1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, part 1

1970 was a difficult yet productive year for all members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Books have been written about the personal struggles each of the musicians went through after the release of CSN’s debut album in 1969. None of that hindered the amount and quality of music they wrote, recorded and released as a group and solo artists in 1970. We start with a classic that became the highest-selling album of each member’s career.

In the summer of 1969 Crosby, Stills and Nash where in need of a larger band. After the successful release of their self-titled debut in May, the pressure to go on a tour to promote the album was high. They needed additional musicians to provide a full band sound on a live stage. They reached out to a number of high-profile artists, including George Harrison, Steve Winwood, Mark Naftalin (of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band) and John Sebastian, but they all declined. They secured the services of drummer Dallas Taylor and bassist Greg Reeves, but they needed someone who can play keyboard and guitar. Ahmet Ertegun, head of Atlantic Records, suggested Neil Young who had a history with Stephen Stills from the days they were in the band Buffalo Springfield. Their combination was musically brilliant but fragile due to their clashing personalities. After meeting with the band members and playing them some of his songs, Young was taken in as a fourth member of the band with equal billing in the band’s name.

CSNY, July 1969

After completing a number of performances at the legendary Woodstock (their second-ever live show) and Big Sur festivals, the band was about to start recording their second album when a tragic event took place. Crosby’s girlfriend, Christine Hinton, was killed in a car crash while taking their cats to the vet. Graham Nash, Crosby’s closest friend within the group, said: “David went to identify the body and he’s never been the same since.”

Recording sessions took place at Wally Heider’s studio in San Francisco over a period of several months, while all band members were going through difficult times. Aside from Crosby’s tragedy, the three others had relationship issues with their spouses. All of this had a noticeable impact on the band’s next album, which in comparison to their debut’s feel-good vibe, is much more somber. Graham Nash wrote: “We were all struggling with romance, confused that the universe suddenly wasn’t going right, which is why Déjà Vu is so much darker than the first record.”

The cover photograph was taken by Tom Gundelfinger, who took the photos for a number of HP Lovecraft and Steppenwolf albums. Stephen Stills, a Civil War buff, wanted the cover to look like an old photograph from that era, so the goal was to look like old-time tintype. With computer technology today you can apply a filter with a click of a button, but back then you did it with an old camera, tin plates and chemicals. The process involved a slow exposure of two or three minutes, which required everyone, dog included, to stay still that long. The band members reached that goal, barely, but the dog did not comply. In the end the album cover photograph was taken with a 35mm camera.

The photo was taken at the backyard of David Crosby’s rental house, 20 miles northeast of San Francisco in the city of Novato. The tree is still there today. The band got their outfits from a costume store. Stills got a Confederate army uniform, Crosby got a “Buffalo Bill” Cody outfit and looked pretty authentic, Dallas Taylor got a gun-slinger outfit, and the rest of the guys rented cowboy outfits.

CSNY Deja Vu Album Cover Session

Déjà Vu was released in March 1970 with a staggering advance orders of two million copies. It stayed in the US charts for 97 weeks and produced three hit singles: a rocking cover of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock and two lighter fare radio-friendly songs written by Graham Nash, Teach Your Children and Our House. I’ll focus on four other songs from this album, all of them highlights in the band’s repertoire.

David Crosby was in no condition to write new songs for the album after the death of Christine Hinton, but the two songs he brought to the recording sessions, written a year earlier, are both excellent. The title song Déjà vu reflects on a time when Crosby sailed with a friend and had a feeling he depicted in the song: “It’s as if I had done it before. I knew way more about it than I should have. I knew how to sail a boat right away. Not an instinctive thing. It doesn’t make sense. I wasn’t thinking about that specifically when I wrote the song. It just came, but in hindsight, the song was informed by those experiences. I felt then and now that I have been here before. I don’t believe in God but I think the Buddhists got it right—we do recycle.”

The second David Crosby song on the album is Almost Cut My Hair, featuring fantastic electric guitars duel between Young and Stills. It also includes one of my favorite vocal performances by Crosby, which ironically was the reason the song almost did not make the cut.  In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine in 1970 Crosby said: “I probably brought it down by sticking to my guns on one thing. I kept ‘I Almost Cut My Hair’ in there over the protestations of Stephen, who didn’t want me to leave it in ’cause he thought that it was a bad vocal. And it was a bad vocal in the sense that it slid around and it wasn’t polished, but I felt like what I meant when I sang it, and so it always put me on that trip. Now, I don’t know whether that communicated through to the people out there or not. See, I don’t know whether it communicated anything but just a bunch of raucous guitar and me yelling.”

