Thursday, February 8, 2018

Crosby, Stills & Nash (& Young)

In April 1970, Joni Mitchell released her third LP, Ladies Of The Canyon, an ode to the denizens of the enclave she called home, Laurel Canyon, a mountainside oasis hidden within the confines of L.A. The title track is perhaps the most obvious tribute in which Joni characterizes three women who define the canyon as a geographical and sociological oddity, a jumble of largely undeveloped mountain acres adjacent to the busy streets of West Hollywood. By 1968, when Mitchell wrote the song, the neighborhood had become the center of the local music scene, though it boasted no clubs or venues. Nearly every Los Angeles musician lived there, jammed there, or crashed on someone's couch there: The Byrds, The Mamas & the Papas, Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Love, The Monkees, Frank Zappa, Jackson Browne, Canned Heat. With its steep hills, winding dirt roads, and a handful of manmade caves strung with lights (for anyone who wanted to get back to the land or had run out of couches), the canyon provided a refuge from Los Angeles' hard urban landscape, and it was here that Joni and Crosby, with the coaxing of Cass Elliot, met Stills and Nash.

Quintessentially Californian, The Byrds were each refugees from folk bands. Roger McGuinn was a third of the Chad Mitchell Trio, Gene Clark a New Christy Minstrel; Chris Hillman played mandolin in The Hillmen, and David Crosby was an outspoken folk singer. The group lived and practiced in Laurel Canyon, their rehearsals reverberating across the sandstone hills and decorated caves. After dark, the nightcrawlers would descend on the Sunset Strip to play Ciro's, The Troub and the Hullabaloo. The Byrds were the house-band at the Whiskey (alongside The Doors), and at It's Boss, a teen club that only recently changed it's name from Ciro's (today it's The Comedy Store).




Those two settings, the remote wilderness of the Canyon and the urban bustle of the Strip, offered a contrast that defined folk rock as both acoustic and electric, country and city, harmonious and aggressive. A year before Dylan electrified the Newport Folk Festival, the Byrds had invented a new kind of pop music that mirrored the messy geography of Los Angeles, a hybrid of psychedelia, folk and country. Not long after, The Buffalo Springfield entered the L.A. scene with Stephen Stills and Neil Young fighting over the reins of the band. Graham Nash would find success with Britain's The Hollies and secure two smash American singles in "Bus Stop" and "Carrie Anne."
That night, while Joni listened, the three of us sang together for the first time. I heard the future in the power of those voices. And I knew my life would never be the same.
The dilemmas each artist faced with their bands led to the formation of Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1968. They were signed to Atlantic Records and released their first eponymous album in May 1969. It did well, spawning two Top 40 singles: "Marrakesh Express" (at No. 28) and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" (at No. 21). The album itself went to No. 6 on the Billboard 200 album chart.



As Nash remembers, "We were all very much in love with each other; we were all very much in love with the music…obviously doing something we felt was totally unique.  It was against the grain of most of the music that was out at that time, and we just managed to slip this acoustic-feeling record right through all the stacks of Marshalls and giant electric guitars." It's funny how their attitudes would fluctuate over the years, but 50 years on there's still talk of further collaborations.

When joined by Neil Young, several months later, they played for a half a million people at Woodstock in what was only their second appearance together. CSN&Y’s stirring performance exemplified the spirit of the day, and is still treasured as a touchstone for many who came of age in the ‘60s. 

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In 1970, CSN&Y released the now-classic album Déjà Vu to great acclaim, generating three Top 40 singles: "Woodstock" (No. 11), and Nash's smash double play of "Teach Your Children" (No. 16) and "Our House" (No. 30).  It also introduced perennial favorites including Young's "Helpless," Stills' "Carry On" and Crosby's sociopolitical "Almost Cut My Hair." Next up was 1971's 4 Way Street, a double live LP that showcased both group dynamics and solo strengths, and delivered Neil Young's "Ohio," a rebellious memorial to the four students killed at Kent State in 1970.  Although CSN&Y drifted apart midway through the ‘70s, they continued to perform and record, individually and in various configurations.  Solo, Crosby released If I Could Only Remember My Name, and Nash followed with Songs For Beginners and Wild Tales.  Together, the pair recorded three albums and in 1977 released a live LP. Stills released the platinum Stephen StillsStephen Stills 2, two LPs with Manassas, and Long May You Run with Neil Young, while Neil's solo career outweighed them all; today having recorded 42 studio LPs.

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