(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
Most fans know – or should know – the story behind Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Daylight Again album, which was released on June 21, 1982: It began life in 1980 as a collaboration between Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. The two had performed together at a political benefit in Hawaii and enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to try their luck as a duo.
At about the same time, erstwhile comrade David Crosby was recording his own album; but Capitol Records, his label home, was underwhelmed by what he turned in. According to Dave Zimmer’s Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography, the album included wordless jams and – in the label’s estimation – no marketable single. Crosby says that “[t]hey didn’t like it. They felt it wasn’t rock ’n’ roll enough, wasn’t like Devo or Elvis Costello.”
Stills and Nash’s project was rejected by Atlantic Records, too, though for different reasons. Although the songs were strong, and vocalists Timothy B. Schmidt (of Poco and the Eagles) and Art Garfunkel had helped round out the vocal sound, the label feared few fans would buy a Stills-Nash LP. In the Zimmer bio, Nash explains that Atlantic “wanted a Crosby, Stills & Nash album. They knew that as a combination, CSN would sell more than anything me and Stephen might have together.” And “sell” is something Stills and Nash needed the album to do: They had funded the project themselves and were some $400,000 in the hole.
Nash also says that, as he thought it through, the more he agreed with Atlantic: “I started to miss [Crosby]. I missed his vocal quality. I missed his unique musical contributions. And I missed David as a person.”
Once Crosby came on board, the project turned into something of a jigsaw puzzle, with the threesome figuring out how to fit Crosby into a nearly complete picture. In some instances, such as “Southern Cross” and the title cut, the decision was made to leave him off. The songs were perfect as-is.
The genesis of “Southern Cross” is interesting. Stills’ manager played him a never-released song by the Curtis Brothers called “Seven League Boots”; he liked what he heard, but thought it could be better. He reached out, received permission to tinker with it, and before long a truly wondrous song was born. (For more on that, read this entry on the Disc Makers blog.)
In addition to figuring out where to fit Crosby’s harmonies, the re-formed trio had to decide which of Crosby’s solo tracks would work on “the album that wouldn’t die,” as some of those involved called it. The ethereal “Delta” was an obvious choice; Stills and Nash added some harmonies, but with or without their contributions the song was and is a stunning musical epiphany.
Nash, too, has his moments, most notably on “Wasted on the Way,” in which he laments the time he and his pals had wasted through the years. The genius of the song, however, is that the lyrics apply to you and me, too. Everyone, at some point in their life’s journey, looks back with regret about missing out on something.
Anyway, although the album was released in 1982, I didn’t discover it until January 6th, 1984. (I can say so with certainty thanks to my desktop calendar.) In my Essentials piece on the Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl (which I bought 11 days later), I mentioned that much of the music entering my collection in late 1983 and early 1984, when I was an 18-year-old college freshman living the commuter-college life, stemmed from previous generations. The albums included a slew of Neil Young releases, including Times Fades Away, American Stars ’n’ Bars and Comes a Time, as well as Deja Vu, the album he released in 1970 with Crosby, Stills & Nash.
I’d love to say Deja Vu , which I acquired in November, immediately won me over. It didn’t.
Mind you, I owned the Woodstock album and – if memory serves – had watched the concert documentary a time or two on Prism, a premium cable channel native to the Philadelphia area. I liked and loved a fair bit of ‘60s music, and often joked that I’d come of age in the wrong decade. Overall, however, rock critic Dave Marsh’s brutal assessment of CSN in the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide was enough for me: “Limpid ‘adult bubblegum’ rockers.” Or, as Neil himself called them in “Thrasher” on his classic Rust Never Sleeps, “dead weight.”
I should back up, just for a moment: Living the commuter-college life sans a car, which wouldn’t come for a few more months, wasn’t easy. One bus from Hatboro to the mall in Willow Grove. A second bus to Abington. And then a 10-minute hike to campus. Such was my life. I slipped the headphones of my Walkman clone over my ears, and lost myself in music. The return home, however, was much easier: Any of several friends usually gave me a lift.
It was during just such a journey home one December day – just a few weeks after buying Deja Vu – that the melody of “Southern Cross” slinked from the tinny car’s speakers like a purring Persian cat and wrapping its paws – claws kneading – around my heart. The song’s chorus, an unabashed cry of an unfulfilled romantic, appealed to me, too. That same week, I picked up the live Allies album – by mistake. And while the bulk of it was so-so, the two studio tracks, “War Games” and “Raise a Voice,” were quite good. A week later I came home with Daylight Again; and by the time I left the commuter-college life for the Penn State mothership in the fall of ’85, it had become one of my favorite albums.
In the decades since, I’ve come to hear it as a solid – but not spectacular – album that possesses glimmers of greatness, notably “Delta” and “Southern Cross.” Stills pretty much dominates the proceedings (six of the 11 tracks are his), with the bluesy opener “Turn Your Back on Love” and one-two punch of “Since I Met You” and “Too Much Love to Hide” being additional highlights.
I should add that the album didn’t receive stellar reviews at the time or at any time in the years since, really, aside from some fans. Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden, for example, wrote that “[t]heir voices, drifting on little watercolored islands toward a misty shore of meaninglessness, evoke a kind of perfection. For the blend is more powerful than any tune it attempts or any lyric it essays. The blend simply floats….”
From where I sit, the main drawback is this: It’s less a CSN album and more a Stills, Nash and Friends set.
The track listing: