Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER 4

Hold still, thought photographer Tom Gundelfinger as he aimed his antique camera at the men gathered in David Crosby’s backyard. A few more seconds and Gundelfinger could snap the ideal photo for the cover of the new album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Using a hundred-year-old camera that required his subjects not to move was challenging enough. That they’d snorted up a line of cocaine right before the shoot began wasn’t helping: No wonder they all seemed so jittery.

They’d begun arriving at Crosby’s house in Novato, just north of San Francisco, one late morning in November 1969. After a group breakfast and shared snort, the costumes and props rented in Los Angeles—a Confederate uniform, a buffalo hunter’s jacket, a white frilly shirt, pistols, rifles, bullet belts—were disbursed. Down to the smallest detail, everything was precisely the way they wanted it for an album everyone knew would be one of the biggest of the following year.

How far and how fast they’d come. Just a year before, in the winter of 1968, Crosby, Stills & Nash had had the dubious distinction of being rejected by the Beatles. The three had joined forces months before and left their home base in Los Angeles to woodshed material in an apartment on London’s Moscow Road. Dropping by to hear them sing, George Harrison and Apple A&R man Peter Asher politely listened and left. Later, the three were told Apple had passed for unspecified reasons. Maybe the Beatles didn’t want competition, or perhaps Harrison remembered the feud he’d had in 1965 with the Hollies, the Manchester pop band that showcased Nash’s high, keening harmonies. Harrison had dismissed their cover of “If I Needed Someone,” his contribution to Rubber Soul. “You can’t please everyone,” a peeved Nash fired back at the time, adding, “The Beatles are always having a go at us quietly. But I’d back any of our boys against any of the Beatles musically anytime.”

One year, one gold album, and a tsunami of accolades later, it was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—not the Hollies—who had a shot at unseating the Beatles. Even before it was completed, Déjà vu was being treated as an event; Rolling Stone used that very term in an article published during its recording. In January, two months before its release, Atlantic began advertising the album in music trade magazines.

To make its significance as unambiguous as possible, an equally momentous package was required. In the late summer of 1969, Gundelfinger (who later changed his surname to O’Neal) received a call from art director Gary Burden: CSNY, Stills in particular, wanted the jacket of its next album to resemble an old leather-bound book (or, Stills said, “a hymnal”), and the band wanted to be photographed in Old West garb. They hadn’t yet decided to call the album Déjà vu, but the image played off one of Crosby’s two contributions to the album, a spacey, tempo-shifting song with the refrain “we have all been here before.” Could Gundelfinger devise a way to make the photo look as if it were a hundred years old?

Gundelfinger checked in with Stills, who had a simple message: “He said, ‘I want the real deal,’” Gundelfinger recalled. “End of story. End of conversation.” For a few hundred dollars, Gundelfinger found a store in Hollywood that rented him a well-preserved wooden-box camera from the Matthew Brady era. Using it would be tricky: It had an exposure time of two and a half minutes, and the pictures would have to be developed immediately.

On the day of the shoot, Gundelfinger found himself in Crosby’s backyard watching the four of them, along with Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves, suit up. Since their album was being recorded in the Bay Area, the photo session had to be shifted up north. Crosby became a hippie version of Buffalo Bill, Nash a farmer, Stills a soldier, Young something close to an aristocrat. Somehow, they remained still enough for Gundelfinger to take two shots. The task completed, the four of them whooped it up.

Ultimately, the photos didn’t have enough contrast in them, forcing O’Neal to use a shot from a modern camera he’d set up as a backup next to the antique box. (In the one they ultimately chose, a dog wandered into the shoot seconds before he snapped.) To make the newly taken photo look like a relic from the days of Gettysburg, Gundelfinger soaked the negative in a chemical solution and let it dry in the sun, a method used by Civil War photographers. If Stills wanted the real deal, he now had it—or something as close to it as possible.

The photograph was merely phase one of several torturous steps in the album’s packaging. The faux-vintage band photo had to be placed in precisely the right spot on each imitation-leather (actually hard-cardboard) cover—and it had to be done by hand, since record-plant machinery hadn’t yet been invented to do it automatically. For Ron Stone of Lookout Management, the process was “an absolute fucking nightmare. The band looked at it and said, ‘That’s fucking great.’ I looked at it and said, ‘How the fuck are we going to do this?’” At seven pressing plants around the country, hundreds of thousands of CSNY photos had to be hand-glued onto the embossed cover. When the label learned four of the plants were gluing the photo the wrong way, production was switched at the last minute to the remaining three. No one could, or would, say no to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

021

As rock and roll bands went, they were especially complicated—and seemingly incompatible from the start. Crosby had been a handful from the day he was born in 1941. The son of Hollywood cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who’d won an Oscar for his work on the 1931 film Tabu, he’d been raised in seeming comfort, and from an early age, his singing voice was disarmingly sweet and honeyed. A chubby kid who never lost a recurring roundness in face and body, Crosby had a naughty twinkle in his eye that shaped what came next in his life. His back story included jail time for burglary, a roaming life as a folksinger that took him from Los Angeles to New York to Florida to San Francisco to, finally, Los Angeles again, during which he impregnated (and left) one woman and befriended songwriter Fred Neil and future Jefferson Airplane cofounder Paul Kantner.

