David Crosby, you intractable titan
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
There are few legends in the 20th century music as mystical just utterly perfect as the formation of Crosby, Stills and Nash. David Crosby and Stephen Stills, fresh out of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, respectively, are at either Mama Cass’ or Joni Mitchell’s house, where they sing with Graham Nash for the first time.
The sound they produced by blending their three voices turns the Earth on its axis, and a supergroup is born. Stills’ counterpart Neil Young enters the fold, and exits, and enters again as he sees fit. And so it goes through 50 years of drama and heartache, arrests and blowups, but importantly, plenty of important music.
David Crosby, by all accounts, was difficult. And "difficult" is the most polite term that can be used here. He alienated bandmates by the droves, who chose to leave rather than continue trying to make this music, exhausted by the process. He burned through bridges with the best of them. He was who he was to the very end, for better or worse. So I like the term "intractable" for Crosby — not easily governed, managed, directed, manipulated or shaped.
The “worse” could be severe, but over time, “better” wins out. He is, was and remains a legend. And it’s not like he knew this, but he was also my introduction to the magic that only a great concert can provide.
My first show ever was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Fleetcenter (now TD Garden) in Boston, with some friends from high school. For about $60, which was probably half a week's pay at Stop & Shop, I earned a perch in the balcony of the arena, overlooking Neil Young's side of the stage. And for more than three hours, those four turned my life upside down.
The four principals arranged themselves in a proper front line, Nash and Crosby set up in the center, with Stills and Neil Young flaking them on either side. I liked immediately how Crosby and Nash were positioned, with Crosby the survivor supported by the musician who longest stood by his side. And from the first notes, it was obvious that his voice had emerged no worse for wear despite the years and the hardships endured. When he stepped up to the mic and started bellowing out "Almost Cut My Hair," we were collectively floored. He was a powerhouse. I couldn't believe the sound and the weight coming out from behind that distinct mustache.
Later in the show, he and Nash had their solo spot on "Guinnevere," which, in parts, had the Fleetcenter crowd enraptured, with stunned silence turning to raucous applause at the end of verses. He put both skills on display at once during "Long Time Gone," putting forward the most soulful of deliveries during the verses and snapping right back into harmony on the chorus. His ability to both blend his voice in with his bandmates and step out and steal the show is one that I'm not sure has been bettered. There are great soul singers, great harmony singers and great frontmen, but few can be all at once.
As complicated as he may have been behind the scenes, his sense of humor was always on point. This was best illustrated on this night by selling out Young after "Helpless," revealing that, in typical Neil fashion, he had sprung that song on them without warning for its tour debut.
"He wouldn't let me tell you before," he explained, "and I'm gonna get in trouble with Neil for telling you now. So we have never sung that on this tour, and he didn't tell us we were going to sing it until right now. He's an adventurous sort of guy, if you know what I mean."
Of course, his and Stills' and Nash's voices filled the air on the choruses perfectly. Young probably knew he could spring anything on them, and they could respond.
Crosby did incredible work with the Byrds, as he did on his own, marching forward with his solo career through the past few years. But Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) was what propelled him to the public consciousness, and while I'm remembering this show in honor of Crosby, it would be ridiculous not to mention how the rest of the band fared. Stills' "Carry On" opened the night and I'd never heard a sound like that before, with all four of them, in their late fifties at this point, belting out the words to a delirious crowd. Young's "Southern Man" ran right on its heels, CSN's backing vocals once again punctuating Neil's frantic shouts. The quartet broke out “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” for the first time on tour and, conceivably, years, and it was a tour de force And towards the end of the night, "Down By the River” shook that building to its core, with Young and Stills locked in what remains one of the most fevered guitar duels I've ever seen in person. The song lurched near the 20-minute mark, Stills and Young trading solos and licks and playing in tandem and possessed, until Young suddenly brought the stage volume right down to a dramatic hush. The arena lights burned red, the music reached a whisper, Young stepped to the mic and just started repeating the refrain:
"Be on my side, I'll be on your side..."
The audience answered each time. Nothing ever felt as important or as intense as being in those seats in that arena as that moment.
Obviously, I think about this night a lot. The feeling of being up in the balcony seats, looking down while the four of them went to work was beyond exhilarating. It was beyond a thrill. I was a month away from turning 18, and I certainly can't think of another night before it that meant nearly as much. Since that day, I had been looking on and off for a recording of it, and I finally tracked one down last week. And there it was, with “Down By the River” and “Carry On” and “Long Time Gone” and “Guinnevere” and, of course, "Almost Cut My Hair" in all its glory, Crosby by way of Muddy Waters belting out this freak-flag anthem all those years after Déjà Vu.
Looking back, it's hilarious how little I knew of the music then. I knew I liked Neil Young, and in the process of that education, I was realizing how much I liked Crosby, Stills and Nash. I knew the radio hits, I'd taped their VH-1 Storytellers appearance and I believe I had the CD of Live Rust by Neil & Crazy Horse. I probably had everything Young did with Pearl Jam. And that was it. I don't think I'd even heard "Down By the River" before that show. But I walked out of that arena a different person. I wanted to feel that feeling again.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were my introduction to the severity and potency that only live music can provide. Nearly 23 years later, I'm still chasing that high. And none of that is possible if Crosby doesn’t meet Stills, and if they don’t sing together with Nash for the first time in someone’s house. That’s how titans are born.
Jan. 23, 2023
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com