THROUGH THE LENS: Considering Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Déjà Vu’ on Its 50th Anniversary
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - 1973 - Photo by Mary Andrews
I can count on one hand the number of rock albums that are foundational cornerstones of what is called Americana today. Déjà Vu is one of them, and it was re-released last Friday as part of two well-crafted box sets to mark its 50th anniversary. This week marks the first time that a single album has been this column’s exclusive focus. And this week’s column offers another first: In addition to the photos taken by ND photographers, Henry Diltz, the dean of rock photography, also provided some rare photos of the band.
While Déjà Vu was one of the most eagerly awaited albums in history, perhaps second only to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it also had to live up to the critical and commercial success of the Crosby, Stills & Nash album that preceded it in 1969. With The Beatles’ demise in 1970, it was an opportune time for someone to fill the void. CSN&Y filled it with great aplomb, but not everyone knows the story behind the album.
Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Road to CSN&Y
It is well-known that Cass Elliott (The Mamas and Papas) served as the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon: Everybody who was anybody sooner or later made it to her house. With David Crosby having been kicked out of the Byrds, Stephen Stills being adrift after Buffalo Springfield broke up, and Graham Nash leaving The Hollies, it was Elliott’s eye for talent and astute ear for what worked that brought those three together.
Despite the trio’s success it was still generally felt that they needed another member to provide a fuller, more electric sound. Stills, a blues guitarist, did not want them to be a Simon & Garfunkel-like acoustic trio. While John Sebastian, Steve Winwood, and Mark Naftalin (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band) were approached, none worked out for various reasons.
Ahmet Ertegun (head of CSN’s label, Atlantic Records) also thought adding a fourth member would be advantageous and, as he had a soft spot for Buffalo Springfield, suggested Neil Young. That was met was strong resistance. Not only had Crosby and Nash never played with Young, Stills had issues with Young during their Springfield days. But, Ertegun eventually won Stills over, in part by playing some of Young’s newer songs. What was obvious to the music executive became apparent to the musician: Young’s music meshed so well with the trio that it promised even greater heights.
However, as both Crosby and Nash were adamantly against it, an invitation was never made. But, as often happens, serendipity, and a cup of coffee, aligned the stars. One day Young passed Crosby standing in Joni Mitchell’s driveway. He stopped and in shooting the breeze Young played some new songs, including “Country Girl” and “Helpless.” Crosby was smitten. As he told Crawdaddy in 1974, “Now I wanted to join his group. He’s a better poet than the rest of us put together.”
Soon thereafter, Young became interested in joining CSN, but Nash remained the sole holdout. After being convinced to at least meet with Young, they got together in a New York coffee shop early one morning. Nash, in Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life, wrote, “‘Why am I talking to you [Young] about this fucking band that I happen to think is complete?’ Young responded, ‘Well, man, ever heard me and Stephen play together?’ By the end of breakfast I was ready to nominate him for Prime Minister of Canada.” Young was in.
So, less than two months after the CSN album was released, the four began rehearsing in July 1969. Their second gig was famously at Woodstock the following month. If there was any doubt in anyone’s mind, Woodstock erased it. They played some more live gigs before entering the studio where, individually and collectively, they spent a reported thousand hours. The result was a critical and commercial smash that sold over 8 million copies and goodness knows how many radio airplays. Every song became an anthem, on domestic bliss (“Our House”), freakdom (“Almost Cut My Hair”), and lost childhood (“Helpless). Déjà Vu was the roots-rock record of 1970 that started big and stayed that way.
The 50th Anniversary Box Sets: The Music
There are two versions of the box set to mark DéjàVu‘s 50th anniversary: 1) The 50th Anniversary Deluxe Retail Edition, which includes an LP of the original album, a 20-page booklet with never-before-seen photos, and four CDs that include demos and outtakes; and 2) the 50th Anniversary Deluxe D2C Edition that is a five-LP version of the Retail Edition, a 12×12 hardcover book, and individual photos suitable for framing. Both sets beautifully replicate gold overlay on the leather-like pebbled cover with the sepia-toned group photo pasted on the cover.
The music on both sets was mastered from 24/192 digital files by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound and pressed at RTI in California (or Pallas in Germany) on 180-gram vinyl. The discs demonstrate, even to the most critical of ears, how good a digital file can sound if mastered by someone of Calbi’s stature. I compared the new LP to my mint original. I am happy to say the new one is superior, its sound is more distinct and more immediate. It’s also significantly quieter with a spacious soundstage; Stills’ and Young’s guitar interplay is spectacular.
The best example of the new LP’s superiority is the title track. With numerous overlays of sounds the original was a bit messy; it was difficult to find the song. You knew something wonderful was going down, but you simply could not discern it. On the new pressing the song’s adventurous ambitions become unraveled, and it resonates like it was obviously intended. The LP is an audiophile’s dream.
The Retail Edition‘s four CDs offer 1) a CD version of the album, 2) demos, 3) outtakes, and 4) alternate takes of the songs on the album in the same order as the album itself that serves as an alternate Déjà Vu. Of the 38 bonus tracks, 29 have never been released before, the real treat being Nash and Joni Mitchell doing “Our House,” recorded in their living room. Another significant extra is the second take of Stills’ “4+20,” which is technically superior to the one on the album. But, as the first take was more emotional, the band, quite correctly, chose it. Now we can decide for ourselves.
The Deluxe D2C Edition contains LP versions of everything included on the Retail box, except the CD version of the original album. It will be released on May 28, limited to 3,500 numbered copies only available at the online stores for CSN&Y and Rhino Records.
A more complete history of the band is included with the box sets.
Now, the photos, nearly all have never been featured before. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.