A new box set commemorates the massive 1974 CSNY tour that David Crosby dubbed The Doom Tour.
By Brian Wise
“Who would write it?” laughs David Crosby when I suggest that someone could write a book about the relationships within his famous partnership with Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and Neil Young.
“Anybody’s version of it that you hear, including Graham’s – all three of us would give you a different version of almost every story he told,” he chuckles.
It’s forty years since Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reunited (for the first time) in 1974 for what was later to be dubbed by Crosby as the ‘Doom Tour.’ The four had not played together as a band since 1970 but several factors combined to draw them back together.
Depending on what perspective you take, that 1974 tour was either triumphant and groundbreaking tour or two months of hell on earth for those involved. What it did produce is a new box set based on recording of the tour with moments of sheer brilliance that illustrate why CSNY were, for a while, the world’s biggest band and why they are still so revered.
Most people would think that it was the lure of a big payday from what was to be a huge tour that attracted the quartet. But as both Crosby and Nash told me, when I recently spoke to them, it was an entirely different reason that motivated them: it was all about the magic that happened on stage when they were all together. Surely, CSNY is one of the best examples ever of a group being greater than the sum of its parts!
There was almost a frenzy of activity at the start of the famous ‘supergroup’ collaboration – Woodstock, Altamont, the number one album Déjà Vu (following the successful CSN debut) and their live album 4 Way Street (which not only topped the charts but eventually went quadruple platinum). Then the quartet fell apart and the members pursued their own individual projects.
There was an attempt to record a follow up to Déjà Vu but that project (Human Highway) remained incomplete. Meanwhile, Young was enjoying exceptional success with Harvest, Stills had released his second solo album and two records with Manassas, Crosby released his acclaimed debut solo album (If I Could Only Remember My Name) along with an album with Nash that made the Top 5 and, in addition, Nash had released his first two solo albums.
Yet by late 1973 Neil Young was talking about a reunion during his Tonight’s The Night tour (the actual album was delayed) and the rumours were confirmed by Crosby in early 1974 and later by Nash. It seemed that the reunion was inevitable.
In the background, manager Elliot Roberts (who was representing Crosby, Nash and Young) was talking to promoter Bill Graham about a tour that was bigger than anything they had done previously. It was decided that the group needed much larger venues to accommodate the anticipated demand for tickets and so a tour utilising football and baseball stadiums was proposed, on a scale that no-one had attempted since The Beatles final tour in 1966 (and that was only nine shows).
In May 1974 the quartet gathered for rehearsals at Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch, where he had constructed a full-size stage opposite his studio complex. They recruited a rhythm section of bassist Tim Drummond, drummer Russell Kunkel and percussionist Joe Lala (percussion). The band allegedly practiced five or six hours a day, six days a week, through until the end of June. The song list expanded to 44 songs, which later resulted in concerts of epic length – often longer than even the Springsteen shows that we see these days.
Eventually, the tour was to take in 31 concerts in 24 cities across the USA and then London, with a combined audience of more than a million people. It kicked off on July 9, 1974 at the Seattle Center Coliseum (exactly four years from the day they ended their 1970 tour) and finished on September 14 at Wembley Stadium. The two Oakland Coliseum ‘Day On The Green shows drew 90,000 people and most shows drew between 30,000 (in cities where they were forced to use indoor venues) and 60,000.
While each band member was promised $1.4million dollars, they insisted that they were not doing the tour for the money, which is lucky because they were only to receive about twenty per cent of what they were originally promised.
“The truth is, Brian, that no amount of the financial aspect, or the fame aspect, or the egos clashing, and the backstabbing, and ‘I don’t like you today so I’m not talking to you this week’ – none of that is important to us anymore,” says Nash. “It’s all meaningless. The only thing that’s important is the quality of the music. It’s one of the reasons why I’m incredibly pleased with this record.”
“I kind of know where it went,” says Crosby of the tour proceeds, “but I’m not going to name names. I know who took it. It’s just that if there’s that big a prize and you’re as crazy as we were, we didn’t care, man. We cared about whether or not we could convince that girl to go home with us. We weren’t financially smart or career smart or any other kind of smart. We were talented at making songs. And for that I’m deeply grateful. But it doesn’t make us smart.”
