Photo by Henry Diltz

Singing Their Way Home:
35 Years of Crosby, Stills, and Nash

by Steve Silberman


Crosby, Stills, and Nash's debut album, released in May of 1969, was one of those rare recordings that expresses the most enduring values in music while sounding startlingly fresh. The trio's three-part harmonies were shimmeringly beautiful, even unearthly, and the album radiated a spontaneous, offhand warmth, as if the listener had just strolled in from the weathered porch on the cover and found three friends singing in the living room for their own joy.

The lyrics explored the classic themes of all music with roots in the ancient ballads - the pain of love in "Helplessly Hoping," the ragged exuberance of the musician's traveling life in "Pre-Road Downs" - but the band went places no one had before. "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" stirred folk, country, and Latin influences into a new kind of soul music that Stephen Stills sang with an authority far beyond his years. Graham Nash's "Marrakesh Express" got you high just listening to it, an ode to wanderlust for a hip generation that made itself at home anywhere in the world. David Crosby's meditative "Guinnevere" seemed untethered from every clichĂ© of pop, as if the song was a burnished artifact from some domain outside of time. (Jazz pioneer Miles Davis promptly recorded an epic version of it with his Bitches Brew band.) There was a palpable ecstasy in this menage a trois that Joni Mitchell described as "amorous."

The music of Crosby, Stills, and Nash wasn't just about love, it was love: the exhilaration of three strong-willed innovators who felt inspired to genius in one another's presence.

This three-way consummation had been a long time coming. Crosby and Nash met in 1966, when Crosby glanced up from rolling a joint and saw Nash in his living room, brought over by Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas in a supreme act of musical matchmaking. Crosby was still in the Byrds, where he helped marry the social consciousness and haunting harmonies of folk to the visceral backbeat of rock and roll. In songs like "Eight Miles High," he and his band mates brought fiery tonalities inspired by the John Coltrane Quartet into rock and roll for the first time; along the way, Crosby turned George Harrison on to the music of Ravi Shankar, global cross-pollination that bore fruit on albums like the Beatles' Rubber Soul. Nash had already achieved chart-topping success with the Hollies in England, and Crosby pegged him as a fellow "harmony junkie" after hearing his high part on "King Midas in Reverse." The two young musicians couldn't have been more different in temperament - Crosby was arrogant and outrageous, while Nash was wry and self-effacing -- but they both shared a taste for mischief, and became fast and life-long friends. "Crosby fascinated me. I'd never met anyone like him," Nash told Dave Zimmer, the band's official biographer. "He was a total punk, totally delightful, totally funny, totally brilliant, a totally musical man."

Also in 1966, the Byrds' Chris Hillman helped the Buffalo Springfield - featuring Stephen Stills and Neil Young -- get their first major gig, opening for the Byrds at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernadino. In its two-year lifespan, the Springfield staked out vast expanses of new musical territory. Stills' "Uno Mundo" anticipated the Latin-rock fusions of Santana and the advent of world beat, while Young's "Expecting to Fly" and "Mr. Soul" used tape collages and symphony orchestras to demonstrate that the only limit on the music was the range of sounds a composer could imagine. In clubs, Stills and Young faced off in double-barreled guitar showdowns that blew other bands off the stage. It was at the Swing Auditorium that Crosby first saw Stills in action and felt a strong sense of musical kinship. "The Springfield were a very powerhouse band. They had the essence, the wherewithal, the jacks-or-better, which is the songs, and they could sing," he recalls.

By 1967, all three future members of CSN were feeling constrained by the limitations of their respective groups. That fall, Crosby was dumped by his fellow Byrds, and the Springfield was being torn apart by the force of centrifugal egos. Back in England, the top-ten oriented Hollies were unimpressed by Nash's latest batch of songs, including "Marrakesh Express" and "Lady of the Island." It was time for drastic action.

Crosby sprang himself from his Columbia contract by dispatching a letter to company president Clive Davis that declared, "My music's all dried up. I don't have it anymore." In truth, he was enjoying one of the most inspired and prolific periods of his life. He bought a two-masted schooner called the Mayan - the original "wooden ship" -- which provided a welcome haven for him for the next four decades. He had also fallen in love with a folksinger he heard playing in Florida: Joni Mitchell. Their relationship - complete with promiscuous exchanges of non-standard guitar tunings that gave their music its moody, ethereal quality -- worked a heavy alchemy on them both. Mitchell wrote "The Dawntreader" and "That Song About the Midway" about Crosby, who helped Joni get her own recording contract. At play in the fields of EBDGAD, Crosby was weaving some of the most haunting melodies of his career, including "Guinnevere" and "Deja Vu." When he produced Joni's first album, Stills dropped in to play bass.

