Posts Tagged ‘Crosby Stills & Nash’

(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:

It’s early morn on Thanksgiving Day as I write and, all through the house, not a creature is stirring – aside from the feline who’s stalked me since his breakfast at dawn. Just now, he poked his head up beside me and bellowed a mew. It’s his version of “please, sir, may I have some more?” but instead of “sir” it’s “serf,” and he’s added and subtracted a few other words, too. “Serf, I want seconds. Now!”

I jest, of course.

Thanksgiving is, as its name makes clear, a time for giving thanks, and there’s much to be thankful for this year, as there is every year, even though – as a whole – 2017 will go down in the history books as one of the all-time worst. It sometimes feels as if horrors from a parallel universe are bleeding into ours.

But here’s one reason (of many) to give thanks: Tomorrow, sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor, aka the Staves, release a new album, a collaboration with the chamber sextet yMusic titled The Way Is Read. The three tracks they’ve released to promote the project are breathtaking. “Silent Side,” which they shared last week, is aural beauty personified:

Their show at the World Cafe Live in March, I should mention, was a highlight not just of this year’s concert slate, but of all my years’ concerts. It was akin to stepping through a portal to a magical, mystical land where everything’s groovy and everything’s alright. In other words, it’s in the running for the Old Grey Cat’s esteemed Concert of the Year Honors.

One of the things I like about them, aside from their songs and vocals, is their knowledge of music past, which they obviously use to inform their music present. One can hear it in the borrowed tunes they sometimes sing – as I’ve written before, a well-chosen cover song is like a glimpse into the soul of the singer(s); and the sisters’ picks, which range from the sublime to silly, are illuminating.

Here’s today’s Top 5: The Staves – Borrowed Tunes.

1) “After the Gold Rush” (Neil Young)

2) “These Days” (Jackson Browne)

3) “A Case of You” (Joni Mitchell)

4) “I’m on Fire” (Bruce Springsteen)

5) “Long Time Gone” (Dixie Chicks)

And two bonuses…

6) “Helplessly Hoping” (Crosby, Stills & Nash)

7) “Afternoon Delight” (Starland Vocal Band)

fullsizeoutput_11c8According to Newsweek, America’s white majority was a troubled lot as the world’s clock prepared to flip from 1969 to 1970: “Fewer than one in three of the working-class group say they are better off now than five years ago; by contrast, 44 percent of the white-collar workers polled feel more prosperous. And the blue-collar group is even less confident about the future. Only 28 percent expect to be better off five years from now.”

They had reason to be apprehensive. While unemployment was low, inflation was on the rise and, as a result, wages – even with decent raises – were stagnant or, worse, slipping. What cost $100 at the end of 1968 cost $105.46 at the end of 1969. That $5.46 difference may not sound like much in and of itself, but when you add together lots of $100 outlays…well, it adds up. Fast. There was also the matter of the never-ending war in Vietnam, where more than 11,000 Americans died this year alone. (As the people were beginning to realize, Richard Nixon had lied when he claimed during the ’68 campaign to have a “secret plan” to end it.)

That said, have no fear: I’m not launching a broadside about how people were directing their wrath at the wrong targets. (That’s an age-old American tradition, after all.) Instead, here are some of the pictures used to illustrate the era’s “forgotten” Americans:

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And, with that, today’s Top 5: October 6, 1969. Here are five songs from the Weekly Top 40 chart ending October 4th that have stood the test of time…

1) The Archies – “Sugar, Sugar.” This sweet confection, co-written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, was in its third week at No. 1 and was on its way to become the year’s biggest hit.

2) The Youngbloods – “Get Together.” The No. 13 single this week was this Dino Valenti-written song. First recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1964, it was also recorded by (among others) Judy Collins, We Five, Jefferson Airplane and the Staple Singers. As detailed in its Wikipedia entry, the Youngbloods originally released this version as a single in 1967, but failed to make the Top 50 with it. In 1969, however, it was resurrected by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for a radio commercial, re-released as a single and, eventually, made it to No. 5 in the charts.

