A Sperm's Tale

How CSNY reproduced again.

David Crosby wasn't on-camera during the pre-Grammy Awards program aired February 23 on both VH1 and CBS; along with mates Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young, he was headlining at Denver's Pepsi Center that evening. But he was an unmistakable presence on the show thanks to the shticking of comic Ellen DeGeneres, whose job it was to chitchat with the various luminaries trooping down the red carpet toward L.A.'s Staples Center, home of this year's Grammys/Carlos Santana tribute/flesh parade (see The Message in this week's issue).

At one point, DeGeneres, poking fun at her current celebrity-lesbian status, approached Sting -- who, in one of the most blatant travesties since the Oscar victory of Marisa Tomei a few years back, won two statuettes at the Grammy ceremony -- holding what appeared to be a specimen cup. Melissa Etheridge had gotten lucky with Crosby, she said, referencing his recently revealed gift of semen to Etheridge and her lover, Julie Cypher, which resulted in the birth of two children; perhaps, DeGeneres added, Sting might consider making a donation to her.

This gag called to mind a number of questions, not the least of which was this: What is it about the seed of old pretentious farts that seems so attractive to famous female-female couples eager to have kids? Granted, it's understandable that throughout her interview with Kid Rock, who preceded Sting into the spotlight, DeGeneres (whose significant other is actress Anne Heche) kept the cup in her pocket. But Sting? Come on! Isn't one of him enough? As for Crosby, what kind of person would sentence his or her child to a lifetime of looking like him? And then there's the little matter of Crosby's years of drug and alcohol abuse, which resulted in a liver transplant not so long ago. Odds are good that by now the guy's chromosomes are more shell-shocked than John McCain. Incoming!

Still, Crosby's generosity with his jism has paid dividends beyond the Etheridge family. For one thing, it got him onto the cover of a recent Rolling Stone at a time when nothing short of shooting the president (with, well, whatever) seemed likely to do that particular trick; for another, it resulted in a cascade of publicity for the CSNY reunion tour, a cash crusade ostensibly intended to promote Looking Forward, an album whose notices made most reviews of Wild Wild West, last year's cinematic mega-flop, seem like raves by comparison. Perhaps the Pepsi Center would have nearly sold out sans such renewed press interest, but the extra attention sure as hell didn't hurt.

There weren't many jalopies in the center's parking lot on show night -- late-model sport utility vehicles and luxury cars were the rule -- and the throng inside fit the anticipated description: loads o' boomers, with many of the men characterized by portliness, vigorously maintained facial hair and the quizzical combination of severe male pattern baldness and a ponytail. Yet that's typical of large-scale concerts these days. Elevated admission fees (some pre-scalped CSNY tickets went for more than $200) and strikingly expensive merchandise rates (programs cost a mere $18) don't keep teen-pop performers out of such venues since, in most cases, Mommy and Daddy are picking up the tab. But because the majority of bands championed by less affluent fans (and disapproved of by parents) constitute too big a financial risk for promoters to take on, veteran outfits dominate arena bookings these days. The upcoming shows being hyped on video screens as CSNY boosters headed to their seats were KISS, Bruce Springsteen and Tina Turner, all of whom have been treading stages for more than a quarter-century.

Of course, experience like this can be a great thing -- but unless it's tempered with contemporaneity and an active intelligence, it can easily devolve into little more than nostalgia-mongering. And for three of the CSNY principals (joined on occasion by the fourth), that's precisely what happened at the Pepsi Center.

Seeing the quartet on stage side by side was a jarring experience. With his swept-back, shoulder-length blond locks, Fu Manchu mustache and Hawaiian shirt, Stills was a dead ringer for the Dude, portrayed by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski -- but whereas Bridges played the role for laughs, Stills was seemingly unaware that his look was amusing in a stereotypically retro way. Nash, meanwhile, closely resembled a graying ferret, especially when doing his soulful-crooner bit. (As for his fist-pumping during assorted rocking-out segments, it was sorta like watching Al Gore try to "get down.") And Crosby, with his defiantly droopy mustache and rotund figure, could have been the long-lost twin of Wilford Brimley during the days when he was all over the tube plugging cereal that helped keep the bowels flowing. Standing next to Young, who was clad in the same flannel chic he's been wearing since time immemorial, he seemed ready for Alice in Wonderland; the two of them were the Walrus and the Carpenter come to life.

The set that followed (a marathon that lasted more than three hours) was a mix of selections from Looking Forward, individual showcases and CSNY chestnuts. But while this approach was undeniably logical, its flaws quickly became clear, particularly in the case of items from the inaccurately monikered Forward, all of which were as mired in the past as they were dripping with mediocrity. After many of these numbers, Crosby would announce, "New song," but this information was unnecessary; the audience's lack of interest in them made their vintage obvious.

"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.

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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