By Ken Sharp
In terms of sheer popularity, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young never flew higher than in 1974. These former members of celebrated ’60s outfits The Byrds (David Crosby), The Hollies (Graham Nash) and Buffalo Springfield (Stephen Stills and Neil Young) towered high above the rock and roll mountaintop as members of a musical collective that equaled — and sometimes bettered — the artistic achievements of their previous incarnations. That year, the band embarked on a massive stadium tour that set the stage for large-scale rock extravaganzas to follow.
The tour’s legendary three-hour-plus shows blended an electric-acoustic-electric set that have taken on an almost mythic standing in CSNY fan lore — except, perhaps, for those who heard a bootleg recording of the group’s Wembley performance, which was anything but the band’s finest hour. Now fans and skeptics alike can render judgment with “CSNY 1974,” which presents the best of the best of the nine concerts the group had recorded during the 31-venue tour.
Graham Nash, in partnership with archivist Joel Bernstein, oversaw the project, and he has the battle scars to prove it. Listening to this monumental body of work goes a long way to demonstrating that in 1974 CSNY rightfully earned their crown as peerless musical innovators.
GOLDMINE: Why was it called “The Doom Tour?”
GRAHAM NASH: I didn’t call it that; Crosby did. The 40 songs on this box set soar to me. David called it “The Doom Tour” because he kept trying to sing “Guinevere” with one guitar and two voices to 100,000 people. It just didn’t work. It’s too big. That’s why David called it “The Doom Tour.” I didn’t think it was “The Doom Tour;” I had a great time myself. I think the music will show people how good a time we were having.
GM: Tell us more about “CSNY ’74.”
GN: In 1974, CSNY did a series of shows in stadiums and basketball arenas. We played 31 venues and recorded nine of them in multi-track. Me and my friend Joel Bernstein listened to every single inch of tape, every second of music that we had made on multi-track, and put together this album that is thrilling me. I’m not unthrillable, but I’m certainly hard to move, and this music is a great representation of who this band is.
GM: Listening back almost 40 years later, was it better than you thought?
GN: Yes. It was much better than my memory of it all. We did 31 shows with an average audience attendance of about 70,000 people. We were moving so fast with helicopters and private jets, it was a bit of a blur, but in investigating the tapes and finding the best delivery of the songs, I fell back in love with who these guys are, man.
GM: More than anyone else in the band, you have a special bond with David Crosby. Explain that heart-and-soul connection.
GN: I love Crosby. I love his music, and I love making music with him. As I’ve said before, he’s one of the most unique musicians that I know. I just understand him better than anybody else, I think. What makes Crosby so unique is his foundation in jazz. He’s always been a great jazz fan. He tells this incredible story about seeing John Coltrane in a nightclub in Chicago in the mid-’60s. Coltrane, having blown a solo, walked offstage and left it to Elvin Jones, who was the drummer.
He played a solo so incredibly great that it drove Crosby out of the room and into the bathroom. Crosby is leaning against the tiles in the bathroom trying to recover from Elvin Jones’ solo and the door bursts open and John Coltrane comes in still playing his saxophone. David’s a jazz musician and always has been, and that’s where his uniqueness comes from.
GM: CSNY hasn’t always been a peaceful unit; you have battled pretty heavily at times. Is having that element of creative friction good for a unit like CSN/CSNY?
GN: Yes, it’s just like a family. I never had brothers, so I don’t know quite how that feels. But I have David and Stephen and Neil in my life, and they’re almost like brothers, and brothers argue! I mean, it’s the way life is. Not everybody sees the same truth the same way. It’s just the way life is. So would more tension have made the music better? Who knows? But there was certainly a great deal of tension in the band, especially during the making of “Déjà Vu,” but it was a pretty good album, so you can’t argue with it.
GM: You’ve said, “When we play with Neil, I expect the unexpected.”
GN: He is an incredible cog in the wheel of whatever CSNY is, and he does bring a certain level of intensity. CSN music in the late ’60s was very summery, and the sun was blazing when we were making our first record. The times were fantastic, and we didn’t think we could do anything wrong. It was an unbelievable time, and Neil brings intensity to that equation which is not there when he’s not there.
GM: Working with three vocalists in CSN on harmony parts, discuss how the addition of Neil to the vocal mix proved challenging for the group.
GN: Because three-part harmony is different than four-part harmony. It’s very, very different. You have to change the tonal structure of the whole thing, and it sounds different. But so what? We sing well with Neil; wait until you hear some of the live stuff on the CSNY live 1974 stuff. It’s tremendous. I’m thrilled with it musically.
GM: Writing songs for CSN/CSNY, how much was inspired by envisioning what the others would bring to it? Were you simply trying to write a great song?
