There are many reasons to be upset with the current state of popular music, not the least of which is that mp3s strip the source music of much of its inherent quality, but an even better reason to do so is that buying individual songs purely because you like the ‘sound’ of the tune, is an act of disembodiment. It strips the music of its human context, and often of its lyrical content as well. Ear candy is one thing, the sound of the soul is another. And so it is with some relief that I can tell you that there is still embodied music out there to be had, for instance in the case of the recently released 4 disk box set entitled CSNY 1974.
What this boxed set of songs by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young is, is a time capsule, a chronicle of some of their better recorded performances from a tour in 1974 in which they did close to 60 concerts in a two plus month span, beginning in Seattle, and concluding with a grand finale at Wembley in London. For the record (or in this case 4 records), I did not see them on this tour. I had seen some of them before (Crosby and Nash at a sold out date at Duke, Neil Young with Linda Ronstadt at the Kennedy Center in D.C.) and I saw them together later, in the 80s. CSN and Y were called the American Beatles and with good reason— they all had been superstars in their own bands before they joined together (Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and the Hollies), they were all formidable singer songwriters in their own right, and they all played multiple instruments (various stringed instruments and keyboards as well). They epitomized the old adage that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, especially because of the interesting and often memorable harmonizing these four voices could do. It is more difficult to listen to them as they sound now, especially Stills, knowing what they once were.
While it might be thought that this box set would be just another greatest hits revisited, only live, like the Four Way Street album, this thought would be very wrong. What we have here is the pleasure of hearing these musicians sing and play not only the songs they did so well together, but also sing, in some cases for the first and only time, on each other songs. So for instances, Neil Young’s Old Man, or On the Beach or Only Love Can Break your Heart are pretty much transformed by the group performance, as is Still’s Johnny’s Garden, or Nash’s Chicago and Immigration Man, or Crosby’s Time after Time. There is much here to hear, and to savor— the textures of the sound, the new renditions of the songs, the new instrumentations and arrangements. It’s like going into a CSNY laboratory and seeing what could be cooked up picking from solo and group efforts between 1968-74.
When I tell my students a text without a context is just a pretext for what you want it to mean, the same applies to a somewhat lesser degree with music. Thus it is a happy fact that this CD set comes not only with a book of some 80 plus pages of commentary and reflection on the music and its performances then, but also with a grainy but moving DVD of some of the performances in Maryland and in London. Here you can see the pure joy these musician had in performing live, with one another, while often doing other band members songs. CSNY was often accused of having big egos, and to some degree those charges are accurate, but when they concentrated and worked together, they were the best California folk rock ever produced. The Eagles, while truly wonderful, fly in at a distant second to these four guys both in terms of song writing and in terms of performance and the same could be said of other So-Cal folk rockers like Jackson Browne.
Nash no doubt realized that the four disk extravaganza would not be everyone’s cup of tea, and so there is also the Starbucks special one disk version of highlights as well, which may be where one wants to start. Unfortunately, that disk doesn’t have some of the real unexpected gems that are on the full set alone. The real revelation on these four disks is how Neil Young’s then new songs sounded with CS N as the backup band! Neil would have been better served to have those extra voices on many of his earlier records, than to do them with Crazy Horse. Those boys could not sing like CS and N. It is also great to see the guitar interplay between Young and Stills, revisiting the best of their years together in Buffalo Springfield and to hear the celestial harmonies of Nash and Crosby together again.
When we look back at the 60s and 70s counter culture, which was replaced by the disco and then synthesizer era with less and less social significance, there is still much to ponder. Why indeed have our young people simply gone off to war in droves to Iraq and Afghanistan in the last fifteen years, only to come home crippled, maimed, dead or disappointed, because neither of those wars has or will produce the intended outcome, indeed neither of those wars was really won? It is ironic that the movie Charlie Wilson’s War shows very well what the reaction in the 70s was to getting involved in Afghanistan. Very different from the reaction in the 21rst century.
America, to a real extent, has lost is soul, its moral compass, its real concern for peacemaking and justice, not least because of the numbing effect of fighting a whole series of wars in my lifetime which do not qualify as just wars, or wars undertaken according to the Geneva Conventions or even declared wars. None of them.
Why do I mention this in a review of CSNY 1974, because so many of their songs from Chicago to Ohio were precisely about the moral dilemmas of fighting such wars. It’s good to hear them again sing with passion about some of the things that truly matter, things we should ‘teach our children well’ so they can avoid ‘their parent’s hell’.