Finally, in 1964, Crosby found the musical combination he’d yearned for when he met two fellow folkies, Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, at the Troubadour. Inspired by the Beatles and their way with electric guitars and harmonies, they, along with Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke, became the Jet Set, then the Byrds. From the start, McGuinn heard about Crosby’s bad-boy reputation, but couldn’t deny his talents as a harmony singer. The Byrds’ shimmering 1965 cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” was merely the starting point for music that came to encompass folk, country, and Beatle-influenced sonic adventures that the Beatles themselves admired. Crosby eagerly devoured the pop-star life, swooping into Sunset Strip nightclubs with his green cape and mischievous grin, joints in each hand.

One of the many musicians Crosby met on the scene was Stills; in fact, Buffalo Springfield had once opened for the Byrds. Stills’ family had called Illinois, Louisiana, and Florida home at various points; during his high-school years, they were living in San Jose, Costa Rica. Stills’ musical palette came to encompass the blues he’d heard down South, the Latin music he’d loved in Costa Rica—and, finally, the folk music of the Village, where he relocated in 1964 after graduating from high school in Costa Rica. Determined and musically dexterous, Stills was already adept at playing guitar, drums, and numerous other instruments, and in New York, he’d joined a large-scale folk band, the Au Go Go Singers. Yet it was only after he relocated yet again, to Los Angeles in 1965, that his career jelled. With his Au Go Go bandmate Richie Furay and an elusive and inscrutable Canadian named Neil Young, Stills formed Buffalo Springfield. By then Stills had a reputation for being talented, self-assured, and obsessed with moving his career forward as fast as possible. Everything about him—his prematurely hardened and wary expressions, his aggressive body language, even the way he sometimes wore suits to photo shoots—set him apart from the hippie crowd around him.

Crosby had met Nash when the Hollies made their first trip to Los Angeles in 1966, the same year they cracked the American top 10 with “Bus Stop” and “Stop Stop Stop,” two exceptionally vibrant examples of the Hollies’ crisp, ebullient harmonies and hooks—merry-go-round Merseybeat pop. With his Manchester childhood friend Allan Clarke, Nash had put that band together around 1962. Their earliest English hits were white-British-boy covers of R&B songs like “Stay” and “Searchin’,” but they soon forged their own identity. Crosby and Nash had been introduced to each other by Cass Elliot, the beloved member of the Mamas and the Papas who’d known Crosby from their days in folk groups.

In different ways, all three felt stymied by the middle of 1968. Stills had tasted success when Buffalo Springfield hit the top 10 with “For What It’s Worth,” his eerily calm song about the Sunset Strip “hippie riot” of 1966. But thanks in part to Young, whose thirst for fame never equaled Stills’, the Springfield had fallen apart. The previous fall, Crosby had been fired from the Byrds for his motormouth personality and risqué material. Nash, longing to be taken seriously as an artist of the rock era, was encountering resistance to his new songs from the Hollies. Hard as it was to believe, an effervescent new song he’d written about trendy hippies traveling to the Middle East, “Marrakesh Express,” was deemed too experimental.

Stills and Crosby, who hooked up first, were an unlikely duo. Stills’ voice was a croon with a twist of leathery raspiness, while Crosby’s was nothing but sweet. Stills preferred liquor over Crosby’s favorite indulgence, pot. Crosby was brash and unafraid to share his opinions at any moment; Stills tended to simmer and struggle between bouts of self-assurance and self-doubt. Stills was almost tyrannically regimented; Crosby wasn’t. But both were unemployed, low on cash, and desperate for a new career break, and their voices proved to be a better blend than anyone would have thought. Depending on the source, all three first sang together at either Joni Mitchell’s or Cass Elliot’s house, but the vocal blend they achieved was inarguable. “I’d heard that golden sound that me and David and Stephen created, and I wanted it,” Nash recalled. “As a musician I had no choice. I knew what harmony was, and the Springfield and the Byrds were known for their harmonies, but this was different.”

The months that followed—in Los Angeles, London, and Sag Harbor, New York—were ambrosial for them. The songs were pouring out; Stills alone knocked out almost two dozen between the spring and fall of 1968, songs about his former lover Judy Collins like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “So Begins the Task.” With Crosby and Kantner, he wrote “Wooden Ships.” Confident in the sound they created, with three disparate voices that blended in ways that previous harmony groups like the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons hadn’t, they’d break into their songs for anyone who’d listen. Nash took the high parts, Stills the low, and Crosby was the warm middle—and each man’s voice, unlike harmony groups of the past, was also very distinct in the mix. To better understand record deals, Crosby and Nash took a Manhattan restaurant meeting with Paul Simon, whom Nash had met during his Hollies days. (The Hollies had done a cover of Simon’s “I Am a Rock.”) By early 1969, they’d worked out their contractual mess (each was on a different label) and wound up on Atlantic, the Springfield’s home; Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun was a passionate fan of Stills’.