CSNY in the studio. Photo credit: Henry Diltz

Stephen Barncard, who served as assistant to sound engineer Bill Halverson, remembers the recording session of the song: “On Almost Cut My Hair, which was recorded totally live, we had one shot at it and I hadn’t patched in the limiter. I watched Halverson hot-patch the limiter in an interval just before the vocal got to where it had to be in and he had the levels preset. Now, in anybody’s book on recording live vocals, that’s a pretty dangerous thing to do. He made it. He got it right on and he needed that limiter because Crosby really belted it out later in the tune. That was an example of being on your toes, thinking on your feet, moving fast, the live recording technique that these guys always demanded.”

Neil Young enjoyed the live recording setting of this song: “It’s like all live, three guitars, bass, organ and drums, and it’s all live and there are no overdubs, one vocal and the vocal was sung live. It’s really Crosby at what I think is his best.”

My next pick was brought to the sessions by Neil Young, a song he wrote about his childhood in the town of Omemee in Ontario, about which he said: “A nice little town. Sleepy little place. Life was real basic and simple in that town. Walk to school, walk back. Everybody knew who you were. Everybody knew everybody.” Graham Nash recalled the recording session of Helpless: “The amount of cocaine we snorted during those sessions was ridiculous. On Helpless—a very slow song and a beautiful piece of work—there were four guys snorting cocaine and yet trying desperately to slow things down. But it was impossible for us to record that song until two in the morning, after the coke had worn off and we’d wound down enough. Meanwhile, we had to get the song down fast before our dealer would come by and replenish our stash.”

Drugs were not the only obstacle to complete the recording of the song in a timely manner. Young had difficulties getting the drum accompaniment he was looking for: “I had been going over it with Dallas Taylor, Greg Reeves, and Stephen for hours. Although it is a simple song, it requires laying back, which was not really in Dallas Taylor’s musical vocabulary that night. I just kept doing it over and over, waiting for him to settle down on drums and stop playing accents and fills everywhere. It really was a case of wearing him out to the point where he would play it slowly, without pushing it, and without adding little riffs that meant nothing to the song.“ After numerous takes all musicians were able to deliver the goods in the wee hours. Here goes, one of the album highlights:

One more, this one opens the album and was written by Stephen Stills. Graham Nash tells the story: “About three quarters of the way through the Déjà Vu sessions, I cornered Stephen and said, ‘Our problem with this record is we don’t have Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.’ He looked at me as if I were nuts. ‘I know, man—we did it already.’ I said, ‘No, we don’t have what it represented—a kicker, an opening track that stuns you and keeps you glued to the rest. I’m talking about what the ‘Suite’ did for the first record. We don’t have that song!’

The very next day, Stephen found me outside the Caravan Lodge Motel and said, ‘Hey, Willy, remember yesterday how you were telling me we didn’t have a great opening track? Well, listen to this.’ And he played Carry On. Get the fuck outta here! He’d gone back to his room and whipped out that song. All there, completely intact.” The song, a combination of two unfinished songs smartly stringed together, features Stills on a Hammond B-3 organ. It opens with a guitar strumming that is considered an influence on Led Zeppelin’s song Friends, released on the album Led Zeppelin III later in 1970.

The group convened at Warner Brothers Studios in Los Angeles in May of 1970 to rehearse for their upcoming tour to promote Déjà Vu. The rhythm section musicians were replaced for various reasons. Calvin Samuels, who played on recordings Stephen Stills made earlier in the year (more on that in part 2 of this article) joined on bass, and John Barbata of Turtles fame (Happy Together) joined on drums.

CSNY during a rehearsal for an upcoming summer tour to promote Deja Vu, in May of 1970 at Warner Brothers Studios in Los Angeles, CA. Photo credit: Henry Diltz

On May 4, members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine Kent State students. News of the tragic event immediately made the news and were covered with large pictorials in all major newspapers.

