Almost Cut My Hair/
Déjà Vu

By Beppe Colli
Dec. 22, 2013

It's almost impossible nowadays to adequately convey to those who weren't there - an aggregate I could realistically define as "those below fifty" (those whom, once upon a time, I would have called "post-punk" - a tag I'd still use today, mind you, save for the fact that by now time has made "the Punk rupture" just as impenetrable an expression as "The Woodstock spirit") - the breadth of the popularity enjoyed by the quartet called Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the course of the early seventies. It goes without saying that when I talk about "breadth" I'm not talking about the millions of copies their albums sold, or the sold-out mega-concerts they played (the great advantage of the Web being of course that those kind of figures are nowadays at anybody's disposal with just a click of the mouse), but about the "meaning" their enormous popularity had for their audience.

It's a problem this illustrious quartet shares with the majority of popular "items" as seen by those who look backwards (till the day comes when observers will regard all past events as being just like an obsolete version of a software program) through a peculiar kind of "distortion". If those who live in the present look at the past as being a "less advanced" era, it becomes quite easy for them to "explain" why artists they prize so much (for instance, The Velvet Underground and Nick Drake) went underappreciated - even if once in a while those "primitive ancestors" somehow managed to develop an understanding of a few of them (for instance, The Doors and Led Zeppelin); of course, this framework makes thinking about things that were once very popular but about which by now we don't know much (for instance, The Beatles and Bob Dylan; in parallel, Creedence Clearwater Revival) a wasteful occupation akin to thinking about what Hyksos did in their spare time.

At the time, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's popularity was almost on a par with that of The Beatles in their prime - provided we don't forget that The Beatles were also a cultural phenomenon of worldwide magnitude, something which makes them a unicum in the history of music. They were just as popular as The Rolling Stones were in the same period - their "magic phase" stretching from  Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed to Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street - even if, The Beatles having split, Bob Dylan having changed quite a bit, The Stones became the sole heirs to the "added value" quotient of The Sixties going into the future. They were definitely just as popular as Led Zeppelin - here we could add that, given the climate of the times, their pervasiveness made their "countercultural" message more apt to infiltrate the mainstream, though it's true that their period of massive celebrity being shorter than Led Zeppelin's made it more difficult for their name to retain its "brand" value as something that appears to be self-evident, as it was the case with Led Zeppelin.

There's something else we have to consider. Somebody - Dave Marsh, maybe? - said of Neil Young that if one is willing to ignore his many faux pas, his contribution to music looks absolutely gigantic - which is exactly what happened. If we take into consideration the quality gap when it comes to the catalogue of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as solo artists, we have to take into account the prodigious amount of valued exports from such countries as Colombia and Peru that were consumed by some members of the quartet - here those biographies freely available on Wikipedia paint a clear picture. The sum of those elements being that nowadays Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are often seen as being just a footnote to Neil Young's solo career.

Let's have a quick look at those figures. The first Crosby, Stills & Nash album (1969), which in the end went multi-platinum (a.k.a. "the one with the sofa", so as not to mistake it with "the one with the boat" from 1977 bearing the same title), was a defining moment in the history of US popular music - though in recent times some have tried to bestow that honour to the "acoustic revolution" of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (1967). Enter Neil Young, and Déjà Vu (1970), the group's only studio album, goes straight to number one. Big tours follow, then the group, always quite volatile, splits, though the fact was never officially announced. But before another number one, a double live album called Four Way Street (1971), featuring a lot of material that concertgoers had not previously listened to at the time it was first performed live (let's have a moment of nostalgia for those times when musicians could perform unreleased material on stage, taking risks, knowing that only those who attended on a particular night were to witness those train wrecks and those early arrangements) signaled the end of the story, four solo albums had appeared, to become perennial archetypes: Neil Young's After The Gold Rush; the Stephen Stills album bearing his name; David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name; and Songs For Beginners by Graham Nash.

What followed was not just a footnote to the group's history. Neil Young hit the big time, with Harvest (1972) and the hit single off that album, Heart Of Gold, both going to number one. Stills released Stephen Stills 2, then formed the super-group Manassas, which debuted with a hit double album. Crosby and Nash released the album titled Graham Nash/David Crosby, a Top 5. The group's collective fame remained so high that when a "best of", So Far, was released - two sides of music for a group whose total output amounted to just four sides, plus a single - it went straight to number one, the group's highly remunerative reformation of '74 which saw them filling stadiums worldwide having failed to produce any new material.

