Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: CSNY Solo

I listened to the solo albums David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young released in 1970 and 1971 back to back in order of release, and then tried to listen to the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album, but I couldn’t make it all the way through. It was too happy, too confident in the power of love. The four solo records had taken me through waves of emotion stirred up in the wake of love, and I just didn’t have the stomach for a bunch of sunny songs sung by younger men who still believed that love could last forever and save the world.
            Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush came out first, at the end of August 1970, and it sets the tone for the three that would follow with the third track on side one, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” Legend has it he wrote the song for Nash after Nash’s breakup with Joni Mitchell. But it comes across as a rebuttal to the declarations that “love is coming to us all” and “everybody, I love you” on CSNY’s Deja Vu, released in March of the same year. It’s a caveat: Love’s as likely to crush you as save you. And it’s an advancement of the whole CSNY artistic project, the move away from the top-heavy tangle of psychedelic to the infinite simplicity of the song -- as though Young is telling his idealistic buddies that there’s nothing deeper and truer than a good old heartbreak song.
            Crosby, Stills and Nash seem to have taken his advice with their solo projects, and probably not by choice. These were sorrowful times for all three of them, with Stills and Nash suffering recent breakups and Crosby losing his love in a car crash. Judging by these records, they each had their own way of dealing with lost love. Stills’s self-titled album, which came out in mid-November 1970, paints a portrait of a man fond of the lust remedy for heartache, and not only because of the opening track, the free-love anthem “Love the One You’re With.” His record is consistently sexier than his friends’, with BIG production, dirty blues solos, deep-funk bass lines, a bit of wah-wah pedal and even an appearance by Jimi Hendrix. Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name came out a few months later and shows a man in the throes of the anger stage of grief, especially on “Cowboy Movie,” a long, low, growling ballad about a band of outlaws betrayed by a woman, and “What Are Their Names,” where the lyrics are about peace but the dark, driving music carries a threat of violence. But below the anger is pain, which comes through on the vocals, the harmonies of “Music Is Love,” “Tamalpais High (At About 3),” “Orleans,” and, above all, on "I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here,” the album’s closing number that Crosby sung in an echo chamber while very high and he felt his dead girlfriend’s presence. It’s like primal scream therapy, only beautiful. There’s a similar intensity of pain Nash’s voice on Songs for Beginners, which came out in May 1971, but the record leans relentlessly toward the positive and encouraging. In interviews, Nash has said he wanted to offer a record that would help people, and he’s certainly done that here. If I ever suffer real heartbreak again, this is the album I’ll play over and over, especially side one, with its quadruple punch of heartfelt pep talks in “Better Days,” “Wounded Bird” (“In the end it’s with you you have to live”), “I Used to Be a King,” and the triumphant closer with a full choir: “Be Yourself.” “I Used to Be a King” electrifies my emotions every time I hear it, my nerves tingling as the chorus rolls around and Graham declares, “Someone is going to take my heart, no one is going to break my heart again!”
            After going through all that, the first Crosby, Stills and Nash record sounded quaint at best. And it’s a great album, always in heavy rotation on my stereo. But it’s the kind of record that feels truest on a Saturday morning with good coffee and nothing on the horizon but hours and hours of fun. There’s pain in the record, sure; Stills has said “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes” was about the inevitability of his breakup with Judy Collins. But anguish seems to be kept at arm’s distance, as though the guys writing and singing the songs don’t really believe or know how badly life and love can make you hurt sometimes. And it seems to me there’s some kind of definition of art that runs through the differences between the first two CSN/CSNY records and their solo projects that followed. The latter four feel truer, more profound and enduring -- more reliable testaments of what it really means to be a human being.

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