The four were able to perform together despite many off-stage problems. (Supplied: CMA-Creative Management Associates/Atlantic Records)
It’s a scene that’s pure California 1969.
A sun-drenched terrace overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a young man berating the members of a rock band demanding to know why the concert he’s attending isn’t free.
The lead guitarist and singer, Stephen Stills, engages him fiercely and as the argument becomes heated, another band member, David Crosby, verbally attacks the young man, suggesting he should be pushed into a nearby swimming pool. In an age of peace and love where money is a concern of “the man”, it spells out all the contradictions of music and the counter-culture as the ’60s wound to close.
David Crosby: “All the guys that I made music with won’t even talk to me.” (AP: Taylor Jewell)
The whole scene is all the more remarkable because just a month before, the two combative performers, along with stars Graham Nash and Neil Young, were headlining guests at The Woodstock Music Festival in up-state New York. There they told the 400,000 strong crowd: “This is only our second gig and we’re scared shitless”.
In so many ways Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young seemed to exemplify the spirit of Woodstock and a generation who down-played material success, preferring to smoke dope, listen to music and count their progress in life by the good vibes around them.
Now as we close in on the 50th anniversary of the gathering, billed as three days of peace and love, two new biographies of the band and a documentary about the life of David Crosby tell a rather different story.
Asked about his appearance at the festival. Stephen Stills has this to say.
“It was lost on me … I abhorred hippies. That’s fair and accurate.”
Neil Young goes even further.
“I had a really negative attitude about all those things, about the pop festivals and Woodstock. I went there but I wasn’t really into it … I didn’t even know what I was doing there. I still don’t know,” Young says.
Crosby, whose favourite pick-up line was, “What’s the most fun we can have in 20 minutes?”, may have espoused the virtues of peace and love, but he is now revealed — in his own words — as a deeply flawed human being.
Drug addled, abusive to his friends and colleagues, he wasn’t beyond undermining the confidence of bandmates to destroy their fragile psyches and drive them out of the spotlight.
In a new documentary, he reflects on his life, saying: “All the guys that I made music with won’t even talk to me.”
The question is: how did these four performers that seemed to hold the ideal of the Woodstock generation fool so many people for so long?
Cash cow for record companies
The truth is they made beautiful music that was incredibly marketable. In doing that they became a cash cow for all those around them. As the new biographies reveal, managers, record companies and promoters took the view that anything could be tolerated, any lie told, any betrayal tolerated, as long as the money continued to flow.
Depending on who you talk to, Crosby, Stills and Nash first sang together at the home of Mama Cass Elliot or Joni Mitchell’s house in Laurel Canyon. One thing everyone who heard them sing agrees on though is that they were stunning. When the overlord of Atlantic Records heard their combined voices and the harmonies they produced, he believed he had found the next Beatles. (for that, read he heard the sound of money cascading down.)
On both counts he was right. The group’s first album, created by Crosby, Stills and Nash before Young arrived, was a revelation. At a time when many bands were becoming louder, tuneless and bombastic, this folk-rock supergroup delivered intensely personal songs in an endless variety of styles.
While exposing their souls in song, they could also create political anthems, rallying their fans to reject the America of the older generation.
Deal with the Devil
It was the formula that would make them must haves at Woodstock. The complication, according to biographer Peter Doggett, was that three voices and musicians playing acoustic instruments would never have enough punch to fill arenas and make the money that potentially lay in wait.
At this point, Doggett says, they made a deal with the Devil, in the guise of Neil Young. A former band mate of Stephen Stills, Young could play guitar loud and soft and had an intensity the other three coveted. He also had an ornery streak that would deliver big audiences but also massive divisions inside the band.
Before they even arrived at Woodstock there were problems. Young said he would play the festival but he would not be filmed. Forced to film around him, the sound recording on a key song Wooden Ships went horribly wrong. To solve the problem the people producing the festival film and soundtrack cheated by avoiding footage of the band playing, instead showing shots of the festival, while a version of the song recorded months later at another location was used. So much for musical integrity!
If Woodstock had its problems it would seem like heaven compared to what happened as the four convened in the studio to make their first album. Titled Deja Vu, the sessions turned into a kind of recurring nightmare. As one observer recalled: “It was a miserable time.”
Drugs just the start of the problem
According to those who were there, the misery began with the very liberal intake of cocaine. As David Crosby remarked: “That particular substance induces irritability and a tendency towards extremes in everybody.”
But drug use and abuse was just the start of the problems. Stills, ever the control freak and perfectionist, butted heads with Young, who believed great records were made by a group of people playing together in a room and capturing magic in the moment.
With a few exceptions, Stills refused to listen, dubbing and overdubbing, erasing the contributions of band mates.
Young’s response was to offer inferior songs, then to take the tapes of his songs to another studio for mixing. Despite this, the album — complete with a startling cover of the Joni Mitchell song Woodstock — flew to number one.
At this point, from the outside, it seemed anything was possible. Inside the group the atmosphere was toxic and the players exhausted. As the album hovered at the top of the charts the warring parties were forced to undertake a major tour of the US.
It wasn’t pretty.
Fuelled by cocaine, the tour stumbled on, cashing in on their counter-culture cred. Along the way supporting musicians were sacked, threats made between band members, as each one vied for the spotlight. As the tour ended, it was clear the spirit of Woodstock was dead. So was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as a band.
Huge crowds; zero artistic relevance
Four years later, they would reconvene to tour the US. Looking back it was a tour with just one driving force: money.
Stephen Stills explains his involvement this way: “There are these bags of money across the street and all you have to do is go and pick them up.”
Despite this, the crowds were huge, the ticket receipts mind-blowing and the artistic relevance all but zero.
For the darlings of Woodstock, there would be no second coming. Drugs, betrayal and paranoia had done their work.
Perhaps Young put it best when he said: “Funny how things that start out spontaneously, end that way. Eat a Peach.” He always did have a way with words.
Mark Bannerman is a freelance journalist.