Tag Archives: CSNY

Cortez the Killer/Through My Sails – Neil Young

Zuma (1975) was the first Neil Young album to feature the second line-up of Crazy Horse, with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar and vocals in place of Danny Whitten, who had died a few years earlier of a heroin overdose.

Whitten had been a strong guitarist, with a rhythm-guitar style that still bore traces of the soul and doo-wop he had played when Crazy Horse had been Danny and the Memories. His contributions on guitar and harmony vocals were crucial to the success of Evetybody Knows this is Nowhere, the first record Young cut with Crazy Horse. While Young did include Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina on his records after Whitten died, they weren’t Crazy Horse records. Crazy Horse is a particular thing, and with Whitten gone, it didn’t exist.

When Talbot met Poncho, he had a hunch that he would click with Neil, and so he hyped Neil on him, insisting that Poncho could fill Whitten’s shoes. While Young did indeed like him, he quickly realised that Poncho was inexperienced and his guitar playing was still rudimentary, so he’d need to keep things simple for Poncho’s benefit. Zuma accordingly became an album of big, simple songs with big, simple chord changes, ideal for breaking in the new guy.

Fortunately simple suits Neil Young. He can take three or four chords and build a world out of them. He can make Cortez the Killer, for one thing. If you’re in any way a fan of Neil Young’s guitar playing you’ll probably know it, but if you don’t, you’re in for a treat. It may be his finest moment as an electric player: throughout the song’s seven minutes, Young’s playing is edge-of the-moment, incandescent.

Behind him, Crazy Horse rise to the occasion, as they always seemed to when Young’s songs demanded it. It’s a return to the sort of hypnotic, churning groove they patented on Everybody Knows this is Nowhere. Ralph Molina in particular plays a blinder; it may be his finest moment on any of Young’s records.

Cortez fades out and gives way to Through My Sails. The emotional transition is so perfect, you’d think that the two songs must have been designed to fit together this way: Cortez, the shattering end of something important; Through My Sails, the sound of someone summoning the strength to begin again.

In fact, Through My Sails had been recorded at an entirely separate, earlier recording session with Crosby, Stills & Nash for an aborted second CSNY album, to be called Human Highway.

Accounts differ as to what scuppered the record. Some say that Nash and Stephen Stills were still uneasy with each other having fallen out a couple of years earlier over Rita Coolidge; others put it down to the drugs (in his book, Wild Tales, Nash said they fell out over “some business, some cocaine thing”). Accounts even differ as to when Through My Sails was recorded – some sources say that it was recorded on Young’s ranch in 1973 as part of the first Human Highway session; others that it was cut during the rehearsals on Neil Young’s ranch for the 1974 CSNY reunion tour.

Most agree, though, it features Young on acoustic guitar, Stills on bass and Russ Kunkel on congas, with Crosby, Stills and Nash all adding their harmonies, and for a band not always known for their restraint (Stills is an incorrigible overdubber), it’s a sparse, beautiful performance. The four may have produced more technically impressive, tighter group vocals, but they never sounded more human.
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No, this is not a real album cover, but it is the picture that was intended as the cover, and it’s a pretty impressive mock-up

 

 

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Find the Cost of Freedom – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Consider this a late entry in the harmony series. I had it written and lying around but left it out as I’d written about these guys several times before, and CSNY seemed too obvious an inclusion in a series about harmony singing. But I’ve been reading Graham Nash’s memoir Wild Tales, a Christmas present from my dad, and found myself listening to it today as if for the first time. It really is a stunning piece of work.

In May 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of students protesting against the American incursion into Cambodia at Kent State University in Ohio. They fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds. The students, needless to say, were unarmed. The shootings killed four, paralysed another and left eight more seriously injured. The US public, already polarised over Vietnam, became more divided still between those who were outraged that the state would turn its guns on its own citizens and those who thought the little punks had it coming. John Filo, a journalism student, took a photograph of a young woman called Mary Ann Vecchio (then 14 years old and visiting the campus) kneeling over the body of a dead student called Jeffrey Miller and screaming in horror. That Pulitzer-winning picture was only the most potent symbol of that divide. It was by no means the only one.

Neil Young read about the events at Kent State, and saw that terrible picture, while in the company of bandmate David Crosby. There and then he poured his disgust into a blunt D-modal outburst called Ohio: a riff, a verse and a chorus. Recorded as a band, live off the floor and without overdubs or frills, Ohio was a record too serious in its intent to bother with fripperies like ornate melody and elegant vocal harmonies, the usual calling cards of CSNY.

