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CSNY 1974 Box Set Review

CSNY were the seminal baby boomer band, in the most pejorative sense. They were selfish, hedonistic, and hypocritical. Their peaceful sloganeering didn’t translate to their personal relationships. Saccharine songs of middle class domesticity have not aged well, nor protest anthems with the quaint air of museum pieces. Still I have a fondness for the live box set of their 1974 tour. The Doom Tour marched through stadiums in a haze of drugs and ego, effectively breaking them up for good. Or at least that was its reputation.

Neil Young was the rock. He brought authenticity, and burned out desperation, waving the peace flag in war, a hippie rose in concrete. Stephen Stills was the more conventional rock guy, with his wailing solos and acoustic strummers. David Crosby was the flighty hippie, while Graham Nash was the establishment sort. Together they did have a certain chemistry, in every sense of the word. And they were dysfunctional to the core, all drama all the time.

The last gasp of CSN was a disastrous performance at a White House Christmas concert in 2014. Crosby hogs the opening teleprompter lines so Stills gets pissed and throws a pick at him. “I can’t believe you,” he mutters, angrily strumming into a horrid version of “Silent Night.” They come off like old spoiled brats with a tuneless hobo campfire performance that totally ruins Christmas for the audience. What’s more rock ‘n roll than that?

Rare photo of CSNY at their “social club”

DISC ONE

LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH

Lumbering in with a pseudo-Santana groove, this one sets the stage for the jam band version of CSNY. They had no other choice in 1974, sharing stages with the likes of the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. This song was Stills’ biggest solo hit, an egalitarian but practical approach to love.

WOODEN SHIPS

A quirky anti-war staple that was a better fit for the Jefferson Airplane. Their bizarro version highlighted a dialogue among post-war survivors coming together to rebuild society. This CSNY version rocks it out like an anthem, Stills slurring the words before a big jamout boogie. The message is lost but who cares? It’s the ’70s now. Like Richard Pryor said, “Remember the revolution, brother? We lost.”

IMMIGRATION MAN

Graham Nash’s songs went straight to the point, a ham-handed approach that can be forgiven considering the good intentions. Mostly. Here he’s universalizing his immigration troubles, though there’s a whiff of the rich rock star turning his annoyances into political causes. Still the message is right on, delivered with the simple humanity it calls for.

HELPLESS

Neil Young is the leader of this band. “Helpless” is the first song on this set not playing to the stadium crowd, but just existing in its own atmosphere. They might as well be playing in some farmhouse on a cold winter night, with a dog on the floor and pungent smoke in the air. Because he drags the band there with him. Lyrically the song finds inspiration in existentialism. Top tier tune.

CARRY ME

Nice song from David Crosby, with a jazzier style. Dissociation is the theme, suggesting music as a coping mechanism. It’s a hidden little gem that shines in this band performance.

JOHNNY’S GARDEN

From Stills’ Manassas band, and their competent 1972 double album. Which is largely forgotten because rock music had blasted off well beyond competency by 1972. The swiftly changing epochs of youth culture had already turned CSNY into dinosaurs. It’s an okay song, one of those “rock star writes a tribute to his gardener” filler tracks.

TRACES

Prolific as he was, Neil Young’s songwriting could read sometimes as formulaic. By cranking out so much material he demystified it. But you have to give him credit – his new songs on this set seem to be fighting against the idea of CSNY as a nostalgia act.

GRAVE CONCERN

Nash contributes a pop song about environmental panic. He really wants to be seen as the conscience of the group. But he’s not, not when Neil Young is around. At least he can write a good melody.

ON THE BEACH

Godly. A slow burn, burnout classic, with skeletal verses built for solos and those wistful maj7 chords in the chorus. It sure does capture the isolated desperation of a lost weekend that has turned into a lost year and might just be a lost life. Even music has lost its meaning. It’s a haunted song, with just a hint of hope and defiance. CSNY nail it here.

BLACK QUEEN

A big blues riff thing that falls flat. Note: Stills and Young were once at the forefront of the guitar dueling ’60s zeitgeist, but in among the guitar gods of the ’70s they appeared quite mortal. This is the first song where I can really hear the infamous booze and coke influence that informed these performances. It’s not awful, but it does not justify its eight and a half minutes.

ALMOST CUT MY HAIR

Send this song to Supercuts. This is self-parody right? They’re doing a Weird Al joke hippie blues rock protest song? It’s just such a dumb theme for a serious rock anthem, and ponderous to boot. And I get it, how it’s really about not comprising your ideals, yadda yadda. That’s great. But this song is about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

The only letter that really matters in this group.

DISC TWO

CHANGE PARTNERS

The first song of the acoustic set sounds like a pirate singalong. The chemicals have kicked in and perfect harmonies are out the window. These guys are feeling no pain, which gives some kooky life to this swinging ’70s John Updike theme song.

THE LEE SHORE

Nicely recalls their hazier era vibe, but I call bullshit the lyrics. Imagery is not a substitute for a coherent theme, nor do phrases like “jewels upon the sea” constitute good imagery.

ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK YOUR HEART

Neil Young’s best songs have the spirit of an old friend, whom you didn’t expect nor maybe even wish to see, but whose presence will better your life in some way. A masterful little maj7 chord dreamily sends the pre-chorus into the hook. Just when I’m losing interest in this set, his tunes pull me back in.

OUR HOUSE

Not my bag, not my vibe, but it’s a fine song. The melody sticks and it has a reason to be – it connected with the baby boomer audience and sold greatest hits albums and got played at weddings and probably paid for David Crosby’s boat.

