Over the course of their five-decade bond, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young have joined together for a number of tours. Some, like Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1982 Daylight Again trek during David Crosby’s drug addiction, were nerve-wracking. Others, like the quartet’s 1974 reunion tour, were huge-scale and overwhelming. But CSNY’s 2006 Freedom of Speech tour – the foursome’s last road work to date – presented a new set of challenges.
That year, Neil Young released Living with War, an album of scathing songs about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and George W. Bush. Wanting to transmit his message to as many people as possible, Young reached back out to his erstwhile bandmates; a CSNY reunion automatically meant bigger venues and more attention. Kicking off that July, the Freedom of Speech tour was entirely Young’s vision. At his insistence, the set list would focus on their political, liberal and social-consciousness songs past and present, and Young recruited Mike Cerre, a Vietnam veteran who had become a news reporter and war correspondent, to film segments for a documentary Young was making on the tour and veterans. But how would audiences, especially in the red states, respond to songs like “Shock and Awe” and “Lookin’ for a Leader?” In this excerpt from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup(Da Capo/Hachette, out April 2), based on new research and interviews, RS senior writer David Browne details the unexpected bumps in the road that followed.
The alarming news hit while the band and crew were slogging from West Palm Beach to Atlanta. On August 10, British authorities announced they had foiled a potentially horrifying new attack: a plan to detonate liquid explosives on as many as ten flights from London to various cities in the United States, including New York and Chicago. Since the plot had called for smuggling the explosives in carry-on bags, security at US airports was ramped up. The Department of Homeland Security had raised the threat alert, and liquids and lotions of any kind over a certain amount would now have to be checked with luggage. Some American Airlines flights along the eastern seaboard were canceled. Talk radio exploded; here, those hosts argued, was proof that America was still at war, even nearly five years after September 11. The day felt almost like a repeat of September 12, 2001.
For the tour, Neil Young had a laser-focused plan about the songs they’d play and the way the band would communicate with the audience. He decreed that the set list would consist almost entirely of their political or social- awareness material. While the quartet had a number of songs that easily fit that bill—from “For What It’s Worth,” “Ohio” and Graham Nash’s “Southbound Train” up through recent material, including Stephen Stills’ “Wounded World,” David Crosby’s “They Want It All” and Nash’s “Milky Way Tonight”—it still took time for them to wrap their heads around that idea. (“‘Wind on the Water’—why not?” Nash would muse later. “Neil doesn’t like people singing with him. We love it.”) In the end, Young prevailed, as always. “When he has a head of steam like that, you have to go with it,” Nash says. “We said, ‘Okay, you’re the boss of this—we’re with you.’”
During the first electric set they would play four straight numbers from Living with War (“After the Garden,” “Living with War,” “The Restless Consumer” and “Shock and Awe”). In the second set, they would veer back to unplugged chestnuts that, while not antiwar, were songs the audience would want to hear (“Helplessly Hoping,” “Our House,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and others), lulling the crowd into a nostalgic haze before hitting them with “Let’s Impeach the President” toward the end of the show. Young put an end to the standard between-song patter of Crosby, Stills and Nash; he wanted the songs to speak for themselves and avoid any pontificating. The move would also be a protective measure: if the group went from one song right into another, it gave the more conservative members of the audience less time to react against what they’d just heard.
In light of how quickly the tour had been conceived and scheduled, it was inevitable that the routing—the city-to-city order of the shows—would be complicated. “It was almost like a Star of David tour, all over the place,” says Nash. “It was pretty brutal.” The trip from Florida to Georgia was expected to be one of the more manageable legs of the journey, but, with his eye on the news, and given his own broadcasting background, Cerre sensed that Atlanta could be volatile for them; Cumulus, a conservative-leaning radio conglomerate, was based in that city and owned several stations there. Three years before, the company had taken it upon itself to ban the Dixie Chicks from its stations after they had dissed Bush during a concert in London. Cerre told Young he wanted to leave Florida for Atlanta earlier than the band so he could visit conservative talk show hosts in town and ferret out the mood of the city. Young and others told him he was just being a “negative news guy,” and that they weren’t concerned.
But Cerre and his crew stuck with their plan. When they dropped by stations to interview talk-show hosts, such as Neal Boortz, they found, as they had predicted, that few were thrilled to have Crosby, Stills, Nash—and especially Young—in town. In their minds, who were these old liberals to tell them what to do now that the country was newly under siege?
Thanks to an hour-long delay and the extended crowd drinking that resulted from it, the thousands who gathered at the Philips Arena in Atlanta were already in a volatile mood by show time. The first signs of trouble came early, during “Families,” which was accompanied by footage of dead soldiers in coffins. At least a few in the hall were offended and screamed back at the band or left. “We knew there were bound to be people who weren’t going to like what we were saying,” says Nash, who, like the others, couldn’t always see or hear what was happening in the crowd that night. “If you buy a ticket to a CSNY show, what the fuck do you expect? Lovey-dovey shit all the way through?” The parade of hits that followed appeared to settle them down, even if the jostled audience members didn’t grasp that “Déjà vu” (which immediately followed “Families”) was now a commentary on the times rather than merely a favorite song from their second album.
But when the band started in on its first encore, “Let’s Impeach the President”—with its lyrics displayed on a large screen behind the band to encourage a sing-along—a small but loud contingent unleashed its anger. Some tossed water bottles at the stage, others flashed middle fingers, and at least one-tenth of the house began angrily streaming out. Those who opted to stay began yelling at the ones leaving. “We knew in Atlanta we’d piss off a shitload of people,” says Crosby. “We knew that would happen: ‘I wanna kill that sumbitch Neil Young! You can’t say that about a great American!’ Some funny shit.”
At that moment, though, it wasn’t very amusing. “Probably because of the previous two CSNY tours, it caught people off guard,” admits promoter Arthur Fogel. “It was a shock to the system.” To capture the disruptions, Cerre sent a crew to film people near the exits, the most well-lit areas of the arena. The cameramen bore the brunt of the rage as people pushed them against the wall; fortunately, one of Cerre’s soundmen was able to catch one of the cameras before it smashed to the ground.
When the main set ended soon thereafter, the group hurried backstage only to find Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts, screaming at him, “No fucking encore!” Young responded in kind, announcing they would be doing one; after all, he retorted, this was called the Freedom of Speech Tour for a reason. Young led the musicians back out for one more song—“Woodstock”—but the tension didn’t subside when the music ended and the lights went up. Instead of jumping onto tour buses, the musicians and Cerre were driven out of the venue and straight to a nearby airport in SUVs flanked by a motorcade of Georgia state troopers. Since the major airlines had shut down their flights as a result of the terrorist threat, a DC-10 was quickly chartered, and nearly two dozen musicians and crew members piled on for the flight out. “They were really shaken but also invigorated,” says Cerre. “It was like, ‘Yeah, that is what music is about, and I guess we got people’s attention.’ And at the end of the day, it could have gotten much worse. Nobody got hurt and it didn’t turn into a riot.”
For the first time on the tour, Young was rattled. He and the group were confronted with a startling new reality: that some portion of their fan base, solid counterculture types from the Vietnam era, no longer shared the group’s political leanings. In 1972, according to an American National Election Study, 51 percent of eligible-voter boomers identified themselves as Democrats, and 29 percent as Republicans. But in a similar poll that would be published in 2008, two years after the Freedom of Speech Tour, the number of Republican-leaning boomers would jump to 48 percent.
Especially after the Atlanta fiasco, the implications of this generational drift were immediately felt. In Young’s hotel room in Washington, DC, before the next show in Bristow, Virginia, security guards poked behind the curtains in search of unwanted intruders. Before they went onstage, the four men had a long-standing tradition of a band handshake, which replaced the shared joint of years before. That evening, at the Nissan Pavilion concert in Bristow, Young huddled with Crosby, Stills and Nash and instead told them how nervous he was. They slapped him on the back and did their best to comfort him. “We got your back,” Stills responded. For a moment, at last, Young no longer needed them just for musical or financial reasons; he needed them for emotional support.
That night, as bomb-sniffing dogs were ordered up for that and future shows, some booing again erupted during “Let’s Impeach the President.” But showing a fortitude that had escaped him during the Stills-Young Band tour of three decades before, Young gave no thought to canceling. “We thought, ‘Let’s just keep going,’” recalled Pegi Young, then married to Young. “If we stopped, would the terrorists win?” But another month of shows awaited them, and those in the touring party who weren’t accustomed to those responses made peace with the new normal. Fans in Missouri also walked out during “Let’s Impeach the President,” and the bomb detectors continued to try to protect them. “The first time I saw the bomb squads, I thought, ‘This is not good,’” says Chad Cromwell, the drummer on the tour. “I thought, ‘Is this going to be the gig where the bomb goes off? Is this how it will end?’ I was nervous, but after a few more gigs, it wasn’t that bad. Everyone settled into it.” The set list never changed, and “Let’s Impeach the President” remained the first encore.
At the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York, about two weeks after the Atlanta showdown, they were greeted with an unusual sight: Patti Smith, Donald Trump and Salman Rushdie all seated near each other in the first few rows. (Trump, who had been an admirer of Young’s music for years, had appeared backstage at several of his concerts: “He always came with an entourage and usually a lovely lady on his arm,” Pegi Young recalled. “When we were playing in Atlantic City, Neil was in his dressing room and I said, “Neil will be out in a few minutes.’ Trump didn’t seem to like that much very much.”)
Finally, on September 10, they played their final show of the tour, in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. Young made sure there would be no concert booked on September 11; even for him, that would be tempting fate—and audience reactions—too much. Other than his regular appearance at the Bridge School benefits in the fall and a few cameo spots with other artists, Young barely performed for the rest of the year. Nor would he take to the road again until the fall of 2007, a year after the last Freedom of Speech shows. He’d made his point; the trio had served its purpose.
From the forthcoming book Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup, by David Browne. Copyright 2019 by David Browne, courtesy of DaCapo Press, an imprint of Hachette Books.