3) 5th Dimension – “Wedding Bell Blues.” The No. 37 song for the week is this Laura Nyro-penned classic by the 5th Dimension. According to Wikipedia, one reason the group decided to record it was because Marilyn McCoo was due to marry fellow member Billy Davis Jr., which gave the lyrics an added (comic) weight.

4) Peggy Lee – “Is That All There Is?” One of the power-plays for the week is this classic Peggy Lee song, which jumped from No. 76 to 50. It would eventually make it to No. 11, her first Top 20 hit since “Fever” in 1958. (Peggy released a string of very good albums in the late ’60s that are well worth seeking out.)

5) Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” New this week, at No. 86, is Stephen Stills’ sublime song suite for Judy Collins.

IMG_0444August 1984 began on a high note: I saw Crosby, Stills & Nash at the Mann Music Center on the 4th. The Woodstock survivors opened with “Love the One You’re With” and “Chicago”; and performed most of the songs I wanted to hear as well as a few surprises – Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” I vividly remember “To the Last Whale” (aka “Critical Mass” and “Wind on the Water”); the stage went dark, Crosby & Nash’s wordless vocals flooded the open-air venue, and – wow. Just wow. The wows kept coming, too, and included “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Cathedral,” “Wooden Ships,” “Carry On” and “Teach Your Children.”

I also saw Huey Lewis & the News at the Mann this month. My memory of that isn’t sharp, likely because I wasn’t a fan and knew few of the songs; I tagged along with some friends from high school – the last time I saw them, I think. About the only thing I do recall: a juggler (!) opened; and we were as far back on the lawn as possible due to arriving late.

IMG_0447Among the LPs I purchased this month: Stephen Stills’ Right by You, The Best of Otis Redding, The Best of the Byrds: Greatest Hits, Volume II, John David Souther’s Home by Dawn and Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers. One might surmise that I was out-of-step, musically speaking, with the times – and, to an extent, I was. But I also liked the Go-Go’s – their Talk Show album came out in March, and would go on to become my Album of the Year. I also owned, by year’s end, 15 of the other LPs listed in this issue’s Top 100 Albums chart.

Anyway, the cover story features a band I could care less about, the Cars. They annoyed me then, and annoy me now. Other articles focus on the Thompson Twins, Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits, and Womack & Womack – all less annoying than the Cars.

Onward to today’s Top 5:

IMG_04491) Tracey Ullman – “They Don’t Know.” There’s a brief article by Mark Mehler on Ms. Ullman, who released her You Broke My Heart in 17 Places album in late 1983: “Though she’s a hit recording artist in the United States, the folks in Tracey Ullman’s native England prefer her as a dippy but earthy storyteller, wisecracker and bon vivant – in other words, the sort of 24-year-old who’d admit on national TV to forgetting to put on underwear before going dancing. ‘The man I was dancing with didn’t know it and spun me around and I’m whispering in his ear, ‘I have no knickers on,’ but he doesn’t hear me and the entire audience is in tears at this terrible sight.’”

The piece also explains how she came to score a recording contract: “A chance meeting at the hairdressers with the wife of Stiff Records founder Dave Robinson led to Ullman’s being signed by the label, even though her previous vocal excursions had been confined to the London stage in shows such as Grease.”

One note about this song: Kirsty MacColl, who wrote and recorded it in 1979, sings backup.

IMG_04502) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “No Surrender.” Born in the U.S.A., released in June, is the first review. Penned by Anthony DeCurtis, it opens with: “An original product of counterculture aspiration and a boom economy that proffered better times for workers, Bruce Springsteen has watched two hopes wither and die in the last decade. Since Greetings From Asbury Park he has chronicled the translation of a dream into a memory; the ‘glory days’ that once seemed to glisten before us are now a dimly recollected image of unfulfilled desire. Born in the U.S.A. finds the Springsteen pantheon of virtues – work, strive, endure, remember – still revered. What has disappeared is the promised land he once believed those virtues could earn.”

