Monday, February 22, 2021

Crosby and Nash

Rolling Stone said, "Like a super-stoned campfire jam with an A-list of Cali hippie-rockers – including Joni Mitchell and most of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and CSNY – this hazy solo project by the altered-consciousness overachiever sounds like it was pretty much made up on the spot. See the toasted strum-fest "Music Is Love" (with Neil Young on congas!) and "Tamalpais High," with Jerry Garcia and Jorma Kaukonen noodling around wordless Crosby-Nash harmonies. By the time it's over, you may not remember your name, either." I can't top that, but I don't agree (when do I agree with Rolling Stone?).

Indeed, Crosby gets all his mates from Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and records the ultimate hippy-jam album. Try to listen with that in mind before passing judgment. If I Could Only Remember My Name is terribly self-indulgent but equally as good.

The self-indulgence shines on "Cowboy Movie," which is essentially the same musical motif repeated over and over while guitars battle for supremacy as Crosby sings the tale of CS&N set in the wild west. The decadence, if you will, is upped on "Tamalpais High" and "Song With No Words," both lovely songs where Crosby sings the melodies buts doesn't write any words (If I Could Only Remember the Words), and then there's "What Are Their Names," where these various anti-establishment hippie types play a few solos before singing how the stiffs just need to find peace and love. It’s so organic I may sprout roots. So, yeah, there are a few dated hippie moments, and the songs tend to meander a bit, but the point of this album is that it's just one big laid back jam where the occasional tune shines through, most noticeably on the mellow "Traction In The Rain" featuring a fine dulcimer accompaniment, and on the album's standout track "Laughing."

A far better production with real songs and real lyrics comes from Graham Nash on his first solo, Songs for Beginners. As a member of CSNY, Nash wrote the simple feel-good songs while leaving the rockers to the other three. He also provided that quintessential high tenor to make their harmony the thing of beauty that it was. On Songs for Beginners, Nash takes center stage with a great set of songs.

The album opens up with "Military Madness," a poignant anti-war song that rings as true today. Throughout the album, Nash shows his lyrical prowess and a Brit take on Americana. The second track, "Better Days," is probably the best on the album. The song is in three parts, an intro, a climax and a dénouement. Truly a stunning work, the sax solo at the end by Bobby Keys is a fantastic capper.

Next is "Wounded Bird," another poem set to music. "Serenade your angel with a love song from your eyes/ Grow a little taller even though your age defies/ Feel a little smaller/ And in stature, you will rise/ A hobo or a poet must kill dragons for a bride;/ And humble pie is always hard to swallow with your pride.” Syrupy sweet, but I like it.

"I Used to be a King" is a clever twist on Nash's early hit "King Midas in Reverse." The most personal track on the album with a unique 6/8 feel and Jerry Garcia providing pedal steel reminiscent of "Teach Your Children." Side One concludes with the hopelessly corny "Be Yourself," but I was ten years old when I got it, so there's that.

"Simple Man" is just the opposite, starting out Side Two with a stunningly beautiful verse, if a tad cheesy. "I am a simple man, so I sing a simple tune." We all know that's Graham, and we like it but he didn't have to tell us. All the same, the chorus saves the song as well as the country fiddle. "Man in the Mirror" is the song I always remember as the song with the cool time change. It has a country feel thanks to Jerry. "There’s Only One" is the perfect closer, placed as the fourth to last song, so a bit out of place. Next is "Sleep Song." This one is a little fey for my taste, but you cannot dislike it's tenderness. The LP's grand finale is "Chicago/We Can Change the World," originally from 4-Way Street, the studio version is a stellar, rebel-rousing yell. Nash's vocals suit this one perfectly: "From the bottom of the ocean, to the mountains of the moon/ Won't you please come to Chicago/ No one else can take your place;" to me the most arresting protest song of the era.

Personally, Songs for Beginners was an accident. Without my parent's knowledge, I joined the Columbia House Record Club. You got five LPs for free and all you did was promise your first born male child to Columbia House, sometimes known as Pandemonium. One of the records I chose was called Songs of the Humpback Whale. When my package came, along with a ridiculous bill for shipping and handling, my stepfather had a fit. First and foremost because humpback whales can't sing. With an angry phone call which included threats about soliciting underage and naïve boys, we packaged up the whales, but got to keep Songs for Beginners for our inconvenience. See, it all worked out. Nearly 50 years on, I'm still listening.

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