Of the 31 shows, nine were recorded on 16-track audio and two were videotaped. These recordings form the basis of the new CSNY 1974 box set with 40 tracks plus a DVD released on several formats that didn’t even exist when the tour took place.
The collection is produced by Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein, who have been doing a fine job curating the CSN individual catalogues, along with engineer Steven Johnston. Luckily, they had enough audiotape from which to select the best performances for the box set.
“We had been at Woodstock in front of a half a million people,” answers Nash when I ask him about their concerns expressed at the time about the sound quality in such huge venues. “We knew what those size audiences would mean because really if you can’t see the eyes of your fans and know that you’re connecting emotionally with them. Why do ‘Guinevere’ with two voices and one guitar? I think that’s a lot of why David called it the ‘Doom Tour’ because he didn’t feel that we were connecting on an emotional level with so many people.’
The set list, which reflects the acoustic/electric mix of the concerts includes some of CSNY’s best-known songs – ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,’ ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, ‘Helpless’, ‘Wooden Ships’, ‘Teach Your Children’ etc – along with songs from the individual’s. Several songs by Young are previously unreleased, including ‘Traces,’ ‘Love/Art Blues’, ‘Hawaiian Sunrise’ and ‘Goodbye Dick’ (celebrating President Richard Nixon’s resignation). There are plenty of gems for fans, including a fantastic version of Young’s ‘Pushed It Over The End.’
As you might expect, there are some stunning performances, though opinions at the time – including that of Neil Young – suggested that some shows were not up to scratch either because of the sound problems in the large stadiums or the fact that the musicians were so ‘high’. Nash and his colleagues have drawn upon the recordings to show the group at their best.
“David and Stephen and Neil trust me,” says Nash when I ask him about compiling the box set. “They know that I do good work and they know that I would be insistent on keeping a high bar for the music. We chose the best performance of every single song. When a performance knocked me on my ass, it made the list. It’s one of the reasons why there’s no Stephen Stills song ‘Carry On’ because I nixed four takes and, my goodness, you gotta believe it was almost 14 minutes long. I couldn’t find one that pleased me. I couldn’t find one that stood up to the rest of the music, so it didn’t go on. Stephen was completely cool with that. Not happy, but he was cool.”
“In 1974, no one was doing the video enhancement that you see when you go to the Staples Center to see the Lakers, for instance,” continues Nash, turning his attention to the DVD. “You walk in there and there’s gigantic screens in high definition all over the place. In 1974, no one was doing it. We lit the show. The lighting for the show was for rock and roll. It was not for video. Sometimes it was too red; sometimes it was too blue because we weren’t lighting for video. We didn’t even know they were shooting it. We didn’t find the tapes until years later. I thought that it would be very interesting for our fans to see us performing live as we were then.”
“You can see that we were a fine band. With four fine singers, four fine writers, four great musicians, Neil and Stephen playing great guitar. We had a great time. I don’t agree with Crosby when he calls it a doom tour, but I know exactly why he said that.”
“It’s true,” admits Crosby when I remind him of his ‘Doom Tour’ label. “That was largely because we were, on every other level but the songs and the music, pretty much in complete disarray. We didn’t travel together, we argued all the time, we were taking drugs that were making us utterly, totally crazy. We had completely different agendas. We were as crazy as we ever were in our lives. And yet, the songs were so strong, the music was so strong when we’d get onstage that it pulled us all together and brought out the best in us and made us able to do what, near as I can tell, is pretty stellar stuff.”
In his recent memoir Wild Tales, Nash outlines all the excesses of the 1974 tour and by the end of his account you have the impression that it was a two-month long Bacchanalian feast.
“I’m sure that is what it looked like from the outside,” says Crosby. “To us it looked like chaos. When we would walk on, there wasn’t room for chaos. The songs would take over. That’s what they do.”
“He’s a pretty honest guy mostly,” says Crosby when I ask him about Nash’s book and he laughs when he adds, “it’s funny, every time he starts about sex, drugs and rock and roll he talks about me not him. That’s okay, I love him anyway.”
“I’m English,” replies Nash emphatically when I bring up Crosby’s gripe that he was just as badly behaved. “I hear you chuckling, I’m English, and I’m a little more discreet.
