“If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do, Don’t you?” – CSNY, “Deja Vu”
I didn’t start listening to rock n roll until I was in junior high in the late 70s. By the time I was in high school I considered myself an “aficionado” on the subject of rock n roll. However, I knew so little about the rock music I professed to love that if you’d have asked me about Crosby, Stills, Nash and/or Young, I’d have probably confused them with Seals & Croft. Even though I was into Dylan – from his rock n roll stuff to his folky stuff and yes, even his Christian stuff – I knew very little about the folk rock or country rock that had emanated out of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Neil Young was probably my “gateway drug” in terms of discovering CSNY. And to give credit where credit is due, it was my college roommate Drew who turned me onto Neil Young. Through Neil’s Decade greatest hits LP, I ventured into CSNY and picked up their landmark 1970 album Deja Vu. I loved the Young tune “Helpless” but once I picked up Deja Vu, I was stunned at how great it was and how great Stills, Nash and Crosby were. That of course led me to the first Crosby, Stills, Nash self-titled LP, aka “The Couch Album,” so nicknamed because on the cover the members are sitting on a couch on the porch of a dilapidated shack. CSN (and later Y) really changed rock n roll music. I read somewhere that rock n roll previous to CSNY was basically “the blues played louder and faster.” And yes, in high school that was the rock I was listening too… louder and faster, indeed.
The story of how Crosby, Stills and Nash came together is the thing of myth now. As the story goes, they all had left or been fired from their previous bands. They all met for the first time at a party at Cass Elliott’s place (Cass of the Mamas and Papas). They harmonized at the party and realized they were onto something and formed a band. That mythical story isn’t completely accurate, they didn’t actually “meet” at the party. It is true Graham Nash had quit the Hollies in 1968 and had moved to Laurel Canyon. Stills had been a member of the Buffalo Springfield who had finally disbanded after their third LP, Last Time Around. But there’s no way that Stills didn’t already know David Crosby who had been fired from the Byrds. The story goes that he was fired for presenting the song “Triad” about a menage a trois to the band. Actually Crosby had been at odds with his Byrds bandmates for a while. He was fond of rambling on about JFK assassination conspiracy theories on stage. He argued with the band about doing covers vs stuff they’d written because he wanted the publishing money. And worst of all – at a festival (Monterey I think) – he sat in with the Byrds’ arch rivals, yes, the Buffalo Springfield. “Triad” was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ergo, Stephen Stills and Crosby had already known each other. Regardless of inaccuracies in the myth, they did apparently meet Nash and sing together at Mama Cass’s party. And they were right, the vocal harmonies of these three voices was simply spellbinding.
They quickly formed a band, signed with Atlantic Records and picked up the rhythm section of Dallas Taylor on drums and Greg Reeves on bass. Their debut album, creatively titled Crosby, Stills and Nash was a monster hit. On the heels of that smash success Ahmet Ertegun (founder of Atlantic) supposedly suggested they add Neil Young as member because he liked the interplay of Young and Stills’ guitars from their time together in the Springfield. I can’t imagine a savvy record guy like Ertegun thinking it was a good idea to mess with the chemistry of a band who just had a smash hit. What I’ve read over the years was they were going to add a keyboard player and approached Steve Winwood to join, but he quickly declined. I’ve also heard they approached the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian who was a friend of the band and he declined as well. Perhaps that was the point Ertegun suggested Young. Again, after the success of Crosby, Stills & Nash, it’s hard for me to believe they thought they needed a 4th member…and yet, enter Neil Young.
The problem of course is I’m not sure Young was ever that committed to CSNY. They played one of their first shows at Woodstock and Young refused to be part of the film of that performance. He sat off to the side. Neil had been in and out of the Buffalo Springfield and I think he brought that “band commitment phobia” with him to CSNY. The band recorded their first album as a quartet in 1970, Deja Vu. Sadly, Covid delayed the release of the 50 year anniversary edition until this year. Young contributed his iconic “Helpless” to Deja Vu but his second contribution was a track “Country Girl,” which was a combination of three songs he’d written for Buffalo Springfield, “Whiskey Boot Hill,” “Down Down Down” and “Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty)” that Young put together in the style of a “suite” like he did with “Broken Arrow” or “Expecting to Fly” in the Springfield. It’s easy to suspect that Young did, like so many artists with a solo and band career are accused, keep his best stuff for his solo records. Even Stills said, years later, “Neil only gave us like, three songs (“Helpless,” “Country Girl” and “Ohio”). Even in the bonus material on this new Deja Vu: 50th Edition, there’s scant Neil Young.
I knew this Deja Vu 50th Anniversary Edition box was coming but I hesitated to jump on the bandwagon. I was very focused early this year on Neil Young’s Archives Vol. 2 instead. You never know if a retrospective release of an album is going to be Wildflowers or something like what the Who did with The Who Sell Out, just repackaging stuff you’ve heard before. I needn’t have worried. When Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young finally went into the studio as a quartet to record the follow up to Crosby, Stills And Nash they supposedly spent 800 hours recording this album. The relationships in the band had become somewhat volatile and they recorded this in much the same way that the Beatles recorded The Beatles (The “White Album”), treating the other band members as back-up musicians. Whoever wrote the song played the track and brought in Young or Stills for guitar and the whole band for the harmony vocals. Based on the treasures in this box set, they could have put out a double album. Many of the songs included in this box ended up on the members solo LPs that followed: Crosby, If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971); Stills, Stephen Stills (70); Nash, Songs For Beginners (1972); and Neil Young, After The Gold Rush (1970). It’s remarkable to me that Stills and Young put out solo LPs mere months after Deja Vu arrived. These four songwriters were truly at a peak in 70-71.
