From the Archives: CSNY’s Looking Forward

Any CSNY reunion album is bound to disappoint. For a slew of fans, 1969’s eponymous Crosby, Stills and Nash album, 1970’s Deja Vu and “Ohio,” and 1971’s live Four Way Street provided the soundtracks to their late teens and early 20s, and their tours in 1969, ’70 and ’74 only amplified that connection. Younger fans, too, formed their own bonds, often seeing them as the epitome of the Woodstock Nation. But as many a “legacy” act can confirm, living up to such lore is near impossible – it’s no longer just about the music, but the memories associated with it.

Thus, 1988’s American Dream – their initial reunion effort that moved over a million units – has come to be known as an American dud and Looking Forward, released 11 years later, landed with what amounted to a thud, selling about 400,000 copies. Both are better than their reputations, however. American Dream, at least for me, would have been better if a few songs were left behind, but a handful – the title track, “This Old House” and “Compass” are brilliant. (Aside from length, my main criticism of it: The all-digital production resulted in a sterile sound.) Looking Forward was better, though – again – only brilliant in spots. I say that now, mind you. Back in 1999, at least at first, I was under its thrall.

Anyway, below is my original long-winded review of Looking Forward, which I posted to the original Old Grey Cat website (1997-2006) a few days before the album’s release. To be honest, I was flush in the first blush of infatuation, which resulted in many hyperbolic pronouncements, and also consumed with the new TV series Freaks and Geeks, so I used it as a launching board to write about the album. Also, my claim that Looking Forward was my Album of the Year, while true in the moment, didn’t last: by year’s end I awarded that ballyhooed honor to Natalie Merchant’s Live in Concert. One last thing: Although, at the time, I wasn’t under the sway of much new music, these days – as evidenced by my blog – I am. Take my advice/don’t listen to me: Don’t settle for the tried-and-true. Seek out new sounds. It’ll help keep you young.

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10/20/99 — Here’s a confession: I don’t listen to music as much as I once did. I just don’t. More often than not I find myself situated here in my den, the flicker of the computer’s monitor, the tap-tap-tap of the keyboard and mouse clicks providing a kind of rhythmic accompaniment to the thoughts percolating in my mind. Sometimes? Yeah, sure, I’ll drop a CD into the CD-ROM tray and hit play – Buzz Zeemer’s Delusions of Grandeur cast a spell on me earlier this year that I’ve yet to shake. Steve Earle’s The Mountain is another such album, as is his sister Stacey’s diamond-in-the-rough debut, Simple Gearle, and Dana Pomfret’s sublime Soul Collage. Other albums have come and gone, providing momentary pleasure before taking up permanent residence in a pile of CDs stacked not-so-neatly in the living room.

Probably my most listened-to albums (thus far) this year aren’t all that new: CPR’s studio debut and the Live at the Wiltern set. That David Crosby’s “new” band has yet to take off the way they should, well…blame it on radio and the music press. I do. In an age when disc jockeys are little more than announcers introducing focus group-approved fodder, it’s easy for great music to get lost in the mix. Case in point: the critics will soon be fawning over Crosby’s two entries (“Stand & Be Counted,” “Dream for Him”) on Looking Forward and how he’s “come back.” Shit, anyone who picked up any of his CDs since Oh Yes I Can will tell ya: He’s been “back” for years. You want from-the-heart songs? Songs that send shudders down the spine? Songs that resonate and reverberate within your soul? Pick up any/all of the three CPR sets – all available, I should add, at Crosby’s official web site. 

In short – and I guess it comes as no surprise – Looking Forward is my Album of the Year. From the lead track (Stephen’s “Faith in Me”) to the closing track (the Denny Sarokin-penned “Sanibel,” featuring gorgeous – and I mean absolutely gorgeous vocals from Graham and Neil), there’s nary a weak track. Looking Forward is filled with music that does far more than just float from the speakers. It ushers you inside the melodies and majesties of this thing we call life.

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I watched Heaven Can Wait again last night – it’s one of my favorite films. Warren Beatty stars as Joe Pendleton, a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who’s taken before his time by a neophyte angel (Buck Henry) only to be ushered back to life by the dapper Mr. Jordan (James Mason) – but in the body of a millionaire. In 1978, when it was released, it seemed somewhat of an odd-ball effort from such an established Hollywood star. A remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan?! Egad. Why would Beatty bother with such a simple plot?