“With all due respect, I have the attitude with, ‘Let’s get the fucking job done. If this is what we want to do, let’s do it the best way” because, and I learned this, don’t forget when I was born, World War II still had 3 years to go. It was very much the case where you didn’t know whether you were going to be alive tonight or tomorrow. I think my attitude of, ‘If this is what we’re doing, let’s do it the best way possible” is where I come from.”
“I had a great time when we were on stage,” notes Crosby. “The rest of the time we were at odds, we didn’t hang out together. Neil didn’t even travel with us. It was not all peachy keen and hunky dory just because we were making a ton of money. We were very crazy. I mean very crazy. And when I say we, I mean me. I was very crazy. But when we got on stage, man, it got good. I don’t know of anybody who was taking those kinds of chances or doing that level of work.”
“It makes me believe what I always did believe, which is that was the central issue, the magic of it, the music. Music is an elevating force in the human race. It always has been. It could transcend the drugs and the sex and the craziness and the fame and the money, and the manipulation by all the people around us. That it could transcend all that stuff and be magic speaks really well for the music as a force and as a thing to dedicate your life to. It was worthy, really worthy.”
“By keeping our focus on the music,” replies Nash when I ask how they managed to overcome all the differences and still go on stage together. “By keeping our focus on ‘Holy shit, we’re about to walk out in front of 80,000 people. Let’s get our shit together here!’ Yeah, music is transcendent. Music is our lives. It’s what keeps us alive. It’s what keeps us performing. It’s what keeps us writing.”
“It was quite fearless,” says Crosby of the quartet’s approach to the performances, “and I think that’s one of the things that Neil loved about it the most – that we were willing to take chances. On that record you’ll hear us doing brand new songs, sometimes that we had written that day. And you’ll hear other people joining in on the songs, even though they never heard them before, and doing something magical.
At that level of chance-taking, at that level of giving to each other, the music did that. That’s the power of songs. It is our job, but it’s just sort of the songs. Not to aggrandise ourselves, not to wank about how cool we are. “Oh gee, I’ve been on the cover of Rolling Stone.” None of that crap matters. What matters is can you write music that makes people feel something, and can you perform it honestly enough to where it works? We could and we did.”
“We do inspire each other,” continues Crosby. “We inspire each other with the songs in the first place. That’s what gets my attention, that’s what gets Neil’s attention or Steve’s attention. So if you sit down in front of them and play them a real song, that really is about something and makes them feel something, then you’ve inspired them. You’ve got their attention.
“But what we were bringing wasn’t just skill or talent, it was the willingness to jump off the edge. The willingness to take chances. You can hear on that record one of us walk out and sing a brand new song. Sometimes it was one they wrote that day. And you can hear the other guys say, ‘Okay, that should be… maybe we come in right about here.’ And they’ll join in on a brand new song. That’s like really jumping off the cliff. I think that’s one of the things that Neil loved best about the band. When you start to formalise it and play your hits, then Neil doesn’t want to be part of it. He wants that edge. And I don’t blame him at all, I do too.
“I can’t help but have affection for guys that I’ve been through this much with. And I can’t help but have respect for guys who’ve written and played and sung the music that these guys have written and played and sung. You can’t not respect Stephen Stills or Graham Nash or Neil Young or me, for that matter. I’ve done some stuff that other people haven’t done.
“You can’t deny that. We’re not built so you can deny that. Music is the most thing in our lives. We’ve given our lives to it, so it is the most important thing. If you are presented with startlingly good music, you can’t just ignore it. You can’t say, “That’s really nice but I’ve got to get to the bank.” There are bands who do just that but that’s not our style.”
Nash chronicles the ups and downs of CSNY in Wild Tales and many of the stories will have you wondering how the members of the group are still on talking terms.
“What Neil put you through at various times was just incredible,” I say to Nash and his reply sums up the ethos of the group.
“I know, but look at the music we made!”
CROSBY & NASH ON NEIL YOUNG
“I think it shows Neil has a sense of humor,” laughs Crosby when I ask him how he feels about the fact that after holding up the box set because he insisted that it be available in the very best quality sound formats Neil Young has recorded his latest album, A Letter Home, in lo-fi in an almost primitive Voice-O-Graph recording booth at Jack White’s Third Man Records.
“I wasn’t thrilled with the performances,” says Nash when I put the same question to him. “I don’t care if it’s on a cassette. If it’s a great performance, I’ll listen to that regardless of the fidelity of it. I don’t care if it’s only a cassette. If the performance kills me, then I’m a happy man.
“I didn’t really feel that way about any of the songs on Neil’s new record, unfortunately. I’m sure it’s going to get back to him, but so be it. You ask me a question and I’m giving you an honest answer.”
“The truth is that Neil Young is a very funny man,” says Nash when I tell him about Crosby’s comment. “He’s always followed his heart, and followed the muse of music, from the day I first met him.”
“You know the percentage increase in vinyl sales in the last 18 months?” he adds when I suggest that at least it has helped boost vinyl sales. “Seven hundred and eighty per cent. That’s insane. I love it because, I personally love vinyl.”
“Neil was very unhappy, and rightly so, about mp3s,” replied Crosby when I ask him about the hold up on the box set. “He felt that Apple betrayed us when they went with that format for iTunes. And I agree. Mp3s deliver, tops, 15 percent of the information we put down on tape. That’s not good enough. So I don’t argue, I can’t argue about us needing to deliver it in a hi-res format.”
“One of the reasons I love Neil Young is his insistence on making it as real as possible and as close to the tapes as possible,” says Nash. “We had actually mixed and put to bed about 10 or 12 songs when Neil called me and said, ‘No, no, it’s not quite high res enough!’ We had to throw that out and start again.
“I love Neil for that. He’s a genius. Neil Young is a fantastic musician, as you know.”
Crosby says that the version of ‘Pushed It Over The End’ (originally titled ‘Citizen Kane Jr Blues’) is perhaps the single greatest Neil Young performance ever. A version of the song was originally intended for release on Young’s 1977 Decade anthology but was withdrawn. You can see Crosby playing a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar on the version that appears on the DVD.
“Watch Neil’s face in that particular song,” says Crosby. “The thing is, I don’t think it is the same performance that’s on the audio disc. The one that’s on the audio is so intense. If you get inside his voice a little bit and hear the emotion that he’s singing it with you’ve got to say the cat is as good as he said he was. He doesn’t do it all the time, nobody’s perfect, but he can really deliver. Sometimes he can absolutely blow your mind. And he did. He did it repeatedly.”
While both Crosby and Nash agree that tensions mounted during the long 1974 tour, after the final concert at Wembley stadium in London, Nash hopped a lift in Neil’s Rolls Royce for several weeks across England and to Amsterdam.
“After that tour, the pressure was off,” recalls Nash. “We were just relaxing. I’ve never really hung with Neil when we were just relaxing. Normally in the past, my relationship with Neil was musical, was in the studio, was on stage, but not a lot of hanging together as friends.
“On that journey in his 1928 Rolls Royce [Phantom 1] Shooting Brake, which he called Wembley, of course, because he bought it in England, I began to witness how he writes, why he writes, the intensity with which he writes.
“I learned a lot about song writing because, with all due respect, when I was in The Hollies, you’d knock off a song in two minutes, and it was kind of a ‘moon, June, screw me in the back of the car’ kind of pop song.
“Neil was really pouring out his heart. He was obviously going through personal changes with his girlfriend, Carrie Snodgrass. He had to get his feelings out. I learned a great deal from Neil. As I said in my book, I’d never felt closer to Neil in my life.”
Reading Nash’s memoir and the accounts of how Neil treated his colleagues – from ignoring them to cancelling mid-way through tours – it is amazing that the other three members of the quartet are still talking to Young.
“I know, but look at the music we made,” says Nash. “Like I said, none of that shit is important really.”
What are the chances of Neil dropping in on some of the gigs?
“You know, you can never say no and you can never say yes,” replies Nash. “That’s this band. If Neil comes to see one of our concerts, of course, we’re going to want him to sing. It’s probably the reason why he came to the concert in the first place because he wanted to sing with us again, make sure that we can do what we’re famous for.
“I have no idea [if he will],” says Crosby. “I think he’s working. He’s in Europe playing festivals right now. I think he’ll be working most of the time that we’re working. But with this box, this collection, out there, the sensible thing to do would be for us to work.
“Neil has never necessarily been motivated by that as a guiding force. But if he wants to, then of course we’d do it. We’d love to do it. I would always love to play music with that guy because he’s extremely talented and because he loves the edge. He loves to push the envelope, and I love that.”