He concludes with: “[D]espite its musical heart and studio-craft, Born in the U.S.A.’s ultimate power resides in Springsteen’s tough, cramped social vision. If Woody Guthrie was the Dust Bowl laureate, Springsteen has emerged as the brave voice of workers in modern America’s sunset industries. Many rock performers have spoken for one subculture or another, but none has ever defined the works and days of an entire class as their subject. Until now.”

In between, DeCurtis raves about the album. Of this song, a tribute to former E Streeter Steven Van Zandt: “Two young groovers swear a rock-based bond of blood-brotherhood in ‘No Surrender,’ but ‘young faces grow sad and old/And hearts of fire grow cold.’ The song ends with Springsteen echoing Dylan and offering a complementary vision to Van Zandt’s new-found political fervor: ‘There’s a war outside still raging/You say it’s not ours anymore to win/I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover’s bed/With a wide open country in my head.’”

IMG_04553) Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul – “I Am a Patriot.” The issue’s second review, coincidentally, is for Steven Van Zandt’s debut, Voice of America. It’s a politically charged outing that Christopher Hill sums up as thus: “Because of Van Zandt’s inspirational approach, and because he’s chosen to unify his diverse styles with a crash, echoey sort of mix, comparisons inevitably pop up to ‘anthem’ bands like U2, the Alarm, and Big Country. But if these bands are the Cecil B. DeMilles of the trade, striking heroic poses and invoking Biblical images of millennial strife, Steven Van Zandt and his cohorts are the Frank Capras, finding epic themes in the hearts of ordinary people. Where the others show us the golden, hazy horizon, Little Steven and his Disciples show us real faces.”

“I Am a Patriot,” which was later covered by Jackson Browne, is a message that still resonates.

IMG_04514) Roger Waters – “The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking.” The title track to Waters’ solo debut, which is reviewed in tandem with David Gilmour’s About Face is, Ira Robbins explains, “a lot like The Wall without the children’s chorus, except that its dumb conceptual framework rivals only Frank Zappa for wretched, ungainly excess.”

That’s an accurate summary, I should mention. I owned this album, and – on July 24th of the preceding month – saw Waters, backed by a crack band that included Eric Clapton, play it from start to finish. Really, if he’d ended the concert at the first intermission, I don’t think anyone would have minded, as the first set was all Floyd; the second half, which featured the Pros and Cons album in full, was tedious – and that’s being generous. (That show is earmarked for a future Of Concerts Past post.)

However, despite disliking the album, I did and do like the title song –

IMG_04525) The Jones Girls – “Won’t Let You Take It Back.” James Hunter writes of Keep It Comin’, the LP this song is from: “[T]he three Jones Girls’ singing is terribly seductive stuff – when they harmonize they can, seemingly at will, energize your heart or take bits of it apart.” He sums up with: “People prone to nostalgic reminisces about the Golden Age of Girl Groups should check this out, because both the record and the Jones Girls are just too good to be discovered twenty years down the line.”

Honestly, I’d forgotten about them until seeing this review. I owned the cassette back in the day, but it went the way of most cassettes once CDs came into vogue. They still sound good.

IMG_0453And one bonus: Spinal Tap – “(Listen to the) Flower People.” The issue’s closing essay is by Anthony DeCurtis, who ruminates on what happens when music and movies (or video) mix. He cites This Is Spinal Tap, The Rutles and A Hard Day’s Night, along with a litany of documentaries, as being successes, and points out the dark side of rock videos. The mention of Spinal Tap, however, reminds me of earlier in ’84, when I worked as an usher at a movie theater. This Is Spinal Tap was booked for a week; and, for those seven days, I think it attracted no more than 100 people. Yet, I laughed every time I watched it – it’s a classic.