Crosby, Stills & Nash - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Whether as an aggregate of four, three, two or solo by themselves, the grouping of David Crosby, Steven Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young are arguably one of the most celebrated, venerated and influential groups to have emerged from the youth explosion of the late 1960's, often called the “Woodstock Nation”, and continue to be a vital force in music right up to the present day.
What would become CSN&Y was formed out of the ashes of some of the best and most commercially successful bands of the mid-60's. David Crosby, born August 14th, 1941, was the son of a famous Hollywood cinematographer and had grown up in California, attending a series of boarding schools and studying drama. His real love, though, was music, and, after attending a little college, he wound up in New York City in the early 60's as part of that city's folk scene. After meeting Jim McGuinn, (later Roger McGuinn), and Gene Clark, he moved back to the West Coast and formed The Byrds with them and bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke in 1964. The band scored a big early hit with their version of Bob Dylan's “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and were one of the biggest bands around in the mid to late 60's, having a string of hit singles and albums. Crosby wrote songs and contributed guitar and vocals to The Byrds through 1967, when tensions between him and the other band members came to a head and he was dismissed from the band. Stephan Stills, born January 3rd, 1945, in Dallas, Texas, and spent his youth in a military family that moved from Texas to Florida to Costa Rica to the Panama Canal Zone. Stills, too, attended college for a short time before he decided to pursue a career in music, and also ended up in New York City, playing with a group called the Au Go-Go Singers with future Buffalo Springfield member Richie Furay. While in Canada with a side band called The Company, he played with a band called the Squires, and struck up a friendship with their singer/guitarist Neil Young. They talked about working together, but lost touch until they happened to bump into each other in 1967 on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Neil Young was born November 12, 1945, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and moved to Winnipeg when he was a boy once his parents were divorced. There he played in a series of garage bands, but also played in local folk clubs and coffeehouses on the side. He moved back to Toronto in the mid-60's, and formed the band the Mynah Birds with future Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer and Rick James, but after that band folded, moved to Los Angeles in his Pontiac hearse with Palmer along as support. Once Young and Palmer crossed paths with Stills and Furay, they formed the Buffalo Springfield, along with ex-Dillards drummer Dewey Martin. Buffalo Springfield, along with the Byrds, were one of the most influential folk-rock bands of their era, though they were only together for just over two years. By 1968, the Springfield had imploded, due in large part to Stills and Young's clashing egos. Graham Nash was born February 2nd, 1942 in Blackpool, England, and grew up in Manchester, where he met classmate Allan Clarke, and formed a series of skiffle and early rock bands with him that eventually became the Hollies in 1963. The Hollies scored a series of British hits in the early and mid 60's, and eventually scored an American hit with “Look Through Any Window” in 1966. Nash was very influenced by the emerging psychedelic scene, and wanted to expand the scope of his songwriting, but encountered resistance from the other members of the Hollies. Though he had met Crosby previously in 1966 when the Byrds had toured the U.K., while on tour in the U.S. in 1968, he met up again with him and Stephen Stills, who, having left their previous bands, were working on some new material together.
Though there are several stories as to how Crosby, Stills and Nash first got together, it's generally agreed that the genesis of the band came together at a party that the three were attending at Cass Elliot's house in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles in February of 1969. Nash reportedly asked Stills and Crosby to perform a new song they were working on called “You Don't Have To Cry”. When Nash improvised a third harmony vocal part over the other two, they all realized they had something special, and soon Nash informed the rest of the Hollies that he was joining together with Stills and Crosby to form a new band. Soon the trio were writing new material, and after being turned down for a record deal by the Beatles' Apple Records, were signed to Atlantic Records by co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, who had been a big supporter of Stills when he was in the Buffalo Springfield. The band decided to use their surnames as the band name, that way leaving the door open to any of them doing side projects without breaking up the band. After gaining the management team of Eliot Roberts and David Geffen and wrangling their way out of contractual obligations from their previous bands, the trio quickly set about recording their debut album.
