Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu – in depth

Hippy relic created by four warring egos or a timeless Americana classic? Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s second album sold by the bucketload, yet 50 years on it still continues to divide opinion. Ben Wardle gets Déjà Vu…

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

“When we did our first CSN record, we were very much in love with each other and each other’s music. By the time of Déjà Vu that had all turned to shit.”

Graham Nash’s perspective on the eight million-selling second album he made with David Crosby, Stephen Stills plus new addition Neil Young was always going to be biased. Talking to Robert Sandall for a Q feature in 1992, Nash was trying to sum up the fractured and competitive relationship between the four members of the folk-rock supergroup. But is a harmonious studio atmosphere mandatory for a great record? Surely, many of the greatest albums were created by artists who weren’t exactly seeing eye-to-eye – think Abbey Road, Rumours, Never Mind The Bollocks… or The Wall. Now, 50 years since its release, is Déjà Vu just an old hippy relic or a true counterculture classic?
To understand how Déjà Vu was made, it’s crucial to look at the nature of the CSN sound and how it came about. While touring the US with Mancunian moptops The Hollies, Nash, already feeling restricted by the pop format, had fallen in love with the burgeoning West Coast counterculture. In a feature he wrote for the Daily Mail in 2013, Nash described meeting Crosby and Stills: “they were refugees, like me, from successful, broken bands”. Sacked from The Byrds because of his bad attitude, David Crosby was now collaborating with Stephen Stills, who in May 1968 had just dissolved Buffalo Springfield. The trio became immediate friends, but the moment of epiphany took a few weeks. In the liner notes to the CSN boxset, Nash recalls: “Me being a harmony freak and being the high harmony in The Hollies, when David and Stephen were singing You Don’t Have To Cry, they were singing the two parts and they started to show off because they wanted to show me that they had worked on it very diligently. It sounded great… I had by then a rough idea of what my part would be… When we heard ourselves for the first time, it was truly astounding that these three people from such diverse backgrounds can meld and come together with that sound.” “We just knew that it was good,” says Crosby in the same notes. “We had been in bands where we had done two-part harmony and some three-part, but there was nothing like the mix that happened when the three of us sang. We had never heard anything like that. It delighted us.” “It was one of those moments,” reflected Stills.
This eureka moment, combined with their genuine camaraderie, carried the band through the end of 1968 and into recording their debut for Reprise in 1969. They were also business-minded enough to make sure that they had proper management and live representation in the form of Joni Mitchell/Neil Young hip-executive Elliot Roberts and slick operator David Geffen. “We needed somebody sharky,” said Crosby of the latter. Indeed, it took both representatives to free Crosby from his Byrds deal with Columbia and negotiate with Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun. But no amount of business acumen would have fuelled the project without the motor of friendship. In his essential document of the LA singer-songwriter scene Hotel California, Barney Hoskyns quotes Elliot Roberts’ employee Allison Crane. “You couldn’t get these guys to work together if they didn’t like each other… it was the love relationships, the hanging out, the smoking dope, the sailing with David.”

Spirit Of Harmony

When Crosby, Stills & Nash came out in May 1969, it was a game changer, remaining in the charts until 1971. It signalled the end of British invasion-style jangly guitars, and offered an alternative to Free, Cream and Hendrix-style blues-rock. By the time Déjà Vu was released in March the following year, it had company: James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, 12 Songs by Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of The Canyon, Writer by Carole King, as well as Tom Rush, Elton John and McCartney. Typically, Dylan avoided being part of this introspectival and released an album of covers called, archly, Self Portrait; it didn’t make any difference: the singer-songwriter had arrived.
As sales of Crosby, Stills & Nash grew, Geffen, Roberts and the band realised that they would have to play live. On record, aside from Nash’s and Crosby’s guitar playing and drummer Dallas Taylor, it had been Stills who’d played everything else. How were they going to recreate their lush, layered sound onstage? In late spring of 1969, David Geffen arranged a strategy meeting in New York with Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun and Stephen Stills. The record executive suggested the addition of Neil Young. “It still always shocks me that it was Stephen’s call to invite Neil back into the fold, when he knew he wouldn’t be able to intimidate him,” Elliot Roberts told Jimmy McDonough in the latter’s Young biography Shakey. But somehow, Stills’ overarching ambition enabled him to see past his insecurity about Young’s talent and get the old Buffalo Springfield duelling guitars back together. Crosby had already subbed for Young in BS, but Nash was wary of someone he didn’t know messing with their unique sound. When the two met Young, it was apparently his rendition of Helpless that convinced them both to let him in; Crosby recalled in Uncut, “By the time he finished, we were asking him if we could join his band.”

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young vinylThe newly minted quartet played their first show in Chicago on 16 August, followed a day later by their second: Woodstock. “We’re scared shitless,” said Stills to the 400,000-strong mud-caked crowd. They pulled it off and soon after, Wally Heider’s recently opened studio in San Francisco was booked and the band commenced recording. The stage was set for the perfect storm of ego, misunderstanding, arrogance, drugs and tragedy.

