If I could only remember…
Here’s what I do…
I was 16 and I still remember popping the new release from Crosby, Stills and Nash into the 8-track one summer morning in 1969. I was on my way to work and driving to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” The drive was short and the song was long. It was still running as I pulled into the Nello Teer Company personnel parking lot off of Magnum Street a few blocks from the office. I parked, shut the engine off and keyed it to ACC to keep the music going.
Even though I was on the cusp of being on time or late for work, I just could not get out of the car as long while the song was playing. I could not bear to break the spell. I was transfixed. Then the song hit the part where it jumps back up in speed as the voices joined in singing “Di dit dit dit dit dit da dit” over and over and over again while Stephen Stills’ lead voice sang over the top…words I couldn’t understand. Turned out he was singing in Spanish. Spanish? No one did that.
I rode it out, with the windows down and the volume turned up to eleven until the last chord and the last hard ending…“di da dit.” More than satisfied, I jumped out of the car and ran the few blocks to the office, barely making it on time, a little sweaty but I was jazzed.
The new album was just the beginning of a legacy of powerful and risky songs David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash raised into the world we were living in, orchestrating lyrics, instruments and tonalities to paint our picture. It was the end of the sixties. It was Anti-war, anti-government and anti-politics. But through it all, so many of their songs were in love with love, in love with the idea of freedom and humankind and peace for all.
CSN blended rock electric with folk acoustic, energized it with through rhythm and rhyme and bucked tradition in every way possible.
And those harmonies. I had never heard anything like it. So vocally complex. Silky smooth. So together as one.
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is such a strong, willful acoustic guitar driven song. Its opening captured your attention attention immediately and announced with every guitar riff, “Hop on, we’re going on a ride.”
Passionate. Emotional. Moving. A love story about losing love told in three parts; from fast into a beautiful, reflective interlude that rallies back into a hopeful up tempo that takes the song home.
Artfully long timing out at over seven minutes. Norm-challengingly long for commercial radio. Even the shorter version released for radio was over four minutes. In that regard alone it was a trendsetting, system-bucking hit, a trait that in many other ways set the tone of the group.
And they signaled just how different they were by their unique name. In an era when groups fashioned up names like The Hollies, Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, the bands these three musicians had left to come together as one, this group took a different course. They chose to go by their last names. Like a law firm. Crosby, Stills and Nash. David Crosby said in one interview that they did that knowing that they would continue doing things as individuals as well as a group. Going by their last names gave them the freedom to puzzle them together in different arrangements.
I say these things by way of explaining my own personal introduction to the group and how much I was attracted to their sound, their voices and…their Voice.
Each had something to say. Sure, about love lost and love won. But they also had a more worldly view. They couldn’t see and feel things about life in America during that era and not put what they saw into song.
Their first album, simply titled, “Crosby, Stills and Nash” came out in late Spring ’69, and vaulted them on to the stage at Woodstock that summer. Their live performance rocketed already famous individuals into the stratosphere as a new super group. And, their reputation grew even more once the movie came out [click here to watch] and we all saw their performance for ourselves. And we heard their humble remarks after they had successfully unleashed the live performance of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and the crowd responded with thundering applause.
Stephen Stills : Thank you. We needed that.
David Crosby : This is our second gig.
Stephen Stills : This is the second time we’ve ever played in front of people, man, we’re scared shitless.
“Scared shitless.” It was an honest admission acknowledging just how difficult their songs were to capture live. It also demonstrated the courage of their performance and how they met the moment, scared or not.
The lives of these guys have played out in the realtime of our lifetimes, publicly revealing their relationships, their individuality, their group obsessions, competitions and struggles. Fiery at points. But the fire came from the spark of creativity and when they were on the same ride together, they were so much more than any one of them alone.
The following year the band recruited Neil Young and released “Deja Vu.” Lucky for me, my older sister, Marti, got the album for Christmas. I remember almost wearing her album out, lying on the floor next to the family stereo, listening while reading the lyrics along with the song. Running my eyes over the photos inside the four-sided album cover.
For the cover and some of the inside photos, the band posed in dated outfits from the 1800s, strapped in guns as if they were gunslinging bandits. According to Crosby, that getup was a signal that things were coming and change was in the air.
Inside the double cover album were iconic photos of Crosby, with the flag shaped into a gun he was pointing at his head. A photo of him in his ever-present rawhide string vest, flashing the peace sign to the wall of people attending Woodstock. He was the coolest of the cool. The one with the voice and presence of an activist…if not an anarchist.
They each produced brilliant solo albums, writing and performing music that spoke to their personal styles. Going solo gave them a way to produce songs that might not make the group albums, songs that they alone had written, nurtured and put to tape. Songs that deserved space. Going it alone also eliminated the difficult negotiation with the group for space on the group record.