In many ways, Crosby, Stills & Nash was a corporate merger, a business deal. Yet from all accounts, the atmosphere at Wally Heider’s studio in Los Angeles, where their first album was constructed, was half work and half bromance. “We were in love with each other,” Nash recalled. “They were funny and world-wise, and I loved them.” Writers like Ellen Sander and Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres dropped by and found the three huddled around microphones, ecstatic over the music they were making. Stills was on all burners: In one night, he played the entire backing track to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” then stayed up for days to work on the other songs. Along for the ride was Dallas Taylor. Although only twenty-one, Taylor, whose face was squashed beneath a bowl-shaped haircut, had met Crosby, Stills & Nash by way of their friend John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Taylor and Stills had gotten off to a rocky start: Stills didn’t pay Taylor for an early session, leading Taylor to file a complaint with the musicians’ union. But he and Stills had nonetheless clicked as musicians; Taylor was like Stills’ sidekick younger brother, and he wound up playing all the drum parts of their first album.

The group the Beatles didn’t want was all anyone heard about in and around Laurel Canyon. Waiting for his friend James Taylor to mend from his motorcycle accident, Danny Kortchmar began hearing the whispers about Crosby, Stills & Nash. “That was the most happening thing in Los Angeles,” he recalled. “That was all anyone talked about.” Months before meeting Taylor, drummer Russ Kunkel was in the Canyon living room of his friend Gary Burden when Crosby and Nash stopped by with a test pressing of the record. Joints were lit and the LP was put on Burden’s stereo. “When I heard that, I knew, ‘Okay, this is huge,’” Kunkel recalled. “There was never anything like it. It was completely unique.”

Released in late May 1969, Crosby, Stills & Nash had its dark undercurrents: Stills’ songs about his painful breakup with Collins, “You Don’t Have to Cry” and “Helplessly Hoping,” and Crosby’s Bobby Kennedy-inspired “Long Time Gone,” its harmonies groping for a way out of the darkness. But it was also a sunnier record than anything any of them had made before, and the joy that went into its creation was heard in every rapturous harmony or crystalline guitar. In July, the album peaked at number 6 on the charts and remained there for a total of forty weeks.

Although their personalities were volatile from the start, the group immediately messed with its own chemistry. Realizing they had to flesh out their band in order to play their songs onstage, they could have opted for a session musician who’d toil away in the background. Instead, they began asking their well-known musician friends—Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood, even, according to Taylor, Harrison—to join. Everyone turned them down. With a tour in the making, Ertegun suggested Young.

Stills knew all about Young, of course. They’d been born the same year, 1945, but in different countries—Young kicked around Canada for all his youth—and had first met in Ontario in 1965 when Young’s band, the Squires, wound up on the same bill as the Company, an offshoot of the Au Go Go Singers. They’d bonded from the start and eventually crossed paths again, far more fatefully, a year later. Young and Bruce Palmer, his scarecrow-like bass-playing friend, had driven to Los Angeles in Young’s hearse. By happenstance, Furay and Stills saw the car, Stills remembered his eccentric friend Young with the funeral-mobile, and the result was Buffalo Springfield.

Given the way the two of them had butted guitars and heads in the Springfield, Stills was resistant at first to Ertegun’s idea. “I went, ‘Why would we do that?’” he recalled. “‘You know him—he has control issues. He’ll tell you himself.’ As a trio we worked pretty well.” But Ertegun insisted, and the deal was sealed after Nash met Young over breakfast in New York and was sold on his humor and sensibility. According to Taylor, “Stephen asked me one night, ‘What do you think of Neil maybe joining the band again?’ And I said, ‘Isn’t that the reason Buffalo Springfield broke up? You never got along?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’ll be different now.’ Famous last words.”

Young and Crosby, Stills & Nash did share one common bond: a manager. A Brooklyn hippie who’d relocated to California, Elliot Roberts, born Elliot Rabinowitz, was by then managing both acts with his partner, a tough, forever-hustling former William Morris agent named David Geffen. Everyone knew Young’s first album, 1969’s lushly produced Neil Young, sold poorly next to Crosby, Stills & Nash. “That was not lost on Elliot and Neil,” said Stone. “I’m not sure Neil wanted to do it, but he clearly saw it as an opportunity to raise the profile of his solo career.” Soon enough, Young was in the band, playing guitar alongside Stills at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in August 1969 as their peers stood behind them and watched approvingly. “Neil saw himself with a solo career even before CSNY,” Crosby reflected. “CSNY was a vehicle to establish himself.”

Back home, the same people who’d heard so much in advance about the new trio were left pondering the idea of Stills and Young working together again. “I was surprised,” recalled Nurit Wilde, a photographer who’d known both men during the Springfield days. “I thought, ‘I wonder how that will go?’”