Neil Young tells the story in his book Waging Heavy Peace: “Time magazine had a picture of the girl, Allison Krause, after the National Guard had killed her and three other victims. We were looking at it together. She was lying there on some pavement with another student kneeling down looking at her. The weight of that picture cut us to the quick. We had heard and seen the news on TV, but this picture was the first time we had to stop and reflect. It was different before the Internet, before social networking. So full of this feeling of disbelief and sadness, I picked up my guitar and started to play some chords and immediately wrote ‘Ohio’. Four dead in Ohio.” David Crosby continues the story: “I watched Neil Young see, really see that famous picture of the girl kneeling over the dead kid, looking up as if to say, ‘Why?’ I handed him the guitar and watched him write the song. We were up in San Mateo County, just above Santa Cruz, just me and him, Neil writing the song. I got on the phone and called the guys in L.A. and said, ‘Book the studio, man. This is it. Get the studio time tonight. I don’t care where. This is important.’”

The session was a live recording, including the vocals. This was unique in the band’s normal recording practices, where meticulous overdubbing yielded their fantastic harmonies. Towards the end of the song, Crosby improvised the part, “How many, how many more?” He later recalled the session: “I was so into it and I was just screaming that stuff at the end. I’m very proud of that. If that’s what CSNY gets remembered for, fine. That’s good.”

The B-side of the Ohio single included another protest song, Find the Cost of Freedom. Stephen Stills wrote it a year earlier for the movie Easy Rider, rejected at the time. Engineer Bill Halverson remembers the session: “They went out and sat facing each other in a square with no frills or gimmicks. It was like they were sitting in a living room. ‘Find the Cost of Freedom’ ends up a cappella. When they finished, I just pushed the talkback and said, ‘Now double it.’ They said, ‘You’re crazy. We can’t do that,’ and while I said that I was already rolling the tape back; before they could say anything else, I said, ‘Here it comes. Now, just double it.’ Then I switched it to eight other tracks and they did. They didn’t even come into the control room to listen to it; they just doubled it without moving or anything. We ran the tape, they played and sang along, and we had the record cut in twenty minutes. They’re amazingly talented. That’s all I can say.”

A week after recording the song Ohio, CSNY went on a tour of the US, in which a number of shows were recorded and later released on the double album 4 Way Street. The shows started with an acoustic set, with each of the members getting a solo spot. After a break all four members plus their rhythm section came up for an electric set. Stephen Stills described the performances: “We play for two hours, the first hour acoustic and the second half with electric equipment. Just as people think they’re listening to a folk concert, we plug in…and… WHAM… we’re a rock band!” Interestingly very little was played from the album Déjà Vu, released only three months earlier.

Some of the best moments in these concerts were the dueling electric guitar solos between Neil Young and Stephen Stills. Going back to their days at Buffalo Springfield, the two extremely talented musicians always had a mercurial relationship that could explode at one moment and produce blissful music at another. Stills said of their playing together on that tour: “It was entertaining. We’d try to imitate what the other guy was playing and that worked out really good. We’d go off and come back to the original theme. The word ‘dueling’ never came from me. Musicians don’t duel. It ain’t a competition. It ain’t NASCAR. I said, ‘Neil, are we doing that or not?’ And he said, ‘No, we’re just trading off.’” Here is one of these moments, the two exchanging solos in a long and energetic version of Carry On:

Graham Nash told a funny story in his book “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life” about an episode at one of their Fillmore East shows in New York. After a three-hour show and two encores, the band was in their dressing room, refusing to come out while the crowd was cheering for more. Nash: “Bill Graham slipped a note under our door. It said: ‘Your audience awaits you.’ ‘We’re not coming out, no matter how much you pay us,’ Neil told Bill. The next thing we knew, a hundred-dollar bill came sliding under the door. As soon as Neil saw that, he shouted, ‘Not enough!’ Seven more hundred-dollar bills came sliding through at regular intervals. We were all laughing our asses off about it. Neil scooped those bills up and we went out to do another encore.”

After completing the tour, CSNY practically disbanded and the four members of the band would not perform together until their reunion tour in 1974. During their solo spots in the 1970 tour, all members of the band played songs that would be featured on their upcoming solo albums, to be released later in 1970 and in 1971. We will cover these albums in part 2 of this article.


Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup, by David Browne

Waging Heavy Peace, by Neil Young

Long Time Gone: The Autobiography of David Crosby, by David Crosby

Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life, by Graham Nash

Categories: A Year in Music

Tagged as: , ,

2 replies »

Leave a Reply