1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, part 2

1970 was a productive year for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. While the first half of the year was mostly dedicated to band activities, including the release of the album Déjà Vu, the single Ohio and a tour of the US, all members focused on solo albums later in the year. We will review these albums in their order of release, and we start with an album based on a screenplay for a film that never saw the light of day.

In the late 1960s Dean Stockwell, already with a rich acting career that started at an early age in the 1940s, immersed himself in the Topanga Canyon hippie culture. He starred in movies such as Psych-Out with Susan Strasberg and Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie. On the set of the latter film Hopper suggested to Stockwell that he write a screenplay. Stockwell later said: “I was going to write a movie that was personal, a Jungian self-discovery of the gnosis. It involves the Kabbalah; it involved a lot of arcane stuff.” Shannon Forbes, producer’s David Briggs partner at the time, remembers more details about that script: “It was sort of an end-of-the-world movie. At the very end, the hero is standing in the Corral parking lot watching this huge wave come, and this house is surfing along, and as the house comes at him, he turns the knob — and that’s the end of the movie.” Stockwell titled the planned film ‘After the Gold Rush’.

Dean Stockwell 1970

Stockwell picks up the story when one of his Topanga Canyon neighbors got involved: “I came back home to Topanga Canyon and wrote After The Gold Rush. Neil was living in Topanga then too, and a copy of it somehow got to him. He had had writer’s block for months, and his record company was after him. And after he read this screenplay, he wrote the After The Gold Rush album in three weeks. It’s not a linear, regular storytelling kind of film. Really what was in my mind was that the gold rush in effect created California. And the film took place on the day California was supposed to go into the ocean. So that’s what happened after the gold rush.”

Neil Young 1970

Neil Young wrote a number of songs loosely associated with the theme of the screenplay and started recording them in a studio he built in his house. Nils Lofgren, then a young 19-year old, was one of the musicians who participated in the recordings. He met Young in 1969 while he was touring with Crazy Horse and got an invitation to play on the album. Lofgren recalls meeting members of Crazy Horse in the studio, shortly before he was asked to join that band: “I used to get into David Briggs’s VW and we’d drive up the hill to Neil’s blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival every day going to work on After The Gold Rush. I’d gotten to be friends with Danny Whitten, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot and then you got Jack Nitzsche who’s a genius and a mad man playing keyboards and producing.”

The album’s title song is one of Neil Young’s career highlights. Years later he agreed with that assessment: “After the Gold Rush is one of my early high water marks as I look at it now. I recognize in it now this thread that goes through a lotta my songs that’s this time-travel thing… When I look out the window, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way this place looked a hundred years ago.”

The song was designed to directly mirror the plot of the proposed film, and Young invited Stockwell to sit in on some of the album’s sessions. The writer was impressed: “If you could calculate the amount of human energy that goes into the making of one of his songs, you would have a really fucking high number, man.”

The song is performed by Neil Young (piano and vocals) and Bill Peterson on flugelhorn.

The album includes one of Neil Young’s best known songs, Southern Man. The lyrics need no explanation:

I saw cotton and I saw black

Tall white mansions and little shacks

Southern man, when will you pay them back?

I heard screamin’ and bullwhips cracking

How long? How long? How?

Years later Young reflected about the song: “Southern Man” was more than the South—I think the civil rights movement was sorta what that was about. It is a strange song. I don’t sing it anymore. I don’t feel like it’s particularly relevant. It’s not ‘Southern Man’—it’s ‘White Man.’”

Nils Lofgren, not a professional piano player by his own admission, came up with the double time piano accompaniment, influenced by his youth accordion-playing of traditional music. After the song was introduced to the band at its initial half time tempo, Lofgren proceeded to practice it with drummer Ralph Molina: “I used to be an accordion player, and accordion’s all ‘oompah, oompah,’ so I started doin’ the accordion thing on piano. Ralphie came in and starts double-timin’ it and we get into this great jam.” When Neil Young and producer David Briggs asked him what was that, he said, “That’s Southern Man with a polka beat.” They laughed and decided to use that beat behind the guitar solo.

After the Gold Rush, released in September 1970, is now considered a classic album. It produced two singles, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’. Fellow CSN&Y member Stephen Stills provides backing vocals on the latter. Other fantastic songs on the album include ‘I believe in You’ and ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’.

Reviewers were not kind to the album at the time of release. Rolling Stone magazine wrote these pearls: “The piano, bass and drums search for each other like lovers lost in the sand dunes, but although they see each others’ footprints now and then, they never really come together.” Characteristically to music publications, the magazine did a 180 several years later and selected the album as #90 in the 500 greatest albums of all time list.

Album credits:

Neil Young – guitar, piano, harmonica, vibes, lead vocals

Danny Whitten – guitar, vocals

Nils Lofgren – guitar, piano, vocals

Jack Nitzsche – piano

Billy Talbot – bass

Greg Reeves – bass

Ralph Molina – drums, vocals

Stephen Stills – vocals

Bill Peterson – flugelhorn

Stephen Stills at a CSN&Y Rehearsal 1969. Photo credit: Henry Diltz

In November 1970 Stephen Stills followed with his own solo album, his self-titled debut. At the very beginning of the year CSN&Y completed their first tour in Europe, including a show at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London. Stills, liking what he saw in that city, decided to stay in England for a spell. He told Melody Maker magazine in January 1970: “It’s very scary in the States at the moment. That’s why I want to stay in England for a while. It’s more…civilized, plus there are a few people I want to play with.” A few people indeed, and quite talented ones. Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, among others, all play on the sessions he recorded at Island Studios in London later in 1970.