022

How it would go became evident soon enough. In the fall and early winter of 1969, work shifted from Los Angeles to San Francisco for the making of their first album as a quartet. On paper, the scenario looked promising. They’d be cutting tracks at Wally Heider’s studio, favored by their friends in the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Crosby had already relocated to the Bay Area, and Stills, Nash, and Young would be living a five-minute walk away at the Caravan Lodge Motel in the seamy Tenderloin district. Each arrived with a satchel of new or half-completed songs.

On the first album, Stills had been very much in charge, playing most of the guitars and all the bass and organ and shaping the textures and contours of the music. Sometimes the only ones in the studio with him were Dallas Taylor and engineer Bill Halverson. Barely a year later, their lives had taken so many different turns it was sometimes hard to think straight. Stills was no longer the dominant force in the band. After Young had joined, CSNY had also added a bass player, Greg Reeves, a sixteen-year-old recommended by Young’s friend Rick James. (Young and James had, strangely enough, played together in the short-lived Mynah Birds in Detroit.) “Stephen had previously done whatever he wanted,” said Ron Stone. “All of a sudden, Stephen’s space was invaded.” Stills grew frustrated when his bandmates began writing songs in the studio, wasting time and money. “Déjà vu was very miserable,” Stills recalled. “It was bedlam, everybody doing whatever they wanted.”

Young’s formidable gifts—the Canadian high-lonesome spookiness in his voice, the penetrating sting of his electric guitar leads, and the unassuming poetic flow of his lyrics—were clear, but so were his aloofness and inability to commit to the others. Young first cut “Helpless” with Crazy Horse, the band he was now working with on his own music, but when it didn’t sound right, he tried it again, with Crosby, Stills & Nash. This time, thanks to Crosby-arranged harmonies that rose behind Young from a muted murmur to a vocal blanket, it clicked. Other times, like on the near-symphonic three-part suite “Country Girl,” he worked on his own terms, venturing by himself to a studio in Los Angeles to overdub a massive pipe organ. “Neil pretty much did his stuff on his own and brought it finished to us and said, ‘You want to put some vocals on this?’” Crosby recalled. To Nash’s annoyance, Young didn’t play on his two contributions, “Our House” and “Teach Your Children”—songs Nash was confident would be the hit singles the group would need to continue. “I knew what a hit was,” Nash recalled. “We wanted to sell this bloody thing. Neil was being a little weird and selfish.” (Young also had a pair of bush babies—tiny, nightvision monkeys—running around his hotel room, which enhanced the craziness.)

Given the limitations of the twenty-minutes-a-side LP format, they’d be lucky to land two songs apiece on the album, so they argued over who placed more material (and received more royalties) on the record. “Everyone was powerless watching this freight train of resentment and anger and ‘I want more of my songs on the record,’” Taylor said. “The whole vibe from the first album was gone.” Among the casualties—songs recorded or attempted—were Young’s “Sea of Madness” and a multitude of Stills numbers. Whenever they seemed to be on a roll, someone from management would come by the studio with a contract to sign, leading to someone or another in the band being unhappy and the mood being wrecked for days. To everyone’s surprise, the normally reserved Nash broke down in tears one night at the studio. They had something special, he told them, but they were messing it up, bad. “We were in a different space,” Nash recalled. “The bloom had gone off the rose. We’d been together for a while and the novelty had worn off a little.”

Drugs, never in short supply to begin with since the days they’d jokingly dubbed themselves the Frozen Noses, were omnipresent. “By the time we got to Déjà vu and we’d snorted eighty pounds of cocaine, things were a little different,” Nash remembered. The drugs helped fuel their creativity—or so they thought—and made it possible to keep working in the studio day after day. But it also fueled the insanity. One night, Nash stayed until three in the morning to finish a final mix of one of his songs. When he returned later that day, he replayed the tape and found it didn’t sound anything like he remembered. At first, he thought he was losing his mind—why does it sound like this? He learned Stills had stayed even later and remixed it without telling him.

Nash himself wasn’t immune to pickiness. He was so unhappy with the last note on “Our House” that Halverson had to fly down to L.A. and find a Steinway piano to re-record that one concluding, sustained piano note. “They were second-guessing themselves,” Halverson said. “They had so much to live up to. It was, ‘Now what do we do?’” After a bunch of other distractions, like the midwinter European tour that had taken them to London’s Royal Albert Hall and Scandinavia, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and now Young completed the album by the end of January. The most important year of their careers had just begun, and already they were weary of one another.

023

Crosby didn’t know what was more surreal: the daytime darkness or the elephant bustling down the street. Was he that high? At that moment, all he knew was that he and Nash had set sail from Florida on Crosby’s boat, the Mayan, sometime in February. They’d just anchored in the seaport town of Salina Cruz, on the southwestern coast of Mexico. Otherwise, nothing about that moment made any sense.

