Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Maybe Young

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013
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Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
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Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Maybe Young

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

Crosby and ...

In the late ‘60s, living up in Laurel Canyon, most folk music folks hung loose. They seldom had music agents or career managers. The folkies up there were not making big bucks enough to interest agents or managers.

If there was one act that might have been of interest, that one was The Byrds, David Crosby’s folk-rock group, which back in 1965 had a hit on Columbia with Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The Byrds’ version came out in folk-rock, with amps and speakers plugged into folk guitars.

In 1967, The Byrds played at the Monterey Pop Festival. Crosby found the San Francisco scene addictive, more so than Laurel Canyon’s sweet passivity. He wanted his Byrds to be in one of those hard-sound bands, like Jefferson Airplane. He made no secret about his dissatisfaction, being just a Byrd with no jet engine.

To his fellow Byrds, Crosby became a pain. They wanted him out of the group.

The Byrds’ record label, Columbia, was not upset. It bought Crosby out of his contract without a whimper. Upon exit, Crosby even got a buy out fee of $10,000. He already had a VW bus with a Porsche engine. So, he bought a boat.

Crosby also had a manager who hung with him: a wry guy named Elliot Roberts.

Elliot Roberts had earlier come into music with a major fascination named Joni Mitchell. He wanted to rep Joni. She really hadn’t felt like she ever needed a manager, so she and Elliot just became close friends.

Joni and David Crosby became even closer.

Elliot Roberts and David Geffen

Both Elliot Roberts and another young “wanna-be” named David Geffen had worked in the same spot: the mail room at Hollywood’s William Morris Agency, a hot spot for movie stars, less hot for record business stars. They’d been pals in the mail room.

Then Roberts had grown to “manage” David Crosby, but now that The Byrds, for Crosby anyway, were over, Elliot sought to assemble another group for his client. To assemble that new group, Elliot turned to his agency colleague, David Geffen. (Geffen had helped Roberts before, when Elliot was signing Neil Young to Reprise’s Mo Ostin.)

Talking again to Geffen, who now worked in the Ashley Famous agency, Roberts showed him a list of folk-rock names he’d come up with, musicians to form a new band with David Crosby.

Roberts’ list shifted Geffen’s gears from medium up to high. Geffen told Roberts he was ultra-ready to start an agency of his (or their) own. He and Elliot set up a new artist management company out on the Sunset Strip, at 9126 Sunset in a building that was, to oversimplify, a Greek-columned, French-chateau’d mountain lodge once owned by Hoagy Carmichael.

Roberts’ dream list of possible Crosby band members was four names long. Elliot wanted to set up (at least) a trio of folk-rockers: To David Crosby, Roberts wanted to add Stephen Stills (under contract to Atlantic’s Atco Records as part of Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (part of the Hollies, under contract to Columbia’s Epic Records). Not simple. High-gear Geffen flew to New York to do the impossible. First stop: Atlantic.

Crosby and Stills

There, Geffen met first with Atlantic’s A&R chief Jerry Wexler. His pitch: Geffen wanted recording rights to the Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills, so he could start a group with Crosby, Stills, and…

Wexler quickly fired back, “How much are you offering Atlantic?” What Geffen had to offer Wexler was...nothing. “Why should I?” Wexler shouted at the boy opposite him. You, a boy with no A&R skills, wants one of our artists, for free? “Outta here!”

Geffen left, but not to give up. The next day, the elder head of Atlantic, Ahmet Ertegun, called Geffen back. Ahmet felt his Atlantic label was stuck back in the 1950s, and wasn’t moving forward. Atlantic didn’t know where its future lay. Maybe Geffen could help?

When Ahmet and Geffen met, Ahmet listened about this proposed group, including Stills and Nash. Ahmet told Geffen, “You can have Stills” on one condition: that this new group – C+S+N – would be on Atlantic Records. Geffen shook Ertegun’s hand. Step one had been taken.

Stills was good at music, and had written the Springfield’s one hit, “For What It’s Worth,” based on the ’66 Sunset Strip riot between the police and teens:

There's something happening here
But what it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it's time we stop
Children, what's that sound?
Everybody look - what's going down?

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking' their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

Geffen didn’t realize it then, but getting Stills would become part win, part pain. He’d come from Texas, where he’d been raised in a military academy. He’d learned discipline. He brought his skill in giving orders to “soldiers” in his bands.

Stills didn’t look tough. But in his mind it was always Stills who should be running things, including any band he was in.