Stills became a regular at London’s rock royalty parties, making friends with members of the Beatles. At one party he got to talking with Billy Preston about women, at which point the gifted keyboard player said, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Eureka! Thus was born Stills’ lead single from his album and his biggest hit. He later said: “I took the phrase and wrote a song around it. It’s a good times song, just a bit of fun. My favorite part is the steel drums. I played them before a little bit but I just kept diddling around till I found the right notes.” Background vocals by David Crosby, Graham Nash and Rita Coolidge.

One of the album highlights is the song Old Times Good Times. Jimi Hendrix plays lead guitar on this track, and Stills shows his skills on the Hammond organ. The very short jam in the middle of the song begs for a much longer one. In those days a jam like that could last a whole LP side. Stills became friends with Hendrix and spent many hours jamming with him. He remembers: “He was showing me something and I said, ‘Jimi, Jimi… put your hand up.’ So he held his hand up, and I put mine next to his, and I said, ‘That’s Wilt Chamberlin. This is me. Your thumb is longer than mine. I can’t do what you’re doing.’ So he went, ‘Oh yeah…’ And he figured out a way to show me the same thing.”

Stephen Stills with Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix reciprocated and visited Stills in California, where more jams ensued. Stills: “We once jammed for about five days, one long marathon session in my beach house in Malibu. The sheriff’s deputy overheard our guitar playing. When he found out it was us he asked permission to park his police car directly outside the house so he could listen in while he fielded radio calls. Told us not to worry about a thing, he’d be looking out for us.”

Between September 1970 and January 1971 David Crosby recorded his own debut solo album, ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’. Crosby immersed himself in the music scene in San Francisco, about which he said: “There was a friendship between the musicians rather than everyone competing and being cutthroat with everyone. It was a community of people who were more than willing to help each other, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane in particular.” He later said of the album: “I had a lot of songs, new ones and old ones. I did make what I think is a fascinating album. It’s very strange and it mirrored the strangeness in my life after Christine died and I started to get it all back together.” Crosby’s girlfriend, Christine Hinton, was killed in a car crash in 1969.

Sound engineer Stephen Barncard, who was assistant engineer on Déjà Vu, co-produced the album. The large list of celebrated musicians who were invited to the sessions proved to be a challenging task for him in the studio: “I would make sure I had machines in the room to do anything because I had no idea what we were going to do. We could cut a solo track or he might bring in the entire Jefferson Airplane and we could be cutting a whole chorale. We could be mixing a tune for the final mix for the record or we could be making a rough publishing demo. The only way you covered your ass on those kind of dates was to have a wall of machines and every mike and every option available, so that when they asked you for it, it was there. No questions.”

David Crosby with members of Grateful Dead and Neil Young in the studio

My favorite song on the album is Laughing, which was rejected during the sessions for CSN&Y’s album Déjà Vu. Crosby talked about that wonderful song: “Written to and for George Harrison about the Maharishi, and the idea was telling him that nobody’s really got ‘the answer’, and that people who try to tell you that they have the answer are most often trying to manipulate you.” Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell contribute beautiful background vocals on this song. Pedal steel guitar by Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Garcia later said about his playing on that album: “I think some of the finest playing I’ve done on record is on his solo album. As far as being personally satisfied with my own performances, which I rarely am, he’s gotten better out of me than I get out of myself.”

The last member of CSN&Y to release a solo album after Déjà Vu was Graham Nash, who in May 1971 released his debut ’Songs for Beginners’. Most of the songs on the album were written at the end of 1970 during a period when Nash was living with Rita Coolidge at her house in Beachwood Canyon. The album was recorded at Wally Heiders Studio, where CSN&Y recorded Déjà Vu and David Crosby recorded ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’.

The album included Graham Nash’s debut single ‘Chicago’. He told the story of that song in his book: “Chicago stemmed from an incident following the Democratic Convention in 1968. The Chicago Eight had been busted for disrupting the event and desperately needed money for their defense. Hugh Romney, the beat poet and alter ego of Wavy Gravy and my hero, called to ask if CSN&Y would come to Chicago to raise the funds. David and I wanted to go; Stephen and Neil also wanted to, but had other commitments. As a response, I wrote the song to them, asking, ‘Won’t you please come to Chicago just to sing?’”.

Graham Nash — vocals; guitar, piano, organ, tambourine

Rita Coolidge —backing vocals

Chris Ethridge — bass

John Barbata — drums, tambourine

Venetta Fields, Sherlie Matthews, Clydie King, Dorothy Morrison — backing vocals


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

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4 replies »

  1. What a wonderful, well written article. I’ve especially enjoyed David, Stephen, and Neil’s albums, but Graham’s is also good. My favorite is hand’s down “If Only I Could…”-It’s been one of my favorite albums of all genres since it was released and I was turned on to it by a sweet and lovely spirit I encountered on a stroll. I’ve mentally thanked her every time I listen to it since. My favorite song is “Laughing”, which I also think is the best musical description of zen enlightenment I’ve ever heard… Thanks again for a great article. (and what David said about San Francisco musicians, is one main reason I love San Francisco music and groups from that time so much-what a great musical time, in my opinion, to grow up…) Jennifer

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