CSNY’s History Lesson
The media churn around the archival release of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s new live box set, invites backlash from the uninitiated, who could perceive this as yet another sad attempt for over-the-hill musicians and audiences to recapture their glory days by strip mining the musical past in a way that only serves to showcase the old weeds in a brand new pipe. As if that were a bad thing.
But CSNY 1974, released this week, is the real deal. Those born after the fact need to know this is not your father’s redundant recollection of the same old same old; it is a frozen-in-amber representation of a past time that many of those present are going to extraordinary lengths to recreate.
CSNY 1974 works, first of all, because of the source material. The tour was one of the first of its scale — 24 cities in 67 days, playing for as many as 80,000 people. This preceded large screens, portable cameras, and recording devices, so most attendees were too far away to discern any detail. It was good that Stephen Stills wore a football jersey so you could tell who he was, and that David Crosby’s panda bear countenance was obvious from a mile away. Neil Young has always been fuzzy, so that wasn’t a drawback. Those present needed to watch from however close they could get, listen to the music and savor the moment. If you weren’t there, or didn’t pay attention. there were no do-overs. You had no clue that in 40 years you’d get to hear it again.
While most of the songs here will be familiar to today’s listener, this set recalls the best part of that era’s concert-going experience. You’d go see a band and hear a lot of familiar songs, but not necessarily the hits. A good chunk of the set list would be brand new stuff, or songs that you’d heard about from fans who attended other shows.
CSNY 1974 is something of a gimmick — 40 songs released nearly 40 years to the day of the July 9 Seattle tour opener. All of the songs here were written by the band members, mostly on an individual basis, aside from a cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Of the remainder, 15 of them were new at the time and six are still unreleased. (Maybe this should be five and a half as “Goodbye Dick,” a Neil Young banjo jam about Richard Nixon’s resignation, was something that most people who heard it had forgotten, as they should.)
With 40 tracks, you won’t like all of them. There will be the inevitable comparisons to the studio versions. I won’t focus on the negative, except to say there is no reason we need another version of “Almost Cut My Hair,” especially one that is slowed down and lacks the passion and bite of the original. “Helpless” and “Carry Me” are less polished than the familiar versions, with bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Russ Kunkel providing a gentle, loping backdrop. “Immigration Man” is another example of the Drummond/Kunkel interplay lifting everything up a notch. Stills’ electric “Black Queen,” the other side of the mirror from the version on Four Way Street, is a blast.
Young’s “Don’t Be Denied” is a bit more polished than on Time Fades Away and, like “Ohio,” features some of the legendary Stills/Young guitar interplay. There aren’t enough examples of this powerful partnership, and the true “holy grail” of CSNY-related archival tapes are the unfortunately erased recordings of Buffalo Springfield during their tour opening for the Beach Boys.
There are many ways to buy CSNY 1974. The least expansive, least expensive, and possibly the most liberating musical choice is the $30 digital option, which contains the songs and nothing else. For $35 there is the deluxe digital version, which includes the detailed booklet and 43 minutes of performance video. There are two physical versions — standard CD or Blu-Ray sound — now priced at $55 on Amazon. These contain the booklet and the live DVD, and are probably the default gift choices, or the best option for those who want to have a tangible historical souvenir.
For the truly committed, there is the deluxe vinyl box set, which carries a$499 price tag ($661 with tax and shipping). This includes eight LPs, the Blue-Ray package, and a coffee table book, all housed in a “laser etched maple wood box.” It is a limited run of 1,000 copies, limited to two per customer. As of this writing you can still order one (or two) here.
Yes, I want this, and if I ever see one I will produce the appropriate clucking sounds. I won’t point out the obvious: anyone who grew up sharing the sentiment behind the music can spend this much money on a trinket like this without wondering if it would be better spent with a contribution to the local peace candidate. You also might wonder if the artists have also forgotten why they sang these tunes, and whether it would have been a more authentic path for them to donate these boxes to different charities and causes, to be auctioned as fundraisers.
Two other versions are available — a 16-track highlights CD and a 12-track Starbucks exclusive. These are for the day-trippers, and don’t include the most compelling tracks or the booklet, which contains tons of pictures, a detailed list of the guitars played by each member on every song, and an exhaustive essay by author Pete Long. While well-written and detailed, this tome is neither critical nor objective. It outlines the negative aspects, then provides a positive counterpoint. Long acknowledges the ego battles which he said disappeared onstage, resulting in some marvelous music that you now hold in your hand.
He tells how Bob Dylan visited after a Minnesota tour date and played what became Blood on the Tracks, omitting Stills’ reaction, that the songs were good but Dylan wasn’t much of a musician. (Nash told of this in his book.) This reflects how this product was designed by committee. The reason that it took so long, we are told, is that each band member had to approve every track. Stills, then, most likely excised this negative tale, about which he is no doubt embarrassed. Fair enough, but this changes the tone, from a historical document with textbook potential to an exercise in sales and marketing.
Last year, Graham Nash told me that he felt his new songs were as powerful as the old ones and that he still had a lot more to sing and say. I know he believes this to be true, but it isn’t just about the music. Compare a songwriter to a craftsman, like a potter or a wood carver, and it makes sense that what they do in their 70s after a career of growth is far better than what they made 50 years ago.
Imagine those old pots were thrown during a socially volatile time, when dozens of other equally skilled potters were competing with each other, striving to push out new and better work each week that did not ever repeat what they had done before. This was the era that begat the songs featured on CSNY 1974. Now that both the artists and the audiences are older, there is no sense of urgency and excitement in the world, externally or internally.
“True fans,” who don’t need to buy the deluxe box to show their dedication, still seek more insight about these past times. CSNY 1974 satisfies this urge nicely, and there is enough astounding music and compelling information to earn a prominent place on the shelf. There is still the hope that someday those live Buffalo Springfield tapes will emerge.
I missed the 1974 tour, and can’t remember why. The pictures featured here were taken April 28, 2002 in Tacoma, WA.