Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Forever Young # 27: "It's Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry"

Song:  Ohio
Album:  Released as a single (with Crosby, Stills and Nash)
Released:  June, 1970

It’s taken half a year of weekly entries, and I have finally come around to that other piece of the Neil Young puzzle:  His association with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, or CSN for short.  I have to say that the more I learn about Young’s history, the less I understand this relationship.   But I don’t really mind.  In fact, I think it a good thing.  Like a close family with diverse personalities and opinions, some working relationships are simply inexplicable. 

Let’s run through the lineup.  First there’s David Crosby; he of drugs, arrests, guns and unrivaled womanizing fame.  Yet Crosby also has a reputation as a hard worker, a perfectionist.  And there’s no doubt there is talent there too.  Few musicians have more ties to American Rock history and aristocracy than does Crosby.  I recall him goofing around with Bob Dylan during a Byrds reunion (along with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman) at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles as Nancy and I took it all in from the 2nd row.  Dylan and Crosby were checking into each other like hockey players while strumming their guitars.  The only thing I can compare it to is witnessing Pete Townshend clowning around with harp-player Peter Hope Evans.  It was hilarious.  At the very least, you can say that Crosby helped draw in the Southern red neck crowd as somewhere in the early to mid-70s there was a transition in the Deep South from ‘Easy Rider’-type confrontations to long hair.  Crosby’s longtime interest in guns may have helped create an overlap of the two worlds, and lead to the emergence of bands like Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd (ironic for Young given the Southern Man/Alabama/Sweet Home Alabama salvos later in the decade).

Next, Stephen Stills.  Here I believe is the real attraction for Neil Young, who has forever been obsessed with his ex-Buffalo Springfield mate.  Everyone needs a competitive crutch, and for Young, that person appears to be Stills.  The man is a great guitarist, and vocalist, as well as a pretty darn good lyricist, yet the one thing he seems to lacks when compared to Neil Young is intense passion.  After Young penned Ohio, this week’s blog entry ( )  , CSNY gained a reputation as a protest band.  And yet, Stills has always come across to me as the reluctant antagonist.  However, every band needs someone who comes across as somewhat more level headed than the rest: Think Bill Wyman, John Entwistle, Peter Quaife, Mickey Hart, and Peter Buck.  In CSNY, that person is Stephen Stills.  Part of Young’s fascination with Stills may simply be their long history together and the early chance encounters in Ontario and Los Angeles.  Perhaps Young has a fate-accompli sense about it all.

Finally, there’s The Brit, Graham Nash, the counterbalance to Stills. The passion is certainly there, but for me the verdict is still out in terms of how much pure talent he has.  Nash is a 60s holdout, a true believer in the hippie movement, and occasionally I get a whiff of what he brings to the table.  The lyrics to Teach Your Children are much deeper than apparent on the surface for example. And his loyalty to his bandmates is second to none, even after his recently released tell-all autobiography, “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life”.  He probably has the least affiliation with Neil Young in the band, but they did pen 1972’s War Song together (which may be one reason why Young writes most of his music solo).  And just when you think he’s a bit soft around the edges, he will toss out a comment that reveals his acerbic English wit.

In general, Crosby, Stills and Nash have been of moderate interest to me over the years.  I’ve seen them several times, and do recognize their legacy.  There’s a bold daring there.  When CSNY toured an anti-Iraq-war stance in 2006, they were booed loudly at a number of locales, many fans surprised at the intensity displayed by the band during songs like Let’s Impeach the President.  Nope, Rage Against the Machine has nothing on CSNY.  Yet, I also cannot overlook a whiff of hypocrisy in the form of excess, particularly with Crosby and Stills.  It’s the same feeling I get with Led Zeppelin:  One too many moral chips cashed in; a bit too much ‘wasted on the way’.  I believe Neil Young has had this sense too, as hinted at in his ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ song, Thrasher.  I’m reminded of a reflection Pete Townshend writes about in his book “Who I Am”, his thoughts of witnessing Keith Moon and John Entwistle compromising themselves in various ways before the Who took the stage at Woodstock.  He went on to say it showed in their performance that night.  Anyhow, that’s what I’m talking about….something like that.

One other thought about CSN.   I’ve always felt the band name should have been different, not emphasizing the singer’s names, but more all-encompassing, to include original drummer Dallas Taylor and bassist Greg Reeves.  Perhaps with a more democratic name, they would have been more productive and prolific over the long term.  ‘Democracy’; yes, that would have been a good band name for CSN (and Y). 

Ok, enough background.   It’s time to discuss Ohio, which remains one of the top protest songs of all time.  This song has a sense of urgency, which indeed was the case, having been written and released almost immediately after the tragic events at Kent State on May 4, 1970.  This is the song that gave Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young their reputation, which as a band they would attempt futilely to match on numerous occasions in years hence.  But Ohio was perfect for the time it was penned, and much has to conspire to even have the opportunity of seizing the moment to write a classic protest song.  The aforementioned Woodstock Festival was only 9 months earlier, and there was a sense in the interim that a youth movement which emphasized peace in the face of war could actually win the day.  Disillusion was settling in, however:  At a time when there was hope that the Vietnam War was decelerating, President Nixon announced an incursion into neighboring Cambodia.  Kent State and other college-campus protests were a direct response to this.  The lingering effects of the Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations factored in as well.

And the establishment was starting to take this youth movement very seriously.  In some ways you could say they were successful in permanently squelching serious protest like that which took place at Kent State.  Although the reverberations were profound in the immediate aftermath, which included the biggest mass-campus strike in USA’s history, another Kent State never happened.   We would never again see the likes of students sticking flower stems into the gun barrels of the National Guard or the Guard in turn shooting those rifles at a crowd.  Life eventually returned to a sense of relative normalcy.  Flower Power was ebbing.  Kent State may have been its last hurrah.  I suppose brute force can do that.

But the music survived, and lived on in the burgeoning 70s youth generation that followed, including within myself.  Songs like Ohio did not fade away.  On the contrary, they thrived during this period.   We wanted more, and we were more than happy to support musicians like Neil Young in their efforts to keep creating good music.  Young and many other 60s songwriters obliged us.  I can’t think of many more carry-over examples than the one that played out through 70s youth, which allowed 60s rock icons to continue to deliver, be it in the studio or on the concert trail.  Many of them earned it with bold truth-seeking statements in the face of strong resistance.  We in turn recognized this merit, this worthiness, this badge of honor. 

There is much to love about Ohio, but the starkest part of the song for me is the ending, with David Crosby literally crying out lines of disgust: “Four!”, “How many?”, “How many more!”.  It’s raw and alive and as fresh hearing it now as it likely was when first recorded.  Crosby once stated that Young singing Nixon’s name in the song Ohio was one of the bravest things he ever heard.  It shows when you listen to his grieving appeals as the song fades.

I’d like to think the American spirit still has the potential for the type of galvanizing emotion displayed by Neil Young and his cohorts when put to the challenge.  Part of me hopes we will never find out.  Yet another part of me hopes we will, if only for the creative passion that can ensue.

-          Pete

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