Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is a strange case in folk-pop music history. On the one hand, the (super)group’s influence is ludicrously palpable in any number of post-2000s groups featuring prominent harmonies from the Fleet Foxes to Band of Horses. On the other hand, there has always been a “soft” quality to the group, something that has struck their detractors as lame and less evidently groundbreaking compared to many of their peers. To those critics, Young—the most obviously brilliant songwriter of the four—did the original trio a favor by joining them.

Needless to say, this critique misses its mark. Not only do all four of the members have quite remarkable pre-CSNY pedigrees that need not be rehashed here, but their signal contributions to the supergroup are more than enough to guarantee them a place in the ‘60 rock pantheon. With all its members now septuagenarian, it is no surprise to find new attempts to grapple with their legacy, and Peter Doggett’s book, CSNY: Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, is an admirable attempt to do so and is almost certainly the definitive book on the troubled group.

Stories of drug use overshadowed the group’s initial accomplishments, as did recent tabloid-y stories about in-fighting (more precisely, Crosby vs. Everyone Else). But Doggett manages to transcend the drama and offers genuine insight not only into the individual psychologies of the group’s members and their musical synergy, but also the openly political valence of their musical expression. Even when not singing songs as programmatically political as some of their contemporaries, CSNY embodied a way of being political in and through their writing and performance, and even in their very existence, in their form as a musical ensemble.

Though their first, self-titled album is a classic and features some of their most beloved songs (“Marrakesh Express,” “Wooden Ships,” “Helplessly Hoping,” “Guinnevere” and of course the wondrous “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”), their second album is on another plane. Déjà Vu, which saw Young joining the band, is an eclectic and perfectly crafted set of songs, which shuffle from one principal songwriter to another, with each one contributing some of the best songs they ever wrote and recorded in any guise. On paper, though all four are excellent and distinctive singers, it is hard to imagine how the harmonies are going to work, but they do, and how, especially on the closing triumph “Everybody I Love You.” Doggett seems to have intimate of every session CSNY ever had, and so even seasoned listeners of these works will get even closer to them thanks to his extraordinary research, which helps us understand their origin and development.

Veteran navigators of the music industry from their previous musical incarnations, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young also managed to navigate that world together – however briefly, at least in terms of their most successful and musically impactful period – while retaining their respective individuality. Ultimately, Doggett’s meticulously crafted narrative not only perfectly evokes the period but also convinces the reader that the “supergroup” aspect of CSNY was not just a publicity stunt but an attempt to show collective creativity at work in a way that would not sacrifice the personalities and idiosyncrasies of its constituent parts. And an integral part of those personalities was not just each member’s musical sensibility but also their political sensibilities as well. They held a united front on all manner of progressive causes yet without feeling the need to subsume each other’s views into one neat package. In other words, they allowed each other’s concerns, whether in terms of war, workers, students, sexuality or the environment, to affect each other and to strengthen their collective resolve against injustice.

Most impressively of all, one comes away from reading Doggett’s book feeling like, as famous as they were and continued to be, CSNY remains an underrated group, one that, tragicomically, has spent most of its career apologizing for not staying together longer in the first place. In that respect, they are like the ‘60s, the decade that spawned – a spark that flashed bright and was dampened all too soon.

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