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Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: When egos clashed in the golden age of the Woodstock

David Browne’s history gets lost in a haze; Peter Doggett’s focuses on the golden age

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga Of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga Of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup
Author: David Browne
ISBN-13: 978-0306903281
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Guideline Price: £25

There was a time when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were regarded as the ultimate supergroup, the equivalent of a latter-day American Beatles and the living embodiment of what was termed the “Woodstock generation”.

Acclaimed as masters of the acoustic ballad in the golden age of the singer-songwriter, they also offered a hard-rocking electric side crystallised in the fiery guitar interaction of Stills and Young. They brought a new sophistication to rock music at the end of the 1960s, utilising invaluable experience gained in classic groups such as the Byrds, the Hollies and Buffalo Springfield.

As both these books frequently attest, their harmonic blend was unique, while their romantic lyrics and penchant for political protest galvanised a devoted following.

Such multitalented appeal made them appear invincible, even among the other supergroups of the age. Inevitably, it proved impossible to keep them together for long periods of time. There was simply too much talent and ego to accommodate creativity and productivity in a four-man aggregation. They rapidly spiralled into a series of solo ventures, duets and related projects, rarely returning to what they called “the mothership”.


Although these biographies share much in common, the structure and approach are very different. David Browne, a senior editor at Rolling Stone, has a brisk, reportorial style, moving at breakneck speed through their early years, covering the histories of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies in under 35 pages. Thereafter the pace slows as the author audaciously attempts to chronicle the entire careers of all four members, individually and together, a seemingly impossible and hubristic undertaking given their output.

At times the text reads like a high-grade, ever-extending magazine piece. Americanisms abound, notably the phrase “hunkered down”, which is used on one too many occasions. The musical descriptions are pithy but impressive in scope. Who’d have thought a song as simple as Our House “featured a chord pattern and descending bass line that evoked Baroque pieces like Pachelbel’s Canon in D?”

Browne provides an impressive cast list of speakers, including Crosby, Stills and Nash and their many associates, most of them recorded in the last three years. Whether documenting concerts, albums or the complex interaction between the key participants, Browne is on fine form until the end of 1974, when he admits the foursome became “men without a cultural context”. Nevertheless, he ploughs on, weaving together a wealth of source material while celebrating some of their best work of that decade, notably Crosby and Nash’s excellent Wind on the Water and the trio’s sumptuous CSN.

Young’s absence

By the halfway point of the book, Browne confronts a major structural problem. Neil Young’s continued absence means that this is no longer a CSN&Y biography but a CS&N one, with Young following a distant parallel route. Album releases are doggedly described, but even Browne finds little merit in such titles as Everybody’s Rockin’, Landing on Water and Innocent Eyes. Even when Young briefly reappears for American Dream, the author musters little enthusiasm for the project. The narrative thrust is temporarily lost amid the diffusion.

This sense of an author almost overwhelmed by his material continues into the 1990s. It is only the backstory of Crosby’s drug ordeals, imprisonment and salvation that propels the story forward. This is gripping stuff, but readers familiar with Crosby’s two autobiographies may feel a sense of deja vu.

The arrival of a new century comes as palpable relief as, against the odds. Young decides to revive the CSN&Y project. Hereafter, Browne’s prose is more focused, with an impressive account of their live shows, culminating in the politically charged Freedom of Speech tour. Browne’s observations on key changes in the music industry, notably the decline in record sales and greater focus on live shows, are well expressed. By this stage Young dominates his former comrades, who are increasingly reliant on his largesse and disinclined to challenge his artistic demands.

A story that might have ended on an anti-climactic note is reinvested with unprecedented drama, again thanks to the irrepressible David Crosby. There’s a violent contretemps with Stills, a bitter reaction to Nash’s autobiography and some ill-advised comments on Young’s wife-to-be, Daryl Hannah. Such passion from men in their 70s is remarkable, leaving the reader to ponder whether there’s enough time left for a final, miraculous detente.

Golden age

Peter Doggett avoids the structural conundrums that threatened to derail Browne’s account by narrowing the narrative to the golden age of CSN&Y. As he argues: “One decade was the key to their collective lives – the period between 1964 and 1974. Since then only memories and fragments of the dream have survived.”

That realisation liberates Doggett from the thankless task of documenting the wilderness years. As he proved with his remarkable history of popular music, Electric Shock, the author is a past master of precis. He doesn’t waste a word. Arguably, the pre-CSN&Y story – virtually a third of the book – features some of his finest writing to date. Doggett has a novelist’s eye for detail, an intensely analytical prose style and a psychiatrist’s understanding of character and group dynamics. There’s also an engagingly wry humour. On Crosby’s image during his spell in the Byrds: “The press dubbed him ‘Batman’; but Crosby shared none of the Caped Crusader’s concern for moral decency.”

With less ground to cover, Doggett luxuriates in the prose. While Browne had the benefit of recent encounters with CS&N, Doggett talked to them extensively decades before. He tends to favour obscure interviews from the underground press of yore, several of which I’ve never seen before. Wary of revisionism, he makes the valid point: “In my experience, contemporary accounts of events are almost always more accurate and reliable than recollections delivered decades later.”

Hardcore fans will relish the new information: contemporaneous accounts of Young’s parents’ wedding; Stills’s peripatetic upbringing; Susan Acevedo’s work as an actor before marrying Young; an attempt at a Nash composition, Bright Sunny Day, during the Byrds’ reunion album . . . and much more.

My only criticism concerns the endnotes. “Major sources” are listed but time and again I found myself searching for the origins of key quotes and mini-scoops only to be defeated. A coda neatly rounds up the later years so there’s still time for a closing meditation on the failure of human memory and the limitations of biography.

The great shame is that these two worthy books should appear on the shelves simultaneously. Both are topically timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, an association that has haunted the careers of several CSN&Y players over the years. I suspect that neither author will be pleased to see his potential readership unnecessarily divided but that’s what happens when publishers, or indeed writers, sniff anniversary potential and accidentally end up racing each other to the finish line.

Johnny Rogan is the author of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Visual Documentary, Neil Young: Zero to Sixty and various volumes on the Byrds