Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup
By David Browne
Da Capo Press
While the foursome of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young have been the subjects singularly (or in some combination) of a bookshelf-full of autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, oral histories, and journalistic anthologies, there has not been a real worthy, substantive, and comprehensive look at the saga of the rock group with a name like a law firm. Until now.
Rock journo Browne – who has previously penned books on subjects including the Grateful Dead and the music of 1970 – finally fills that hole. And he does it in a savvy and detailed way that almost casts the musicians as heroes (albeit highly flawed) in their own epic historical tale of yesteryear. Warriors of popular acclaim, but with Gibson Les Paul and Gretsch White Falcon guitars instead of ancient swords as battle weapons (not to mention clans of origin with names like Byrds, Hollies, and Buffalo Springfield).
And as rock’s longest running soap opera, Non-Romantic Division (the Romantic Division honor goes to Fleetwood Mac), the book charts the band’s personal relationships in and out of the group almost as much as the music. As very much a “sex, drugs and rock and roll” group, Browne includes plenty of amusing anecdotes about the first two entries.
Like how the members often shared merry-go-round girlfriends (including famous names like Joni Mitchell and Rita Coolidge). Or how during the 1974 “Doom Tour” of stadiums, one employee’s job was to go through scores of cigarette cartons and replace the tobacco with marijuana, doing the same for bottles of ginseng with cocaine. Later, during the ‘80s, the tour budget would include $2,500 a night “in case Crosby’s cocaine freebase torch set fire to hotel rooms.”
Houston appears few times in the book – as when a local cop sprays mace in the faces of surging concertgoers during that tour stop at Jeppesen Stadium, prompting promoter Bill Graham to scream “What is this? Kent State?” Graham Nash also tells an interviewer while lounging in the Safari Room of Houston’s Whitehall Hotel “We’re mature cats now – we’ve grown up a lot.”
The storied Rockefeller’s also pops up as a venue for a Stills solo show where he makes pointed comments about the group and politics, and as the unnamed club for the first post-prison gig appearance for Crosby (who had served time for drug and weapons offenses in Huntsville State Prison) at a Nash solo show.
Many of the stories will be familiar to hardcore CSNY fans, but it’s great to have them all in one place. And there’s plenty of new nuggets to satisfy that group as well, much of it in the creation of the music – something many bios overlook. When Graham Nash is dissatisfied with the ending piano note at the tail of “Our House,” he flies out an engineer to a rented studio with an instrument to re-record that one note. One. But in his mind, it was precisely the right one.
Browne also details how many of CSNY songs – individually or as a group – are about each other! And while always the most reluctant and flighty member, Young’s successful solo career and boundary-breaking, eclectic output and higher relevancy tends to make him the more equal among “equals.”
This was never more evident than on their most recent extended reunion, a 2006 tour largely directed by Young and featuring anti-Bush/anti-Iraq war material from his Living with War solo effort (which included the none-so-subtle tune “Let’s Impeach the President”). The overtly political show had some conservative fans walking out and booing, as depicted in the concert film/documentary CSNY/ Déjà vu.
And there’s tension. Personal and creative, fueled by emotions and booze and various pharmaceuticals. That’s the one thread running through the history of CSNY. Were they common musical seekers? Friends? Competitors? They were all of this and more as they moved in and out of the group in various combinations over the past 50 years.
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“Their relationships weren’t always as exquisite at their music, which seemed to sum up all about them,” Browne writes in the book’s intro. “How could a group so identified with harmony fall into such regular discord and disarray? And just as important, why have so many of us remained riveted by this saga despite the merry-go-round of glories, letdowns, and buzzkills?”
And the saga is not over. The four are in 2019 estranged – perhaps more than ever before – due to a series of fallouts, two revolving around Nash’s memoir Wild Tales and Crosby’s internet insulting of Young’s wife (then girlfriend) actress Daryl Hannah. They last performed together in a short set at a Bridge School benefit in 2013. But despite the many “never agains” members have floated, it’s a song fans have heard before.
Ultimately, Browne has written the book that CSNY fans have been waiting for a long time (with a long time gone), using a combination of previous sources and fresh new interviews (including with Crosby and Nash). And his skill as a journalist makes the sometimes convoluted flow easy to follow. In a weird bit of coincidence, another major CSNY bio by Peter Doggett is coming out on the same day as this one. But we’ll save that review for another column…