Ohio’s B-side was a Stephen Stills composition called Find the Cost of Freedom. Stills, a southerner with a military-school upbringing, was a more conservative figure than his bandmates. He would later suffer from delusions, fuelled by his insane cocaine intake, that he had served in Vietnam, earning himself the mocking nickname “Sarge” from his road crew. His own thoughts were, accordingly, harder to gauge.

Its presence on the flipside of the explicitly condemnatory Ohio cast Find the Cost of Freedom as a sorrowful response to Kent State, whether or not Stills had actually written it as such*. But Find the Cost of Freedom, contemplative and ambiguous where Ohio was declamatory and furious, never identifies the dead it mourns. Who is being hymned here? US troops? Vietnamese civilians? Student protestors? All three? Its power lies in this ambiguity.

I’ve said before that I’m not all that big on Stills’s work generally, preferring the Crosby & Nash duo albums to any CSN or CSNY record. But even to a Stills sceptic like me, Freedom is a tremendously powerful record. Like Ohio, it features little of the bombast and posturing that characterised CSNY’s music in 1970. Instead its simplicity and brevity are stunning. It stands on equal footing with Ohio, which is a highlight of Neil Young’s catalogue. The transition from four voices in unison to four voices in harmony**, spread wide across the stereo image, may be the most spine-tingling moment on any CSNY record.

CSNY

*In his memoir Wild Tales, Nash hints that other songs were under consideration to be on the B-side of Ohio, suggesting that Find the Cost of Freedom had been written before Kent State, though he doesn’t come out and say it in so many words.

**Recorded, says Nash, live with the four band members sitting in a square and facing each other.

Tennessee Jed (live) – Grateful Dead

In 1972 the Grateful Dead embarked on their (at the time) biggest-ever tour of Europe. It was their last major tour with founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (he died in 1973) and their first with pianist Keith Godchaux and his wife Donna (whose first-ever studio session had been as a backing singer on Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman in Muscle Shoals). It was the only tour with Pigpen and Godchaux there in tandem.

The triple album that was compiled from the tour starts with a tremendous version of Cumberland Blues and doesn’t let up from there. It’s the Dead at the very top of their considerable game, Garcia audibly fired up by having a new player to spar with in Godchaux. The vocal harmonies that they’d begun to feature under the influence of CSNY*, so tentative on some of the Workingman’s Dead tracks, are now practised, even slick. The group is expansive while always sounding at ease with what they’re doing. The aching version of He’s Gone (written about Mickey Hart’s father Lenny, who took off with most of the band’s money) is one of my very favourites. The reading of China Cat Sunflower is likewise tremendous.

But the finest moment on the triple-album set is the version of Tennessee Jed that appears on side four of the triple album. Recorded in Paris, this is the definitive version of one of the era’s defining Grateful Dead songs. The group get so close to the spirit of The Band that may as well be The Band; it was no surprise when half a lifetime later Levon Helm covered it on his Electric Dirt album, the last record he ever made. It’s not merely a sonic impersonation either; the lyric mines the same surrealistic old-timey South that Robbie Robertson’s Band songs inhabited (I’m thinking of tracks like Caledonia Mission). Tennessee Jed was a character from an old radio show in the 1940s, sponsored by Tip-Top Bread (hence “When you get back you better butter my bread”).

With Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann in their ranks, the Dead were a two-drummer band. But Hart didn’t travel to Europe in 1972, taking a break from the band after the business with his father. Kreutzmann, dare one say it, revelled in the freedom being the only drummer gave him. He only had his own feel to worry about; he could place the backbeat where he wanted it to go. He’s got a serious case of the funk on Tennessee Jed. Garcia, meanhile, has himself a tonne of fun with the chicken’-pickin’ groove, and fires off a great solo. Godchaux just sparkles.

The early 1970s (starting with Workingman’s Dead) is my favourite era of the Grateful Dead. All of my favourite Dead songs were written in this era, and I love how they reconciled the expansive, psychedelic side of the band with the, essentially, folk and country songs that filled up Workingman’s and American Beauty. The Europe ’72 live set is an indispensable document of this era, and Tennessee Jed is its most irresistible moment.

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Jerry Garcia & Bob Weir

*Mickey Hart: “Stills lived with me for three months around the time of CSN’s first record and he and David Crosby really turned Jerry and Bobby onto the voice as the holy instrument. You know, ‘Hey, is this what a voice can do?’ That turned us away from pure improvisation and more toward songs.”

Woodstock – Matthews Southern Comfort

This week we’re talking about a song written in New York City by a Canadian, about an event that took place in upstate New York that she didn’t attend, recorded in California, then covered by a man from England and turned into British folk rock’s biggest hit single and (I think) only UK number one single.

