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Track by Track: Crosby, Stills & Nash on Their Self-Titled Debut

August 18, 2008 1:24 PM ET

Rolling Stone recently sat down with Crosby, Stills & Nash to go track by track through their landmark 1969 debut album. Recorded before Neil Young joined their ranks, it contains many of their most enduring songs. "We were in love with each other at the time we recorded that album," Graham Nash says. "We were new friends discovering new parts about each other and we had songs. And we had the ability to translate those songs into records that was astounding and we knew it. When we walked out of the studio with that two-track under our arm, we knew what it was going to do. We knew that it was going to be a hit. We knew that we had nailed something that wasn't really that popular kind of then. It was all Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and stuff and here comes this little acoustic record." Here's the story behind seven songs from Crosby, Stills & Nash:

"Guinnevere"
David Crosby: "That is a very unusual song, it's in a very strange tuning with strange time signatures. It's about three women that I loved. One of whom was Christine Hinton, the girl who got killed who was my girlfriend, and one of whom was Joni Mitchell and the other one is somebody that I can't tell. It might be my best song."
Graham Nash: "Crosby sent me a tape of 'Guinnevere' in 1968 and it was one of the things that [made me] really realize that this man was a profound thinker and a great musician. I still have people coming up to me saying, you know, 'I broke my hand trying to play "Guinnevere." ' Until David reminds 'em that it's in a tuning. 'Guinnevere' and 'Déjà Vu' were on the same tape and it was then that I realized that Crosby was something special. And we've had a great time singing that song 'cause we never do it the same way twice."

"Long Time Gone"
Crosby: "I wrote that right after they assassinated Bobby Kennedy. It was a result of losing him, of losing John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I started to feel overwhelmed. It seemed as if it was ballot by bullet. It seemed as if it didn't matter how good a person we could find to put up as an inspiration and a leader for the good, that somehow the other side would triumph by simply gunning them down."
Nash: "The art of being a songwriter is to take an incident that happens to you personally and be able to translate that into something that everybody that listens to the songs can understand."

"Wooden Ships"
Crosby: "That was written by Paul Kanter and Stephen Stills and myself on my boat in Florida. It's one of my most favorite Crosby, Stills & Nash songs. I really love what it says, I really love how unusual it is and I really love the harmonies. It's definitely a science fiction song, no question."
Nash: "I immediately revert back to what's happening today. Personally I think that Stephen's solo in 'Wooden Ships' gets better every time I hear it. And he played one in Wolf Trap in Virginia the night before last that had me shaking my head it was so beautiful."

"Marrakesh Express"
Nash: "In 1966 I was visiting Morocco on vacation to Marrakesh and getting on a train and having a first-class ticket and then realizing that the first-class compartment was completely fucking boring, you know, ladies with blue hair in there — it wasn't my scene at all. So I decide I'm going to go and see what the rest of the train is like. And the rest of the train was fascinating. Just like the song says, there were ducks and pigs and chickens all over the place and people lighting fires. It's literally the song as it is — what happened to me."

"Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"
Stephen Stills: "It was the beginnings of three different songs that suddenly fell together as one. Actually on the demo the middle part is not exactly how they would play. Half of it is it just falls off in its own — but we actually split it in half, and they got started singing and boom, there it went. Once it all was there then we just kept adding parts. When I wrote it I used cardboard shirt-blocking, you know those things from the cleaner's — 'cause they were harder to lose than pieces of paper and they didn't crumple up. I could line them up on music stands and they'd stand up."
Nash: "Probably one of my favorite Crosby, Stills & Nash songs. It's very easy for me to play 'cause I don't. Stephen's the only one that plays on the 'Suite.' "

"Helplessly Hoping"
Nash: "We wrote that with a lot of alliteration. The first time we recorded it was here in New York City at the Record Plant in December 1968. Paul Rothchild was helping us with the record. We did two songs: 'You Don't Have to Cry' and 'Helplessly Hoping.' "
Crosby: "I loved it as a song and I loved what happened with it. We got very lucky, very fortunate with the harmonies on that one. They came out extremely well. We still play it every night."

"You Don't Have To Cry"
Nash: "That was first song we ever sang together. It was in Joni Mitchell's living room."
Stills: "No, it was at Cass Elliot's dining room table. In the corner in a stucco room, near the kitchen and the pool."
Crosby: "Nope, sorry."
Stills: "I would've never song for the first time with you guys in front of Joni Mitchell. [Laughs] Well, she was too intimidating."
Crosby: "You did."
Stills: "I did not."
Crosby: "You did."
Stills: "The second time ..."
Crosby: "You did."
Stills: "The second time ..."
Crosby: "The very first time."
Stills: "I'm never giving this up ever 'cause I can smell it, I can remember."
Crosby: "I don't care."
Nash: "You don't have to."
Crosby: "You can welcome to it, man, you're wrong. But it's okay, we love you anyway."
Stills: "Yeah, well then quit with a smug look, 'cause you're wrong."
Crosby: "No, I'm not."
Stills: "We've been fighting about this for 40 years — actually since our last tour especially."

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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