The 50th anniversary of Woodstock in two weeks’ time sees the publication of two substantial biographies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, one of them by my friend Peter Doggett whom I know from long acquaintance is a great admirer of the ‘band’. Woodstock and CSNY are synonymous but why the inverted commas? Well, I have always believed that the crème de la crême of rock bands are organic insofar as they grow from a seed. They assemble as beginners, learning how to play their instruments and produce music together, then struggle to achieve recognition while focusing exclusively on this goal, much like The Beatles, The Who, U2, R.E.M. and many more. The overriding conclusion of Doggett’s book, however, is that although once touted as the ‘biggest band in the world’ Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were never really a band in this or any other sense.
On the very first page of his introduction he calls them a ‘collective’, not a term I’ve seen used before in this context but one which defines their situation perfectly. Their only struggle was between themselves for dominance. Their focus was partial at best. They were not three together or for each other, as one of their loveliest songs seemed to imply. In the beginning they were three individual musicians who after apprenticeships elsewhere met by chance and discovered their voices produced an astonishing harmonic resonance – their ‘trick’, as Doggett calls it. Then, to reinforce the brand, they added a fourth member who too quickly for comfort eclipsed them all.
The tender, illusively autobiographical lyrics of ‘Helplessly Hoping’ are therefore misleading, implying a unity of understanding and purpose that was never consistent in CSNY. In the spirit of the times, however, the song conveyed so much more: primarily their fierce opposition, shared by their fans, to the bad shit that coincided with their evolution, the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon and the blue meanies who didn’t like men with long hair, recreational drugs and sexual freedom. This too was ambiguous, with David Crosby and Graham Nash certainly on the side of the righteous but Stephen Stills and Neil Young less so. Nevertheless, the timing of their arrival magnified their celebrity by placing them at the heart of America’s sixties countercultural revolution which reached its apogee with Woodstock, at which CSNY famously appeared, and culminated in the tragedy of Kent State, which inspired one of their greatest songs. All of this has added greatly to their legacy and gives Doggett’s book a historical charge lacking in biographies of rock acts who had the misfortune to graduate in less turbulent times.
On the face of it, CSNY’s celebrity is out of all proportion to their miserly output. During their ascent and supremacy, the six-year period from 1968 to 1974 covered in great detail here, CSN produced one great studio album, and with Young on board produced another which was pretty good but not so great. A live CSNY album followed and that was it, unless you count compilations, further live recordings and subsequent less celebrated – but not necessarily substandard – reunion efforts over the succeeding years that Doggett wisely mentions only briefly in a coda (in contrast to the rival but inferior* CSNY biog also just published, CSN&Y: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup by David Browne).
The CSN&Y story is nonetheless very complex, involving the comings and goings of the four individuals as well as a huge cast of other musician pals, many girlfriends and ambitious managers, often multiplied by four. The task of the biographer is further complicated by unreliable or contradictory testimony from the four principals who remember everything differently, this in large part due to the vast quantity of drugs ingested at the time and in lesser part to score settling, a state of affairs that continues to this day with Crosby only recently complaining that none of his friends talk to him anymore. A five-page postscript is devoted to how this impacts on the book.
To overcome these difficulties Doggett assiduously lays out the contradictory testimony from interviews, some of them his own, and autobiographies (by all bar Stills) and like a forensic scientist gathers his evidence, draws attention to inconsistencies and reaches conclusions with the proviso that regardless of what you might have read elsewhere, his
version is most likely to be the truth. I believe him, too, not least because Doggett has been studying the subject for decades and is rigorous in his analysis, as befits a former editor of Record Collector magazine at a time when, for accuracy, its Beatle coverage and discographies were the best in the world.