The last few months had been rough ones for Crosby. In October 1969, just before the Déjà vu sessions had commenced, his girlfriend, Christine Gail Hinton, had been killed in a car accident near their recently purchased home in Novato. As she was taking their pet cats to the vet, one leapt onto her lap, causing her to swerve into an oncoming bus. “We were at the pool in David’s house and she brings out three joints and says, ‘I’m going to take the cats to the vet, so smoke these,’” Nash recalled. “I never saw her again.” Given the carefree, responsibility-free life adventures he’d had before, Crosby wasn’t remotely prepared to deal with the loss. The man who was so often the band’s cheerleader was now reduced to sobbing on the floor of Heider’s studio. A metal Halliburton case stashed away in the Novato home held his only remaining mementos of their relationship—photos and embroidered shirts Hinton had made for him. At the Déjà vu photo shoot, Gundelfinger noticed Crosby wasn’t the same jubilant self he’d once been: “You could see he was carrying around a lot of pain.”

After the Royal Albert Hall show, the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tour of Europe played two more shows, in Copenhagen and Stockholm, before it wrapped up. (Road manager Leo Makota later told author Dave Zimmer the band donated its unused drugs to American draft dodgers in Denmark.) With his obligations temporarily fulfilled, Crosby asked Nash to join him on a boat ride. Even though he’d never been on a ship before, Nash liked the idea; Crosby had been an avid sailor since his teen years, after all. Nash assumed they’d be taking a quick day trip to the Catalina Islands from Los Angeles. Not quite, Crosby told him: He’d decided to fulfill his dream of burying Hinton at sea by depositing her ashes in San Francisco Bay, near the Golden Gate Bridge. The Mayan, the fifty-foot schooner he’d bought after leaving the Byrds, would take him there. Since it was docked in Florida, they’d fly down and then sail from there to San Francisco.

Nash hesitated, then agreed. At first shocked by and angry over Hinton’s death, Crosby was now being confronted by the reality of her absence. During a getaway trip to London after the accident, Nash noticed Crosby sitting beneath an exit sign in a hotel (“I knew what he was thinking,” Nash said, implying suicide). Nash decided it was best to keep a close eye on his relatively new friend. With only a few others joining them on and off—Makota, fledgling actress and singer Ronee Blakely, and Bobby Ingram, one of Crosby’s folk-circuit buddies—they set sail in mid February, far from the music business and the bad aftertaste of the stressful Déjà vu sessions.

In many ways, the trip fulfilled its mission. During the six-week ride, they ate, drank, sang, toked up, and played music; Nash began working on a new song, “Wind on the Water,” after seeing enormous, house-size whales swim past them. Sure, Crosby threw Blakely’s typewriter overboard when her clickety-clacking began to drive him insane. “In a fit of irritation, I tossed it,” Crosby recalled. “I regretted it later.” But with only a ship-to-shore radio aboard to communicate with those on land, the trip took them away from it all.

They couldn’t entirely escape reminders of their lives back home. From Jamaica to the Panama Canal, they were joined by Joni Mitchell. Only twenty-six, Mitchell had by then a lifetime of experience, both personal and musical. When she was a young Canadian named Roberta Anderson, she’d studied art in college in Calgary, after which she’d lived in Toronto and Detroit. In New York, she met her future manager, Elliot Roberts, and, in Florida, her future producer and (briefly) boyfriend, Crosby. Crosby oversaw her first album, Song to a Seagull, in 1968—the same year Judy Collins had a hit with a twinkling, radiofriendly version of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” By then Mitchell also been through one marriage and had a child she’d given up for adoption. She and Nash had met at a party for the Hollies in Ottawa. Instantly smitten by the woman with the stately cheekbones and penetratingly observed songs, he moved into her home on Lookout Mountain after he’d deserted the Hollies (and divorced his first wife, Rose Eccles) and relocated to Los Angeles.

By the time of the Déjà vu sessions, Nash and Mitchell were living a hippie-domestic life at Mitchell’s house, a life Nash immortalized in “Our House,” a song on the new album. “Lady of the Island,” from Crosby, Stills & Nash, had also been about Mitchell, and everyone was so nonchalant about the intermingling relationships that Nash and Crosby sang it together in the studio while looking at each other knowingly.

But when Mitchell hooked up with the Mayan and its crew, her romance with Nash was beginning to fray. Mitchell kept thinking of her grandmother, who wanted to be a dancer but instead had to take care of her children; Mitchell thought Nash would thwart her dreams in the same way. Nash kept insisting that wasn’t the case. “For some reason, she thought my idea of marriage was that she’d stay home cooking,” he recalled, “and there’s no fucking way, knowing Joni’s music and knowing her and loving her like I did, that I would have ever asked her to stray from that beautiful path she was on. But that’s what she thought.” Mitchell flew to meet him, watched the canal open and close, and then returned to Los Angeles. Nash began to feel as if something was coming to an end. Their talk of marriage stalled.

Meanwhile, the Mayan crew continued on its semi-merry way. When the boat docked at Salina Cruz, Crosby and Ingram went into a bank to exchange some money. In their own country, the sight of two bedraggled, slightly stoned longhairs could lead to wisecracks or, at worst, menacing, I-want-you-dead glares. In the Mexican bank, a security guard took notice of two scraggly hippies and unsnapped the gun from his holster, and Crosby’s American dollars were carefully scrutinized.

