During the summer of 1985, I tagged along with a childhood friend to his family’s summer place in Maberly, Newfoundland, for a small vacation. The cabin was situated at the end of an isolated, scenic peninsula. It was close to the ocean, with cliffs, craggy hills, and spraying waves. I was fourteen years old and had recently begun playing guitar. To satiate my newfound obsession with classic rock, I managed to somehow acquire a Sony Walkman and a cassette copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1969 self-titled debut album. I vividly remember lying in the grass near the edge of the cliffs, listening to CSN’s soaring harmonies, tight arrangements, and dynamic instrumentation. I can recall my excitement at the screaming Hammond organ of “Wooden Ships,” the haunting whispered harmonies of “Guinevere,” and the aggressive acoustic attack of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” all the while dreaming of being a professional musician some day and creating this type of music; it held a certain intangible kind of magic for me. Crosby, Stills, and Nash had an otherworldly quality, as if they had come from outer space or at least from the other side of the planet – in some dusty farmhouse or something, living like bandits or outlaws. On the cover of their debut album, they are positioned on an old worn-out couch in front of a seedy, run-down house: Crosby charmingly disheveled, Stills perfectly poised with guitar and hiking boots, and Nash inquisitive and distant.
Unbeknownst to me in my ensconced grassy reverie, the members of CSN were going through a tumultuous time in 1985. Crosby, fighting a long-time addiction to free-base cocaine, had hit rock bottom and ended up in a Texas State prison for cocaine and firearm possession. This had put a temporary halt to CSN’s recording and touring. Crosby had been ill for quite some time. He had been unable to perform to full capacity vocally on their 1982 album Daylight Again, forcing the other two to bring in the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmidt as well as Art Garfunkel to strengthen the vocals. While I was sprawled off in the tall grass enjoying the cool breeze of the north Atlantic, CSN were dealing with real-life problems that were far-removed from their hippie days on Sunset Boulevard recording the lush harmonies of their first album.
As I entered my early Twenties, I started writing songs at a vigorous pace. I abandoned university and focused solely on writing and performing. CSN was at the top of my list of inspirations, right there along with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Band, and, of course, the Beatles. I combed through their albums, books, articles, and photos. To me they were the zenith of what is expected of great singer-songwriters: expressive vocals, catchy hooks, great guitar grooves, and, of course, fashion sense. I used their publicity photos as a model for what I wore both on stage and at the supermarket: cowboy boots, suit jackets, western shirts, suede coats, and worn-out jeans. When I recorded my debut album in 1997, my producer Kenny McDonald and I made sure it was laden with sparkly acoustic guitars and layered harmonies. The photography for the album was black and white and grainy, just like CSN’s iconic early ‘70s photos of them around the microphone in the studio.
In 2000 I flew to Toronto to see CSNY for the first time at the Air Canada Centre with my friend David Hopkins, who was living there at the time. The vibe on stage was intense: Young gyrating in a Leafs jersey, Nash happily wandering between his acoustic guitar and Hammond organ, Crosby burning incense in true hippie mode, and Stills unleashing his Stratocaster fury in a Hawaiian shirt. These men had thirty-plus years under their belts together, and the peculiar mixture of tension and familiarity emanating from the stage was palpable throughout the whole stadium. The Air Canada Centre, as you may know, is huge. As a musician, such circumstances can be frustrating; you are used to feeling the power of the stage, only to be relegated back into the shadows as a spectator. For this reason, big concerts are generally an ambivalent experience for me. Nonetheless it was great to be there checking out my heroes with a good friend, and I checked it off my list of must-see concerts.
Over the next ten years, CSN would continue to be a constant in my musical life. Stephen Stills’ guitar style and the band’s unique blend of harmonies were a big influence on Brothers in Stereo’s debut album in 2003. We doubled our background vocals just like they did, and every time I recorded a guitar solo I strived to achieve the intensity of Stills’ classic solos.
In 2007 I met and befriended L.A. session guitarist Dean Parks at the Dallas Steel Guitar Convention. He had taken up pedal steel about a decade before, and his contributions to the Steel Guitar Forum online were met with much enthusiasm from other players aware of his legendary status as one of Steely Dan’s studio guitarists. (He was also featured on famous records such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller and, more recently, Michael Buble’s albums.) I met him during a steel jam in one of the suites at the convention hotel, and we struck up a conversation about transposition and chord progressions on pedal steel. After that initial meeting we ran into each other at more steel shows, had a bite to eat together once or twice, and kept in touch on email. I also arranged for him to play on both Barry Canning’s and Paul Lamb’s latest solo albums.