And then today, I took in American Beauty for a second time. Kevin Spacey stars as a lackluster suburban husband and dad who spirals through a mid-life crisis before awakening to the beauty of life (that’s my interpretation, at any rate). The story’s arc is much like a rainbow, leaving viewers – this viewer, at least – in awe. As with Heaven Can Wait, American Beauty is as far from the special effects-laden blockbusters as a film can get. It’s a fairly straight-ahead story accented by deft direction, strong writing and strong acting from all of the principles. A simple story? Yeah, sure.

But, of course. Sometimes – most times – simple is best. That’s why, for instance, the new NBC-TV series Freaks & Geeks hits home: It’s the story of high school-aged Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and her younger brother Sam (John Daly) coming to grips with the complexities and contradictions of life, circa 1980. There’s none of the touchy-feely (i.e., manipulative) moments that pockmark most domestic dramas. Rather, the show is accented by the awkwardness that comes part and parcel with being a teenager. Don’t get me wrong – it’s funny, too. But unlike the many hackneyed sitcoms that litter the networks’ lineups, the humor is organic, arising from honest interactions between the characters.

Don’t worry; I’ll be getting to Looking Forward soon.

Other shows, no doubt, will do better ratings-wise than Freaks & Geeks. Besides being buried on Saturday night, it faces other obstacles. As always, more often than not flashy clothes and empty plots win out over substance – look no further than Nash Bridges’ victory over Homicide: Life on the Street for one example. The same holds true in popular music. Britney Spears, Joey McIntyre, the Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, etc., etc., consistently rack up the mega-sales that eludes such worthy artists as Dave Alvin, Shawn Colvin, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams (just to name a few). But are today’s chart-toppers talentless hacks? Or are they the by-product of the “synergy” that now accents the industry? If you’re not familiar with “synergy,” here’s a quick explanation: Artist A records for Label B which is owned by Studio C which also owns Network D and Cable Channel E and Radio Stations F, G, H and I, not to mention Magazines J, K, L and M. The result? Artist A receives a mega-push. 

In the old days – my old days, I hasten to add – such hype-ridden acts as The Knack regularly topped the charts only to witness their careers careen into the trash-bin with their follow-up releases. I know of what I speak. Even now, as I write these sentences, I can hear Doug Fieger’s stutter-step vocals on “My Sharona” whipping from the back of my head as clearly as I could in 1979 from the radio. My friend Don and I were both 14 and into the FM grooves WIFI-92 provided – much to the dismay of Don’s older brother, who claimed the bass and drums of such “hard rock” acts like The Knack caused heart irregularities. See, the heart’s beat syncs up with the bass and drums, pounding faster, faster, faster and then…

There’s a longer story in there, but I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, looking back, “My Sharona” wasn’t that awful of a song. Distanced from the record company’s hype, the fact is that it’s – no, not a great song, but a harmless ditty that’s fun to sing along to. Of course, The Knack suffered a fate that’s toppled many acts before and since: Backlash. Their music just couldn’t compete with the claims the record-company men made for it. And, too, there was another, far more relevant reason: “My Sharona,” “Good Girls Don’t” and The Knack’s other tunes were little more than commercial jingles disguised as rock music.  

Since Freaks & Geeks‘ premiere a few weeks back, I’ve been thinking back to my own teen years. And, yes, this leads into Looking Forward. See, to me, good music is as much about you and me as it is about the singer and the song. The lyrics, melodies and majesties inherent in the grooves reflect us – akin to an audio mirror, if you will. Such has always been the strength of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Whether together or apart, the foursome consistently constructs the aforementioned audio mirror into their songs.

There’s a wistful quality to much of Looking Forward: “There was a piece of a song that I heard the other day…” sings David Crosby on the guitar-crunch glory that is “Stand and Be Counted.” It’s a song that, one presumes, was inspired by Crosby’s upcoming book and TV show about performers using their celebrity status for a larger purpose. (For more on that project, check out my interview with the Croz in ’97.) Yet, the song is about much more than that: “Sometimes I talk to myself in the early dawn/before all the fragments of my dreams are gone/things you don’t know why your mind held on to….” It’s about memories, bygone dreams and the like, and makes the point that one can indeed reach back to the past and reclaim lost ideals. So while Crosby sings, “I wonder who that kid was, standing brave and trim/and I hear myself breathe/and I know that I was him,” I see me at 15, Christmastime, angry and sad and happy all at once. Or I see me at 20, when idealism (or was it naiveté?) pulsated through my veins. I’d offer more specifics but, really, specifics in this context aren’t needed. Few experiences that I could offer are exclusive to me, my age or my time – and the same holds true for Crosby. Therein lies the brilliance of “Stand and Be Counted.” Crosby utilizes specifics as metaphors, and does so in such a way that the song becomes a powerful testament to both the past and the present.

