the smash hit; he also offers up a pair of good piano ballads (the stark “Cold Rain” and the lovelorn “Carried Away”) and then the real-life LSD soundtrack, “Cathedral.” Crosby shines with his trio of new songs (“Shadow Captain,” “In My Dreams” and “Anything At All.” Only Stills falls short, scoring nicely with “See the Changes” but over-producing and under-rocking “Dark Star.”

From there it’s thin pickings through the ’80s and early ’90s, with a procession of forgettable CSN albums and a pair of surprisingly uinspired CSNY reunions (1988’s “American Dream” and ’00s “Looking Forward.”) The CSNY reunion tours in ’00 and ’02 produced some fiery moments (those Stills/Young guitar duels, mostly, and the CSN harmonies on Y’s terrific tunes), but the real surprise didn’t come ’til ’06, when the third reunion tour, dubbed the Freedom of Speech tour, turned into a production devoted almost entirely to Young’s latest solo album, the seethingly anti-Bush “LIving With War.” The resulting CSNY live album, “Deja Vu Live,” is, by and large, the album the world has hoped for since the original Deja Vu.

It’s fiery and full of righteous indignationf; agitprop of the highest order. Download immediately and give it a listen: The acapella opener, “What Are Their Names,” (an old Crosby solo tune, performed as a fourway chant set to audience back-up) the brutal “Let’s Impeach the President,” a yearning “Roger and Out.” “Shock and Awe.” The context (plus Neil’s blistering guitar) adds muscle to the umpteenth performances of “For What It’s Worth” and even Nash’s borderline silly “Military Madness.”

Like so much of the best of CSNY: Powerful; surprisingly deep; worth seeking out.

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