After the transaction was completed, Crosby stepped outside as afternoon darkness descended and the elephant strolled by. He quickly realized he wasn’t that stoned after all: An eclipse was enveloping the town, and the elephant was part of a parade to promote a local circus. Once he realized he didn’t have to freak out, he laughed. At least it was a moment of welcome relief from the last few emotionally wrenching months.

024

While Crosby and Nash were sailing and Young was back in Los Angeles working with Crazy Horse, Stills was, to his relief, thousands of miles away from them all.

When the others returned to the States after the European tour finished, Stills decided to stay in London a while longer. He now had the time, opportunity, and money to do it. Just before he’d left Los Angeles, he’d been handed a check for over $450,000 for sales of Crosby, Stills & Nash, along with his first American Express card. Between his financial windfall and newfound rock star status, the London nightlife was his for the taking, and Stills hardly shied away.

At one nightclub, a mutual friend introduced him to Ringo Starr. Before long, Stills was at Starr’s house in Highgate, sipping tea and shooting pool with the Beatle and Klaus Voormann. Starting February 18, he found himself alongside Starr, Harrison, and Voormann as they helped Starr mold the song initially called “You Gotta Pay Your Dues,” eventually renamed “It Don’t Come Easy.” The song would endure many retakes and permutations in the months ahead; parts were recut, horn sections and background singers were added. When it was finally released about a year later, it was a small wonder of a pop single: From Starr’s cymbal-wash intro to the delightfully pushy clatter it became, “It Don’t Come Easy” was a relentless, almost desperate plea for unity and togetherness: “Use a little love, and we will make it work out better,” Starr sang. Beneath all the instrumental parts and overdubs, Stills’ chunky piano could still be heard in the final version.

Just a few years earlier, Stills had seen A Hard Day’s Night in New York’s Greenwich Village during his months as a struggling folkie. (Crosby and his fellow Byrds saw the same movie at the same time, three thousand miles way in Los Angeles.) Now, here he was, making music with half the Beatles and their producer. In contrast, the thought of returning to Los Angeles—and Crosby, Nash, and Young—was far less appealing. “I basically smelled a lot of trouble,” he recalled. “Everyone was getting very high. Being a rock star in the States with those guys—they were all becoming icons.” With that, Stills made a decision: “I said, ‘Well, this is great, this is it—I’m stayin’.’ I decided to become a really annoying groupie and meet all the British guys.” Before long, he, Starr, and Harrison were together contributing to sessions for an album by the transplanted American R&B singer Doris Troy.

At first, Stills was intimidated by his surroundings and the notorious aloofness of British musicians. “He was very focused on Ringo, that’s for sure,” Voormann recalled of their first meeting. “I think he was overwhelmed by being in Ringo’s house.” Stills’ phlegmy, goodold-boy guffaw—“I was brash and obnoxious,” he admitted—was also a far cry from British reserve. But thanks to his father’s variety of jobs—working tract homes, tool designs, lumber, and real estate, among other vocations—he’d grown accustomed to being the new kid, the stranger in town.

Even before Déjà vu was released, Stills had made the decision to make an album under his own name, and one by one, his new acquaintances began arriving at Island Studios. One night, Starr showed up earlier than everyone else; he and his drum kit were ready to go when Stills arrived. Eric Clapton popped in several times, once to add a box-cutter-sharp guitar solo to “Go Back Home,” one of Stills’ new songs, and another to get drunk with his new friend on tequila. Clapton had first jammed with Stills and Buffalo Springfield in Los Angeles two years before—the infamous April 1968 day when Clapton and everyone in the band except Stills (who managed a quick escape) was busted for dope while rehearsing at Stills’ home in Topanga. When they grew reacquainted in London, Stills helped Clapton finish one of his own new tracks, “Let It Rain,” adding harmony vocals and a bit of bass guitar to its coda. Another evening, Clapton popped in unexpectedly, saying he’d been driving around with a new song in his head and wanted to put it on tape before he forgot it. Stills ended up pitching in on that one, “Easy Now,” as well. (He wanted to overdub guitars and drums, but Clapton demurred, saying he wanted to keep the song simple. To engineer Bill Halverson’s surprise, Stills deferred to Clapton—and, Halverson noted, Stills rarely deferred to anyone.)

At one of the many parties Stills attended, he met Billy Preston, the American soul-gospel singer and organ player now part of the Beatles’ circle (a year earlier, he’d played the electric piano solo on “Get Back”). When Preston cracked, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” Stills took notice. Preston thought nothing of the remark, but to Stills, it could be “the key line of a song,” and Preston let him keep it. Before long, it became the basis for a new melody that, like some of Crosby’s, encouraged everyone to get it on with whomever was available at the time.

Stills also spent more time with Jimi Hendrix. The two had met at the Monterey Pop Festival three years before, and they’d been guitarjam buddies ever since in Hollywood and New York. They’d talked about making a record together, and Hendrix stopped by the studio where Stills was working and, in a half hour, added a slithering guitar part to “Old Times, Good Times,” an appropriately swampy track about Stills’ youth. The interplay between Hendrix’s six-string and Stills’ organ, each humping up against each other, was a promising start to a collaboration. The two became nightclub companions, jamming at the Speakeasy Club and living the pop star life. Although Stills had already been introduced to cocaine and had been fond of alcohol since his teen years, even he was disturbed by the sight of Hendrix popping whatever pills and drinking what liquids anyone gave him. “I would say, ‘Wait, those don’t go together,’” Stills recalled. But Hendrix was too big, his massive hands too eager to grab it all, to convince otherwise.

Nonetheless, Stills was happy to be in London, where he could run his own show and share the spotlight with no one. Few things in life made him happier than spending hours, sometimes days, toying with new guitar parts, arrangements, rhythm changes, and melodies, the very aspects of record-making that drove Young to distraction. To Halverson, Stills always seemed more comfortable in that situation than in social ones. When Maureen Starr drove him out to the Brookfield estate she and her husband were thinking about renting, Stills was even more entranced. Although he knew he’d eventually have to return to his band and country, he made the decision to put it all off as long as possible. He told the Starrs he would either rent or buy the house.

025

When friends saw the photograph for the Déjà vu cover, they assumed it was inspired by Stills’ time in military school in St. Petersburg, Florida. But another reason for evoking North versus South was simple. “We felt,” Stills recalled, “like we were in the Civil War.”

At that moment, everyone did. The country had been ripped apart politically and culturally during the past few years, and the shell-shocked results were now coming in. In February, one nationwide poll concluded six out of ten Americans were tired of hearing about Vietnam and considered the entire mission a blunder; another survey, by Gallup, indicated the country was moving in a more conservative direction. Which one was it? Nixon himself was a polarizing figure. “The ’70s will be a time of new beginnings, a time of exploring both on earth and in the heavens, a time of discovery,” he told Congress during his first State of the Union Address on January 22. Yet judging by poll numbers that had lurched up and down over the months leading up to the speech, the country still seemed unsure of him after his first year in office. Not only was unemployment high (four percent, an alarming figure at the time), but for the first time, a higher percentage of whites than before was collecting unemployment checks.

Everyone’s nerves were frayed, nowhere more so than on campuses. At the University of California at Santa Barbara—ninety miles northwest of Laurel Canyon, which Nash and Stills still called home—tensions had been building for months after a well-liked anthropology professor was denied tenure. Given his outspoken antiwar views and kinship with the campus, a majority of the student body concluded he’d been punished for his beliefs.

At shortly after 8 P.M. on February 25, something snapped. Maybe it was a rally speech by William Kuntsler, who was representing the Chicago Seven—Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Lee Weiner, John Froines, Rennie Davis, and David Dellinger, all charged with conspiracy to “incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in and carry on a riot” at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. The trial was a postmodern media circus that seemed hard to take seriously, yet five days earlier, the defendants had been found guilty of crossing state lines to incite a riot; each faced up to five years in prison. Kunstler’s presence at the rally didn’t alone whip the nearly three thousand students into a frenzy. That moment arrived shortly after the gathering began, when, in plain sight of students, police questioned a black student activist in connection with a local robbery. The crowd taunted the police, and when someone threw a firebomb under the patrol car, everything went haywire.

Before anyone knew it, as many as a thousand students living in Isla Vista, a placid Santa Barbara suburb, vented their rage. A real estate office was ransacked; windows in a Bank of America branch were smashed. The bank began burning when wood planks covering the broken windows, along with tables and chairs set against the building, were torched. By midnight, the police captain overseeing several hundred officers had to admit the situation was “not in control.” More police, complete with tear-gas grenades, began to arrive. Calm prevailed, but only briefly. The cops would retreat, and the demonstrators, scurrying back out from alleys, would eventually return, hurling rocks, expletives, and firebombs. To protect themselves against the various projectiles, the kids used garbage can lids; the cops wore plastic eye patches.

Once a shopping district, the streets around the bank were now a battle zone. Police were so outnumbered that a squad car was abandoned and promptly set on fire. On the third day, Ronald Reagan, the state’s might-is-right governor, called the demonstrators “cowardly little bums” and sent in six hundred National Guard troops to restore something close to calm. “We have two choices as to which way we can go,” Bank of America chairman Louis Lundborg announced. “We can divide into camps and shoot it out. Or we can try to find common ground so that we can grow together again.” The latter course, he said, was one that “can bring peace and with it a hope for the rekindling of the American Dream.” At that point, no one knew what the American Dream was anymore.

The tension also extended to the other side of the Atlantic, to England, albeit in a somewhat gentler manner. Hearing that dossiers were being compiled on them—files that would include their political interests and activities—students at the University of Manchester organized what became the largest protest to that point in Britain. Carrying placards that read, “No to dossiers, yes to freedom,” eight thousand students took over the school’s administration building in February. After they’d settled in, they added a very European touch, ordering tea for themselves.