By 1968, Crosby and Joni were separated, but Crosby and Stills had become inseparable. The duo recorded rough versions of "Long Time Gone" and "49 Bye-Byes," and a DJ enthusiastically played them on the radio in L.A., attributing the acetate to a mystery band called the Frozen Noses. A musical renaissance was underway in Laurel Canyon -- a rustic, wooded sanctuary in the hills above Hollywood. Crosby, Stills, Joni, and Cass Elliott all had houses there, John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful was a frequent visitor, and Young resided in Topanga, not far away. Eric Clapton was turning everyone on to The Band's Music from Big Pink, another artifact from the timeless zone which proved that well-crafted songs trumped flashy solos and elaborate production. Most of the members of the Laurel Canyon gang had started out playing folk music, and a typical afternoon was spent tripping and harmonizing in Peter Tork's pool.

Sometime that summer, Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang together for the first time. On the question of precisely where, memories diverge: Stills recalls the occasion being an evening at Cass's, while Crosby and Nash remember the fateful moment as taking place at Joni's. All three, however, agree on what happened. Crosby and Stills were playing "You Don't Have to Cry," and Nash asked them to sing the song again, then twice more. On the third round the slim Englishman joined in, skimming a pure, high harmony over the top. "As our three voices intertwined, it was a slightly scary moment," Nash recalls. "Nothing had ever been so right, musically, in my life. Everybody in the room froze. When the song was over we all just looked at each other, then laughed. I was physically, psychically, and musically linked with David and Stephen from that point onwards."

Beyond the music, part of what drew the trio together, says Stills, was that individually they felt like outcasts. "I'm terribly shy and awkward around people," he says, "but when the three of us showed up, it was OK. We were probably the only ones who could get along with us." Leaving his old life behind that winter, Nash moved to the States for good. He and Joni had fallen in love when the Hollies toured Canada, and the two moved in together. As depicted by Nash in "Our House," the artistically fertile haven they created together became an enduring image of domestic tranquility.

The newly formed trio headed off to London, where they woodshedded their new songs for months in a cozy apartment on Moscow Road. There, Stills wove together the sections of what became "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." In January 1969, the group returned to the US for another round of rehearsals in a former whaling village on Long Island called Sag Harbor. Crosby wrote "Almost Cut My Hair" there, and Stills composed "49 Bye-Byes." By the time they entered Wally Heider's studio in Hollywood in February, they could sing the whole record to you in your room -- the legendary CSN "ear fuck." Engineer Bill Halverson was instrumental in capturing the radiance of the trio's harmonies using a technique he developed for the Beach Boys. He had them sing their parts around a single microphone, creating so-called air mixes.

Stills worked like a demon in the studio. Nicknamed Captain Manyhands by his partners, he could strike the strings of a Martin D-45 so they rang like crystal, play bass lines that sang like nobody else's, and make his customized B-3 organ smolder with soul. For "Pre-Road Downs," he threaded a 16-track backwards and laid down what sounded like a jumble of discordant notes; when the tape was played forward, it revealed a perfectly conceived solo that sounded like a 4th-dimensional pedal steel -- a technique he picked up from his friend Jimi Hendrix. On "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," Stills played every instrument, improvising tabla beats on his guitar before the trio blasted off in a burst of folk doo-wop that is still one of the most exuberant body rushes in music. The album was an immediate hit, winning the group a Grammy for Best New Artist.

It was Ahmet Ertegun, the group's visionary mentor at Atlantic, who suggested to Stills that he invite Young to join the group for their first tour. After a hilarious interview between Nash and Young over breakfast in a Greenwich Village café, the trio eagerly became a quartet. ("We wanted to play on his albums," said Crosby.) The foursome played their first date in Chicago in August of 1969, and the ultimate followup gig two days later: Woodstock. CSNY were anointed as spokesmen for their generation, in an era when generational spokesmen were in high demand.

But just as their debut album went gold, the band members suffered a series of personal setbacks. Stills' relationship with singer Judy Collins (the blue-eyed muse of the Suite) was in trouble, and Nash's idyllic time with Joni was coming to its end. Then tragedy struck: Crosby's first soulmate - a bright, beautiful young woman named Christine Hinton - was killed in a car accident.