That’s when I came to realize the special Voice of Crosby’s songs.
And now, as the first of the group to die, David Crosby’s passing gives rise to a lot of revisiting by the world of us fans, who, through a shared love of his music, felt like friends of his, even family.
I’ve loved his part of the music for so long. His long and flowing hair and bushy mustache that couldn’t hide his cherubic smile and sparkling eyes. His mischievous nature. And, his contributions to what were some of the best examples of their trend-setting Voice, notably “Wooden Ships,” “Long Time Gone,” “Almost Cut My Hair” and “Deja Vu.”
Reading his 1989 autobiography, “Long Time Gone,” explained so much about the powerful arc of his life; his views on music, on America and the experience and challenge of being an American. On humanity. On throwing much of his life to the wind through drug addiction. And, of finding his way back to living.
And, now he’s gone. At 81. I’m frankly amazed that he lived that long with what he did to his body.
I feel so fortunate to have seen him perform on solo tours as well as with the band in different iterations over the 50+ years. And often, things just happened that didn’t happen at other concerts. Here’s a couple of tidbits of my life when it intersected with his.
Julie and I saw David twice. The first time was in the late 70’s at PB Scott’s in Charlotte NC. PB Scott’s was a space totally devoted to the artist and the listener. It was built to be acoustically perfect in the shape of a geodesic dome. BOSE speakers hung in the rafters, strategically positioned throughout so the music surrounded the audience. Very modern for its time.
I still have the ticket stubs. Unfortunately, this was back when they tore them in half as you entered and they kept the half with the date. You’ll just have to trust me that it was late 70’s. We were thrilled and jacked up with anticipation. We loved his solo album, “If I Could Only Remember My Name.” (If you haven’t heard this album, you owe it to yourself to do so. It’s beautiful.) And now we were going to get to see him play all of his stuff. Well, we, got settled into our seats with some refreshing cold beverages. The crowd was both buzzed and buzzing.
And we waited. And we waited. Thirty minutes. One hour. The buzz started to turn rebellious. I seem to remember an announcement…or two…that David was delayed but would be coming out soon. Of course, he didn’t come out soon. Then, scuttlebutt started to spread around the audience. Whispered seat to seat, you could hear it being passed on its way to you, like a fan wave in the arena. “We’ve heard that Cros got here but had no blow. So he left to score some cocaine with a local connection.”
His habit of drug use was very public so this sounded feasible. By the way, this wasn’t the first time that a band or act kept an audience waiting.
He did, at some point, score, smoke and/or snort, what he needed to perform and finally came out on stage. Ninety minutes late. But, his appearance quickly quelled the bad vibe in the hall. The audience was ready to give in to his music. And there, my memory of that night stops. I don’t remember the music specifically, just that it was worth the wait.
I invoked Julie to push her memory cloud around. All she can recall is, like me, a flickering feeling about how we were not too happy about the long wait, and sorry, even a bit dejected, to see that he was in that poor of a condition with addiction.
We both remember that it made the newspaper review of his appearance and that Crosby claimed his guitar had been stolen in the parking lot at the gig. Then, we heard the rumor that Crosby was so broke when he hit Charlotte, and so desperate, that he traded his guitar for the blow. And, the guitar wasn’t just any guitar, it was the twelve string Martin on which he’d written the song, “Guinevere.” The rumor went on that he made up the story about it being stolen because, well, because he was embarrassed that he was so down that he would let his prized guitar go for blow.
There are other stories about how he lost that guitar that had nothing to do with his Charlotte performance. I can’t speak to which is true. But this was part of the legend left behind by his appearance in Charlotte.
In August of 1987, CS&N came to play the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. I was working for WPXI-TV and had an inside track for tickets through a radio station. I invited my boss, John Howell, and his wife, to join us. John loved music and CS&N in particular, but his first response was, “Do we have to sit on the floor with all those other people?”
Not so weird a question knowing that our TV Station had a box that we could enjoy for free and above the fray. But I wanted to be closer and insisted, imploring him to give it a go.
“Well, okay,” he said. “I’m just not big on sitting down with the crowd. Nothing good ever happens when I do.”
So we go. Together. And we walk way down passed many of the folks on the concert floor to our seats, Section 1. Row N. Fourteen rows from the stage! I’m getting more and more excited. And more and more hopeful that John…did I say he was my boss…would have a great time. Even when mixing it up with “the people.”
We took our seats and got situated, taking in the crowd, our surroundings, the stage, and the folks around us. Not long after we sat down, two couples sat down directly behind us in Row 15. I noticed that the men sat side-by-side and the women did the same. Very quickly I found out why. The women, dates or wives, had a lot to talk about…to each other… about their week, their co-workers, their families, the weather, all the normal and usual things…but…in these loud, obnoxious, cut-through voices. Clearly, their partners were the drivers of their being here.
