Biographies & Memoirs

CODA: OCTOBER 2009

The wrapped sandwiches piled atop a loudspeaker bore each of their initials: GN, DC, SS, JT. But there wouldn’t be much time to wolf down any of them. At a multiroom facility in Manhattan in late October 2009, rehearsals were underway for the twenty-fifth-anniversary concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Technicians hustled past security teams, who in turn kept an eye on all the musicians scurrying from room to room to practice for the next day’s shows at Madison Square Garden.

By design, the concerts would present the hookups of a music geek’s dreams; already, everyone was buzzing about what possible song Metallica and the Kinks’ Ray Davies would play together. From outside one of the rooms came the sound of one of those groupings: Crosby, Stills & Nash playing “Love the One You’re With,” a song they’d cranked out thousands and thousands of times over the previous thirty-nine years, but this time with a new lead singer, James Taylor. Down the hall, after Simon and Garfunkel had finished rehearsing their set, Simon pulled aside Crosby and Nash. In a harried five minutes, the three worked out a vocal arrangement for “Here Comes the Sun,” to be dedicated to one who couldn’t make it, George Harrison, dead eight years from cancer.

Forty years had passed since Bridge Over Troubled Water, Let It Be, Sweet Baby James, and Déjà vu had been completed that fall and winter of 1969 into 1970. For each of these musicians, those four decades had been an ongoing tempest of hits, flops, breakups, reunions, marriages, divorces, children, drug rehab stints—the welcome-and-not gamut of life experiences. On these few days in New York, the survivors would be together once again to celebrate their music and, in an unspoken way, their very endurance.

In the intervening decades, their paths continued to cross and collide in myriad combinations. Start with the evening of March 16, 1971, when the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Taylor, and CSNY were all competing for various Grammy Awards. Bridge Over Troubled Water, Déjà vu, and Sweet Baby James vied against each other for Album of the Year; “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Let It Be,” and “Fire and Rain” were each up for Record and Song of the Year. In each category, Simon and Garfunkel triumphed, yet neither man acted like a winner. When they left their front-row seats and walked up to the podium, they hardly looked at each other and only gave the briefest of acceptance speeches, barely acknowledging the other. When John Wayne announced the winner for best score for a movie or TV show—Let It Be—Paul McCartney, Linda in hand, appeared, unannounced beforehand. Wearing tennis sneakers and a blue suit, he made his way to the stage, said a quick thanks, and was gone again. (In light of his tattered image after the Beatle breakup, McCartney knew the importance of positive public relations.) It would be the only award the Beatles were handed that night; for best Duo, Group, or Chorus performance, they lost to the Carpenters. Neither the rest of the Beatles, nor Taylor nor CSNY, bothered to attend.

As the ’70s lurched on, their lives and careers continued to intermingle. Crosby and Nash added their hippie-choir-boy harmonies to Taylor’s recordings, most prominently “Mexico.” When both Taylor and Young appeared on Johnny Cash’s TV show in Nashville in 1971, Young invited Taylor to the Harvest sessions in town, and Taylor wound up singing harmony on “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” (and adding a banjo part to the former). Simon and Harrison did a lovely joint performance of “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound” on Saturday Night Live; Simon, Garfunkel, and Taylor cut an easy-listening remake of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.” Taylor and Crosby, Stills & Nash participated in the No Nukes concerts in 1979. Simon, Lennon, and Ono were neighbors on New York’s Upper West Side, where one day Simon and Clive Davis ran into Lennon at a coffee shop, and Lennon told Simon how much he liked his solo work without Garfunkel.

Simon and Garfunkel would reconvene fitfully—at a George McGovern rally in 1972, in a San Francisco recording studio that same year, in New York’s Central Park in 1981, for a tour two years later—but each time the reunion never held. The familiar magic played out onstage, but the old agitations would eventually emerge, scotching a planned album, Think Too Much, in 1983. On his own, Simon would make some of the finest music of his career on albums like There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years, and Garfunkel would continue alternating between music and film roles.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were on and off with each other on a regular basis. The years would be a nonstop, dizzying go-round of solo or duet projects and attempted or completed reunions, always followed by the inevitable, accusation-driven collapse. There would be highlights (Stills’ expansive, career-peak Manassas album, Crosby and Nash’s work together, innumerable masterful Young records, CSNY’s “Pushed It Over the End” from their 1974 tour) and low points (Crosby’s imprisonment on drugs and weapon charges, the aborted Stills-Young Band tour of 1976, woefully overproduced and anemic music throughout the’80s). But like Simon and Garfunkel, they remained capable of stirring up the best parts of their lives together; the quartet’s 2006 tour, in support of Young’s scabrous Living with War album, was surprisingly commanding and political—and, of course, included “Ohio.”