That October, CSNY came together in San Francisco to record Deja Vu. Stills cooked on "Carry On," and showed with "4+20" that all you need is a guitar and a story told with the precision of a diamond cutter. "Almost Cut My Hair" showed Crosby at his funkiest, stoked by a Stills/Young firestorm that surpassed even the old Springfield intensity. For two of the album's loveliest tracks - "Our House" and "Teach Your Children" -- the trio sang on its own. At a time when young people were talking about not trusting anyone over 30, Nash made a plea for understanding from generation to generation. When four students were murdered by National Guardsmen for protesting the Vietnam war at Kent State University in May of 1970, Young wrote a song called "Ohio." CSNY immediately recorded it and released it as a single 12 days later with an image on the sleeve of the Constitution pierced by four bullet holes, backed by Stills' "Find the Cost of Freedom," which was originally composed for the final shot of Dennis Hopper's film Easy Rider. For a singular moment, they were not only the best band in the world, they were the counterculture's CNN.

Deja  Vu was followed by a live album, 4 Way Street. The title was apt -- over the next few years, each of the four band members blossomed into his own bandleader. Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name was a creative high-water mark for a generation of Bay Area musicians: on "Laughing," Joni Mitchell's soaring harmony and Jerry Garcia's pedal steel guitar provided a poignant setting for a human chorus that included Paul Kantner and Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane. Stills' first solo album and Manassas were masterpieces. Nash released two sublime albums, Songs for Beginners and Wild Tales, and he and Crosby formed their own band, backed by some of the best players in L.A., to make thrilling albums like Wind on the Water. Young's After the Gold Rush and Harvest secured him his place as one of the most gifted and passionate songwriters alive.

CSNY's status as the first "supergroup," however, proved to be a mixed blessing. Ironically, the trio had decided to bill themselves by their names to avoid the burden of being a brand; the group would be a flexible constellation, enabling any member to go off and do a project when the muse called. Unfortunately, after Woodstock, anything less than the four-way mothership was viewed by the mainstream press as falling short, even when the music was sublime.

After several unsuccessful attempts to record another quartet album, the trio reunited for CSN in 1977. The lyrics to "Shadow Captain" came to Crosby in his bunk on the Mayan while he was sailing from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. "I woke up at four in the morning 150 miles off the coast of California, grabbed a yellow legal pad and wrote the whole song in one burst," he recalls. The music was provided by Craig Doerge, the keyboard player for many years with Crosby and Nash. In Joel Bernstein's photograph on the cover, the trio looked as comfortable on the deck of a rented sailboat as they had on the couch. But there were darker waters ahead.

Crosby lost his way with cocaine; eventually, even his muse got offended and took a hiatus. But before she split, she gave him "Delta" with help from Jackson Browne, who brought Crosby over to the late Warren Zevon's house and sat with him at the piano until the song was born. The track came close to never seeing the light of day, but in 1981 Stills and Nash began recording an album that morphed into another fine trio release, Daylight Again. For the mesmerizing title song, Stills melded "Find the Cost of Freedom" with a new intro section that came to him spontaneously while playing onstage with Manassas in Virginia. "The whole movie just appeared in my head. After the show was over, I wrote down as much as I could remember," he recalls. "Just A Song Before I Go" won Nash a wager with a friend who bet that he couldn't write a song before catching a plane. "Southern Cross" rang with golden chords as Stills sailed away from the end of his first marriage at the helm of his own wooden ship -- "and music is her name."

Through the '80s and '90s, CSN matured into a seasoned touring unit, alternating homespun acoustic sets with hard-charging rock and roll, and using their media visibility to rally support for peace activism, the anti-nuclear movement, and environmental awareness. With the support and persistence of his wife Jan and Nash, Crosby's muse returned to him. Two more trio albums followed - Live It Up and After the Storm - along with two CSNY reunions, American Dream and Looking Forward. All four albums boasted strong performances that got lost in slick production; but when the singers got down to business around a guitar, as they did for Lennon and McCartney's "In My Life" and Young's "Slowpoke," there was no sound like it on Earth.

Thirty-five years after the release of Crosby, Stills, & Nash, all three members of the trio have found enduring love, raised beautiful children, and weathered the vicissitudes of being regarded as icons of an era while remaining committed to living and innovating in the present. In 1997, the trio was drafted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Crosby and Stills are two-time winners for their work in CSN, the Byrds, and the Springfield.) In recent years, some of the band members' most compelling music has been made away from the mothership, including Crosby's vital work with his band CPR, a luminous duet album, Crosby-Nash, released in 2004, and a new Stills project slated for release this year. The music and commitment to social justice of the three men has inspired songwriters all over the world to sing the truths of their own lives with integrity and grace.

It seems fitting to close this collection of the best of CSN with "Daylight Again," a hymn for those who stake their lives on a promise that America made to the world a long time ago. The narrator of the song is an old friend by now, the restless soul we met in "4+20," driven to his bed again by the dawn. This time, in the company of his brothers, he sings himself home.


                                                                                       San Francisco
                                                                                       November 2004


An abridged version of this essay was included in Crosby, Stills, and Nash's album Greatest Hits