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Crosby, Stills and Nash: There And Back Again

By Marissa R. Moss - Courtesy of American Songwriter

It’s less than two hours before Crosby, Stills & Nash are set to walk on stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, and Graham Nash and I are sitting in his backstage greenroom checking out each other’s tattoos. Crosby – whom everyone refers to as Croz – has gone down the street to Gruhn Guitars, a Lower Broadway institution peddling the likes of a 1953 custom Les Paul, which retails for 27k. Outside, women in tie-dye shirts and chinos stand near the tour buses – three, glossy, side by side – pretending to talk on their phones but really waiting for a glimpse of Stephen Stills and his big sideburn-like chops, which have only thinned a little since the sixties.

“Let me see your ink,” Nash says in his slightly relaxed Northern English accent, motioning for me to stand and spin around so he can see my back. In the southern July heat, I can only hope I’m not sweating. “May I remove your strap?” he asks with the confidence of a man who has done so many times, in many a dressing room, when he was fighting off groupies as a member of the Hollies during the British Invasion, long before he got married and had children.

I nod, of course, as he inspects the flowers on my left shoulder. “Beautiful. You should see my daughter’s. She’s got twenty,” he adds proudly, before rolling up his sleeve to display a colorful Ganesh. It’s a fairly recent acquisition – he got it done at 65, five years ago, and it was his first. “I was the only one in my family without a tattoo,” is the explanation he gives, covering it up again. In a black t-shirt and jeans, he doesn’t need Stephen Tyler’s hair extensions or pleather pants to prove he’s still young enough to rock and roll. He wants to be cool for his own kids, sure – that’s what the tattoo’s for. But CSN, after years of fighting, jail time, illnesses, broken limbs and shattered relationships, has found a new cool – and that’s the harmony in, well, those timeless harmonies.

An hour or so earlier, I had been waiting for Nash on the uncomfortable wooden pews of the Ryman while he finished sound check, watching as he, David Crosby and Stephen Stills churn out samples of songs like “Déjà Vu” and “Long Time Gone,” with Stills clutching his signature Martin and Crosby in a denim shirt and hair flowing long. Crosby’s having a little issue with his in-ear monitor. “If I’m only hearing Nash, I’ll probably find you in your sleep and hurt you,” he joked to the tech operator, flashing a giant smile. A few minutes later, while Stills sang a few bars of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Crosby wandered from the side of the stage over to Nash, and put an arm around his shoulders for a minute. They look at each other, like they are in awe of the moment, a little. In a lot of ways, they are.

After all, none of this was really supposed to happen. This was intended to be a Crosby & Nash tour, while Stills played dates with a reunited Buffalo Springfield. A planned record of covers, produced by the indomitable Rick Rubin, imploded. Then Stills was misquoted as saying that there will never be another record of new CSN material released. Future for the trio looked pretty grim. Yet somehow, here they are, on stage, patting each other’s backs and smiling, sounding better than they have in years on a world tour – enough so that they decided to release a live CD/DVD package, produced by Nash and called 2012, that expresses this all very clearly. As they say in the video’s extras: they fell in love with each other again, over 40 years since the release of their first LP, Crosby, Stills & Nash.

When the Buffalo Springfield reunion fell through, “David and I went to Stephen and said, ‘We are totally willing to cancel what we have right now if you go out with us,’” Nash explains, back up in the greenroom, talking while trying to balance eating a rather sad-looking catering meal of droopy asparagus and something that resembles fish. “We said, ‘Stephen, we’re there for you.’ And I think that really affected him. And I think Stephen really knows that we care about him. Because he came to the party on fire.”

“Well, I don’t really know what he means by coming to the party,” says Stills, calling later from his home in California at the end of tour, his voiced aged into a slight rasp. It’s been a bit of a rough day – some acupuncture on his hand for guitar-induced carpal tunnel syndrome has made him uncomfortable, and my cell phone is interfering with his hearing aid. “But I’m better than I ever was. My chops finally caught up with my aspirations. With any art form you keep developing, and I’m more articulate than I was, and starting to experience the guitar in a different way. Let me put it this way, I’m a late bloomer.”

For one of music’s most lauded lead guitarists, who fell in love with exotic rhythms at the age of five while listening to a Zulu parade in New Orleans (“it went all the way into my bone marrow”), this is a pretty significant statement, but the theme of “better than ever” seems to be persistent amongst all members of CSN. None of the three seem to be attached to a youth complex, instead crediting experience and a new sense of peace for their recent rebirth.