Taylor would marry Carly Simon, grow more addicted to drugs and drink, and finally kick heroin in the early ’80s, during which time he and Simon would divorce. “Last stop: Legend,” Cashbox had declared of him in 1970, a prediction that had come true by 2009. The man who sang “Oh, Susannah” was now as much a part of the fabric of American music as Stephen Foster himself. Nearly everyone in his fan base could read Taylor’s life—addiction, recovery, three marriages, children of varying ages, career highs and lows, deceased siblings—into their own.

The bumpy relations between the former Beatles became lore unto themselves. In March 1971, McCartney won the case against his fellow Beatles; in a rebuke to Allen Klein, a judge appointed a receivership to oversee the group’s assets. Each went on to a solo career of varying success and quality, and business squabbles repeatedly reared their heads. Every so often it looked as if they might come together again, thanks to partial reunions on record or at social gatherings. But Lennon’s murder in 1980 ended that speculation, and Harrison’s death took the idea off the table completely.

Sometimes the connections between all four entities were eerie or inexplicable. In the late ’70s, many years after Kent State, Jerry Casale’s band Devo wound up playing with Young. Garfunkel partnered with Laurie Bird, Taylor’s costar on Two-Lane Blacktop, before she took her own life in Garfunkel’s New York apartment in 1979. Terre and Maggie Roche, Simon’s students at NYU, would eventually release an album, 1975’s Seductive Reasoning, with Simon’s help; later, with sister Suzzy, they would become the Roches.

Even a few months before the Hall of Fame concerts, they continued to reappear in each other’s lives. In February 2009, Garfunkel was a surprise guest at Simon’s show at New York’s Beacon Theatre, with McCartney watching in the audience. Despite the years and the rancor, their voices cozied up to each other’s on “The Sound of Silence” and “The Boxer” as if they’d never been apart. Two months later, Starr and McCartney reunited at a New York benefit concert, doing a good-natured “With a Little Help from My Friends” and joking backstage about faulty memories due to too much acid. Not long after that, Taylor inducted Crosby, Stills & Nash into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Months after the Hall of Fame concerts were over, Simon could be found on a Brooklyn stage, sweetly singing Lennon’s “Hold On” from Plastic Ono Band as part of a tribute concert. Mirroring the technology of a new era, their collective lives remained in random shuffle mode.

105

Neil Young wasn’t at the rehearsals, but that surprised no one; a dozen years earlier, he’d blown off his Hall of Fame induction for Buffalo Springfield. “It’s always a shame not to get together with someone who I made some of the best shit of my life with,” Crosby lamented during downtime. “Hopefully we’ll do it again someday.” Neither McCartney nor Starr would attend, either.

Those who made it to the Chelsea-neighborhood studio those October days in 2009 had been batted around by past lifestyles and age. They were all in their sixties now, if not approaching seventy, and bore the scars to prove it. Less hair and more eyewear. Crosby had a new liver. Stills had battled prostate cancer and, like many of his age and career choice, needed a hearing aid thanks to years of loud studio and stage monitors. (If he couldn’t hear a question or backstage comment, Nash, ever the mediator, would repeat it to him.) Some had hair whiter than any pile of cocaine they once devoured. The high notes were harder to hit but still reachable: Singing behind Jackson Browne on “The Pretender,” Nash and Crosby sounded nearly as bright as when they’d sung it with him on record in 1976.