In the midst of his busy studio session career in Los Angeles, Dean is also the guitarist and steel player for Crosby-Nash when they tour as a duo. Although we never talked too much about it in person, I knew it from his bio and from youtube clips. In fact, we never talked much about anything but pedal steel, as it is a passion for both of us and certainly his main passion these days. But in spring 2011 I noticed that Crosby-Nash were on tour and that a Niagara, New York date was booked. This was enticingly close to Toronto and the Canadian border. So I sent Dean a message asking if he was on the tour. He responded that he was, and to my pleasant surprise he extended an invitation to come see the show. I gratefully accepted the invitation, called my friend Steve Cole in Ottawa to come join me, and organized the trip.
I flew to Ottawa on the day before the April 30 show date, and Steve and I drove the six hours down to Niagara the following morning. We checked into a hotel on the Canadian side around 5pm, had a bite to eat, and crossed the border to the venue – a casino on the American side. Close to the 8pm show time we approached the wicket where Dean told me the tickets would be waiting, and I gave the woman at the booth my name. She handed me an envelope. Inside were two tickets…and two backstage passes. I handed Steve his ticket and pass, and we both tried unsuccessfully to remain cool amidst the reality that we may be standing next to our heroes within a few hours. My pessimistic side told me that after the show no one would be around; perhaps even Dean would be long gone with the entourage as soon as the show was done. I quickly pushed these thoughts aside when I remembered that we were about to witness two hours of Crosby and Nash in concert with Dean Parks on lead guitar and pedal steel. Anything after that would be a complete bonus.
Our seats were close to the stage – slightly to the right and close to Nash. Soon after we sat down, the lights dimmed and the band took their places. Crosby and Nash strolled out casually to a deafening roar from the audience, most of whom were over 60 yet loud and rambunctious. The show began with a song from Crosby’s days in the Byrds, “Eight Miles High.” It was an aggressive version, with Crosby leaning into the 12-string electric and Nash hitting the high harmonies like he was 25 years old again. This snappy start was a good indicator of things to come. They ripped through their catalogue of hits, which spanned not only the CSN chestnuts (sans Stills’ tunes) but also songs from the Byrds and the Hollies (of which Nash was an original member). Nash was even flirting with a woman in a tight white t-shirt who was on someone’s shoulders for much of the show. He dedicated a song to her (“for the girl in white”) and played “Our House” on solo piano.
After two rousing encores the show ended, and Steve and I just sat there for a few minutes gob-smacked as audience slowly made for the exits. It was hands-down the very best show I had ever seen, and Steve seemed to feel the same way. Crosby and Nash’s voices were as strong as ever, and Dean played an incredible two hours of virtuoso magic on his electric guitar and pedal steel.
We soon made our way outside the main ballroom to the backstage area and showed a security guard our passes. He ushered us in without hesitation, and we entered a small corridor-like space with waist-high road cases lined against the wall. We didn’t have time to brace ourselves for Graham Nash standing right in front of us, talking to a few fans. It appeared they had given Graham a basketball jersey with his name on the back. He disappeared into a dressing room for a minute and came back out smiling ear-to-ear wearing the jersey. The fans were beside themselves with excitement. Then Dean came around the corner, spotted me right away, and came over with his hand outstretched. I told him the show was outstanding, introduced him to Steve, and thanked him for the tickets. He immediately reached out and tapped Graham, who came over right away. He introduced me to Graham as a friend of his and a “great steel player” (which I’m not, but I wasn’t arguing at this point). Graham turned to me and said, “Looking, are you?” He and Dean started laughing. At first I didn’t understand what he meant, but I then realized that he was joking that I might have been fishing around for a steel gig. I laughed, and then turned to Graham and said, “Graham, this is my friend Steve. Graham Nash, Steve Cole.” I had done this before I realized what I was doing. It was a funny moment – me introducing Graham Nash to my friend. But thankfully it wasn’t awkward or strange. This was no doubt due to Graham’s welcoming personality.
The whole time this was happening, Crosby was lurking at the end of the corridor about ten feet away. Graham had earlier summoned him to sign a fan’s painting, and Crosby begrudgingly did so while mumbling something about people getting a bunch of money for his signature. His vibe was definitely not the approachable kind, so we didn’t even make an attempt to say hi. Graham had been so friendly that we left it at that and took off into the cool evening air after saying our thanks and good-byes.
Walking to our car, we enjoyed a few silent moments of reflection. Much time had elapsed since I lay in the grass on that sunny day in 1985 and listened in awe to a group of musicians whom I never dreamed I’d ever meet personally. I feel very fortunate that somehow the long and winding paths of Graham Nash’s life and mine intertwined for a brief moment in time. Even more poignant, it was facilitated by a guitarist whom I had admired on the classic Steely Dan albums of our youth and who was now a friend. I texted Dean a thank-you note from the passenger seat of the car as Steve drove back over the bridge to the Canadian side.
At times I have regrets about not making that leap and moving to L.A. or New York and really making a push for it musically. But when I think about the great things that have happened to me musically as a result of the road I did take, I quickly dismiss those erroneous ideas that I somehow missed out on something. In many ways it has played out in the best way possible.
For a list of Dean Parks’ album credits, click here: Credits