FIELDWORKER

Graham Nash’s sense of social justice just seems a bit suspect. Despite seemingly good intentions, this oppressed workers anthem feels paper thin and totally ego driven. This song is like if someone wrapped you up a pack of gum as a birthday gift, with the expectation of a timely thank you note. I really don’t like Graham Nash.

GUINEVERE

I do really like this one, a sweeping psychedelic folk song, probably Crosby’s finest songwriting moment. The narrator is talking to a woman about a previous girlfriend, whom it seems has committed suicide. The girl in question Christine Hinton was not a suicide, but it still evokes that sense to me. And like “Carry Me” it has the sense of coping with tragedy.

TIME AFTER TIME

Somnolent soft rock tune, one too many now from Crosby. His melodies were formless and exploratory, which is a nice way of saying they just weren’t memorable at all.

PRISON SONG

Let me guess, one of the crew got busted for weed so Nash had to write a song about all prisoners, man. No, that’s actually not true, its roots are based in his upbringing. His sanctimonious style just brings out my inner cynic.

LONG MAY YOU RUN

A gentle sentimental ballad that’s not so bad until you realize it’s about Neil’s car. Pass.

GOODBYE DICK

Banjo throwaway tune about the disgraceful end of Richard Nixon. I like how it’s short and not so sweet, as if that’s all Nixon deserved.

MELLOW MY MIND

An early banjo take of this gem from 1975’s Tonight’s The Night. Given that superior version, this is kind of a curiosity piece.

OLD MAN

Bringing out the big guns. Another Neil Young classic that he could probably play in his sleep. Still nice to hear the CSNY harmonies on it.

WORD GAME

Stills’ fast pickin’ imitation of Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” gets real tedious. I actually kind of hate this song. It somehow manages to wreck the whole “folk singer tellin’ like it is” genre. At one point we’re informed that “the rich keep gettin’ richer.” The anti-bigotry message is all but pissed away by the ego driven execution.

MYTH OF SISYPHUS

Another histrionic Stills performance, this time at the piano attempting to channel Ray Charles. I actually kind of love this song. Because it feels honest, presumably inspired by a relationship crisis, poured out in streams of thought rather than perfectly crafted lines. Another hidden gem on this set.

BLACKBIRD

Office party karaoke take on a Beatles song? No thanks.

LOVE/ART BLUES
Another gem. The slash in the title is the key to figuring out this Neil Young rarity. It’s about the artist who reveals too much and ruins relationships, and so is forced to choose between his loves. Once again you have to admire him for testing out new material in front of stadium crowds. This song remained unreleased for years.

HAWAIIAN SUNRISE

Another long unreleased Young song, this one is not a gem. It sounds exactly how you think it would from the title.

TEACH YOUR CHILDREN

Time to pay the bills. More pop sanctimony from Nash. I wonder if the others loathed him for their reliance on his pied piper boomer anthems. The original version boasted some sweet slide guitar from Jerry Garcia. Here they’re just running through the motions.

SUITE: JUDY BLUE EYES

Shakey take on the seminal CSN song. It’s so well known that you might not notice its stylistic audacity. A stream of consciousness outpouring that pinballs from one idea to another, in the service of desperately trying to win back a love. It really feels like a burst of inspiration, ignoring traditional song form to let its melodies soar.

“How many people in here like to take a taste of alcohol?!”

DISC THREE

DEJA VU

Stretching out with a jammy performance that no doubt suited the high spirits of the band. Let’s not forget that these guys were ripped onstage every night. There’s a video of a full show from Wembley Stadium that gives you some idea why they couldn’t last. Stills is so blasted that he Kool Aid Mans an awkward lead guitar over Crosby’s quiet “The Lee Shore.” You can see it in Crosby’s eyes, a cowering hippie in the presence of a drunken boor. Still – I’ve watched that whole performance and gained a new appreciation for these guys. Despite my jokes at the CSNY institution, they were really four fantastically talented musicians playing their hearts out. They left it all on the stage on this 1974 tour.

MY ANGEL

What is this Steely Dan? Why not right?

PRE-ROADS DOWN

What is this KISS? Right down to the freewheeling Frehely soloing and the dumb lyrics – “On the road I’ll be wantin’ you.” Seriously this would fit perfectly somewhere on Dressed To Kill. That’s a compliment.

DON’T BE DENIED

Back to some good slow burn Neil Young, this one from Time Fades Away. His tunes are sometimes very simple, easy for any backing band to pick up. The songs do the work, allowing the inebriated musicians to add what colors they feel. In that spirit Stills lends some fine guitar work.

REVOLUTION BLUES

Neil Young goes Tarantino, Once Upon A Time In Laurel Canyon. This Manson family song gets really dark. A dog gets killed, for crissake. CSN’s music at times existed in a hippie bubble of rock star privilege. Not this song. It peers right into the darkness, and the wolves at their mansion doors.

MILITARY MADNESS

Here comes Nash again with the breaking news that war is bad. It’s fine, although the “no more war” chant at the end is overkill, so to speak.

LONG TIME GONE

It appears to be a very long song.

PUSHED IT OVER THE END

Yeah, these guys are pushing it. I’m getting really sick of this box set by now.

CHICAGO

Horrid protest song from Nash about the equally horrid ’68 Democratic Convention. It’s just so clearly a rip off of Neil Young’s “Ohio.” KRS already made an album called Blueprint, Nash.

OHIO

And here it is, the genuine article just for emphasis. Yes this one is a classic that still retains some of its revolutionary spirit. Good for Neil Young for ethering this group.

CONCLUSION

Skip most of Disc Three, pick out some good tunes from the acoustic set and you’ve got a great CSNY collection. Do as they say, not as they do.

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