A Sperm's Tale

How CSNY reproduced again.

"Stand and Be Counted," Crosby's attempt to bring '60s-style advocacy up to date, was melodically forgettable, structurally suspect and lyrically embarrassing. Lines such as "I want to stand alone in front of the world and that oncoming tank/Like that Chinese boy that we all have to thank" are liberalism at its lamest -- the kind of pedantic finger-wagging typical of activists who once fought on the front lines but now watch others do so on CNN. "Dream for Him," written for Crosby's four-year-old son, Django (whose biological mother is his wife, not Etheridge's squeeze), was no better, dispensing pabulum masquerading as insight -- which is a pretty good way of describing Nash's ditties as well. The most famous Nash compositions are full of Chicken Soup for the Soul-type platitudes that may have seemed deep at the time of their original release, but now exhibit all the profundity and moral suasion of a greeting card. "Our House" sounds like the commercial it subsequently became (for an insurance firm, I think), and "Teach Your Children" founders on the thought of Nash and his buddies acting as role models for anyone. The Nash-penned "Heartland" and "Someday Soon" are cut from the same block of cheese but are infinitely less intriguing. If that description doesn't chill your blood, it should.

In some ways, Stills's latest efforts were even worse: "Seen Enough," a folk-rock choogle that rips off "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in ways capable of making Bob Dylan physically ill, should have been retitled "Heard Enough." Moreover, Stills's chops were in the roughest shape of anyone's in the quartet; his ragged voice was sometimes painful to hear, and he tended to play pretty much the same masturbatory guitar solo on every up-tempo presentation. But the real disappointment was Young's material. Perhaps he was motivated by a when-in-Rome philosophy that inspired him to sink to the level of his collaborators, but his Looking Forward offerings were among the weakest of his consistently fascinating career. "Slowpoke" emerged as a minor rewrite of "Heart of Gold" (boosters initially responded favorably to it because many of them assumed it was "Heart of Gold"), and the CD's misty title cut could have been something created by Nash. In case you're curious, that's not a compliment.

Young fared better on ditties he popularized while not part of the group. Playing "Old Man" in an irony-free manner was a big, fat mistake: The couplet "Old man, look at my life/I'm a lot like you were" would have worked a lot better had the were been changed to an are. But he lit into "Cinnamon Girl" with fire and passion, and his spastic guitar abuse during an elongated "Down by the River" and an almost punky "Rockin' in the Free World" (ably anchored by the for-hire rhythm section of Jim Keltner and Donald "Duck" Dunn) was inspirational. The problem? The musical accompaniment and harmony vocalizing of Crosby, Stills and Nash regularly smoothed out songs whose rough edges are a big part of their appeal. The renderings weren't terrible, but had Young been assisted by Crazy Horse, his longtime backing band, or other like-minded sonic rebels, they would have been better. It was no coincidence that his best start-to-finish performance was a moody "After the Gold Rush" to which Crosby and Nash barely contributed and that Stills sat out entirely.

Old men, take a look at your lives: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Old men, take a look at your lives: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

The prominence of Young's solo work was appropriate: With only a few exceptions (most notably "Love the One You're With," Stills's creepy, pre-AIDS paean to '70s-style promiscuity), Crosby, Stills and Nash have never crafted memorable songs on their own, and many of the so-called classics they came up with as a team have dated badly. Indeed, for an allegedly legendary band, CSN (and sometimes Y) are built on a mighty shaky catalogue. Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" is a histrionic time-capsule piece whose central metaphor means nothing anymore -- indeed, Crosby should cut his hair, if only to avoid looking like an anachronistic cliche -- and Nash's "Marrakesh Express" ran out of steam long ago. Even "Ohio," by Young, suffers from this malady. Had the players attempted to put this protest against violence at Kent State University in 1970 into some kind of modern-day context, it might have gained some resonance. But they just churned it out, trusting that words like "Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming" would ring true to those old enough to recall the incident and not caring if those who weren't had the slightest idea what they meant. That's how history becomes ancient, my friends.

Predictably, none of that mattered to the true believers. Nash repeatedly declared, "We've got songs" in the smuggest, most self-aggrandizing way conceivable, and those who'd parted with serious coin to be there whooped and hollered their approval whether the songs in question chomped or not. Likewise, Nash followed up Stills's butchering of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" by announcing that a Buffalo Springfield boxed set will be available for purchase this summer. To his credit, Young seemed appalled by this statement. "That was like an ad," he said. "Shit."

This Young -- the one who balks at commercial exploitation that might diminish the impact of his music -- makes an odd match with Crosby, Stills and Nash, who seem determined to extract every last shekel from their Woodstock-era heritage. (Yes, they played "Woodstock." Surprised?) But if it was moderately disappointing to see Young in such company, it made perfect sense why his fellows wanted him beside them. After all, his presence gave them the credibility they've lacked for quite a while -- and that's a marketable commodity.

Just like David Crosby's sperm.

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