Fifty years later, Crosby, Stills & Nash still angelically speak for an American musical generation
In 2005, I saw David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash perform together in Northern California. The men's crystalline vocal harmonies, 40 years into their career, showed no signs of diminishing, but the signature moment of the performance was when one of them announced, "The ladies always go crazy when we start playing this song" before launching into 1970 hit "Our House." And sure enough, when Nash's sparkling falsetto opened with perhaps the simplest, sweetest line in musical history — "I'll light the fire/While you place the flowers in the vase that you bought today" — every female voice in the house cried out in clamoring unison.
What today's universal regard for Crosby, Stills and Nash doesn't reflect, however, is the risk these three men took when they formed their so-called folk supergroup in 1968. Crosby was perhaps most well-known as a founding member of The Byrds, but an acrimonious split from the band in late 1967 cast him as a rock pariah. Around the same time, Stills was emerging from the ashes of another popular American folk-rock act, Buffalo Springfield, while across the pond, Englishman Graham Nash was dissatisfied with the group he was in, British Invasion hitmakers The Hollies.
So, the three restless singer/songwriters drifted together in 1968, with Stills and Crosby first jamming together while sailing on Crosby's boat in Florida waters. A few months later, at a Los Angeles party hosted by The Mamas & The Papas frontwoman Cass Elliot, Nash asked the duo to sing Stills' "You Don't Have To Cry." After two run-throughs, Nash added his own impromptu harmonization, and the angelic results went down as one of rock's greatest "Aha!" moments: "It was, ‘Now we know what we're going to be doing for the next few years,' " Crosby told Music Radar in 2012. "The way our voices blend, it's who we really are, and we've been that way since the beginning."
The trio quickly signed a deal with Atlantic Records, but also negotiated for each individual to cultivate his own solo career outside the band, an unprecedented move at the time. Regardless, Crosby, Stills & Nash's self-titled 1969 debut album was an immediate hit, injecting a folksy, rootsier element into rock 'n' roll's prevailing blues and psychedelic aesthetic. The success of the album, however, blindsided its creators; amazingly, the trio had yet to perform live, and because Stills had handled nearly all of the album's instrumental tracks, a full band was immediately compiled.
Enter Neil Young, then relatively unknown but soon to become a rock legend himself, just in time for the newly rechristened Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's first gig ever, a headlining spot at Woodstock. The band's era-defining performance at that seminal music festival turned its 1970 sophomore masterpiece, "Déjà Vu," into an American landmark. Stills once claimed that the album, eventually certified seven times platinum, took nearly 800 hours to record. "Our House" might be the finest representation of domestic bliss ever recorded, while the electric boogie of "Woodstock" and the countrified moral gravitas of "Teach Your Children" serve as clear-cut markers between the political radicalism of the 1960s and the apathetically individualistic attitude that went mainstream in the '70s.
Less than two months after "Déjà Vu" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, however, the Kent State shootings shook America. That night, Young wrote the incendiary "Ohio," which called Richard Nixon and his "tin soldiers" out by name — by far the brashest political move yet by an American rock band. But after that, with each man's respective solo career taking flight, the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young collective was doomed to fail. All four attempted various reunion permutations throughout the 1970s, but personal battles, egotistic squabbles and creative differences prevented the band from duplicating its brief but prolific early years.
In 1977, the original trio got back together to release "CSN," which, along with 1974's compilation album "So Far," went multi-platinum. But the excesses of the era, most noticeably Crosby's debilitating drug problem, dogged the band well into the '80s and '90s. All three, however, eventually overcame their respective hurdles and are still going strong, both as solo artists, as CSN and, rarely, as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
A half-century later, with each member of the band as seasoned as an American rock musician can be, Crosby, Stills & Nash still put on an eminently enjoyable and technically impressive show that regularly sends both female and male fans into a frenzy. In that 2012 interview with Music Radar, Crosby described crowds going "batshit … literally out of their gourds" when the band played "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" live in its seven-minute entirety for the first time in 20 years.
"The term ‘supergroup' didn't exist until we formed," Crosby said. "We were the first second-generation band. … We had all been in successful bands before, but something like us had never happened. We set the precedent. And for us to become even bigger than our previous bands was even more unique."