Five Reasons Why Neil Young Should Never Have Joined Crosby, Stills, and Nash

Crosby_Stills_Nash_and_Young_1970I always get a kick out of people who say they prefer CSNY over CSN. Why? I’ve never figured out the Y in CSNY. Neil Young is an incredible songwriter and solo artist in his own right. He’s one of my favourites, actually, and a big influence on my own songwriting. However, he should never have joined Crosby, Stills, and Nash. They always should have remained separate entities. And here are five reasons “Y”:

 1. He barely contributed vocally.

While he’s definitely a great singer in the way of emotion and power, his ability to sing consistently on key with others in the traditional tight style of the Everly Brothers or The Beach Boys is fairly limited. Even CSN knew this, and they valued their tight harmonies over everything else. That’s why on CSNY recordings Neil’s voice is hardly ever featured in a harmony context. For example, on CSNY’s debut album Déjà vu, Neil doesn’t sing on “Carry On,” “Our House,” “Teach Your Children,” or many others. In fact, his songs for this record were recorded in a separate studio and brought in to be added to the main album mix. So the argument that Neil adds a vocal element to the band is simply without merit. And in a live context, he did the same thing. He often only sang on his material, hanging back in the shadows and chugging on his Les Paul during the other songs. In a nutshell, the vocals on the first CSN record were sparkly, strong, ethereal, and magical. They were fully-formed, with no room for a fourth voice. And on CSNY’s Deja Vu, it was mostly still CSN creating the vocal magic in the studio. Neil simply used the others as background singers for his compositions.

 2. His guitar skills were redundant.

With powerhouse guitarist Stephen Stills in the band, is there really any need for another lead player? When CSN were getting ready to tour their debut 1969 self-titled album, their record label execs thought they needed a little extra firepower for their live shows. So they suggested Stills’ former Buffalo Springfield bandmate Neil. Surprisingly, CSN agreed and asked Neil to join. An odd choice, given Stills’ mastery over his instrument and capability to command the stage in this regard. I have to mention here that Neil’s guitar intro on “Woodstock” and his work on “Ohio” are worthy of mention, but in the grand scheme of things his guitar contributions to CSNY were fairly minimal. Stills is without a doubt the most underrated guitarist in the history of rock, and having Neil around at any given time has furthered hampered Stills’ ability to prove himself in this record. Neil and Stephen’s legendary live guitar duels were often actually wank-fest ego competitions that deteriorated into feedback wars, leaving the audience more bewildered than blown away.

 3. He’d proven himself to be unreliable in Buffalo Springfield.

In 1965, Young and Stills met on the road in Canada while on the bar circuit; they immediately formed a bond. In 1966 they met again during a chance encounter in L.A. and formed Buffalo Springfield shortly thereafter. However, it proved to be an ill-fated venture as Neil was always quitting and rejoining. After two short years, the band broke up under the strain of Neil’s mood swings and unreliability. So it would stand to reason that a year later, in 1969, Stills would be very reluctant to once again subject himself to Neil’s unpredictability. But somehow Neil managed to charm his way back into the fold, impressing Nash during a casual meeting at a diner in New York City. So despite his track record in the Springfield, he was welcomed into CSN with open arms. Of course Neil would soon pull the same stuff on CSN that he did on the Springfield. CSNY barely made it a year before it imploded under Neil’s incapacity for committing to the group. He even inexplicably refused to be filmed for the movie Woodstock, so he and none of the songs he played during that legendary performance made it to the film. Stills was also going off the rails at this time due to heavy drug use, and this also contributed to the early breakup of this band. But Neil was never truly committed to CSNY from the start anyway, and he concentrated on making Harvest during this time instead of carrying on with CSNY. In turn, the others fragmented as well to do solo and duo projects.

4. CSNY’s recording output has been very minimal.

People often rail on about the greatness of CSNY albums, when in reality they only released three studio albums in a 40-year span: Déjà vu (1970), American Dream (1988), and Looking Forward (1999). Relative to CSN’s output, these albums did not produce much in the way of hits or enduring songs relative to CSN, especially the latter two. The title track from American Dream (penned by Neil) saw some chart action,but the album was not well-received critically. The first CSN record and 1982’s Daylight Again are far stronger albums than any of the three CSNY recordings. Even the 1971 live CSNY album 4-Way Street is drawn out and rough around the edges (and not always in the right way), due to Neil’s insistence of “no fixes in the mix.”

 5. Neil’s an Asshole.

The way Neil has treated his brethren in CSN over the years is nothing short of cruel and abusive. He bailed soon after the 1970 Déjà vu tour; he jumped ship in 1975 just before the proposed CSNY Human Highway album was set to be recorded; he got Crosby and Nash in to sing on the album Long May You Run only to erase their vocals afterwards and turn it into a Stills/Young record; and on that 1976 tour with Stills in support of that album, he bailed halfway through with no warning at all. He left everyone hanging and just drove home. Even as recently as 2011 Neil was screwing with Stills. Neil had the bright idea to reform Buffalo Springfield for a tour, so Stills dropped everything in CSN to set a year aside for the project. Crosby and Nash booked a duo tour to keep busy while Stills was doing the Springfield reunion. Guess what? Neil pulled the plug at the last minute (citing loss of interest in a “nostalgia” project) and left Stills in a lurch. In an interview, Stills said that Neil’s change of mood almost caused Stills to go bankrupt due to loss of anticipated live earnings that year.