One has also to consider the group's influence, something which a careful examination of their recorded output will make apparent. It's a stratified dimension. While it's true that the song Horse With No Name, which shoot the group America to global fame, sounds just like a Neil Young song - there are people who still think so today - not many have bothered to make the connection with some famous pages of U.K. "Prog". Listen to Yes on such albums as The Yes Album and Fragile - check those vocal lines on songs such as Yours Is No Disgrace and Roundabout - and Supertramp, especially those songs composed by Roger Hodgson, from the world-famous Crime Of The Century to the worldwide hit Breakfast In America, including The Logical Song, to add another piece of the puzzle.

But when it comes to matters of influence we also have to consider the sound of their (acoustic) guitars, which is something whose impact is impossible to overestimate. While it's true that one has not to forget James Taylor, it was this quartet which made even hostile sound engineers in faraway parts of the world reconsider the way they recorded acoustic guitars. So began the chase for those pre-war Martin guitars, and so people began using dentists' mirrors to check an instrument's "bracing". Volume was one of the most important features of an acoustic guitar at the time they were called to overcome the background noise of those coffee-houses where folk music was performed - those who have seen those pictures where Tim Buckley plays a Guild 12-string sometimes believe that the instrument only looks so large when compared to the singer's diminutive height and built; check the Guild 6-string played by Nick Drake, whom I remember as a six-footer, on the cover of Bryter Layter. Those Martin guitars played by the quartet changed the (recorded) sound of "rock". While the famous acoustic guitar sound of The Stones' Beggars Banquet, also that of the acoustic guitars played by Jimmy Page on the early albums by Led Zeppelin, is that of a Gibson (a sound Keith Richards would remain faithful to for many albums to come, on songs ranging from Wild Horses to Angie), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young made the timbral palette wider.

While Neil Young's fame makes it possible for me not to discuss his work with the group, it's a mystery to me why the work of his three colleagues is so undervalued today. Like Young, a former member of Buffalo Springfield, Stills was a versatile musician who possessed a fine touch on many instruments - one has only to listen to the trio's first album, where Stills performed the majority of the instrumental parts; just check the backwards-sounding lead guitar on Pre-Road Downs, a good for instance of the careful attention Stills paid to the work of Jimi Hendrix; also the dialogue of the harmonics of two acoustic guitars appearing in opposing channels of the stereo spread on You Don't Have To Cry. Starting with the trio's first hit single, Marrakesh Express, Nash brought to maturation an economy of means in the writing department that showed his link to the era of the "Beat" groups, and to his having been for a long time a member of Beatles' rivals The Hollies. While Crosby made great use of open tunings and daring, clear-sounding, harmonies, which reminded one of The Byrds, the historic group of which Crosby had been a founding member.

I'll leave in the background the shoddy, careless likes and dislikes that so much weight had for the commercial fortunes of many musicians (even reviews of many Young albums from way back were far from unconditional thumbs-up). In his review of David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name (Rolling Stone # 80, April 15, 1971), Lester Bangs had not showed much appreciation for an album that, in a variety of technical formats, has always been in print since the day it was originally released; so it's plainly absurd to read Rob Sheffield, in a review of a new re-released edition which appeared in the same magazine (Jan 10, 2007), calling the album "This 1971 curio" (...) "Forgotten by rock history".

Two songs recorded by the quartet on their first album were penned by David Crosby: Almost Cut My Hair and Déjà Vu, the latter being the composition which gave the album its title. Both songs were quite famous at the time, the former soon becoming the framework for countless "garage" group jams, the latter clearly showing  how something "lighter than air" could stay "anchored". Each song represents one of the dimensions which were often referred to in the "literature" of the times: "outer space" and "inner space", with the former, originally considered as referring to "the physical universe", now also embracing the meaning of "social space"; with the latter referring to the inner life of individuals (let's not forget that "Inner Space" was also the name of the recording studio where German group Can created their music).

As it is easily proved by the spreading of various beliefs, most of them coming from "the East", which at the time questioned the "material" dimension that was so often regarded as being an oppressive element in post-World War II America, the topic of the song Déjà Vu (reincarnation) was a lot less bizarre in its day than today's climate would otherwise suggest. Open tunings, harmonics, lotsa silence, and a mouth harp played by John Sebastian (whom once I'd have defined as "from The Lovin' Spoonful, of Summer In The City fame", or "whom we all remember performing Younger Generation in the Woodstock movie", but whom  nowadays I have to qualify as being) known the whole world over for playing the harp on Roadhouse Blues, the opening track of the famous album by The Doors titled Morrison Hotel, under the moniker G. Puglese.

