Saturday, March 9, 2013

Déjà Vu - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Déjà Vu
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Atlantic SD 7200

I have been reading Jimmy McDonough's excellent biography of Neil Young, "Shakey."  Through it I've learned more about CSN&Y than I ever wanted to know.  They all come off pretty badly in the book which confirms what I always suspected about them.  I figured they were all about the money and the egos although I'm not sure that applied to Young.  Even after reading the book, I don't understand why Young got mixed up with these guys nor can I figure out the love/hate thing he had with Stephen Stills.  When I was a budding young record collector growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, these guys were like rock royalty there.  They were always on the radio and their tours were major events.  I remember a couple of guys in high school discussing Stephen Stills as if he were a major artist like Bob Dylan.  I didn't like them at all.  Their hits irritated me and I thought their segment in "Woodstock" was torture but I didn't have enough faith in my critical judgment yet to go against the mainstream.  I figured I must be missing something if everyone thought they were so great.  After all I loved the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield, so how could this be bad?  So despite my misgivings I dutifully purchased a used copy of "Déjà Vu."  One look at the cover could have told me I was in for trouble.  Young is hiding in the background dressed like a gambler ready to fleece me.  Stills is wearing a Confederate army uniform - peace, man.  Graham Nash and David Crosby look like guest stars on "The Beverly Hillbillies."  The whole package with its fake leather cover and gilt lettering reeks of excess and pomposity.  The sidemen, Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves, are given co-billing and figure prominently in the gatefold photographs like "we're all brothers man" although according to McDonough the big four basically treated them as hired hands.  The album opens with some promise with Stills' "Carry On."  The song is a propulsive tune about bouncing back from heartbreak and benefits from Stills' biggest strengths as an artist, dynamic shifts in melody and texture and lots of stinging guitar lines.  The album takes a nosedive with Nash's country-rock "Teach Your Children."  Even Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar can't rescue this song from its idiocy.  This guy thought the Hollies were lightweight?  Somehow this became a top 20 hit, but I've always loathed it.  It gets worse with Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" - don't worry Dave it is going to fall out anyway.  Crosby boasts about being a counter-culture rebel and his smug stupidity infuriates me.  Although there is lots of invigorating guitar noise on this track, I find it practically unlistenable.  Have another snort, David, you are a real hero.  At this point I'm ready to smash this record to bits, but then Neil Young shows up to redeem it with the brilliant "Helpless."  This slow, mournful autobiographical song is one of the best things Young ever wrote and it easily trumps every song CSN&Y ever did.  The side ends with a rocking version of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" which I think is the worst song she ever wrote.  CSN&Y demonstrate that if you play it fast and loud it doesn't sound as silly which I consider to be an eternally true rock and roll axiom.  Side two begins with "Déjà Vu" which is Crosby's second contribution to the album.  It is a big improvement over his first one, but then again 4 minutes of silence would have been an improvement too.  It is kind of a trippy tune in which Crosby wonders what's going on, probably a common problem for a guy with a big league dope habit.  Graham Nash demonstrates his consistency with his second tune, the incredibly inane "Our House."  The song was supposedly inspired by his domestic bliss living with Joni Mitchell.  I'll never understand how a genius like Mitchell ever hooked up with this vapid guy, I guess it is true that opposites attract.  The song is insidiously catchy and annoying.  Stills restores the album's dignity with the acoustic "4 + 20" which finds him solemnly feeling sorry for himself.  You can tell he's serious because he doesn't let Crosby and Nash sing with him.  Once again it is up to Young to lift the album above the navel contemplations of his partners.  "Country Girl" is a suite of 4 songs that describe his attraction to the title character although the song covers a lot more territory than that thanks to whole bunch of enigmatic yet evocative metaphors that Young sprinkles throughout his narrative.  The song is overproduced but I still find it just as enthralling as I did when I was a teen.  Young is so much more talented than his three partners, it is like Willie Mays playing on a beer league softball team.  The album finishes with the only collaboration on the album, Stills and Young's "Everybody I Love You."  It is little more than a throwaway about opening yourself up to love but it is still better than most of the rest of the record.  Stills supposedly wanted Young in the group so he would have someone to play with since Nash and Crosby weren't real musicians.  When I listen to the dueling guitars and soaring vocals on this hard rocking cut I do finally get a sense of why they might have thought this band was a good idea.  Still it is pretty slim pickings for a record that is supposedly a classic album - 2 great Neil Young songs, 1 good Stephen Stills song, 1 fun Stills-Young song and a whole bunch of hippie hogwash.  Recommended for people looking for something to play to annoy their roommates, sure worked on my family. 

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