“It was the best tour I’ve had in years. Years and years,” Stills says. “Nobody was vibing anyone out of the room. We’re comfortable in our skins … and we seemed to have rounded a corner with being patient and forgiving.”

Photos: Crosby, Stills and Nash At The Ryman Auditorium

Of course, some things, no matter how joyful the tone, will never be agreed upon. Take the story of the first time they met. Nash and Crosby insist it was at Joni Mitchell’s, and Stills is adamant that it was in Cass Elliott’s kitchen. “It was at Cass’s and I’m not going to tell you anything else,” Stills laughs. “I was too intimidated by Joni Mitchell because she was so beautiful, and I’m so intimidated by beautiful women that I literally can’t speak for at least a day. I never would have set foot in there until we hung out a little bit more. So I say, we learned at Cass’s but we went to Joni’s to show off.”

Nash will get a chance to share his side of the story in an upcoming autobiography, out later this year. It’s just one thing he’s balancing between CSN, a gallery show in New York of his photographs, his solo material and helping to assemble Stills’ box set, which will comprise lost treasures like cuts from the constantly-rumored Hendrix collaboration (“a guitar conversation between me and Jimi, basically,” is how Stills puts it) and early Voice of America recordings of him finger and flat-picking 20’s and 30’s Appalachian tunes.

“My life has been so crazy,” Nash says, recalling how he felt looking back over the book proposal. “And I’ve had an incredible seat at the table. But I’m a storyteller. I love saying, hey, remember when John and Paul came over and said ‘listen to this song,’ and it’s John singing in one ear and Paul in the other? I love all that stuff. I loved playing Risk with Jimi Hendrix on acid.”

Who won, I ask?

“No one ever beat Jimi at Risk,” he says, which is probably true in more ways than one. “They never stood a chance.”

But as the book will tell his life story, he, and the rest of CSN, are still spinning new tales in the original way they know how: in song. Their live sets included new works by all three, including one written by Nash called “Almost Gone” about Bradley Manning, the soldier held in captivity for having passed classified material to WikiLeaks. “Tell the truth and it will set you free / That’s what they taught me as a child,” the chorus goes to a dirty beat.

“I’m a very simple writer,” Nash says. “I want a melody that you can’t forget after you’ve heard it once. I’m incredibly simple. David, with his early jazz influence and sense of chords and tuning, is much more complicated – that’s not the right word, but it’s the opposite of me. And Stephen is right in the middle. He does all the great blues stuff.”

Later, when I talk to Crosby on Election Day, he is quick to call Nash’s bluff.

“Nash is capable of writing complex songs like ‘Cathedral.’ He claims he is simple but check that song out and you will see he is not so simple. There are many of his songs that are brilliant poetry.”

On stage at the Ryman, he put it this way: “We all have roles in this band. Stephen: rock and roll. Nash: anthems the whole world wants to sing. And me, I’m supposed to write the weird shit.”

Crosby’s songs, like his personal favorite “Guinnevere,” do differentiate themselves with unusual structure and complex tunings rooted in an early love of jazz – the “weird shit,” so to speak. “When I was young I must have listened to [Miles Davis’] Sketches Of Spain 100 times,” he says. From that, “I learned if I changed tuning on the guitar then I could get chord inversions that were really different.” Davis himself took notice, covering “Guinnevere” in 1970. I ask if that was a surreal moment. “Yes. Yes,” are the only words the otherwise chatty Crosby can say.

“I was always drawn to Crosby’s songs,” says Field Report’s Chris Porterfeld. “They were oblique and mysterious and drug addled and bizarre and exotic.”

Part of CSN’s rocky mystique is due in part to the rather public antics of Crosby – including a year-long stint at a Texas jail and a liver transplant paid for by Phil Collins. And even before coming together with Nash and Stills, he was thrown out of his first group, The Byrds, due to internal friction and not-so-internal political comments made on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival. But now, even on Election Day, a day that should get this diehard, outspoken liberal riled up, he’s pretty damn serene, laughing warmly and asking me to text him some band names I’ve mentioned
(Bon Iver and Titus Andronicus). And he’s grateful.

