One sure way to make me happy is to put something by David Crosby on the stereo. I love the Cros – his voice, his tunes, his chords, his scat singing. His work, in sound, mood and atmosphere, is singular: no one else can do with a guitar and voice what he does (and, to declare a bias, many of my favourite artists are similar voice-and-guitar one-offs: Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, Paul Simon). Get Graham Nash to sing a harmony on top and I’ll listen for hours.
It’s not just Crosby’s music that I find endlessly fascinating. His career, his place in the history of rock’n’roll, is worth studying too. As one quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young he was a part of America’s instant Beatles, for CSNY was perhaps the biggest band of the early seventies. Yet to win the crown, all they had to do was turn up. They did not need to conquer the world one gig at a time as for example Led Zeppelin did, with their four tours in 1970 alone. Since their work with their previous bands had made them all famous, and as the group’s debut Crosby, Stills and Nash had already been released, they simply picked Woodstock as their coming-out party and made sure they played a decent set to justify the hype. That performance alone secured their reputation. And in retrospect it is a pivotal moment in the West Coast scene’s move from the socially progressive idealism of the folk-rock mid-sixties to the cocaine-fuelled megalomania of the arena-rock mid-seventies.
By 1977, when CSN made their third album (simply called CSN), the first wave of singer-songwriters (of whom Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, as individual artists, can all be properly judged to belong) had either ascended to a level of idiosyncrasy that made their music sui generis (like Young, whose ragged electric rock distinguished him firmly from his mellow peers, and Joni Mitchell, who was getting progressively jazzier) or were sliding into a mushy, inoffensive soft rock. Such was the fate of Crosby, Stills and Nash.
The tracks on CSN were all meditative relationship songs, Fleetwood Mac with a softer beat and the extremes of emotion removed. The cover picture was of the three of them sharing a joke on Crosby’s yacht and this kind of music, as we have discussed in relation to Bobby Caldwell, has come to be known as yacht rock, which is shorthand for a smooth and airy soft rock which spoke loudly of its authors’ success and privilege, symbolised by the yachts on which so many were pictured for album covers. The record’s all very pleasant and the craftsmanship is obvious, but something crucial has been lost here. While the music of the singer-songwriters was usually interior-looking – and by extension could be criticised as self-absorbed and narcissistic – it was still implicitly counter-cultural when so much of it was about quality of consciousness. To examine one’s own existence and in so doing admit that Western capitalism is not in itself enough to bring about peace of mind – let alone enlightenment – is in itself a political act. What infected the music of CSN (and they were far from alone in this) after around 1974 is complacency. The authors of these songs are no longer asking any questions, even of themselves. They seem unaware that there might be a need to.
The Lee Shore had been written as early as 1970, before this rot sets in. As he relates taking his ‘floating home […] from here to Venezuela’, Crosby – a keen real-life sailor – is once again caught on the horns of that old dilemma: to engage with the world and its inequalities and inequities on one hand, or just drop out and create an alternate society, away from everyone else’s rules, on the other. As a successful rock star, the option to do the latter was available to him. But it was a question he seems never to have resolved within himself. In the end, caught up in the inertial forces of his own addictions and his grief over his girlfriend Christine Hinton’s death in a car accident, he chose instead to bury the issue under cocaine and heroin and it cost him fifteen years of his life.
David Crosby almost cut his hair once. He’s still wondering why he didn’t.