Crosby & Nash

Crosby & Nash: Graham Nash / David Crosby (1972)

There have been many musicians that I have taken for granted, only to blithely stumble into their catalog and realize I had been missing out. A recent example is Crosby & Nash, famously 2/3rds (or ½) of CSN and sometimes Y. I would not have known that they recorded as a duo if I had not read Shakey, the notoriously controversial biography of Neil Young. Neil’s involvement with CSN provides some of the most hilarious material in the book. Noting the outrageous circumstances of David Crosby’s life, it’s amusing that he comes out looking pretty good by the end of the book in comparison to Stephen Stills, who, it must be said, refused to be interviewed for the book. Along the same lines, Graham Nash, often derided for the saccharine nature of his songs, is revealed to be quite a mensch, for lack of a better word, never afraid to criticize Young, though I laughed when he recounted being at a meeting with the group and not being able to protest one of Young’s many attempts to manipulate CSN in order to further his own career (see for example the “Living with War” tour) because he was too high on acid and couldn’t say anything.

Anyway, reading the book led me to look up more information about CSN, and while stumbling around in Wikipedia I discovered that the two recorded as a duo. After searching my, ahem, resources, I obtained a copy, and was quite impressed with what I heard.

The record starts off with “Southbound Train”, which bears a strong resemblance to the sound of Neil’s Harvest, a smash hit just a few months earlier in ’72. This is a Nash composition, and while lyrically it borders on nonsense, it’s a pleasant slice of laconic Laurel Canyon country rock. Immediately afterwards is Crosby’s “Whole Cloth”, providing a dramatic contrast to the opening number.

At this point I think it’s appropriate to discuss what’s become for me a mild obsession with David Crosby. Before reading Shakey, my knowledge of him was about the same as the typical classic rock listener: I knew he was the first letter of CSN, that he had been a Byrd, and that he was a prodigious drug user in his time; I vaguely recall watching MTV and seeing that he had been arrested by the Feds, most likely on one of his yachts, and that like Keith Richards, the mere fact that he still breathed in spite of his lifestyle was quite an accomplishment. In other words, he was a living classic-rock punch line. The reputation, though earned, is hardly fair. Crosby’s cadre of heavy friends – Young; Joni Mitchell; and Bob Dylan, who recounts bringing Crosby along to accept an honorary doctorate in his first edition of Chronicles (Crosby wore his cape, and consoled Dylan afterwards saying, essentially, “fuck ‘em”) – can be credited more to the fact that Crosby was in fact a phenomenal musician than the fact that he was, admittedly, the life of the party.

For those doubting that appraisal of Crosby, “Whole Cloth” provides an excellent rebuttal. To call the song minimal would be an understatement. It is the pop song equivalent of poetic blank verse: no chorus or bridge, hardly any chord changes, sparse, almost jazz-inflected instrumental backing. If you listen to this song in the context of the half-known Crosby described above, “Whole Cloth” comes off as pretentious lite jazz; remove that context, and it’s really remarkable. First off, Crosby really has an amazing voice. It is a soulful near-baritone, and he is skilled in using it to make even the simplest notes sound virtuosic. He was never the guitarist that Young or Stills were, yet, true to his folk roots, he does just enough with the instrument to carry along the simple acrobatics he performs vocally. Even though he barely plays any chords in the song, the chords he does play sound to my ears quite complicated, as though he stretched his fingers to the point that he found the melodically dissonant chords possible. The lyrics are elliptical, but to me, it sounds as though he’s looking back on the musical era he and his friends helped develop – the “Summer of Love” was just some 5 years past, and CSN’s high-water-mark Déjà Vu was a mere 3 years old. Seen this way, “Whole Cloth” can be interpreted as another self-important baby boomer looking on his past glories with undue admiration, but with lyrics like the following, there’s definitely more to appreciate than what can be scraped off the surface:

Old man, can you make a mirror for me?
It's got to be clearer than air for me
'Cause you see I can't see me, no
And I always thought that I meant what I said
But you know that lately I've read - We were lying
All of us lying, Just makin' 'it up, yeah
Cuttin' it out of whole cloth, yeah

The next track, “Blacknotes”, finds Nash abandoning his pop-rock tendencies and getting in on the elliptical tone-poem game. At a shade over 50 seconds, it presents a simple recipe for creating a song: just put your fingers on the black keys, sing some words, and that’s it. Nash’s “Stranger’s Room” is more like him: the same Harvest-esque lope as “Southbound Train”, but this time with the kind of show-stopping chorus Crosby & Nash made famous in their better-known jobs. One gets another chance to appreciate how appealing their combined voices sound in Crosby’s “Where Will I Be?”, just as introspective and simple lyrically as “Whole Cloth,” but this time featuring virtuosic humming in place of where one would normally expect a bridge or a chorus. Listening to the record recently, Crosby’s compositions reminded me of Cat Power’s Moon Pix, with its game-like wordplay and jazzy, almost meter-less inflection.