While at the time of its original release it was often the target of much ridicule due to the supposedly insular, self-absorbed nature of its preoccupations, Almost Cut My Hair deals with the immediate repercussions of everyday acts such as having very long hair in a world where most people have their hair quite short. Here the narration shows everyday events under a sinister light ("Like looking in the mirror and seeing a police car"), and presents one's opposition ("But I'm not giving an inch to fear") as being a microcosm of a larger rebellion.

(Who plays the bass solo on Déjà Vu? The original album's liner notes list Greg Reeves as the bass player on the album, but listening to the bass parts played by Stephen Stills on the trio's first album one has the impression that it was Stills himself who played the four-string on those songs on Déjà Vu that were penned by him. I have to say that I think that the bass solo on Déjà Vu is a touch too fluid to be performed by Stills, though the fact that it more or less replicates the electric guitar solo, which was obviously performed by Stills, makes one wonder. My conjecture is that of a bass solo recorded at half speed, the tape then being played at the right speed - which also works well as an explanation for the exaggerated velocity of the attack in the envelope of the plucked notes, which sounds quite weird, when the mass - and so, the inertia - of the strings of an electric bass is taken into consideration.)

A dichotomy which runs parallel appears on the two album tracks penned by Graham Nash: Our House, and Teach Your Children, both tunes being at the time high-impact chart material. While Our House, as it's widely known, is a portrait of the love story Nash shared with Joni Mitchell, it's Teach Your Children - featuring the country-flavoured steel guitar of Jerry Garcia from The Grateful Dead - that proves to be the most uncommon episode in the context of the times, with its emphasis on one's efforts to build a "social code" as a proper guide of conduct ("You who are on the road/Must have a code that you can live by") at a time when rules mostly appeared as something to be destroyed.

It was Graham Nash - who, as a man from the United Kingdom, had first-hand knowledge of the existence of social classes - who composed a song that, as shown by the audience reaction on the live album Four Way Street (where is dedicated "To Mayor Daley"), went to become a social manifesto: Chicago, which later appeared as a studio performance on the album Songs For Beginners. Nash has continued to cultivate this side of his art, writing simple songs that also work perfectly well as "politics", as it's clearly shown on the songs that open and close the already-mentioned Graham Nash/David Crosby album. Listen to the rhythm section's fine grooves, the drummer here being future Jefferson Airplane member Johnny Barbata: while Chris Ethridge's lazy bass on Southbound Train, wisely paired with Jerry Garcia's pedal steel, is the perfect framework to a clear narration, the accelerated lines played by Greg Reeves on Immigration Man are the perfect complement for the agitated mood of the piece.

I don't know how familiar Mary Ann Vecchio's name is to today's readers, but I'm ready to bet that most readers have seen her before, Mary Ann Vecchio being the name of the young girl - she was fourteen at the time - whom we see kneeling and crying in a world-famous picture which was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. On May 4, 1970, Ohio's National Guard fired on the students who were protesting at the Kent State University. The pictures showing the incidents were seen all over the world, making a great impression, first of all on most parents in the United States (whose sons and daughters attended universities such as the one where the shootings had taken place).

Let's have a look at the calendar. The shootings took place on May 4, and on May 21, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young entered the studio to record a new song written by Young, Ohio. After just a few days, the group's new single (released while Teach Your Children was still in the Top 20) went on sale, with a Stills song, Find The Cost Of Freedom, appearing on the B side. The songs' lyrics, which explicitly mentioned the then-President of the U.S.A. Richard Nixon, were printed on the cover of the single ("Four dead in Ohio"). A classic song, still.

I don't believe many readers have ever heard of "Operation Intercept", an anti-drug measure announced by President Nixon on September 21, 1969 which provoked the almost complete closing of the border between The United States and Mexico. The aim was to intercept the enormous quantity of marijuana coming into the United States at the time of the harvest.

Maybe a few readers are familiar with the spoken intro by Johnny Kay from Steppenwolf to a song titled Don't Step On The Grass, Sam on the album Steppenwolf Live. While today they're known only for their big hit single Born To Be Wild, at the time they released their Live album Steppenwolf had just released their best album, Monster, where Kay - a German-born immigrant whose political vision definitely inclined to the left - featured many political songs: Monster, Draft Resister ("An American deserter/Who found peace on Swedish ground"), Power Play, Move Over - also From Here To There Eventually, his meditation on the way religions behave here on earth.