026

On the morning of March 9, WBCR, Brooklyn College’s student-run radio station, became the first outlet in the country to premiere Déjà vu. WBCR didn’t just debut it; they played it start to finish all morning long.

Over and over, the students heard the opening, buffalo-herd rumble of Stills’ acoustic guitars on “Carry On,” his amalgam of a post-Collinsbreakup song and his Springfield song “Questions.” As if warding off Stills’ blues, its massed group harmonies—layer upon layer, a sound they could only achieve in a studio—barreled out of the airwaves. The Brooklyn students then heard “Teach Your Children,” a folksy Nash track inspired by his relationship with his father, who died when his son was in his late teens; a spry pedal steel track, courtesy of the Dead’s Jerry Garcia, added the requisite back-to-nature ambience. Next came “Almost Cut My Hair,” which Crosby had insisted the band record live in the studio, everyone playing and singing at once. (After flying up to San Francisco to work on the album, engineer Bill Halverson had to scramble to devise a way to cut the song that way, knowing the previous recording engineer had been fired when Crosby hadn’t gotten his way.) Crosby was the first to admit that its lyrics, a litany of hippie pride and paranoia, were far less sophisticated than those for his other songs—“juvenile,” he later called them. But Crosby’s raw, nearly hoarse delivery (which Stills disliked) was the sound of someone who meant every word he sang, and the way Stills and Young made electric-guitar mincemeat behind Crosby’s voice was the first indication on Déjà vu of what Young could add to the band.

“Helpless” was another sign: an exquisite dirge, Young’s frail-sounding vocal encompassed by the Crosby, Stills, and Nash vocal massage and a Stills tremolo-heavy lead guitar that sounded like a forlorn fiddle. Joni Mitchell’s version of “Woodstock,” about to be released on her own Ladies of the Canyon, was somber and intimate. The CSNY version opened in a very different manner, Young wrenching notes out of his guitar and the carefully sculpted CSN harmonies vaulting over the chorus.

Flipping the record to side two, the WBCR disc jockey was greeted with Crosby’s “Déjà vu.” With its shifting time signatures and Crosby’s jazz-influenced modal chords, the song was among the most difficult to record for the album. But by the time they’d finished laboring over it, it felt seamless; the moment when each of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash voices came in separately before converging was one of the album’s highlights. The students listening on WBCR then heard “Our House,” Nash’s harpsichord-enhanced serenade about his and Mitchell’s home life, all flowers, vases, and fireplaces. Stills’ “4 + 20,” an unexpectedly vulnerable tale of a normally macho man embracing the “many-colored beast” of despair, featured only him and his guitar. (The group attempted a harmonized version but felt his solo take was better.) Young finally reappeared with “Country Girl,” three songs sewn together. For all his love of Crazy Horse’s funky, bare-boned stomp, Young had a fondness for symphonic pop, starting with Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting to Fly.” “Country Girl,” the album’s most elaborately produced and arranged piece, all churchly organs and intertwining group vocals, was the next stage in that development. The album wound up the way it started, rousingly: “Everybody I Love You,” a harried adrenaline rush of electric guitars and stacked harmonies, combined two separately recorded songs edited into one.

On songs like that and “Woodstock,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young never sounded more like a band; even Taylor’s drums were more prominent in the mix than on Crosby, Stills & Nash. But in other ways they were less of one. The general public had no idea Young played on only five of its ten songs. Supposed band tracks like “Carry On” were mostly played by Stills (and brilliantly so—few musicians could make themselves sound like one-man bands so effectively, as the layers of electric and acoustic guitars, celestial organ, and rumbly bass in “Carry On” attested). Déjà vu was a sonically enveloping and powerful illusion, but it was an illusion nonetheless. The group hug of Crosby, Stills & Nash was replaced by the sound of four men each in his own space.

The industry received a taste of their fractiousness on March 11. On the same day Déjà vu went on sale, Crosby, Stills & Nash won Best New Artist at the annual Grammy Awards, beating out Led Zeppelin and Chicago. Held in the banquet room of the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles and not yet televised, the evening was a low-key affair. Even so, none of CSNY attended. Stills remained in London. Young, who’d made his disdain for showbiz trappings clear, was in Topanga Canyon, about to begin recording further songs for his third album, After the Gold Rush. Ahmet Ertegun had to accept the award on their behalf.

By then, Crosby and Nash were on the western side of Mexico, awaiting a visit from Elliot Roberts. Roberts wasn’t thrilled that two of his star clients had hightailed it out of California for over a month, but he also knew there was little he could do to control them. Bearing contracts for them to sign, he flew into the Punta Graham jungles with Gary Burden, their plane touching down on a cow pasture that doubled as an airfield. On the Mayan, Roberts pulled out paperwork for Crosby and Nash to look over; he and Geffen had lined up a major tour for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Nash signed the contracts dutifully, but part of him wasn’t looking forward to the roadwork at all.

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