“Page 43” acts more like a pop song than Crosby’s previous numbers, ending with the kind of hippie-friendly message he would later be derided for:

Pass it 'round one more time
I think I'll have a swallow of wine
Life is fine
Even with the ups and downs
And you should have a sip of it
Else you'll find
It's passed you by

“Frozen Smiles”, a Nash composition, seems to contradict the libertine message of the previous song, and prefigures Nash’s role as a sober, admonishing critic of the excesses he saw lay waste to his colleagues later in life:

So my advice to you is not to take advice
From the dealers who are handing out the cards
Take your life into your own hand
Just have faith in who you are
And all your goodness that I'm forced to disregard
Because you make it much to hard.

“Games” and “Girl to be On My Mind” are both agreeable songs that I want to skip over in order to start talking about Crosby’s final show-stopper, “The Wall Song”. First off, it ably demonstrates Crosby’s skill in adapting the most mundane image and turning it into an excavation of his own fractured worldview. It bears an interesting resemblance to an earlier Crosby composition: “Mind Gardens”, from the Byrds’ Younger than Yesterday, though not as instrumentally adventurous (it does, however, feature backing from Grateful Dead mainstays Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzmann), Like "Mind Gardens," it seems to travel a psychic landscape, arriving at the metaphorical wall of consciousness, and ending with a riddle:

You are walking
You’ve always been walking
Stumbling half-blinded
And dry as the wind
That strafes you and leaves you
To lie in the sand
And the wall stretches endless beside you to nowhere
This wall that you've been trying to cross for years
This fence made of fears
No one hears

You see a door
Ah, such a great open door
You know that your eyes tellin' lies
Still you chance
A shambling run, a ridiculous dance
Like a scarecrow that's hung up to dry on a fencepole
And there's a space like vacuum waiting inside you
For you to get through
To the blue

You scent the water
Fresh clean grass, food and water
Your breath is scraping your brain into dust
Your rusty old engine is ready to bust
You cannot believe it that they would not trust you
The door is wavering
Is that your eyes?
Are they still telling lies?
What are lies?

Heavy stuff.

The album ends with Nash’s finest contribution, and its most successful in terms of revenue: “Immigration Man”, which peaked at #36 on the Billboard chart. Here Nash does what he did best in CSN: creates a huge, singalong-worthy chorus. I especially the sarcasm in the lines “Here I am with my immigration form, / it's big enough to keep me warm / when a cold wind's coming,” as well as the rhythm that seems to mimic the image of running from overzealous immigration agents – running, of course, while high on grass through some sun-dappled field in Laurel Canyon.

In sum, I think Crosby & Nash’s Graham Nash/David Crosby is an unjustly forgotten gem, much like the two men themselves: overshadowed by their more well-regarded friends. The Rolling Stone review at the time tends towards praise with faint damnation:
“Neither David Crosby, another original Byrd, nor Graham Nash has ever gotten anywhere near as offensive as Stills at his worst. But then, neither Crosby nor Nash has the capacity to catch fire, as Stills is always threatening to do. These two guys are expert harmony singers, but they swing toward the sweet, light side, and a little sugar generally goes a long way….Without Stills or Young along, the problem should be even more obvious, but it's just not. The Nash-Crosby LP is no milestone, but it is something more than merely pleasant in several places.”

I believe it serves as a sturdy document of the psychedelic afterglow of the early-seventies Laurel Canyon scene, and provides a roadmap for the soft-rock decade to come. Though the pop world may have forgotten them, they still soldier on: Crosby & Nash still tour as a duo, and they even have a website (http://www.crosbynash.com/) where one finds that they performed a get-out-the-vote concert with the likes of Tenacious D and the Beastie Boys.

From Graham Nash/David Crosby, Atlantic, 1972