I 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.
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.