A pungent song from Jefferson Airplane, their single titled Mexico, featuring a familiar plant on the cover, spoke clearly ("A donde esta la planta, mi amigo, del sol"), directly addressing "Richard". The song being an example of the attitude called "journalism set to music", which originated from folk music as "class narration".

Which is something I invite readers to keep in mind when watching the 1970 movie titled Woodstock. While Freedom by Richie Havens has ample traces of Gospel and the Blues, listening to I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-To-Die Rag (a.k.a. the "F.U.C.K. cheer") as performed by Country Joe McDonald one can still feel the warmth of those union rallies.

The circumstance of John Lennon calling his song Revolution (the B side of million seller Hey Jude, at the time of its original release Revolution had been the subject of heated debates) made "Speedy" Keen change the title of his song, Revolution, to Something In The Air. Released under the moniker Thunderclap Newman, the song shoot to number one all over the world, being also featured in movies such as The Magic Christian and The Strawberry Statement, also covered a million times (last time I checked, by Tom Petty).

The moral of the Rolling Stones song Street Fighting Man - a single in the summer '68 in the United States and Continental Europe - was the subject of a careful examination under very powerful microscopes. Was it the definitive proof that the group's attitude was opportunistic, intended to exploit the hot climate of the day in order to present a "revolutionary" attitude to those who forked their money to buy their records? Was Mick Jagger merely today's Pontius Pilate?

If one concentrates on the sound of the music, the group had already answered that particular question three years earlier, when (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction was the single of Summer '65. With the sound of footsteps of prison guards, iron doors being shut, a tense piano intro by Nicky Hopkins, and the "Arabic"-sounding mellotron played by Brian Jones, We Love You was clear enough. Not to mention Jumpin' Jack Flash.

A "revolutionary" sound is exactly that for those who listen. But conventions in sound change, so turning what sounded like a faithful transposition of fire and flames into something that's quite well-behaved.

It's very difficult today to believe that a world-famous hit like Paul Simon's The Sound Of Silence, a million seller all over the world, was once seen as a song possessing more than a hint of menace. But then, the inclusive, "liberal", spirit of Paul Simon, "urban poet", was the expression of something that now (i.e., then) entered mass consciousness: "alienation". Let's not forget the Gospel mood that inhabits Bridge Over Troubled Water, just moments before You've Got A Friend, a true Boomer hymn, is released.

The time has come for me to close this old book of memories. But revisiting that moment in time also means wondering why those preoccupations from that faraway era have all but disappeared. Or at least, this is the way things look from where I stand. Sure, it's quite possible that those topics are discussed in a lot of songs I've never heard. Which is precisely my point: those songs I mentioned were written and sung by artists and groups standing at the commercial peak of the mass market.

Revisiting those songs from our past entails becoming conscious of the fact that many "elements" that at the time one didn't even notice - their presence at the time being, so to speak, "part of the landscape" - now become visible precisely because we are not accustomed at their being featured in new songs anymore: the landscape (in the literal meaning of the word), and those individual traits of places, customs, and people that made those things what they were.

There's also the relationship between the "individual" and "the others", which once came under a sign of inclusion, and sometimes of "representation", while today one has the feeling that subjects perceive their existence as being "complete" in itself.

So we are back again to what is by now the familiar theme called "the individualization of society", with the relationship between the "individual" and "society" that sees the latter, by now quite faded, on the verge of disappearing. Having at look at people's birthdates is not comforting, with Annie Lennox, an activist for Greenpeace, born in 1954, and the "punk friend of the Third World" Joe Strummer born in 1952. While having a look at the past I seem to remember the Red Wedge movement from the old days when Margaret Thatcher still ruled as the most recent example of "activism in music" on a mass scale.

It's a topic others had already debated at length at the time of the first (!) "Gulf War": Why such a giant conflict had seen no music appearing, dealing with those issues? There were those who rightly stressed the difference between a war at the time of the draft, and the lottery, such as the Vietnam war, and one that's for the most part fought by professionals (drones having not been invented yet). One can hardly believe that the "revolution" sung by Gil Scott-Heron is nowhere to be seen in music even at the moment when our welfare state is dismantled.

© Beppe Colli 2013 | Dec. 22, 2013