Julie leaned over to me and said, “I hope that they stop talking when the music starts.” I agreed.
And then, lights go down…they keep talking…as if nothing has changed.
Crosby, Stills and Nash come out on stage, Stills and Crosby slinging electric guitars and I knew that they were starting out rocking. And they did.
And the two women kept talking, now trying to talk over the music at rock level. Annoying, but least we could hear it over them. They kept it up the entire electric set.
Veteran CSN concert goers know that they generally follow up a rock set with an acoustic set. Music that Crosby called, “Wooden Music.” Laid back. Ethereal. Transportive. Quiet. This concert was no exception.
And, you guessed it. The women kept talking. Even after Crosby asked folks to respect the music, using his hands, outspread and signaling by pushing down, “Hey, let’s settle down and respect the music, respect your fellow man.”
Of course, the women behind us were oblivious to that and just kept on.
Steam starts to come out of my ears. I tried turning around and giving them the “Hey, shut up?” look. But they didn’t “hear/see” me either. And then, Julie…mild mannered, shy woman that I’ve known her to be, turns around and says, “Hey, if you want to talk to each other please take it outside. We’re here to listen to the show.”
Well, that just lit them up. “Hey, we paid our admission, just like you!” said one of the guys.
To which Julie retorted, “So why don’t you listen to the music?”
“We are!” he replied.
“Well, actually, THEY aren’t,” John injected. “They haven’t stopped talking since you got here.”
I was floored. And, quickly remembered John’s words of warning. “Nothing good ever happens when I sit in the crowd.”
And here it was, nothing good happening. I caught John’s eye and he looked at me with a, “See, I told you. Nothing good.”
A few “f-bombs” later from Row 15 and I think that the girlfriends quieted down somewhat.
Aside from this nuisance, one very cool thing happened. One of CSN’s big hits from 1982’s “Daylight Again” album was the song, “Southern Cross.” It’s a song about sailing to the islands. As the song began, the roof of the Igloo started to open and by the middle of the song we could all see the stars. A dramatic effect that couldn’t be pulled off at most venues.
Two years later, David brought his solo tour to Pittsburgh. It was April 14, 1989. The gig was at the Syria Mosque, an incredible venue steeped in history, much like the FOX in Atlanta. And, it being just David, we felt it would be a well-behaved audience since it would be more “wooden” than rock music. However, we would be sitting with “the people” so anything could happen. And it did.
The orchestra pit section was filled up with rows of folding chairs in front of the permanent seating. Julie and I were sitting in that area eight rows from the front. At some point during the early part of performance, a skirmish erupted in the front row. Some yelling, people standing up, a bit of a frenzy. Then, out of the blue, a folding chair comes flying in the air towards us. Everybody ducks. As we reacted, it grazed past Julie’s arm. We were like, “What the F*CK!!!”
Some fan, turned public asshole, wanted David to play something, became disruptive, and another member of the audience asked for the dude to calm down, and then, wham! Folding chair takes flight.
David begged for better heads to prevail, some big guys came in from the sides, took control of the problem-maker, and the show went on. Julie wasn’t hurt. And, again, although I’m sure the concert was excellent, we don’t remember much outside of this.
I’m sure it’s way over obvious by now that Julie and I have been super fans. We bought a lot of the group’s albums through the years, as well as their solo ventures. They may not have all packed the punch of their early work, but they almost always produced jewels that added on to their legacy and notable discography. Some of those jewels were David’s. Like his touching song, “Delta,” on “Daylight Again,” which he wrote in the depth of his trials with drug addiction.
As I wrap this post up (Please!) I leave myself with more work to do because, you see, I’ve pulled out all of our CSN&Y related albums, CDs and cassettes, culling through them for memories, putting my hands and eyes on them, handling them, turning them over, reliving the times and feelings that these physical things inspire. And, of course, listening to the music that played and intertwined with the special moments in our lives.
It’s been cathartic to say the least.
With his passing, I imagine David forming a band in what ever spirit land into which he has moved, just like he did in prison.
And I can feel his music cascading into the mystic.
Rest in peace David Van Cortlandt Crosby.
“We don’t have anywhere near enough time. I didn’t start figuring out who I was until I was in my 50s, for God’s sake. Here I am just now, finally having adjusted my life to where I’m happy most of the time and I’m going to die! That sucks,” Crosby said. “It’s very tough. I got a dozen things that I still want to learn. Like three languages, two sections of history, at least five sciences. And I’ve got a wish list of places I want to see, experiences I want to have that’s as long as your arm, and no time. And it’s worse than that. I wasted years of time that I could have now to use if I hadn’t wasted them.”
“Peace is not an awful lot to ask.” (David Crosby, “What Are Their Names” from the album, “If I Could Only Remember My Name.” 1971)