His recent band, the Buffalo Springfield, also had an on-off member named Neil Young. The off came because Stills would bully Neil, pushing him back. “You stand over there, to the side.” Neil, a shy fellow, got pushed, but then, fed up, left Still’s Buffalo band.

But Geffen closed the deal for Stills. Tomorrow’s move: see the “next guy,” over at Epic.

Crosby, Stills, Nash

At Epic, where The Hollies were signed, Geffen traded in Richie Furay (another part of the over-and-done-with Buffalo Springfield) to get Graham Nash out. With Nash would come Nash’s strong guitar. No problem at Epic. A quick shrug.

Geffen had quickly glued together the trio that Elliot wanted. Back to L.A., and it was time for Roberts to take hold of the reins now.

That July, 1968, Graham Nash flew to Los Angeles to settle in to this new band, to be called Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Nash had another attraction in L.A. On an earlier tour, he’d already met and had a fling with Joni Mitchell. With her back in his life, Nash felt at ease, even though Laurel Canyon did not resemble his home town, Manchester, England.

To get the new trio together, Elliot Roberts set up an evening dinner meeting: Crosby + Stills + Nash. Soon enough, the trio test-sung a new Stephen Stills song, “Helplessly Hoping.” After dinner, Stills and Crosby sung verse one. Nash asked to hear it again. When verse two came, Nash joined to sing in high harmony over Stills and Crosby.

They are one person
They are two alone
They are three together
They are four for each other

When the trio had finished, everyone in the room smiled, then collapsed in laughter. And joy.

They felt like three peas in a pod.

And Graham and Joni, they fell in love. Soon Nash flew back to England, with his whole new future in mind. He left his wife, and left her everything he owned there. He returned to Laurel Canyon with one suitcase, $500, and the dream of a better life.

And Maybe Young

Roberts’ early list had told Geffen of a fourth possible member, the independent Neil Young.

Neil Young had become rock’s loner. After leaving Stephen Stills’ Buffalo Springfield, Neil wanted to be on his own.

After he left, on May 5, 1968, Neil Young had also asked Roberts to manage him …. As a solo artist, not a side man in a band. (Earlier, Roberts had made a deal with Reprise for Neil.)

Three months after that, Neil had even moved from Laurel Canyon out west, an hour’s drive to Topanga Canyon, where Neil further distanced himself from that Hollywood scene. Out in Topanga, life felt acoustic. Felt woodsy and rustic.

Young once, in an interview, said “I just had too much energy and so much creative flow coming out, when I wanted to get something down, I just felt like, ‘This is my fucking trip and I don’t have to listen to anybody else’s’ I just wasn’t mature enough to deal with it.”

Recording now for Reprise, the first track on his album was called “The Loner.” The album, Neil Young, out in 1969, sold so-so.

Geffen-Roberts, the Company

And now, time for all parties to sign their the contracts. All = Atlantic Records + Geffen + Roberts + Crosby + Stills + Young.

They met in David Geffen’s Central Park South apartment. Crosby, Stills, and Nash proposed they just shake hands on this; no need for a paper contract. The deal was shook on.

David Geffen had decided to move back, to make California his home base. Although Elliot Roberts was a bit iffy about teaming up with a hustle-negotiator like David Geffen, the latter just told him, “Listen, let’s just do this. You know you’ll make twice as much money with me.”

Time for new Geffen-Roberts offices: 9130 Sunset Blvd. There, the two proved, to the always-suspicious artists in the music business, that they could be trusted. Geffen-Roberts worked. Jackson Browne later observed it this way: “Crosby told me that Geffen was really brilliant, but you could also trust him. And you could. David and Elliot would do anything for their artists. In an industry full of cannibals, they were like the infantry coming over the hill.”

As a team, it worked. Elliot provided the ears, the taste, the touch with artists. David matched that with his business energy, and was adept at making big kills in business. They’d bonded, and became a team that the rest of the music business had not before experienced.

Up a 9130 Sunset, at Geffen-Roberts, there was Neil Young’s piano in the corner. Guitars at random. And you were always welcome up there. Just ask the secretary for a Coke. That kind of place.

Making the First Album

In developing Crosby’s CSN, Stephen Stills worked as usual, as the “Company General.” It was Stills who imagined how a song should sound, and got his way. His hair never grew long down to his shoulders, like all the rest of Laurel’s fellows did. Stills wore sweaters, V-neck, no fringe. He left growing a mustache to Crosby, who like most male musicians, had adopted furry freakiness.