Their album, simply titled Crosby, Stills, & Nash (Atlantic), was released in the spring of 1969 and became a hit almost immediately. With two Top 40 singles, “Marrakesh Express” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, and album tracks that would be considered classics for years to come, the album was an almost perfect blending of all three members strengths as songwriters, singers and players. Stills handled the lion's share of most of the instrumentation on the album, helped out by Dallas Taylor on drums. Because of the success of the album, they soon realized they would have to perform the material live, so with Taylor on board on drums, they initially looked for a keyboard player. After asking Steve Winwood to join, ( he declined because he had just formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker), CSN's manager Roberts suggested they consider Neil Young, another one of his clients. By this time Young had released two solo albums, and insisted that if he were to join he would be free to pursue his solo career on the side. Though there was some initial trepidation on the part of Stills owing to his rocky history with Young in the Buffalo Springfield, Young was soon brought in to the line-up along with bassist Greg Reeves. The newly christened Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young toured through the rest of 1969, making a memorable appearance at the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York, (only their second performance together). Once back in California after touring, the new six-piece group recorded their classic 1970 album Deja Vu (Atlantic), which quickly became a #1 album and spawned three Top 40 singles, “Woodstock”, “Our House” and “Teach Your Children”. Soon after the album was released, the Kent State Massacre occurred at Kent State University in Ohio, where four student protesters were killed by National Guard troops. On hearing of the shooting, Young, who was staying at a house near San Francisco with Crosby, quickly wrote the anti-war anthem “Ohio”, and convened the band to record and release the song as a single. The song became a Top 20 hit in June of 1970, and virtually sealed Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's position as spokespersons for their generation. The group toured the nation in the summer of 1970, but tensions in the band were starting to rise, and afterwards the members returned to their solo careers. ( A live double album documenting the 1970 tour, Four Way Street (Atlantic), was released in 1971).
The members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young spent the better parts of 1970 and 1971 working on solo albums, Young's After The Gold Rush (Reprise)(1970), Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name (Atlantic)(1971), Nash's Songs For Beginners (Atlantic)(1971) and Stills' Stephen Stills (Atlantic)(1970) and Stephen Stills 2 (Atlantic)(1971). All of the albums made it into the Top 20 album charts, and showed that both together and apart, all were talented songwriters and musicians and all were commercially successful as well. From there, Young continued on with his solo career, scoring a major hit in 1972 with his album Harvest (Reprise) and his #1 single “Heart Of Gold”. Nash and Crosby joined together for a tour and a duo album together, Graham Nash David Crosby (Atlantic)(1972), and continued to work together off and on as a duo through the 70's, releasing two more albums, Wind On The Water (ABC)(1975) and Whistling Down The Wire (ABC)(1976). Crosby also got together the original members of his old band the Byrds for a reunion album that was panned by critics and only sold moderately well. Stills formed the band Manassas with former Byrd Chris Hillman, and while their first album together was successful, their second one was viewed as a disappointment. Young tried to reconvene the 4-piece of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to record a new album tentatively titled Human Highway in 1973, but disagreements among the four, most likely helped along by their escalating drug use, sunk the project quickly.
With all of their solo efforts not reaching the heights of their work together, their management suggested they put aside their differences and tour together. With a backing band of drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Tim Drummond and percussionist Joe Lala, the four set out on tour in 1974, covering their material together as well as solo material. Atlantic issued the compilation album So Far to help promote the tour, which compiled material from their two albums together with “Ohio” and “Find The Cost Of Freedom”, the two songs featured on the “Ohio” single. As the tour went on, however, it was clear that many of the problems the members had with each other were still present, and though the plan was to record an album together at the conclusion of the tour, those plans were scrapped when it was clear the members couldn't get past their internal bickering. Crosby and Nash returned to their duo format and recorded two albums and toured over the course of the next couple of years. Young returned to his solo career and produced the darkly classic albums On The Beach (1974), Tonight's The Night (1975), and Zuma (1975)(all Reprise), but Young also teamed up again with Stills for the 1976 album and tour to promote Long May You Run (Reprise) by “The Stills-Young Band”. Originally, the album started life as another attempt at a CSN& Y album, and Nash and Crosby had laid down vocal parts on the album, but when they were called back to Los Angeles to finish work on their duo album, Stills and Young wiped their vocal parts off of the master and decided to complete the album themselves. Nash and Crosby were reportedly livid, and it would be another eight years before the four would work together again. Even though they completed Long May You Run and started to tour together, tensions between Stills and Young were still high, Young being angry that Stills band backed them up rather than Young's backing band Crazy Horse. After a July show on the tour, Young's bus went the other direction from Stills, and when Stills arrived at the next gig, he received a telegram from Young saying:”Dear Stephen, funny how things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neal.” Stills completed the tour by himself, but Young's actions definitely drove a wedge between the old friends.