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So there you have it: five good reasons why these two entities should have remained separate. Neil certainly got the lion’s share of benefits from this precarious and sporadic musical arrangement, while CSN were often left in a lurch or thrown off their course by a wavering Neil and his devil-may-care approach to others in his professional life. Why CSN put up with Neil over and over in this regard is actually somewhat obvious: when it’s CSN, it’s theatres; when it’s CSNY, it’s stadiums. So the lure of Neil in the band is always an understandable one. But seeing CSN live in their original three-piece glory is proof in the pudding: it’s the way they were always meant to be, without the extra baggage of another ego weighing them down. Don’t get me wrong: I’m well-aware of the egos already contained in the CSN maelstrom. However, Neil’s presence never made sense to me for all of the reasons above. Hopefully after Neil’s last shaft to Stills over the aborted Springfield reunion, they will finally cut the cord and keep Neil away from CSN as they put in their final years on the road and in the studio.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Five Reasons Why Neil Young Should Never Have Joined Crosby, Stills, and Nash

  1. Denis Manning

    My NY story – i was walking in a park in Edmonton – turned my head the wrong way – my wife said hey you know a guy who looks like NY just went by on a bike – I thought well he is playing here tonight – might be true – BUT i just wanted to say that was some concert you guyes put on last night re the Last Waltz – it has got me interested in who all of you are . Great night – brought all the old folks out / why the mix up in order- it worked though

  2. Jim

    I came across this and thought it was an April Fools joke .I like NY ,but never knew much about his days with CSN. Interesting insight. I still think he’s an amazing artist and I applaud his stand on the tar sands i.e. his reference to Hiroshima.
    I came across your website from Steelguitar forum. You posted a pic of your Sho-bud .I have one just like it. (Pro 1)!!
    I’ll have to check out more of your website when I can. I think I share your musical tastes in general. From a fellow Hoser, Jim

  3. Guitarmeister Lew

    Your article is common perspective on CSN&Y. No matter how careful I am, CSN purists will take some offense. I have never understood the CSN vs. NY divide. In 1969 I bought the 1st CSN album followed by Deja Vu and 4 Way Street. Through those albums I backtracked to the Buff Springfield days when I found out NY & SS played with them too. I really liked Neil’s music and started following his solo career. I still thought CSN were great. Their music was the type one would play when a girlfriend was around. Alone I would jam along with Cinnamon Girl and Down by the River. lol I love and respect CSN with or without NY. I also liked Still’s solo work and still think that Manassas is one of most underrated albums of all time. Since Harvest, I’ve been a Neil fan. I started playing guitar around that time. Stills and Young were huge influences on my style.

    While I don’t agree completely, The Rolling Stone Review on Déjà vu back in the 70’s said “Along with many other people, I had hoped that the addition of Neil Young to Crosby, Stills, and Nash would give their music the guts and substance which the first album lacked….. Despite Young’s formidable job on many of the cuts, the basic sound hasn’t changed a whit. It’s still too sweet, too soothing, too perfect, and too good to be true.” One had to be young and living in the experience of 1970 to totally understand this point.

    The book “CSN: The Authorized Bio” indicates that CSN was pressured to add Neil. Crosby was opposed but Stills talked them into it. As Crosby put it, after Young sat down to play them “Helpless”, he said “we wanted to play in HIS band.” So there has always been that love/hate relationship which spills into the CSN fans and into your article. The problem with CSN was that drugs & other issues limited them from putting out significant material (both as a group or solo/duo) as compared to Neil especially in the 80’s through present. Neil’s Rust Never Sleeps/Freedom/Harvest Moon/Ragged Glory/Prairie Wind are considered pretty strong albums by many.

    CSN played at a small venue near me last month. 2/3rds of the material was from prior to the mid-70’s. They do a great job, but it’s kind of where they have always been. I saw Neil with Crazy Horse in late 2012 at a large venue. All but three songs were written after the mid-70’s. Currently Neil is dipping back into the archives with an all-acoustic solo show.

    As a long time guitarist I can say that Stills and Young have two distinct styles which are really not redundant. I don’t find either one’s playing to be technically difficult. I marveled at Stills playing Suite Judy Blue Eyes. I finally learned about the Bruce Palmer modal tuning which made actually made it a lot easier to play than it sounded. Both guitarists are very good and I agree that Stills is vastly underrated. Neil is a chameleon. He’ll play Grunge with Crazy Horse to a folksy Heart of Gold to Country to Rockabilly & more. In the 2012 concert, he soloed for 5 minutes on the opening song “Love and only Love” before singing a note. It’s a unique style that is not suited for everyone but Neil has a great base of fan. Many are in their 30’s because of his mantra of “Godfather of Grunge.” The CSN concerts I’ve been has an average similar to my age of 60. Both play to their fan base with CSN to the Baby boomers and Neil in his unique, sometimes grumpy style

    Neil is no doubt hard to work with, but many great artists are. However his work with Farm Aid & the Bridge School show a continued commitment to helping people. CSN has done similar events. There is little reason to disparage on Neil with or without CSN. As Neil puts it “Life in the middle of road got boring so I headed to the ditches. A rougher ride but the people there are more interesting.”

