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Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Taylor & Reeves

A look behind the scenes of the star-studded supergroup

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash circa 1970.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Behind them, a crew is setting up the curtains that’ll hide their electric gear until their acoustic “wooden music” is finished. The curtains are black; there’ll be no light show behind Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. It’s Thursday, 5 PM, rehearsal time at the Winterland Auditorium in San Francisco. Four hours before showtime, a guard is already stationed at the old Ice Capades auditorium’s doors, brusquely challenging all visitors. Outside, in brisk autumn weather, a line has already begun, a sidewalk full of hair and rimless glasses and leather and boutique colors. These people know Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young won’t go on until 11:30, maybe midnight. No matter. They’ll grab good places, on the hardwood floor at the foot of the stage. And they’ll wait.

Dallas Taylor, the drummer, is moving along the foot of the stage now, out of view from Steve Stills, who’s on the stage testing out the piano. Dallas is edging toward Steve, a mischievous smile splitting his wide face. It’s time for games. Suddenly Dallas springs, with a shout, up behind Stills, his right hand now a pistol, and kills him. Stills stiffens, falls off his seat, and plunges straight into David Crosby and his guitar, causing a crashing cacophony.

Across the floor, in the first row, Graham Nash is stirred alert by the noise. He’s trying to put together the order of tunes they’ll do that night. Seeing what’s just happened, he calls out to Dallas, who’s scampered off to stage center by now: “Hey, man — not around axes, man! Not when you’re near an axe!” Dallas, the big little boy, nods, but he knows that any minute now, Stills will have to come back and kill him.

More puttering around the stage, and suddenly it happens. Stills pantomimes the biting of the ring off a hand grenade, waits three seconds, and stuffs it into Dallas’ mouth. Taylor dies beautifully, jumping out of his skin a second later, at the “explosion,” then falling six feet down off the stage, tumbling, landing on his back.

Graham Nash looks up again. No guitars in the way this time. He smiles, shakes his thin, rectangular head, and goes back to work on his list.

[WE DIDN’T HAVE A BAND]

Crosby, Stills and Nash coasted up the charts effortlessly this summer behind Blind Faith and Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Then their single, “Marrakesh Express,” hit the top 20, then “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” then Crosby Stills and. Nash urged up again, past Blind Faith and the others.

And here’s Graham Nash, sitting atop a softly vibrating bed in Steve Stills’ motel room in San Francisco. “We didn’t have a band just the three of us,” he. is saying. Crosby Stills and Nash as Crosby and Nash and Stills, and Stills on organ, and Stills on bass, and Stills on lead guitar and overdubs of additional guitar tracks.

“We could sing the LP,” Nash said, “but we couldn’t play it.” For their concerts, he said, “we knew we’d have to represent the sound we had on the album. Now we have a whole, different band.”

Dallas Taylor, with the trio from the beginning — which was a year ago — has been joined in the background by Greg Reeves, a quiet, 19-year-old bassist right out of Motown’s studios. And in the foreground — for most intents and purposes — is Neil Young.

Neil Young, composer, guitarist, singer with Buffalo Springfield, has written a couple of tunes for the next album — “Country Girl” and “Helpless,” the latter including a chorus featuring the high, soaring harmonic blend of Crosby, Stills, and Nash — the blend that is perhaps the prime attraction of the group.

But mostly Neil Young is a luxury, a utility man as well as yet another creative force. In the studios, where Stills reigns but shares the reins with opinionated co-producers Nash and Crosby, Young is a solid fourth corner.” We may shape the album,” Stills says, “but Neil’ll come along and give us that extra thing.”

Nash choruses: “He gives us that bit of direction we may need to resolve a question. He’s good at making records.”

Young was brought in, says Stills, because “we wanted another life force. I always wanted another rhythm section. But instead of a keyboard man, we thought why not a guy who could do other things — write songs, play guitar, be a brother and stuff.”

[THRILL ME TO THE MARROW]

Here come the life forces into their dressing room at the Winterland Auditorium. It’s 1:30 A.M. Sunday now, and they’ve finished their third of four nights. Dimly lit in red, the room is small, attic-like, but serves as an adequate shelter. Right now Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — and Taylor and Reeves — want some quiet. David’s voice is out, and he’s slumped into an old couch, his doctor standing over him.

David had had a sore throat since midweek and that day — Saturday — had wrecked it at the Moratorium rally in Golden Gate Park (“He got carried away a bit,” Nash had explained that evening backstage. “After the first thing he yelled he realized he’d gotten carried away.”). By the time he’d reached the stage at the Winterland, with each of the 5000 onlookers able to shout louder than him, he knew he’d paid the price. He could talk best by nodding, smiling and crinkling his ‘stache up and down. At the mike, Graham explained David’s ailment, and the crowd cheered at their disabled compatriot.

Steve, seated with an acoustic guitar on his lap, facing David, went into “Suite,” and the audience, just itching for the group to justify the adulation they’d already poured onto them, whooped it up. Slowly, surely they galloped through the number, until the verse beginning, “Chestnut brown canary, ruby-throated sparrow.” And when David reached the high note (…”thrill me to the MARrow“), he couldn’t make it, and the crowd applauded, anyway, while he grinned sheepishly and held his throat.

From that point on — what, five minutes into the set — Crosby was pretty much out of it, and the program had to be overhauled. David’s usual solo,” Guinevere,” was dropped, along with a couple of duets with Graham, and Neil stepped in to sing a medley of Buffalo Springfield tunes, on acoustic guitar, with Stills. Later, during the electric half of the set, David came back to spend the remains of his voice on a hoarse facsimile of “Wooden Ships” and Steve substituted for him on “Long Time Gone,” a song clearly Crosby’s.

The audience, like the ones in New York and Los Angeles and Big Sur, cheered everything they did, of course, but Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young knew better. The night before, they had done their now-standard encore number — a brief, softly-sung un-titled Stills composition about freedom, once submitted to Easy Rider — and gone off’ around the rim of the old ice capades rink and settled into their dressing room and lit up a snack, and those 5000 freaks on the other side of the curtains were still stomping on the floor, in their seats high in the distant balconies, screaming for MORE! MORE!

Now, tonight, it was pretty quiet by the time they’d reached the room, and Steve Stills is looking up. “Hey, you should have been here last night,” he says, clear eyes dancing. “Tonight was OK, but it was nothing. You know, we were bored out there.” And you know he’s being straight. They were bored. “Down By the River,” the Neil Young composition used as the set-closer, seemed interminable, with Stills and Young trading lead guitar runs and strums as laconically as two men lobbing a medicine ball back and forth. Graham Nash, he of the high, silken voice, sang out a trade-off riff of his own and knocked Neil out for a second, but that was a second out of 30 minutes. Still, the audience went crazy. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, at this point, can do no wrong.

[EVERYBODY IS CONTROVERSIAL]

It could be the flawless harmony — tight as the Everly Brothers; soft as Simon and Garfunkel; melodic as the best of the Springfield. It could be reports, words-of-mouth about the mini-Woodstocks they’d created wherever they performed, sending out those effortless good vibes and coming off like “gentle free spirits.” It could well be a mass appreciation of their aversion to the kind of hype that flooded Blind Faith, making them an instantly high-priced, out-of-reach act.

Neil Young speaks: “See, the thing is, everybody — especially David — is a controversial character. Everybody has an opinion. Like, I like to watch David just to see what he’ll do next.” Crosby, of course — the Byrd who was canned because he wanted to speak and live as well as sing his political piece. He was deeply hurt when Jim/Roger McGuinn fired him, and over the months since his departure, Byrds interviews seemed to build a picture of Crosby as a huffy, moody, intolerable, hard-to-work-with sort of man.

All of them good ones,
All of them lies

Crosby loves Stills, Nash, and Young, and these days, he and Nash play cheerleaders at recording sessions, conducting playback parties for visitors and heaping mountains of praise onto their colleagues. “This is the best music I’ve made with other people,” old folkie Crosby beams. Away from the microphones, he spends most of his time behind and to the side of the control board, hand-cleaning future refreshments or bouncing up and down, making his jacket fringes dance to the music of his band.

“Don’t ask him about Christine,” someone had suggested, thinking of David’s fragile shell, so badly cracked when his lady of nearly three years was killed in a bus collision on a road near his Novato home. David had been spun nearly out of his mind; the group cancelled what would have been a lovely stay at the Winterland, with close friend John Sebastian on the bill with them, and David took to the waters, to a schooner, to escape. He and Graham went to England to stew and unwind some more, and when he returned, he dove into the task of keeping himself busy, keeping up the happy front — so that even close friends would say don’t ask about Christine. But David, knowing he can’t, doesn’t try to suppress the memories.

[POLITICS IS BULLSHIT]

“Man, you know ow hard it is to find a good woman, a woman who’s just right — who’s with you on every single level. Every step of the way it was right.” And Crosby’s looking straight at you, because he’s just telling the truth.

“But you know,” he says, “at least you know that it can happen.”

Small consolation, indeed. But David also knows that, just as he is not alone in his joy over his music, he is not alone in his sorrow over lost love.

Stills lost Judy Collins and let his broken heart dictate the words (“Listen to me, baby— / Help me, I’m dyin’… / It’s my heart that’s a-sufferin’, it’s a-dyin’…/That’s what I have to lose…”). Graham recently parted from his island lady, Joni Mitchell, and bassman Reeves “had a slump,” as Stills put, it over a chick. Both Dallas and Neil are married, Neil to a lovely girl with sweet Judy Collins-eyes named Susan.

“We’ve cancelled a lot of studio time because of woman troubles,” Nash says, matter-of-factly. “Women are the most important thing in the world next to music.”

Lament over lost love provided the theme — if anyone ever listened to the words — of the first LP. But where “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” opened and paced that album, a song called-“Carry On,” written by Steve, will set the tone for the second:

Rejoice,
Rejoice!
There is no choice!

Stills, for what it’s worth, is apolitical. In that song, written when the war was still largely confined to Sunset Strip, he wrote of pickets proclaiming nothing stronger than “Hooray for our side.” In the song he wrote for Easy Rider, he encapsulated the movie:

Find the cost of freedom
Buried in the ground
Mother earth will swallow you
Lay your body down.

— But it was a synopsis, rather than any analysis. And at the Vietnam Moratorium rally at Golden Gate Park, he pounced on the piano to pound out a searing, machine-sun paced version of “For What It’s Worth” — but only after shouting to the 125,000 marchers: “Politics is bullshit! Richard Nixon is bullshit! Spiro Agnew is bullshit! Our music isn’t bullshit!” Music, by a wide margin. Or, as Neil put it: “Steve’s trip comes to its head When he sings.’

Stills is the one most intensely involved in the group’s music. On stage he bounces from acoustic guitar to piano to organ to electric lead. In the studio he directs most of the 16-track traffic, writing and singing the most songs, over-dubbing the most tracks, staying the longest time. On several occasions, working on the second LP, he put in 16-hour days at Wally Heider’s studios, located on the fringe of San Francisco’s greasy Tenderloin district. He stayed at a motel a few blocks away. It was like he was on call to the burgeoning music, constantly in labor, in his head.

“We — Dallas and Bill (Halverson, their engineer) and I — spent last night ’til six doing this,” he said one evening at Heider’s, holding up a stack of one-inch tapes. “Drunk out of my head playing the piano,” a backing track for one of the tunes on the new album. “That’s what you can do when you’ve had a gold record.” Beaming like a newsboy who’s just won a trip to Disneyland and gets a day off school.

[BIGGER BY SIMPLIFYING IT]

In the studios, Stills is a man of restrained excitement, of quiet pride, of non-stop devotion to the task of making records. “Steve’s whole thing right now is the group,” Young says. “It’d be impossible to have everybody into it as much as him. It’d be complete bedlam.”

In the studios, Neil, who so often clashed with Stills in the illuminating but frustrating Springfield days, stands back, generally. His scowling, black-topped demeanor, big-eyed, glowering stares shining out between messy curtains of hair, makes him a natural for solitude, and he seems content in the shadows, thrashing his guitar mercilessly, like a country bluesman possessed. Young is a satisfied man — secure with his own band, Crazy Horse, on Reprise Records, as well as this insane, perfect gig with this superb, if not “super,” group.

While Neil Young and Greg Reeves work out their backing for Young’s “Country Girl,” Steve hovers over engineer Halverson, and, with Nash, act as unofficial conductors. Nash picks out the slightest flaws in tuning, pacing, whatever — and relays his thoughts to Steve. Then the group works it out, a team considering each member’s errors as remorselessly as a mistake in mathematics. It’s a stop-go-stop-go process, of course, but somehow a song flows, maintaining its vitality and spontaneity, through the constant self-interruptions.

Neil, the fourth corner, is wandering off from the control room following a playback on the track he and Greg have just done, and he unleashes a thought: “What we’ve got to do is listen with an eye to simplicity,” he says. “Think how we can make it bigger by simplifying it.”

Steve Stills was the leader of Buffalo Springfield, but Neil Young stood out the most — tallest, darkest, fringiest, writer of some of their best songs (“Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” “Expecting to Fly,” “Flying on the Ground is Wrong”). And he was the most desultory and uppity, quitting the band twice before they folded, saying he never wanted to be in a group anyway, just like you wouldn’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.

But this is different. Neil Young is in two groups, right, but, as he explains, “Before I joined Crosby Stills and Nash, I made it clear to both sides that I belong to myself.”

First, there was Crazy Horse, who’d backed him up on his excellent second LP, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and who’re working with him now on his third album. They’re also setting up a concert tour beginning in February, with Neil, of course, in the lead.

“I didn’t want Crazy Horse to die just as we were getting it together,” he says. Crazy Horse is important to Neil as a counterbalance to the tight, structured kind of music Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young put out. “Crazy Horse is funkier, simpler, more down to the roots.” Neil has production control with Crazy Horse. “I dig a lot of bass and drums, man. To my mind, the bass drum should hit you in the stomach. Listen to Nowhere t the same volume as Crosby Stills & Nash and you’ll know what I mean.”

Neil will do Don Gibson’s country classic, “Oh Lonesome Me” on the LP with Crazy Horse. He couldn’t hope to do that kind of thing with CSN&Y. “But then, see, I have another side to me, and it’s technically too far advanced for Crazy Horse — so the other band plays that. They complement each other inside me.”

Young is contracted to Reprise and has a “temporary contract” with Atlantic, the remains of his five-year pact as a Buffalo Springfield. Hassles are few since both companies are under the Warner Brothers umbrella. Neil works out his tour schedules so that both bands know when they can have him.

With Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Young sings lead on his numbers — with the three others building waves of smooth harmony behind his high, hard-edged voice. He does some harmony singing himself, but very little. “I don’t consider myself to be a background singer.”

[BIG SUR OR CANADA]

Away from either band, in what he calls his own scene, Young is getting into the movies — writing a song for Strawberry Statement and doing the score — with Crazy Horse as the musicians— for Landlord, “a racial comedy about a white guy who buys a tenement house in Brooklyn and kicks out the floor to build a New York City-type townhouse out of it and gets into all kinds of shit… voodoo fights and things — with the neighbors. I think one of the stars is Pearl Bailey.”

Young is also ‘getting into filmmaking, beginning with a brand-new Beaulieux Super 8 which he coos over like a new born baby. He and Susie (who he met last year at a Topanga Canyon cafe she ran) are planning to move slowly toward “the big time,” when they’ll blow their scored films up to 16 MM and have showings at the Topanga Community House, where the local women’s club usually meets.

Neil, married for a year now, plans to stay at his redwood, hillside Topanga Canyon house, their home since August 1968. He’s even building a 16-track recording studio under the house. Crosby has settled into a ranch in Novato, in north Marin County, and Steve is looking for a house in Marin County. Greg lives about 90 miles north of San Francisco, in Guerneville. If Neil moves, he says, it’ll be to either Big Sur, on the Pacific Coast, or back to Canada.

Whatever the specific moves, there is a migration, of spirit, at least, to San Francisco. Stills and Crosby are close friends of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead family. Stills joined the Dead at the Winterland at one of Bill Graham’s San Francisco Band nights and he and Garcia got it off for four or five numbers. And Jerry, in return, is now an unofficial member of CSN&Y. Garcia dropped by a session at Heider’s one night and ended up playing steel pedal guitar on Nash’s light, once only-slightly country tune, “Teach Your Children.”

“We just sat down and fiddled awhile,” Stills said, “and we got an incredible take. The opening lick will just curl your whiskers.”

Jerry Garcia and Neil Young, and young mojo man Greg Reeves, cool half-black/half-Indian bassist, and Clear Light Dallas Taylor, all in addition to Crosby, Stills, and Nash. If the first LP was a mild stone, this new one should be an event.

That first LP hid the words, lovingly intertwined harmonies and impeccable instrumentation shading out most attempts at verbal communication. David’s song of political strife and personal anguish, written after the Robert Kennedy assassination, came out of the speakers like a celebration, an orgy of joyous voices. So did Stills’ “Suite.” How can you cry when you sound like a sparrow?

Music, by a wide margin. The words are on a separate sheet, and you can read the poetry of Crosby’s “Guinevere” (which he now has difficulty singing, remembering Christine) and the un-rhymed agony of Stills’ two paeans, any time.

Back when the first LP was being recorded, Stills, the construction engineer, had said, with tongue only slightly in cheek, that all he wanted to do was produce “the best album of the year.” He and his friends put out one of the best, certainly, and they all had a right to float through the spring months, as they did, waiting for the LP’s release. Now, Nash says, “Our main complaint on that LP was that it sounded so constructed. This will change with Dallas and Greg, and with Neil and me branching out more.”

Still, “it’s all one man’s opinion, what-ever’s said. So we have three one-man’s and that’s it.”

Next time around, Nash says, it’ll be the same as before: “Our main thing is to set some kind of a mood; our only rule when it comes to choosing our music is to pick something that gets us off.” It’s that simple, and right.

At this point, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are coasting. Their next album is pre-sold gold, judging by their success across all fields of music — Top 40, “underground” and “middle of the road” (their LP even reached number 35 on Billboard’s Soul survey). Their concerts, stage-managed by Chip Monck Industries, are near-perfect, the group relaxed in subdued light, making love with their soft, bluesy, acoustic music, slapping palms, soul style, after a particularly pleasing number, then charging on with a full load of amps and speakers, then collapsing in a circular embrace at the end of it all.

And their heads are straight. Stills, aglow with recognition as some sort of musical genius after those two years with Buffalo Springfield (“a sheer case of frustration,” he calls them), won’t play huge arenas where sound is sacrificed for a bigger gate. “And we won’t have any ball-busting one-night tours. So you make your million dollars in thirty days instead of 15, right?”

Money, and lots of it — right. But not so fast that the music, or the mind, is sacrificed. “The important thing,” Graham Nash says, “is to make people happy.”

“The good thing,” Stills says, “is to do a concert and instead of giving them one big flash, leaving them with flash after flash, and people come up and say — softly — ‘Thank you … thank you, man’.”

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