GN: I’m a very selfish man in many ways. I only write for myself; I don’t write for CSN or CSNY. I just have to get these songs out of my system. Now having said that, it gets very obvious when you write something like “Teach your Children” where that’s all headed. You know there’s gonna be that great three-part harmony, and it’s gonna have that great country feel that Stephen puts into that track, so it’s the way it’s supposed to go.
GM: You’re a brave man, Graham Nash.
GN: No, no, it wasn’t me that was brave; it was the other guys that were brave. I knew my songs. I had written it. They were playing it for the first time live having just heard the chords from the guy that was just sitting over there at the piano, which was me.
GM: In typical CSNY bravado, your second gig was at Woodstock in front of a few hundred thousand people.
GN: Woodstock started out to be an event with 10, 15, 20,000 people, and then a week later it was 100,000 people, and then a week later it was 200,000 people. I mean, it grew exponentially. When we agreed to play that show, which was only the second show we ever played, we thought it would be in front of 10,000 or 15,000 people, but it wasn’t like that when we got there. (Laughs.) It was hundreds of thousands of people.
GM: “Our House” is a classic CSNY track featured in the new live set. What inspired it?
GN: That home that Joni had in Laurel Canyon was a little jewel box, no doubt about it. “Our House” was a very simple statement from me telling Joni just how much I loved her. It took an hour to write; it came really quickly. I knew that “Our House” was a melody that people would love to sing. And, with all due respect, which man hasn’t been in that position where you buy your old lady a bunch of flowers and she puts them in the vase while you’re eating dinner? It’s an ordinary moment, but it was a very deep, profound moment for me.
GM: What made “CSNY 1974” the most difficult and rewarding project in your career?
GN: I’m really thrilled with this record. We set a very high bar for the music and I think that Joel (Bernstein) and I and Stanley (Johnston) pulled it off.
GM: Difficult and rewarding could also apply the CSNY’s entire career.
GN: That’s true, but this is different. With CSN, it’s only three people and two of whom trust me completely. When you add Neil (Young), it gets a little more difficult. It wasn’t difficult personally at all, because obviously I kept Neil in the loop about every stage of what was going on. But it was difficult technically. For instance, of the nine shows that were multi-tracked, there were five different buildings of five different sizes of five different audio trips, and to make it sound like you were sitting in the same hall through 40 songs was very difficult.
GM: Was it a mind trip to go back and revisit those shows from 40 years ago?
GN: I saw a bootleg of our show at Wembley Stadium from ’74, and quite frankly, it was not a great show by us. One of the reasons why we didn’t release a live album 40-odd years ago was because that was the show that we listened to, and we thought, “Oh, my God, we were just horrible!” And everyone kind of lost enthusiasm for it. But I realized if I digged deep enough, we’d find some really good shows, because I knew we played some shows really excellently. I knew that somewhere on these tapes there was a great show to be had. So that’s how I stared working on this project. I said to Neil, “Listen, I don’t want our fans to think that’s who we were from hearing this bootleg of us at Wembley.” Yeah, we did that then, but we were too coked out of our minds, and we were playing too fast. We were too excited because it was my hometown. So I didn’t want our fans to think that’s who we were. I wanted to expose them to the really great music that we did. So I started from a very basic premise and focused on getting the very best performance of each song and the best performances that knocked me on my ass, and I found them.
GM: Pick a song by each of your partners from “CSNY ’74” that knocked you on your ass.
GN: There’s several from Neil: “Don’t Be Denied,” “Pushed it Over the End” and “Hawaiian Sunrise.” From Crosby, I’d pick “Time After Time;” that was one of the first times he ever played it. His delivery of “Almost Cut My Hair” is really great. Also, Crosbsy’s delivery at the end of “Ohio” when he’s just f**king screaming in anger is really good. With Stephen, the song “Myth of Sisyphus,” which he did solo at the piano is a standout, and also his solo acoustic guitar on “Word Game.” And as for me, I’ll choose “The Prison Song,” which I thought was a really good performance, plus obviously things like “Teach Your Children” and “Chicago” and “Military Madness.” I’ll tell you something, Ken: Working on this project I kind of fell back in love with who we were and who we are. And it’s the truth, especially when I got to things like “Goodbye Dick,” which is a Neil Young song that is one-and-a-half minutes long and was only done once and never again. Because we were so against the Nixon administration and we were so much against the Vietnam War, I thought “Goodbye Dick,” which Neil, of course, wrote about Nixon getting thrown out of office, was just perfect.
GM: What were the greatest challenges CSNY faced playing stadiums?
GN: Well, we knew we could do it. We were full of ourselves and thought we were a fine band. We knew we had four fine singers and four fine writers, and it was just a question of getting the job done. So we knew we could play to that many people, ’cause, don’t forget, we had done Woodstock. We had played “Guinevere” with one acoustic guitar and two voices to several hundred thousand people, so we knew we could do it.
GM: How did playing for huge crowds impact the set list and approach to the music?