Although Looking Forward leads me on a journey through the past, it’s far from a nostalgia-tinged affair. If anything, it updates those bygone dreams, refitting and recasting them for the Y2K Age. “Have some faith in me/’cause we really do know better/and we do belong together…” sings Stephen Stills on the album’s leadoff track, “Faith in Me.” At first listen, it’s a bit disconcerting as the leadoff track, what with its Latin-tinged rhythm just about cha-cha-cha-ing from the speakers. After all, this is C-S-N-Y. Shouldn’t their patented harmonies be more upfront, more direct, floating to the fore and beckoning us to follow? It’s a good song, don’t get me wrong, it’s just…it didn’t seem like an appropriate opener. That was my initial reaction, at any rate. But as I’ve listened to the album again and again this past week I’ve come to a different conclusion. In fact, “Faith in Me” is the perfect opener. It plays against the CSNY stereotype in a perverse fashion, serving notice that this isn’t just a trip down paths already taken.

The second song, “Looking Forward,” is one of Neil Young’s four entries and plays off “Faith in Me” rather well. Why? It’s one of those patented harmony-laden CSNY efforts coupled with a plaintive message: “I’m not waiting for times to change/I’m gonna live like a free-roaming soul/on the highway of our love.” Sappy? Yeah, sure – but sappy in a good way, if that makes sense. Remember at the beginning of Year of the Horse? (The album, not the movie.) Neil exclaims, “It’s all one song!” Well…that statement certainly applies to Neil’s second contribution, “Slowpoke.” On his solo acoustic jaunt earlier this year, audiences often mistook the guitar-strummed opening for “Heart of Gold.” That’s not the case here; its tempo slowed, the focus shifts to the whimsical lyrics. And what lyrics! “When I was faster I was always behind” says it all, don’t you think? This is the one track on Looking Forward that most harkens back to the early ’70s, complete with harmonica and harmonies and……………… perhaps that’s the point. 

Graham Nash, too, is in superb form. When I talked to Crosby earlier this year (click here for that), he allowed that Nash’s “Heartland” blew him away. Rightfully so. “People come and go/living their lives/running everywhere at such a speed/never taking time to open up their eyes/never knowing where life leads” – it plays off of “Looking Forward” in majestic fashion, offering a different spin on the same topic. Whereas Neil, with his surrealistic wordplay, attacks the subject like Salvador Dali, Nash works like the able photographer that he is, snapping a stark and beautiful portrait. Here again, CSNY’s harmonies work well; I especially like the way Stills joins in for several verses. It recalls – in a good way – his and Nash’s work together on Daylight Again (which, you may recall, began as a Stills-Nash project). 

As I write, the first reviews are coming in – from Rolling Stone, Mojo, Uncut and various magazines around the globe. The consensus seems to be that it’s a three-and-a-half star effort, one that will placate fans but not necessarily win converts. I disagree. First and, perhaps, foremost: This is an album in the truest sense of the word. Unlike so many releases these days, this truly is a cohesive collection of songs. There isn’t a weak track amongst the twelve; fact is, I’d be hard-pressed to single out any one song as the “best.” Yet … yet … two leap to mind. Crosby’s been on a roll. “I am uncomfortable lying to a child” – not usual fodder for a “pop” song, huh? It’s as if it’s just you and him in a room together, Crosby questioning how one explains death to a child, how to explain the world to a child, and on down the line. “I’m not satisfied with the answers I know,” Crosby allows. Featuring a beautiful supporting turn from Nash, it’s just… hypnotic. “Dream for Him”: It ranks amongst Crosby’s finest songs. 

But the album’s crowning moment? The Denny Sarokin-penned “Sanibel.” “There’s a ship/and it sails a sea of light/on its way to me tonight…..” In a post to the CSNY discussion group The Lee Shore, I described it as: “Ahhhhhh.” And that’s still all I can come up with. Hands down–hands down, I say–it’s Nash’s best-ever vocal. Period. It’s a delicate performance from start to finish, one that conjures the ocean, palm trees, love and peace and….. it’s a gentle, beautiful and haunting song, one that features an equally delicate vocal turn from Neil. It’s a perfect way to end a near-perfect album.

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Anyway, as I said up top, 22 years on I’m not as over-the-top about Looking Forward. That said, it does have its moments – mostly Neil’s and Crosby’s songs, plus Stephen’s “No Tears Left.”

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