“This has been one of our best years, I couldn’t be happier about it,” he says. “Normally a band doesn’t have a long lifetime, and we’ve had an exceptionally long one. We were expecting that to fade out but this year it’s taken about a ten percent upswing. Every place we play, big places, Red Rocks – we sold it out, every last seat. That’s really encouraging.”

Part of this upswing may be due in part to the fact that there probably hasn’t been a time in recent memory when Crosby, Stills & Nash has been quite so prominently influential in popular music. For a long time, in youth culture, CSN never really seemed to make its way into the legendary-band lexicon the way The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd has. Though now, harmonies and folk-driven “Americana” music is seeing a new light, thanks to bands like Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, Fleet Foxes and Dawes. CSN is getting its due.

“There are some good bands that have given us credit for inspiring them,” says Crosby. “Fleet Foxes, Mumfords. A number of people are putting out pretty good music. Whether that was inherent in them anyway or we had something to do with it, you have to judge for yourself.”

“I went to see Fleet Foxes, and they can sing,” he adds. “There are at least four guys in that band that can sing harmonies, and you can’t get me to say that often. I am pretty critical, particularly in that area. I just think they haven’t fully matured as writers. They will have better material if they can hang together and not let their egos get in the way.”

Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes puts it like this: “for me, the only other records that achieved that Beatles quality of making you feel like the record and the songs existed since the beginning of time and that they were exactly as they were supposed to be are Déjà Vu and the first CSN record. To be able to achieve a timelessness on that level and yet represent a time and a place in music is every artist’s dream, I think.”

Nash is more likely to point to modern artists like Jonathan Wilson, while Stills favors Ray LaMontagne and Brandi Carlisle, though he likes the fact that Mumford uses “quieter drums.” He even makes a solid defense of Taylor Swift. “How many times do people want to make fun of Taylor Swift for writing a song about getting dumped,” Stills says. “I’m sorry, that’s what you do as a songwriter. I don’t find that offensive at all. You’re putting your heart out, and that’s great.”

“She does look a lot like Joni,” he adds.

The real problem, Stills notes, is the way current artists seem to only be allowed to exist within one genre. “Everything is placed into a little cubby hole. Our records were always a mix-up of several different styles,” he says. Even now, the wide variety of influences that flow throughout the band – jazz, salsa, blues, rock, folk – are widely apparent on stage and in song, though somehow they all meld together anchored by those harmonies. And sure, they aren’t as exact as they once were. But they’re still beautiful. Crosby describes singing harmonies as “being able to fly formation. Two pilots, flying together, who can fly in really tight formation because you know where the other guy’s wingtip is.”

So will Crosby, Stills and Nash make new music? It seems like the answer is yes.

Though the Rick Rubin covers project fell through (“he was a vibe-killer,” says Crosby), they like the idea of recording an album of songs they wish they’d written, like The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” “Stephen has to go for knee surgery, but sometime early next year we want to go back into the studio and continue working on it,” Nash says. They all agree that original material as CSN is not out of the question, either, and neither is more touring. “If you asked me three years ago I might have said no. If you ask me now, I think we’re going to run it until the wheels come off,” Crosby says.

“Most guys my age are just trying to pull the handle again and see if the same numbers come up in a row,” he adds, “or they have pretty much given up and go and play their hits and then go get drunk. I don’t want that. I’m not going to stop growing until they put me in the grave.”

Back in Nashville, it’s nearing show time. Someone ducks into the greenroom to pass Nash a setlist, which he glances at quickly and signs off on. The show is electric, boosted by an excellent backing band (including Crosby’s son on keys, James Raymond), and includes long, trippy, expertly-slayed jams on songs like “Wooden Ships” and the entire sold-out venue singing along to “Teach Your Children.” They’re three different people, standing on different colored oriental rugs, one for each. But that doesn’t mean they don’t cross over, standing together, face-to-face and neck to neck. At the end, they gather close as Stills rips those first iconic chords of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Nash and Crosby standing together, Nash snapping his fingers. When Stills sings “are you still listening,” the audience erupts in cheers. They are. We are.

“Look,” Nash had told me before he headed to Stills’s dressing room to warm up around an acoustic guitar. “We took a lot of drugs, we have huge egos, and we all know what’s right for us. It’s been a delicate dance to weave through all this madness. But the truth is, here we are at the Ryman. If all three of us were to drop dead and there was an epitaph on a three-way tomb, I think it should read: ‘at least we tried.’ Cause that’s all we’re doing.”