GN: The main challenge was how to reach the people in the front row and how to reach the people in the back row. When you’re dealing with a 10,000-seat hall or a 2,000-seat theater, that’s relatively easy. But when you’re dealing with our average audience on that tour, which must have been 60, 75,000 people, it becomes much more difficult. I think that’s one of the reasons David called it “The Doom Tour,” because we’ve got to be able to look in the eyes of our audience and know that we’re emotionally connecting with them. Otherwise, why the f**k are we there? Now let’s talk about the set. Neil Young hit a writing spell that was unbelievable. That’s the reason why Neil has more songs on this record than I do or David or Stephen. It’s just the fact. Going from the high bar that every song has to knock me on my ass, I couldn’t throw out “Hawaiian Sunrise;” I couldn’t throw out “Don’t Be Denied” or “Pushed It Over the End.” They had to go in because the performances were f**king killer. But the biggest technical challenge was trying to make it sound like you were in the 12th row, right in the middle of one hall, and you stay there for the 40 songs.
GM: The set — electric, acoustic and then back to electric — showed off all sides of CSNY.
GN: That’s what we’ve always tried to do. We’ve always known that we have a lot of songs. We’ve always known that we have to communicate with the audience on a very direct level. So with audiences of that size, you can’t start out your show acoustic. So we went out there, balls to the wall, with “Love the One You’re With,” a kick-ass song right off the top, and then through the first set. Then there’s an intermission, and we let everybody settle down and play acoustically and then add drums and add bass occasionally. Then we take another break and come back for the last electric set.
GM: Hearing for so many years that the CSNY ’74 tour was not good, it’s a wonderful surprise to prove that history was wrong.
GN: I wanted our fans to know that we were a very good rock and roll band and that we are human beings with our weaknesses and our strengths. I wanted to make sure our fans understood just how excellent we were.
GM: Was that obscured through the years?
GN: ’Cause nothing was out live from us except “4 Way Street.” Fans hadn’t heard anything from us live on record after that. Then all of sudden this bootleg from Wembley comes out, and I have no f**king idea who leaked it or put out that bootleg. I was angry, because that’s not who we were. It was who we were that night, but we had done 31 other shows. I just didn’t want people to think that’s who we were.
GM: How did “CSNY 1974” lineup come alive onstage vs. in the studio?
GN: I relate it to my photography. Sometimes, when you want to shoot a still life or three apples in a bowl with a big negative and a big camera, it takes a while to get it; the exposure is long and the preparation is long. When you play live, it’s now! There’s no time to waste; those people are waiting now, and you better perform now and that’s the difference. I must tell you, there’s not one overdub on this entire box set. Not one.
GM: You can’t say that for many live albums.
GN: Nope, you can’t.
GM: There’s always been a combustibility about CSNY both personally and musically, and you can hear that on “CSNY 1974.”
GN: That’s true. If you’re not on the edge, you’re taking up too much room. We loved to be on the edge. There’s a song that was a new one of mine for my girlfriend at the time called “It’s Alright.” I wrote it one morning, and I play it that night, and David, Stephen and Neil had never heard it. On the tape, Stephen yells out to me, “Hey Willy, what are the chords to this song?” I start to ramble to Stephen, “Well, it starts in D and then goes to B minor …” Then we do the song. The reason why it’s not on the album is because the song wasn’t finished. I later put a chorus in there, and I changed a few of the words. But that’s what I mean by being on the edge. When Neil said, “I want to do this song called ‘Goodbye Dick’” I was like, “Fine.” I mean, who the f**k are we to tell Neil Young he can’t sing a new song?” (Laughs.) It doesn’t matter how many people are out there.
GM: That same combustibility exists between Neil Young and Stephen Stills as guitar players who brought their history playing together in Buffalo Springfield to the table.
GN: I can’t tell you what a thrill it is for me as a minor musician; I’m certainly not the musician Crosby is or Stephen or Neil is. I can play acoustic guitar or electric guitar or piano to satisfy my own writing needs, but I’m not a great musician at all. And for me to stand in the middle of the stage and watch the musical entity that is Stephen Stills and Neil Young playing guitar against each other and sparking each other into higher and higher musical forms is a great part of what we love about our relationship with Neil, and obviously it was a great part of Buffalo Springfield. To watch Neil and Stephen approach each other — not only physically, not only with incredibly intense eye contact, but with the music they each bring out of their own separate guitar playing — was amazing to me. It was just amazing; I was in f**king awe, because I’m not that good. When you hear a guitar conversation between Stephen and Neil, as you do many times on this record, that’s an incredibly strong part of what it is that we do, but it is also very fragile. For instance, Neil Young, God bless his cotton socks, is only interested in the best music, as I am and David is and Stephen is. But sometimes it doesn’t work. On a couple of those earlier CSNY tours, we got to the first night, played the first show and knew it was horrible and quit the tour that night. So it is a very fragile thing. But fortunately on this tour — and I don’t want to brag — I thought we were excellent. GM