Piecing Together Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's 'Human Highway' - Rolling Stone
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‘Human Highway’: Piecing Together the Great CSNY Album That Never Was

With the release of Neil Young’s Archives Vol. II, more clues have arrived about the group’s never-completed follow-up to Déjà Vu

UNSPECIFIED - JUNE 12:  Photo of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young  Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

We piece together a possible track list for 'Human Highway,' CSNY's elusive unfinished Seventies LP.

Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For those who still scan liner notes in the streaming era, one credit on Neil Young’s new Archives Vol. II box — “Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: Vocals” — will be both familiar and intriguing. The sight of those names on the collection, which dives into Young’s 1972–1976 work, is hardly a surprise; on and off, Young has worked with the other three men for more than 50 years. But these were the years when CSNY fitfully worked on one of classic rock’s mythic, never-completed albums, Human Highway. And with no advance notice, Archives Vol. II brings us one step closer to piecing together what amounts to the Smile of the Seventies L.A. rock.

During the first half of the Seventies, few albums were as impatiently anticipated as a follow-up to CSNY’s 1970 LP Déjà Vu. With its songs about the Woodstock festival, inner turmoil, and discombobulation — even the refusal to cut one’s hair as a symbolic act of rebellion — Déjà Vu tapped into the zeitgeist as much as Woodstock itself had. Unfortunately, the group splintered within months of its release, shifting to solo and duo albums and watching as bands like America and the Eagles took their place in the West Coast rock pantheon. (Many of America’s songs were little, less-unruly brothers to CSNY songs.)

At least three times, CSNY attempted to complete the album provisionally titled Human Highway after the folksy Young song of the same name, which lent itself exquisitely well to four-part harmonies. Work on the project began in the middle of 1973, collapsed soon after, then picked up somewhat while the group rehearsed for its mammoth stadium-heavy reunion tour the following year. Studio sessions then resumed at the very end of 1974 but crashed after only a few days.

Thanks to a combination of intra-band friction, various substances, and lingering exhaustion from months on the road together, few completed tracks emerged from any of those rendezvous. In 1976, Young and Stephen Stills finally decided to make an album together, eventually inviting Graham Nash and David Crosby to join them in Florida to add their vocals onto finished tracks. But once again, things came crashing down; the album (Long May You Run) reverted to a Stills-Young Band project and Crosby and Nash’s vocals were allegedly erased, infuriating them in the process. Despite having the potential to bolster their legacy, Human Highway effectively hit a dead end.

Throughout the rest of the Seventies, the ghost of Human Highway lingered as each man re-recorded and released some of its songs on his own. Nash’s pot-bust saga “Prison Song” and “And So It Goes” (whose chord changes were reminiscent of Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand”) ended up on his Wild Tales solo record in 1973, after the first attempt at a group album floundered. Stills’ “First Things First,” “My Angel,” and “My Favorite Changes,” all played on that ’74 CSNY tour, were recut for Stills the following year. Crosby and Nash took Crosby’s “Homeward Through the Haze” and “Carry Me” and Nash’s whale tale “Wind on the Water” with them for their Wind on the Water. Young recut “Human Highway” for 1978’s Comes a Time.

Human Highway was therefore never to be — or was it? Over the decades, dribs and drabs from those sessions have trickled out on individual records and compilations. The first remnants actually began surfacing when Human Highway was still within the realm of possibility, before everyone threw up their hands and walked away. Young concluded Zuma, his 1975 reunion with a reinvigorated Crazy Horse, with “Through My Sails.” A frail hippie lullaby about leaving it all behind, by boat or otherwise, the song featured CSN harmonies floating behind Young, vocals that conjured some sort of imaginary heaven. Although its back story was mysterious at the time, it turned out that the song had been cut at Young’s ranch the year before. (A solo Young take on Archives Vol. II cries out for those harmonies.)

Although it didn’t say as much in its credits, Young’s 1977 compilation Decade slipped in a version of the Stills-Young Band version of “Long May You Run” with the supposedly eradicated Crosby and Nash harmonies. (For an added dose of confusion, the CD of Decade included the non-C&N take.) Young also planned to include “Pushed It Over the End,” the rickety, hills-and-valleys waltz inspired by the life of Patty Hearst that he played onstage with CSNY in 1974. Crosby and Nash added new vocals to the live take, but at the last minute, the song was dropped from Decade, though it did surface later as the B side to an Italian single.