Though there had been many stops and false starts, the trio of Crosby, Stills and Nash managed to reconcile and get back together in 1977 to record the album CSN (Atlantic), and scored a hit with Nash's composition “Just A Song Before I Go”, which reached as high as #7 on the pop charts. The album featured some of the best songwriting the three had produced in some time, and featured smooth production favored at the time by many artists working on the West Coast, ( in direct reaction to the rising punk and new wave sounds that were gaining traction). Young continued with his solo career, producing the Rust Never Sleeps album and tour, his own reaction to the rise of punk and new wave. It would be five years before Crosby, Stills and Nash would record again, in between time both Nash and Stills recording solo albums, and during this period of time both Stills and Crosby struggled with escalating drug abuse problems. The trio's album Daylight Again (Atlantic)(1982), started out as a project of Stills and Nash, as Crosby was too caught up in his addiction to cocaine to be of much use. However, the trio's record company refused to release the record without Crosby's involvement, and so towards the end of the recording project Crosby was brought in to record his vocal tracks and even ended up contributing two songs. The album, surprisingly considering it's troubled beginnings, was a hit, and produced two Top 20 singles, “Wasted On The Way”, and “Southern Cross”. The band toured in support of the record, but had to suspend the tour when Crosby was arrested and jailed in 1982 in Texas on weapon and drug charges. The trio had recorded a couple of songs after the sessions for Daylight Again, so those were added to live tracks from the tour and released as the album Allies (Atlantic)(1983). The album was an attempt to keep the trio's name in the spotlight, but it failed to sell well. Crosby was sentenced on his charges, but his conviction was overturned, then he was arrested several more times, and, finally facing his drug and legal problems, he turned himself in to authorities at the end of 1985 to serve eight months in prison. Young had promised Crosby that if he cleaned himself up, Young would rejoin the other three in the studio to produce another album, and in 1988 he made good on that promise when CSN&Y released their American Dream album. All the members of the band had been struggling both commercially and artistically throughout the 80's, and, though they pooled their talents, the album failed to do well with either the critics or the public. Because of the poor showing, Young refused to tour to support the album.
Crosby, Stills and Nash entered the 90's seen as something as a relic of the 60's, though they did manage to record two more records together, Live It Up (Atlantic)(1990), and After The Storm (Atlantic)(1994). Neither album made much of an impression on either critics or the public. Young, however, managed to rehabilitate himself critically, releasing such albums as Ragged Glory (Reprise)(1990), Harvest Moon (Reprise)(1992), and Sleeps With Angels (Reprise)(1994). Though their record company Atlantic released a well-received 4-CD box set collection of both well-known and obscure material in 1991, after After The Storm failed to dent the charts, the band was released from their contract. By 1999, without a recording contract but with their drug problems behind them, the trio of Crosby, Stills and Nash decided to produce and finance their own record, and asked Young if he would like to guest on the record. Young was impressed with the trio's newfound work ethic, and suggested they turn the project into another CSN&Y album. The resulting release, 1999's Looking Forward, was released on Young's label, Reprise. Though it wasn't quite the return to form many of their fans had hoped for, it was still better than anything the trio of CS&N had produced in quite some time, and Young agreed to tour with the other three for their CSNY2K tour in 2000, and then again in 2002. Both tours were huge successes and helped revitalize the image of the group in the minds of the public.
Since the 2000's, all of the members of CSN&Y have been busy with solo projects, but found another chance to work together after Young released his 2006 protest album against the Iraq War Living With War (Reprise). The members of CSN&Y decided, what better time to reclaim their status as one of the 60's generation's standard bearers than to go out on a tour to show their opposition to the Iraq War and perform not only songs off of Young's album, but also highlight songs from their solo projects and their long history together. Their 'Freedom Of Speech' tour in 2006-2007 was a huge success and reaffirmed their place among the brightest musical lights of the so-called “Woodstock Generation.” A live album documenting the tour, Deja Vu Live (Reprise), along with a Neil Young directed documentary film of the same name, was released in 2008. Though they were seen, at times, as being either unfashionable or unreliable, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young have been discovered and rediscovered by new generations of music lovers as songwriters who spoke from their hearts, whether the issues were personal politics or the politics of the nation or the world at large.