Ah, the healing hands of time! When Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played the last show of their hugely successful 1974 tour, the tapes of the nine concerts that they’d professionally recorded for a potential live album were shelved. The feelings were too raw, the bad memories too fresh for anyone to touch them, no matter what treasures they held. It would be too much like living through a bad break-up, scene by scene, over and over again. The whole tour was a volatile situation that was rife with contradiction. On the one hand, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were—at least in the public’s imagination—laid-back hippies who loved to get together to play beautiful music and spread good vibes. On the other hand, reports of huge stacks of money, trashed hotel rooms and huge amounts of cocaine with egos to match began to surface in the rock press. David Crosby in particular loved to push it to the limit as onlookers reported seeing him rolling a joint, getting a blowjob and talking on the telephone at the same time while relaxing before a show. As the tour gained momentum, it became increasingly difficult to reconcile the group’s reputation for peace, love and understanding with the decadent behavior of its members on the road.
Things fell apart after that tour. Although Crosby, Stills & Nash continued to intermittently tour and record together throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, they could never reprise their early successes. It seemed as if the 1974 tour took everything out of them and left them with nothing left to give their audiences. An atmosphere of blame and recrimination seemed to have completely obliterated the group’s early utopian outlook, and cocaine continued to be a serious problem for the band members. Neil Young, who was brought on to play with CSN as a guest at Woodstock, lost patience and went on to resume his own career, while his former bandmates slid deeper into their addictions. The decline of CSNY was well-reported in the rock press, and when Crosby, Nash and Young wrote their respective biographies, they expressed so much regret over their behavior on the 1974 tour that a perception began to grow that the music they played on that jaunt must have been as shitty as their antics were. The fact that no music was released from the tour and the promised live album was shelved added to the perception that they’d played terribly and nothing they’d recorded was worth listening to. Up until the release of CSNY 1974, I had never heard a single note from this infamous tour and accepted the party line that I hadn’t missed out on anything. But, after spending a week listening through the 39 songs selected from the nine concerts they recorded, I have started to think that I’ve probably never been more wrong about music before.
To say that CSNY 1974 is much better than expected is a huge understatement. It’s easy to be cynical and argue that with all the trashing the tour received over the years from the artists themselves, the music on this set has very little to live up to. But, as with last year’s expanded reissue of Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait album, it’s heartening to see how the passage of time can diminish the power of peripheral baggage that surrounds pop stars and their actions to allow us to hear old music in a completely new way. Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein, CSNY 1974’s producers, had a lot of music to choose from when they considered which performances to select from the nine concerts they recorded (each of which ran three-plus hours), but it’s impossible to deny the power of the music that makes up the box set—whatever tweaking of sound and culling of poor performances may have taken place. CSNY 1974 offers a deep and vulnerable portrait of band at the very height of its powers.
From the loose, jammy version of “Love The One You’re With” that opens the set to the raw, nearly hysterical take of Neil Young’s “Ohio” sung on the eve of Nixon’s resignation, CSNY 1974 is on fire and so much better than anyone could have hoped for. The tension within the group was understandable and easy to hear; CSNY was comprised of four creative egos with very different ideas about music. When the band worked, the individual members supported each other brilliantly—who else but Neil Young could get Stephen Stills to go so far out into the musical hinterlands on his guitar? When things didn’t work, everything would fall apart and the music could become strident and boring. That never happens here. Stephen Stills fans will love hearing the most expansive version of the apocalyptic “Wooden Ships” ever released, while the extended live take of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is every bit as lovely and complex as the studio version. David Crosby is given lots of room to stretch out on excursions through “Déjà vu,” “Guinevere” and “Almost Cut My Hair” that reminded me of the subtle phrasing and wonderful, soaring voice he had at the height of his powers before all of his addictions got the better of him and sidelined him for decades. For me, Graham Nash has always been the weak link in the band, but hearing how his mellow radio hits like “Our House” and “Teach Your Children” balance out the drama and offer reprieves from the long, rocking jams that make up the rest of the set reveals the significant contributions he made to the group’s sound.
Decades later, Neil Young is the only member of CSNY who has kept a high public and critical profile, so it’s safe to say that many people who buy CSNY 1974 will be purchasing it because of his participation. With that viewpoint in mind, CSNY 1974 features a lot of versions of Neil Young songs that aren’t on any other live album as well as a few spontaneous new songs or one-offs that never made it onto a studio album. While most of these songs, like “Goodbye Dick,” are light throwaways, “Pushed It Over The End” is an unreleased eight-minute gem that features one of the most trippy, expansive, psychedelic extended jams Neil Young ever recorded. It’s simply unbelievable that this song has never surfaced before, and at the risk of slipping into hyperbole, this single performance is truly worth the cost of the box set. It’s really that good. When you add very intense versions of “Revolution Blues” and “On The Beach” from the album of the same name to the list—to say nothing of sweet takes of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “Long May You Run” and “Helpless”—it’s easy to realize how indispensable CSNY 1974 is.
Forty years later, the egos, hard drugs and circular arguments that left such bad scars on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s psyches have dissipated, and that time has smoothed out any lingering regrets and doubts. In the end, the beautiful music they played out on the road during that long-ago summer of 1974 is what’s important and worth remembering. I only hope that David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young realize that it’s so much better than they thought.