Piecing together the story of CSNY is a bit like doing a jigsaw. The labyrinthine journeys that brought them together involve The Byrds, The Hollies and Buffalo Springfield, of course, but Doggett doesn’t have the space to dwell overlong on the histories of these groups, only on the formative years of the four, none of whom had what might be termed conventional childhoods. Depending on whom you believe, Crosby left or was fired from The Byrds for his overbearing manner, while Nash felt The Hollies were too lightweight for the post-Pepper era. Stills and Young, the key members of Buffalo Springfield, became dissatisfied because the group failed to realise its potential. The first three found one another in LA, probably after a Hollies gig in February, 1968, at the Whiskey club which opens the book, and for the next few months traversed the globe meeting up whenever and wherever they could. Doggett is spectacularly good at detailing all the travelling involved – it’s almost as if he was given a folder containing the stubs of all their airline tickets to and from LA, New York and London – an early indication of the research he must have undertaken to fit the pieces together.
Young joined after the first album was recorded but before they’d played live, ostensibly to boost the stage sound. Thereafter he’s a bit of a ghost, here today, gone tomorrow, resolutely his own man. Stills, the most skilled guitarist, most ambitious and most industrious, tries to assume a leadership role but is undermined by Crosby’s wilful tendencies and Young’s Will-o’-the-wispishness. Nash adopts a resigned but generally composed attitude to his colleagues’ rampant egos, as befitting an Englishman, but he stands his ground when pushed too far. The infighting is exacerbated by drugs, especially when cocaine displaces marijuana, and their relationships with women. Pliant groupies are everywhere but more permanent bonds became muses and influenced the collective’s productivity, partly because some affairs overlapped: Crosby and Nash both courted Joni Mitchell, who comes out of the tale with more honour than most; Stills and Nash both courted Rita Coolidge; Stills courted Judy Collins, who inspired his magnificent ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’; Crosby lost his true love in an automobile accident; Stills married the French actress Véronique Sanson; and Young lived with American actress Carrie Snodgrass. By the end of the book all these relationships, and more, are over.
Then there’s the money which in turn leads to profligacy. We are told that when Nash arrived in LA to turn the ‘trick’ into something tangible, he left almost all his cash in the UK and this leads to a characterisation of him as the least materialistic, a trait he shares to a certain extent with Crosby except where sailing boats are concerned. Young and, especially, Stills are more acquisitive and when it is pointed out by management that the inclusion of Young massively increases their box-office potential there is a good deal of angst when Young goes his own way.
Throughout his book Doggett offers a comprehensive guide to the songs, their genesis, their evolution and, in many cases, a shrewd critical assessment, and he’s also good on the concerts, many of which are substandard due to iffy pitching and guitars going out of tune. Indeed, I can’t recall reading a rock biog before where tuning is such an issue. Although clearly a fan, he doesn’t flinch at pointing the finger of blame at whichever individual is responsible for several shows disintegrating into an appalling mess, so much so that when listening to playback tapes one or more of those involved either throws a tantrum or breaks down in tears.
All of which clarifies why temperaments boiled over and CSNY didn’t last long, at least in the first flush of their calling. It’s a bumpy ride but immensely absorbing if you’re interested in the workings of this most mercurial collective and why they imploded as often as they did. Apart from the coda, Doggett’s book concludes with the quartet going their own way after the 1974 stadium tour which just happened to be the only time I caught them in action, at Denver’s Mile High Stadium on 25 July that year. In my Melody Maker report of that show I mentioned that Stephen Stills had been quoted as saying that the first time they went out on the road was for art, the second time for the girls and this, the third, for the dollars, but Graham Nash took exception to this. “We’re doing it for the music, man, because all of us know that none of us can make as good music together as we can apart,” he told me in no uncertain terms. He was probably right but so is Peter Doggett when he points out that CSNY have spent approximately two of the past 50 years as a functioning band and the other 48 fending off questions about why they are no longer together. That’s because they were never really a band in the first place.
* At least according to my former MM colleague Richard Williams who reviewed both books simultaneously in last weekend’s Guardian Book Review magazine.