Without Neil Young, CSN gathered in 1969 to make their first album at Wally Heider’s well-guarded studio up at 245 Hyde Street in San Francisco. (Neil Young would also record his own 1969 album up there, but separately.) The three of them - Crosby, Stills, and Nash - got along well, and listened to Stills in his drill-sergeant role. Crosby and Nash laid back.

Drugs played their part, in and out of the studio. A local disc jockey referred to Stills and Crosby as “The Frozen Noses.”

The resulting album, named Crosby, Stills & Nash, came out from Atlantic Records in May, 1969. It sounded different from what then was radio-fashionable: it had left Top 40’s loud rock and heavy blues outside. In this album, CS&N sounded was fresh and sunny.

Two major singles kept boosting the album up the charts:

Marrakesh Express: Graham Nash’s song recalls a train he took through Africa from Casablanca down.

Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express.
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express,
they're taking me to Marrakesh.
All on aboard the train.
All on aboard the train.

I've been saving all my money just to take you there.
I smell the garden in your hair.
Take the train from Casablanca going south,
blowing smoke rings from the corners of my m m m m mouth.
Colored cottons hang in the air,
Charming cobras in the square.
Striped djellebas we can wear at home.

Well, let me hear ya now.

And …

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes: Stephen Stills’ memoire of his two-year romance with Judy Collins. On the album, it’s 7+ minutes long.

This first CSN album went Top Ten by July, and stayed up on the charts for two years. Yes, two.

Still, the trio felt nervous about performing in public. They lacked on-stage zing.

When back in New York, the trio had been invited to dinner up at Ahmet Ertegun’s first class abode on the Upper East Side.

The dinner table conversation got around to where CSN would next head. Going “live” on tour was a challenge to this soft-into-the-mikes trio. More oomph was needed for arena shows.

Ahmet asked, “Stephen, did you ever think about getting Neil Young in the group?”

Good question. To the surprise of Roberts, Stills was open to it. Elliot again agreed to make the deal. But now CSNY would have FOUR stars. Neil, getting the call, demanded “equal billing” as CSN & Y.

The group of four began touring. First to Chicago, then (their second date only) to Woodstock. There, 400,000 people in the mud. CSN&Y up next.

On stage, Stills and Young revived their old guitar duels (leaving Graham Nash to the side with just a tambourine to rattle).

Then, back into the recording studio for the four of them: CSNY’S Déjà Vu. There, the Stills vs. Young acrimony once again flared, but the album survived. It took something like 80 hours to record, and each of the four would do his vocal alone in the studio, equaling at least four times the usual recording hours.

On its release in 1970, Déjà Vu sold into the several millions, with heavy advance-of-release orders. It was if America had finally come up with its own Beatles.

Three singles made there way out of the LP:

Teach Your Children: By Graham Nash. Inspired by Diane Arbus’ photo of a child holding a grenade in his hand in Central Park.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry, So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

Our House: Also by Graham Nash, depicting his feelings about his affair with Joni Mitchell, living in her house together.

Our house is a very, very fine house
with two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard,
Now everything is easy cause of you, ooo, wah, la, la, la...

Woodstock: Composed by Joni Mitchell while she had watched the famous Festival from her New York hotel room.

And Maybe Not

Even with David Geffen at top speed setting up dates for CSNY, and making everyone connected richer, he had to handle hassle after hassle.

But on July 9, 1970, the quartet played its last show, at least for the next four years.

The group just slid apart, into at least four parts. The group moved up to northern California, with Crosby, Young, and Nash all buying homes around San Francisco. Geffen stayed somewhat put (for him) and felt relief from the slam-bam between Crosby and the others, now mainly Crosby and Stills.

Stills got a bumper sticker printed for his car. It read: WHO IS DAVID GEFFEN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THESE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME?

In 1971, David Crosby, back to being solo, where all this began. He created If I Could Only Remember My Name....via Atlantic. It is a much-believed-in set of recordings from the era of Aquarius in California, ominous but masterful. Much of it remembers of Crosby’s now deceased love, Christine Hinton.

Geffen was not a fan of If I Could Only Remember’s “Song with No Words,” which had one vocal six minutes long of “da-da-da”s and “doo-doo-doo”s. When Geffen nervously played that track for Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertergun, the label boss commented, “Don’t worry. We’ve already shipped a million.” Crosby would not record another album for 18 years.

The others in SNY, including revived CSNYs, recorded irregularly together, but more often.

-- Stay Tuned