"It's hard to think of any work of art of which one can say 'This made men more just to one another or this saved the life of one Jew or one Vietnamese'...The difference between us and the artists of the Twenties is that they thought that such a work of art could be made. Perhaps it was their naivete that they could think so, but it's our loss that we cannot."
Robert Hughes, The Shock Of The New
They were perhaps the first supergroup. Graham Nash brought his pop sense across the water from The Hollies. The combination of David Crosby's immense gifts and ego had nearly destroyed The Byrds. Stephen Stills, as a member of Buffalo Springfield, had already recorded "For What It's Worth," an anthem that filmmakers turned into a shorthand stand-in for the Sixties. In 1969 as Crosby, Still, & Nash, they recorded the rare album that spanned gender in its appeal. A year later, the group added an iconoclastic Canadian named Neil Young, whom Stills knew from Buffalo Springfield. Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young released Deja Vu, an album so ubiquitous among young white people that virtually everyone -- and I mean everyone -- either had it or knew someone who did.
When Crosby, Stills, & Nash appeared at Woodstock for the second time "in front of people," they professed to being "scared shitless." By the time I first saw them in 1984, they already seemed like a nostalgia act. Of course, those 15 years were among the fullest of my life: I had been to college, gotten married, started graduate school, begun what would be become my career, and become a new father. Meanwhile, the idealistic portion of the Sixties had disintegrated into assassinations, bombings, Nixonian polarization, and the violence of Altamont. Ten years after the Woodstock appearance, CSN were no more relevant than the Model T, as young people danced and snorted their cares away in discos while the rest of us took the first tentative steps toward career-building or went to B-school, law school, and med school. The dream, as John Lennon sang, was over.
CSN appeared at the 1979 No Nukes concerts, but they were smug, out of shape, and out-of-tune. Visibly resentful at the attention paid relative newcomer Bruce Springsteen, they watched helplessly from the wings as the extraordinary energy of his music reached back past the Sixties to revive a time when rock's rebel beat, and not the words, beat out a liberation that became politically and socially relevant because of the very fact that it was individually liberating -- a nearly complete departure from the popular music of earlier generations. CSN could never lay claim to that: Their rebellion lay in a love-one-another idealism that by 1979 seemed naive and that had become the stuff of parody.
Still, by the time of the 1984 (or was '85 or '86?) show that I saw, they had regrouped enough to put on a credible if nostalgic performance. I remember Graham Nash singing "Chicago" as if it still had immediate meaning, that it was a given that we all still believed that we could change the world. A scuffle at the front of the stage prompted Stephen Stills to order concert security to "leave those people the fuck alone," which struck the skeptical mid-Eighties me as both calculated and unintentionally funny: Whatever it was, it was not a defiant response to The Man. On the other hand, none of that made much difference when CSN roused the crowd with "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." One couldn't help but sing along in spite of oneself.
Last Friday, CSN reassembled at the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery to perform for a middle-aged crowd that sipped on wine and waited patiently in line for Indian food and pulled pork sandwiches. There's something to be said for a group of icons in their mid-Sixties who could mail in their performance but who don't. CSN structured the first set around numbers known best by fans who stayed with them through the decades, throwing in an occasional classic as a teaser. They opened the second set with a series of acoustic songs, then plugged in for a finish comprised of satisfying jams. (Premium T. has the details here.) I especially enjoyed the intricate workout of "Deja Vu," the way they pretty much nailed the lovely and difficult "Guinnevere," and the concluding jams of "Almost Cut My Hair" and "Wooden Ships." (In an ironic and unlikely moment, "For What It's Worth" incongruously brought the affluent crowd to its feet.) Stephen Stills may not sing much any more (Nash took his parts in "Wooden Ships"), but his introspective, burbling guitar leads were effective and satisfying, and provided continuity between the acoustic and electric songs.
Outside of the fact that rain threatened, we were a long way from Woodstock. And yet, as they sang the familiar tunes, the years fell away like miles. The mystic alchemy of music and time worked its magic, transporting me back to my room in South Texas, listening to "Crosby, Stills, & Nash" and "Deja Vu" with an intensity intended to imprint them on my DNA for transferral to generations of future Citizen K's. I believed back then, and this was a good thing.
The encore of "Teach Your Children" made me think of the impact my children have had on my outlook. When they were little, my kids' wonder at the world restored some of my idealism, which must be what Graham Nash hoped in the second verse when he exhorted children to teach their parents, to feed them on their dreams. Though I knew by then that the life is relentlessly disillusioning, I still wanted my kids to have ideals and dreams for a better world. Because without those, our humanity will surely fade and they will not have what every parent wants for their children: A better life and a better world than we had. The audacity of hope in the face of disillusion not only matters, it's essential, it turns out.
Note: The absence of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" from the performance loomed large, so much so that we wondered whether the vocals are beyond Stephen Stills' capacity. Here's a time when they weren't: