As author David Browne details the band's struggles with the changing times in a topsy-turvy industry, all four men embrace humility… even if they’re not talking to each other.
April 10, 2019 | by Andrew K. Lau
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup
By David Browne
DaCapo Press, 2019
They were the baby boomers' musical wet dream: great songs with perfect harmonies by unobvious good-looking musicians balancing acoustic and electric music poised for global domination. But nothing was as easy or automatic as originally hoped, and their story became a parallel to their own generation’s legacy where talent was stifled by egos, wasted money, jealousy, selfishness, chemicals, and a general distrust of one another. All in all, a fantastic template for a great read. The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup isn’t the first book on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and it won’t be the last, but it’s certainly the best.
Veteran journalist David Browne babysits CSN&Y’s story with a sharp eye and even hand. Instead of taking shortcuts, he did his job as a biographer and surged headlong into the research, conducting hundreds of interviews with friends, associates, exes, and enemies; he even talked to David Crosby and Graham Nash. For good or ill, Stephen Stills gave Browne the straight-arm and declined to talk because he’s reportedly working on his own book, and well, Neil Young isn’t one for interviews. Shucks, even when he does face writers, he likes to make things difficult (something which Jimmy McDonough’s brilliant 2003 biography, Shakey, proves all too well).
Additionally, Browne soaked up what seems to be every magazine and newspaper article about the band he could get his hands on; from the usual (Rolling Stone, Billboard), to the more sharp-minded rags (Crawdaddy!), to short-lived underground papers (Minneapolis’ Hundred Flowers, The Detroit Free Press) and even smaller-run straight press (The San Bernardino County Sun, The Honolulu Advertiser). He was even allowed to pour through photographer Joel Bernstein’s log book to "ensure chronological accuracy." Obsessive research like this can give way to a great, detail-rich narrative. If you want to know if a biography is going to be worth your time, flip right to the back and look over the source notes; if it’s extensive, you're in for a treat. And that’s what we have here.
Such mind-numbing research has the ability to drown a story in minutiae, but Browne keeps it all flowing effortlessly as he leads the reader through 50 years of high points and blow-outs. With the sheer number of albums these four have released in varying configurations, it’s easy for the music to get lost, so Browne keeps the necessary album-by-album summaries short and injects just enough humor to keep everything on the level — he refuses to be starry-eyed fan and refers to one of their releases as "a baffling vanilla wafer of a record."
Aside from the music, these four are well-known for their… um, diverse personalities, which Browne handles well by keeping his own opinions to himself and sticks to reporting. Stephen Stills, the headstrong, smiling bully with more talent and anger issues than the other three combined. (Never trust anyone who shows too much confidence on stage, dear reader.) David Crosby, the smart-ass rhythm guitarist with the perfect tenor voice suffering from such a wretched inferiority complex that he often lashes out at other musicians who see the world differently than himself. (Never, and I mean never, trust anyone who criticizes the band Crazy Horse. Seriously.) Graham Nash, the peacemaker with the cherry-on-top harmonies wanting to please everyone but just ends up angry and shaking his head at the mess they’ve made. (Never trust anyone who trusts David Crosby.)
Then there’s Neil Young, the anti-hero scrapper in a group of maniacs. Yes, he has a knack for keeping things fresh, and the resulting comic/artistic relief is indeed the best part of this story, especially as the other three walk on eggshells and have to defer to him regularly whenever he decides to grace them with his presence. However, amid the countless stories of Young’s wonderful against-the-grain ways of forging a career, Browne makes sure to highlight the ramifications of Young's seemingly impulsive but probably calculated decision making. Take, for example, his notorious decision to abruptly leave the 1976 tour he was doing with Stills when they had another 20 dates to play. It's the stuff of legend and gets laughs (ha, ha, ha, that’s just Neil being Neil!) but Browne is an adept writer and will not allow for such easy-outs. Stills was rightfully humiliated and left looking the fool; meanwhile, for the many people working as part of the tour’s crew, they were suddenly out of a job with zero notice. That paycheck they were depending on was gone in a flash because Young’s holy artistic temperament had somehow been upended. So, guess what folks? Neil Young is just as much of an asshole as the others, something Browne subtly unveils for our hungry eyes.
Anyone following the saga knows this book does not end happily (at least that’s how it stands as of this writing), but that’s the way it goes when dealing with such personalities in this business. And yet over the past 50 years, they have created some amazing music (and not just their early work, because 1982’s "Southern Cross" remains a shining jewel of melody and studio precision) and they’ve made some rather unamazing music as well — that’s showbiz and that’s real life. This book was not written to blow smoke up the baby boomers' asses, but to document an important fantastically ridiculous tale of the writing, recording, and selling of songs. As Browne details their struggles with the changing times in a topsy-turvy industry, all four men embrace humility… even if they’re not talking to each other.
Sure, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young get our attention, our adoration, our empathy, and our rolled eyes, but David Browne not only gets the story right, he might just end up with all the glory.