Disc 1 of the 50th Anniversary box is the original album. The sound is amazing. It sounds, especially on some of the demos, like these guys are sitting in the room with you, or on the porch strumming. The original LP has one of Neil’s best songs, as mentioned, “Helpless.” I love that he later played that song with the Band at The Last Waltz concert. Nash has two of his greatest tracks, “Teach Your Children,” and “Our House,” the latter written about he and his then main squeeze Joni Mitchell’s place. Crosby has his usual trippy almost jazzy stuff with the title track and one of my all time favorite expressions of paranoia, “Almost Cut My Hair.” I love the line, “it increases my paranoia, like looking in my rearview mirror and seeing a police car.” I think we’ve all been there. Don’t drink and drive people. Stills does the yeoman’s work again, like on Crosby, Stills and Nash, when Nash gave him the nickname “Captain Many Hands” as Stills played all the instruments. Stills takes Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and rocks it out with Young. This was the guitar fireworks Ertegun was looking for. “4+20” is one of my all time favorite Stills tracks. Crosby and Nash famously refused to put backing vocals on it, they thought it was perfect as is and I couldn’t agree more. As a young, foolishly heart-broken college kid “4+20” could have been my theme song… If you do anything after this post, at least pick up Deja Vu. From the opening “Carry On,” to the ending “Everybody I Love You” this is folk-rock, hippy masterpiece.
Disc 2 here is all demos. I think when I saw there were 18 demos, I was concerned. Sometimes demos can sound rough or unfinished. Not here. These are mostly all completely finished tunes. Some are demos of the tracks on Deja Vu but other songs are tracks that didn’t make the album. Those songs that didn’t make it could have almost been listed as outtakes vs demos. At the heart of their songs, CSNY have either an acoustic guitar or a piano. Yes, they adorn it with more guitar and harmony vocals but the heartbeat is a simple acoustic song. That’s what these demos are, the heartbeat of the finished tracks, the bones upon which the finished songs were based. There are so many great tracks on disc 2. The sole Young contribution is here, “Birds” demo’d with just he and Graham Nash on harmony vocal. It’s a spectacular song and I love this demo. “How Have You Been” credited to CSN is a John Sebastian cover… it could have made the album. Crosby’s “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)” delivered here with just he and Nash is stripped to its elemental beauty. “So Begins The Task/Hold On Tight” which appeared on Stills’ LP with Manassas, is quintessential Stills. While many of these demos ended up on the members solo albums (which I posted about before), in more definitive versions but these are all great versions of the songs. Listening to these demos you have to wonder if the law firm style name, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, was an indication that this was a consortium of musicians looking to launch their own solo brands vs a real band. I always imagine a commercial that goes, “Been busted with a dime bag, call the law firm of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young,” but I’m getting off track here. Over the course of 18 tracks you get the feel for the recording sessions for Deja Vu and it helps frame the entire album. A must-hear experience for fans.
The third disc is my evidence that this could have been a double album. It consists of “outtakes.” A demo is an early version of a song. An outtake is a fully completed song that didn’t make the album. Many outtakes end up being B-sides on singles. Or, they used to back in the days when singles were released on vinyl. The outtakes are dominated by Stills tracks. Stills seems to be the most dedicated member of CSNY to the band ethos. “Ivory Tower” and my favorite “30 Dollar Fine” would have made fine additions to a double LP version of Deja Vu. Crosby’s “Laughing,” here stripped down almost matches the version on If I Could Only Remember My Name. “The Lee Shore” which CSNY did live but I don’t think ever released in a studio version, sounds great here. I will say Nash’s “Horses In A Rainstorm” is a bit slight but it is a nice pop tune. Theres so much great material on Disc 3 it’s no wonder that these guys continued to come back to these songs for solo releases down the road. This disc of outtakes is really where the gold is found on this box, even for a casual fan. They wrote the songs that would last their whole careers in those 800 hours.
The final disc, disc 4, is probably the slightest of the four, at least at first glance. It’s “early versions” or “alternative versions” of almost every track on the original album, in the same order. The original album is clearly the definitive version, although I’ll admit, I found some interesting things on disc 4. The version of “Helpless” here has some harmonica, omitted from the original. I think this version was on Neil’s Archives Vol 1. The version of “Almost Cut My Hair” is a sloppy, 10-minute guitar jam. It’s like hearing CSNY drunk in a bar at midnight. I understand why they couldn’t use this version but man is it a great jam. I also really dug the version of “Know You Got To Run” that concludes this box.
I was simply overwhelmed by how great this box set commemorating the 50th anniversary of Deja Vu turned out to be. I highly recommend this album. I’ve been simply lost in this thing for the last two weeks. I wake up every morning with a song in my head. Since I got this box I wake up with “Carry On” or “Our House” or some other track here in my head. These vocal harmonies and infectious melodies just bore into your ear and straight into your brain. Any artist who is looking to do a retrospective around a classic album should use this LP as a blue print. Of course, I understand most artists wouldn’t have 4 songwriters at their zenith contributing this much bonus material. But there in lies the majesty of CSNY.
Turn this one up loud and get your hippy groove on. And if you’re reading this and thinking about getting your hair cut… don’t do it man! Let your “freak flag fly.” Cheers!