Stills, always convinced that he was the group’s leader, had recently split from his partner Judy Collins. Now, with nothing to focus on other than the music, his single-minded drive and perfectionism, fuelled by mountains of cocaine, took over. The primary occupation during Stills’ all-night sessions was overdubbing, which was diametrically opposed to Young’s preferred working mode of playing live and maintaining audio authenticity. In an interview with Rolling Stone in April 1970, he criticised the first album for its overproduction, then moved on to Déjà Vu.
“And on this second album there are about five songs that sound like the first album […] it’s just a different way of making records… I don’t know how to really explain it ’cause it isn’t my way.” Only Woodstock, Crosby’s Almost Cut My Hair and Young’s Helpless were recorded as a band; every other track was put together in individual sessions, with the others coming in when needed. The group had gone straight to The White Album without passing Go.
Then in September, while driving their cats to the vet, Crosby’s girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in a car crash. Devastated and numbed by grief, he sought solace in heroin. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, he confessed, “I was not at my best as a functioning person. I would sometimes come in to the studio and wind up crying, being completely unable to deal with it all.” The escalating problems were not being addressed by the management either, as Hoskyns says: “The wall that Elliot Roberts erected around the sessions for Déjà Vu at Wally Heider’s only made the competitiveness between the four men the more claustrophobic.”
800 Hours
Core member from the first album, drummer Dallas Taylor, appeared happy with Stills’ all-nighters. “Whatever he’d decide to do, I’d be there,” recalls Taylor in the CSN notes, “The sessions would go on all night, sometimes three or four days non-stop… we hid all the clocks so no one knew what time it was.” One of LA’s first heroin users, Taylor was by that time mainlining in the studio. He was also resentful of newcomer Young, whose contract was better than his despite the drummer’s core-member status. This resulted in attempts to sabotage Young on stage by changing time signatures and would prompt Shakey to give him the boot before they returned to the studio to record Ohio.
Meanwhile Nash, despite finally getting to record his ode to perfect life with girlfriend Joni Mitchell Our House in November, was noticing cracks in its brickwork, as Mitchell’s career ambitions led to her claustrophobia and resent at their relationship. Nash was additionally saddled with the job of ego-mediator. Drummer Denny Bruce told Hoskyns: “Nash had to work so hard to be the diplomat and keep things together in the group, he said that Stephen Stills some days could be judged to be insane.” At one point, group relations reached crisis point and Nash called an emergency meeting between all band members to try to get everyone back on the same page. He ended up in tears.
But despite all the unhappiness, all the drugs and all the time (famously, Stills estimated that it took 800 hours), the album came together. Engineer Bill Halverson, who had recorded the first album and was the safe pair of hands who’d guided classics by Hendrix, Cream and Johnny Cash, managed the seemingly impossible task of negotiating between his hyper-competitive charges. 

Crosby, Stills, Nash & YoungAnd despite the massive weight of expectation bearing down on it (Atlantic shipped a million advance copies), it was immediately popular with the public. It captured the Zeitgeist in a way that only a handful of albums do every decade. Ultimately, Déjà Vu would spawn four hit singles, only three of which were actually on the album. Lead-off track, the Joni Mitchell-penned Woodstock, was the biggest hit, reaching number 11 in the Billboard chart as the album came out. Then came Teach Your Children in May, which had all the momentum of getting to No. 1. It stalled, however, because in response to the horrific shooting of four students by police during a protest at Kent State University in May, Neil Young wrote Ohio. Atlantic released it in June and it reached No. 14. The final hit was Nash’s Our House in September.

The press were not as kind as the public. Despite some positive words from the pop papers such as Record Mirror (“A beautifully produced  album. All the immaculate four-part  harmonies, pretty guitar parts and relevant arranging are there.”) it was Rolling Stone who set the tone: wide-eyed hippy enthusiasm for the debut replaced by 1970s cynicism. Despite finding merit in Helpless, Carry On and Teach Your Children, their review calls much of Déjà Vu “undistinguished” and rails at the “absurdity of its pretensions”, using the cover art as metaphor, “The heralded leather cover turns out to be nothing more than crimpled cardboard […] Déjà Vu would like to convince you that it has roots deep in the American soil. But a closer inspection reveals that its tap root is firmly implanted in the urban commercial asphalt.” Rolling Stone also published an accompanying comic story of what ‘heads’ might think about Déjà Vu, making a connection between lethargy-inducing dope smoking and listening to CSN&Y. “Open yer ears. Yeh, man, it’s a drain, a real energy drain, but it feels so fucking good, man.”
Regardless of this and despite fifth single Carry On failing to chart, the album went on to sell seven million in the US alone. All four band members released solo albums in its slipstream – Young’s After The Goldrush in September, Stephen Stills’ self-titled debut in November, Crosby’s debut If Only I Could Remember My Name in February 1971 and Nash’s debut Songs For Beginners in May. So what does Déjà Vu sound like 50 years later? Well, there are some songs which still retain the magic, but it’s the debut that is perhaps more worthy of the term ‘classic’. In a radio interview just one year after Déjà Vu’s release, Crosby summed it up. “The first album, you put it on in the middle of the afternoon and you’re boogying and laughing by the time it’s over. It doesn’t happen with the second one.”
Ben Wardle

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