In some ways, they remained the same. Crosby was, in his words, “a blabbermouth,” a balance of cockiness and joviality. Taylor, in denim work shirt, retained his lean, sinewy frame and still projected an image of the endearingly absentminded professor. Nash was the gracious, if tough-minded, professional, Garfunkel the fastidious harmonizer (upset when he thought a cold he’d developed had affected his singing), Simon the privacy-inclined precisionist. No longer notoriously aloof, Stills was more gregarious and welcoming than in his brash youth. Although some of the old baggage remained between them, they also knew they had to rely on each other; Crosby and Stills, who’d had a frosty relationship for decades, acted more like old barroom pals than they had in years.

For one of the set finales, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Taylor, joined by Browne and Bonnie Raitt, would sing “Teach Your Children” for what was probably CSN’s 8,319th time. When they finished, Stills shouted over to Taylor at the opposite end of the line, giving him direction on playing a chord change. “When Stephen was with Buffalo Springfield, I was in the Flying Machine,” Taylor reminisced during a pause in the rehearsals. “We couldn’t believe our ears. They were the most exciting thing out there. And Stephen was the genius of that generation. The Springfield set the bar for us. Stephen’s guitar and vocal work, I very much aspire to it. And CSN were absolutely seminal for me and profoundly inspiring.” Stills then went over to Taylor and, with a guffaw, gave him a boisterous, playful slap on the right arm. Looking genuinely startled, Taylor went back to practicing the chord changes as everyone else took a break.

Settling into folding chairs, Stills told Nash he’d been woken up earlier the previous morning to promote a new CD on Howard Stern’s show. “It was quite a trip,” Stills said in his gravel-road voice. “He said, ‘God, you’re conservative—you’re like Richard Nixon!’”

Nash looked aghast. “He said that to you?”

They both laughed. Nixon was now just a bad memory—and a relatively harmless one compared to so many in his party who’d followed. (Wiretapping the opposing party now felt like a schoolyard prank compared to starting unprovoked wars.) Many other aspects of 1970 were vague recollections too; Crosby, for one, had no recall of the night in Denver when Young stalked offstage. Simon and Garfunkel preferred not to talk about that tumultuous year at all, especially given how they’d mended their own relationship starting in the new century. Rock and roll no longer piloted the culture the way it once had, and the album itself—a cohesive, long-form piece of music that had first flourished during the era of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Taylor, and CSNY—was now a dying art form in the age of single-song downloads and digital players.

But nearly four decades on, the lessons and lesions of 1970 lingered all around them. The generation gap that cracked rock and roll apart that year, separating the older fans from the newer, next-generation ones, was now an entrenched part of the culture. The fans who demanded to be let in for free at festivals were, in essence, precursors to those who assumed music on the Internet should cost nothing. A new generation of indie-rock balladeers offered an alternative to clatter the same way Taylor once had. In record stores, polls, CD sales, and the world of video games, the Beatles still loomed as they had in 1970. (In 2010, Abbey Road was the best-selling record on vinyl—a format that had been newly resuscitated—and the Beatles were among the year’s top ten best-selling artists, alongside Taylor Swift, Eminem, and Lady Gaga.)

The legacy of the first Earth Day and the launch of Greenpeace endured in the ever-widening green movement. Talk of manned space missions was back in the headlines—and by way of an African American president, an idea inconceivable in the fraught months of 1970. Even rock festivals, all but left for dead in 1970, had made a comeback; they’d become better planned and carried out than ever.

As the Hall of Fame concerts demonstrated, the music endured as well. The songs from those albums had been overplayed on radio and onstage, used in commercials, and in general beaten to death. But as Simon and Garfunkel traded verses on the Garden stage, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” fulfilled its destiny: It truly had become an old, revered gospel-style hymn. (Given how the two had reconciled in recent years, the lyrics took on an added resonance.) Crosby, Stills & Nash pulled off a surprisingly boisterous “Woodstock,” and Crosby, despite the decades of wear and tear on his body, could still shout out a respectable “Almost Cut My Hair.” As harmonized by Simon, Nash, and Crosby, “Here Comes the Sun” felt like a centuries-old folk song.

At their own concerts, Crosby, Stills & Nash had taken to playing Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” written in 1970, and McCartney’s “Blackbird,” the song they’d sung at Royal Albert Hall so long before. As Joni Mitchell sang in that long-ago year, the seasons, they still went’round and ’round.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!