Dave Zimmer, editor, 4 Way Street: The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Reader (DaCapo, 2004)
Synergy. It's a word that could have been invented with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in mind. It can be loosely defined as "the whole being greater than the sum of its parts," and that definition fits CSNY to a T.
A case can be made that CSNY is the quintessential American rock group, and 4 Way Street attempts to make that case. Dave Zimmer, himself a music journalist and longtime fan of the group, has put together a book consisting of articles and interviews that appeared in the music press over the 30-some years of the group's parlous existence. Some of the articles have long been out of print, and their republication shines some light in a few dark old corners of the Sixties that many who were there may have forgotten.
At the end of the Sixties, rock music was beginning to fracture. The Beatles were calling it quits, the freshness of the British Invasion had long gone stale, and the psychedelic scene was drawing the music ever farther from its roots in blues, r&b and country. The country was fracturing, too. The Vietnam War was dragging on, and the country was ever more split over the war and increasingly violent and splintered anti-war movement and civil rights movement. Two leaders of those movements, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated.
David Crosby, Steven Stills and Graham Nash were among the victims of the entropy affecting the music scene. Crosby had been kicked out of The Byrds, the group that had nearly invented folk-rock. Stills' (and Young's) group, Buffalo Springfield, had imploded in acrimony after three albums. Nash was chafing against the creative restrictions he felt in the British pop group he'd helped found, The Hollies. Stills and Crosby, who both loved to sing harmony, had been hanging out together and woodshedding some new songs, when their friend Cass Elliott of The Mamas and the Papas engineered their meeting with Nash -- either at Elliott's house or Joni Mitchell's, nobody quite remembers any more. Stills and Crosby were singing, perhaps Stills' "Helplessly Hoping," and after a few measures Nash joined in, floating his high harmony over their earthier tones, and the world stopped for a moment. Destiny was sealed in that moment, melding the three young men into a unit that would last for the rest of their lives.
Their 1968 record, Crosby, Stills & Nash, was something new. Mostly acoustic, folk-based yet with a rock ethic -- and those harmonies! -- it paved the way for much of what was to come out of the California music scene in the next decade, for better or worse. That album was a hit, but not a massive one; a sleeper, say. After a tour with support from a bassist and a drummer, CSN decided they needed more muscle, a fourth person, a utility player. Stills immediately thought of Neil Young, the Canadian-born-and-bred guitarist, singer and songwriter who had been his companion and competitor in Buffalo Springfield, and Young was added to the group. Their second live performance famously took place at the world-shattering Woodstock festival in August 1969, and their album, a much darker, more muscular and more nuanced affair tltled Deja Vu, topped the charts.
The ensuing 30 years saw the quartet splinter into solo careers, and recording together in various combinations, but only rarely successfully getting it together as CSNY. Through decades of stormy relations, turbulent times and personal tragedies, the four have remained friends, even when they weren't speaking with each other. As the new century gets under way, they're now grand old men of rock, apparently matured beyond the old petty bickering, and still occasionally playing and recording to old fans and attracting new ones.
4 Way Street tells this tale through articles and interviews written at various points during that odyssey. As with any such anthology, some pieces are stronger than others. A series of stellar and revealing interviews by Rolling Stone's Ben Fong-Torres is followed by lackluster puff pieces written by two British journos. Roy Carr of England's New Musical Express seems more interested in his own flowery writing style than in the words of his subjects. Cameron Crowe's interview with Neil Young is a textbook example of how to do it right, and his insightful, probing yet respectful articles on the band at some of its low and high points remain some of the best rock writing ever printed.
The self-consciousness of the young musicians of the Sixties rings out loud and clear in their now laughable slang -- the loquacious Crosby being the worst offender. "Groovy." "It gets me off." "My old lady." Every generation has its lingo, but reading the forced hipness of the icons of the Sixties is a lesson in pretension. Young, on the other hand, is a breath of unpretentious fresh air nearly every time he opens his mouth.
Certain facts, events and tales are repeated many times in the course of this book, but generally Zimmer did a good job of pulling together the right articles to both tell the tale and capture the spirit of these young (and now middle-aged) musicians and their times. An enjoyable walk down memory lane, and an important contribution to the preservation of the era's musical history.