    I’ll be going to that Neil solo acoustic show here in a couple of weeks. It will be the 2nd time I have seen Neil. I’ve seen CSN 4 times. I’m still waiting for another great album like the first CSN but I know it’s probably not coming. At least Neil puts out a lot material. While not always even, the new material Neil does is enough good stuff to keep me a fan. “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust”

  4. Dear L

    I just read this heading to work on the NJT and laughed out loud with reason 5. This is a brilliantly written piece, well researched and so well defined. I want to thank you for putting into clear words how I’ve felt about Neil (the praise and not so much) since I had discovered them about 4 years ago. Let’s hope the mighty Stephen reads this and it put a smile on his face..

    Yours,
    Lisa

    • Lisa as an eastern Canadian it’s great to know that my piece is being read in New Jersey! And I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I’m a huge Stephen fan and have been for a long time. I feel he hasn’t had his due. Love to think this piece might find its way to hime some day. 🙂

      Thanks so much for the very kind words!

  5. On the American Dream album Neil is the only one participating on every song either singing or playing. Crosby, Stills and Nash only played on their own individual songs. At the time CSN needed the money more than Neil and I have always felt that he was throwing them a bone playing with them. I can see why he didn’t bother with them again for years.

  6. Chris Hanlon

    Chris, your writing is that good, it warrants a rare response from me. 🙂

    You need to check out Country Girl if you are looking for CSNY harmonies. Neil takes advantage of CSN’s vocals as he subtly sings under the verse.

    They wouldn’t need NY if they wanted to remain a studio band. However, Stephen Stills played every instrument except drums and acoustic guitar on Deja Vu. Furthermore, Stills yearned for another guitar player to dual and compete with on stage. There surely wasn’t a better fit than his old friend in Buffalo Springfield.

    Neil brings his A-game to the studio. His “Asshole” attitude towards demanding perfection I would argue, elevated CSN performances.
    Besides, I wouldn’t be able to come up with 3 individual Crosby, Stills and Nash solo performances. Stills was always more effective with NY, Crosby with Roger McGuinn and Nash with anybody else who would play with him.

    • Chris I appreciate your response. It’s good to know that about American Dream. I hadn’t realized the extent of his involvement. Regarding Crosby and McGuinn, the two years or so they sang together in the Byrds was certainly fruitful from a folk-rock perspective. I do think that Nash’s time in the Hollies influenced most greatly the CSN “vocal thing,” pushing the Everly influence over the top with the three-part.

    • Guitarmeister Lew

      Nice reply. One correction. It was CSN not Déjà Vu with Stills playing virtually every instrument.

  7. John Wallace's Looney Pony

    You certainly did not see the 1974 CSNY reunion tour.Or the dueling leads dn “Southern Man” in the “Journey Through The Past” movie.Or seen the less fortunate kids play with Neil’s travelling train show in their new Lionel engineer’s hats while Neil trims miniature trees. John Wallace of LOONEY PONY!!

  8. Zeke

    Neil hater. Neil is real. Distinctive off key genius that CrosStiNash could only hope to become. Bee Gees really? Redundant guitar…wow. Still relevant while CSN try to find that harmonic magic from 40 Years ago.

    • Thanks for reading, Zeke. Neil’s guitar is anything but redundant in his own music; with CSN it’s not a key factor. I see them as separate entities that didn’t need each other. I’m a huge fan of Neil’s music, but I love CSN as well and although they made a few gems together, I feel their separate output was stronger. Regarding the Bee Gees, I have to defend their melodic genius. Don’t let the disco aspect cloud your judgment on them. They’re too easy a target.

      All the best, man. If you are Neil’s son Zeke, please don’t take what I said about your dad personally. You and I are both well-aware of his undisputed genius.

  9. Roland Baker

    Excellent review and history lesson on both CSN and CSNY. I prefer the former to the latter. Along with the Brothers Gibb, CSN represent the pinnacle of harmonious singing where key, pitch and melody mesh perfectly with instrumental accompaniment. Neil never fit that mold. A little free with his structure you might say. Too bad he is/was such an ass to people that were his friends! Great job Chris!

    • Hey thanks Roland for reading! Yes I’m with you. Love the Bee Gees as well. Incredible talent. I like clean harmonies. Now some of the harmony work on Neil’s records was raggedly beautiful (Harvest especially), but the CSN stuff is where the real vocal magic lies. They knew what they had with that first record. Crazy good.

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