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Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Enchant London Audience in 1970

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After opening with "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," the seven-minute Stills homage to former girlfriend Judy Collins that had become one of their signature songs, their utter self-confidence kicked in. As McCartney looked on, they sang one of his own songs, "Blackbird," from the White Album. They’d tackled it before, including at Woodstock the previous summer, but tonight it was a declaration of their eminence: It practically declared that they were picking up where the Beatles had left off.  (To their credit, they sang it lovingly, with Stills holding a long, raspy note in the "dark black night" line that made the song their own.) The rest of the show broke with tradition in numerous ways. For the first, acoustic half, the four sang some songs as a quartet, others separately, others with a combination of the four. Like their garb, the songs mirrored their diverse personalities and lifestyles. Crosby’s "Triad" openly coaxed a girl into having a ménage à trois; Nash introduced "Our House," about the cozy, music-and-lovemaking existence he had back home in Laurel Canyon with his girlfriend Joni Mitchell. (He also told the crowd it was from a new album they’d just completed, to be called Déjà vu.) Young’s "The Loner" seemed to be as much about himself—the way he worked on his own schedule, at his own pace, on his terms—as about the song’s borderline-stalker character.

Halfway through the set, a curtain behind them parted, revealing a bowl-haired drummer, Dallas Taylor, and a very young-looking black bass player, Greg Reeves. Thus began the electric second half of the show, which shed additional light on their personalities. Stills was particularly competitive and driven, no more so than during Young’s tightly wound shuffle, "Down by the River," during which the two men jabbed at each other with their lead guitars over the course of  fifteen minutes. Like the group itself, the performance was both rehearsed and ragged, teetering on the brink of chaos. Just as the tangle of guitars and rhythm section was on the verge of collapse, Nash, ensconced behind an organ and waiting patiently for his moment, shouted, "All together now!" signaling a return to the song’s chorus—and, at last, an end to the show.

Throughout the night, they remained anxious, and it showed: They exchanged in-jokes with each other and indulged in lengthy tune-ups between songs. Yet few seemed to mind. The Royal Albert Hall crowd laughed adoringly at their jokes and applauded every lapse, from the not-always-precise harmonies to the sight of the four professionals trying to decide what song to do next. (Set lists! So rigid!) They could seemingly do no wrong. Atlantic had already taken in $2 million in  preorders for Déjà vu. At a company sales conference in Palm Springs, California, in January, label executives touted the album as one of its biggest potential earners of the year. CSNY would embody both the decade past and the decade to come: no rules, no restrictions, just as "free and easy" as "Wooden Ships" declared.

Back at the Dorchester, Ron Stone, a bearded native New Yorker who worked for CSNY band managers Elliot Roberts and David Geffen, noticed something odd. Reeves had sprinkled something outside the door of his room. When asked, he said it was witchcraft powder to ward off evil spirits. Hmmmm, Stone thought. What was that about? Reeves’ behavior had begun to raise eyebrows, yet no one could tell if it had to do with this heretofore-unknown aspect of his personality or the quantity of drugs everyone was now consuming.

For the time being, no one gave Reeves’ eccentricities much more thought. Introducing the bass player to the Royal Albert Hall audience a few hours before, Crosby had blissfully declared, "God smiled and sent us Greg Reeves." Amidst the intoxicating applause, plaudits from their industry, and backstage temptations, it was hard to believe God would stop beaming their way anytime soon.

Excerpted from
Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Bittersweet Story of 1970. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2011.

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Song Stories

“Madame George”

Van Morrison | 1968

One of the first stream-of-consciousness epics to make it onto a Van Morrison record, his drawn-out farewell to the eccentric "Madame George" lasted nearly 10 minutes, combining ingredients from folk, jazz and classical music. The character that gave the song its title provoked speculation that it was about a drag queen, though Morrison denied this in Rolling Stone. "If you see it as a male or a female or whatever, it's your trip," he remarked. "I see it as a ... a Swiss cheese sandwich. Something like that."

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