The song is Woodstock, as recorded by Matthews Southern Comfort.

Iain Matthews was Fairport Convention’s male lead singer during the band’s early years, alongside Judy Dyble and (later) Sandy Denny. He left during 1969 as the band readied the material that would be on Liege & Lief, a record that is for most the band’s finest achievement and for which Matthews’s essentially pop-schooled voice was replaced by Richard Thompson’s rougher, more folk-influenced delivery. By Matthews’s account, the prime movers behind his ousting were Joe Boyd and Ashley Hutchings.

Possibly to make amends for sacking him, most of Fairport appear on Matthews’s first record with his new band, Matthews Southern Comfort (called Matthews’ Southern Comfort – the record has an apostrophe; the band, at this stage, didn’t). The line-up, in fact, was stellar, including Thompson, Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings from Fairport, Gerry Conway (Fotheringay, later Fairport), Dolly Collins (sister of Shirley), Gordon Huntley (steel-playing session man) and Roger Coulam (of Blue Mink) on piano.

Woodstock, the song, has been interpreted a bunch of different ways. Joni Mitchell’s original is spare and thoughtful, just her on electric piano. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who unlike Joni and Matthews were actually at Woodstock, turned in a bombastic performance, in which the implicit dread of the lyric (but what if we can’t get back to the garden?) is entirely absent. Of Déjà Vu‘s many missteps and miscalculations, Stephen Stills’s misreading of Woodstock (caused, it seems, by an inability to discern subtext) was the most glaring.

Matthews found a middle ground between CSNY’s and Mitchell’s two approaches. His slightly tremulous delivery acknowledges that a return to the garden may just be a dream, but the beautiful harmony singing always seems to suggest that the hope is still there. Rooted by its steady-bottomed rhythm section but carried upward by those gorgeous harmonies and Gordon Huntley’s pedal steel, Matthews Southern Comfort’s Woodstock seems to me to be the best possible recording of the song, a classic of countrified British folk-rock.

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Matthews Southern Comfort (Iain Matthews at left)

Lady-O – The Turtles

On my way home from work tonight I was listening to the Turtles. They are, in truth, not a band I know all that much about. You can summarise my knowledge of them thusly:

  • The two singers – Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman – became Flo and Eddie of the Mothers of Invention, and sang backing vocals on a bunch of T. Rex songs and Springsteen’s Hungry Heart
  • Happy Together is a deathlessly great single; Elenore may be a rather smartarse parody of Happy Together, but is actually an even better record
  • Drummer Johny Barbata played with various CSNY folks (Neil Young, Crosby & Nash, and with CSNY themselves – that’s him on Ohio, for example)
  • They signed Judee Sill to their publishing company when she was living out of a car, gave her a weekly wage and recorded her song Lady-O

It is, of course, the last item on the list that’s going to detain us right now. If you’re new to this blog, I’ll just say in brief that I think Judee Sill’s first record is the best album ever made by anyone ever; at the very least, it’s my favourite. So the fact that these guys played a part in her story makes them interesting to me, even without the other good work they did.

(Although by god they were responsible for some insipid folk-rock mush too – was someone holding them at gunpoint to force them to record Eve of Destruction? Who suggested that tempo as the right one for It Ain’t Me Babe?)

Their recording of Lady-O, cut in 1969 (two years before Sill’s was released) and featuring Sill’s acoustic guitar and string arrangement, is a wholly creditable effort, even if it neither jump-started her career nor revived their own flagging one (it would be the band’s last single).

Lady-O, as sung by Sill, is a multi-layered text. Sill’s lyrics often fused erotic and spiritual love in a Song of Songs type of way, and as its author was bisexual, a song such as Lady-O opens itself up to several various, and overlapping, potential meanings. A love song to a woman? A hymn to Mary? A love song to Mary? A hymn to a lover? Lady-O is all of these things when Sill sang it.

When the Turtles performed it (I assume the lead vocal is Howard Kaylan, but if it’s Volman, my apologies), it’s necessarily missing these potential meanings. But Kaylan and Volman do a great job with a winding melody spanning a very wide range, the song in their hands is no less graceful melodically than it is in Judee’s, and the descending bass in the chorus is still heartbreakingly beautiful. In fact, given that the double tracking of Sill’s delicate falsetto softens her voice to the point where it becomes a little weak and warbly, there is at least one way in which the Turtles’ version may be superior. Nevertheless, Sill’s reading, in its rich textual ambiguity, is the definitive one.

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The Turtles – um, yeah. Looking good, guys

A new song for you here:

The Lee Shore – David Crosby and Graham Nash

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.

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David Crosby almost cut his hair once. He’s still wondering why he didn’t.