That accounted for three songs that could have made Human Highway, and bootlegs aside, that’s where the hypothetical track list remained for years. Then, in 1991, CSN’s box set CSN unearthed three added leftovers. A more rhythmic 1973 version of Stills’ “See the Changes” (recut for CSN’s 1977 reunion album) appeared in quartet form, and the CSNY attempt at Crosby’s elegantly weary “Homeward Through the Haze” became the sole vestige (to date) from the group’s aborted December 1974 sessions in and around San Francisco. Nash’s “Taken at All,” which alluded to the fractured state of the band by 1976, was heard in an unplugged version from Miami that year. That brought the number of Human Highway leftovers up to seven, unless one includes the long-bootlegged “Little Blind Fish,” a boozy blues vamp cut during the 1974 tour rehearsals that remains the only song all four wrote together (and traded verses on). It bobbed around on YouTube for years, but is sadly now gone.

Again, that seemed to be the end of the Human Highway trickle, at least in terms of authorized releases. But just when it appeared as if those Crosby and Nash join-ins from the Miami 1976 sessions were gone for good, out came another: Stills’ career-overview box set, Carry On, from 2013, unexpectedly included the Stills-Young track “Black Coral” but again with Crosby and Nash aboard. Their harmonies supplanted Young’s and added a new layer of warmth to the song. The CSNY 1974 collection of live recordings from that tour — way belatedly released in 2014 — presented concert versions of songs that could easily have wound up on Human Highway: Crosby’s “Carry Me” and “Time After Time,” which the quartet attempted in the studio in 1974 and never finished; Stills’ percussive “First Things First” and his Latin shuffle “My Angel”; Young’s “Pushed It Over the End,” “Traces,” and his shaggy ode to his dog, “Love/Art Blues.” (A filmed but never released Wembley 1974 show also includes Nash’s “It’s All Right,” a sort of more adult “Our House” that could have been a contender for the album as well.)

Now, 47 long years after Human Highway was first attempted, Archives Vol. II unleashes the biggest batch of material yet from the never-completed LP. As some in the CSNY world have surmised for years, it turns out that even more of those “erased” Crosby and Nash parts from 1976 were never actually zapped for good. Their contributions to Young’s “Midnight on the Bay” and “Ocean Girl” make the songs, which conjure lazy beach days to begin with, sound even more yacht-poppy. Archives Vol. II also includes two different takes — one from 1973 and one from three years later, in Miami — of “Human Highway.” Neither is radically different from the other, but they do present CSNY in their most bare-boned voices-and-guitars format, with Stills playing a tasteful acoustic slide on the later take.

Additionally, Archives Vol. II excavates two outtakes from the Stills-Young Band sessions without Crosby and Nash, although it’s easy to imagine the pair eventually singing on them. Young’s acoustic “Separate Ways” from 1974 (part of the recently unearthed Homegrown and also heard on this Archives) sounds forlorn and subdued. But in the alternate take with Stills’ band two years later, it sounds volcanic and dramatic, more frustrated than resigned, Young’s guitar ripping into the song like an electric can opener. A Stills-Young version of “Traces,” a sweet song about romantic rebirth, suffers from a Young double-tracked vocal that sounds strangely neutered (the version with the worked-over CSNY harmonies on CSNY 1974 is better). The idea that Young pulled “Traces” and “Separate Ways” from Long May You Run but stuck with the goofy country shuffle “Let It Shine,” an obvious throwaway, further bolsters the case that he rarely gave CSNY his best songs. (Lest we forget, “Helpless” was initially intended for Crazy Horse, who couldn’t quite nail a version that satisfied Young.)

Thanks to those Archives Vol. II additions to the Human Highway saga, we now have at least an entire album’s worth of tracks from the record that never was. Crosby once told journalist Dave Zimmer that the record “would have been the best one, man.” It’s hard to tell from these largely unfinished or incomplete versions, and as far as anyone knows, the four never got as far as a confirmed track sequence. And, to be honest, Young’s version of “Human Highway” and the Crosby-Nash remake of “Homeward Through the Haze” are both finely crafted recordings that top the CSNY versions, at least sonically.

But it’s abundantly clear from the remnants of Human Highway that it would have been a far different album from Déjà Vu, though perhaps an equally satisfying one. The bristling energy and vigor of men in their twenties would have been replaced with the sound of thirtysomethings who had been through the wringer, personally and professionally. Stills grappled with maturity and mistakes in “See the Changes” (“It ain’t easy rearranging/And it gets harder as you get older”), Crosby with disillusionment in “Homeward Through the Haze” (which addresses L.A. ennui) as well as the death of his mother in “Carry Me.” Young expressed his own discontent in “Human Highway” (“Take my head and change my mind/How could people get so unkind?”).

Each were worthy of the band, as were “Through My Sails” and Nash’s “Taken at All” and “Prison Song”; the latter would have also resuscitated their diminished roles as voices of the counterculture. Like most of their generation, CSNY were emerging from the various highs of the Sixties and confronting the buzzkill of the Seventies, and Human Highway could have spoken to that comedown in compelling ways — and to fans who read their own lives into each man’s personalities and struggles. Decades on, it remains a shame that Human Highway became a road less traveled, for band and audience alike.

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