Imagine a production of “Hamlet” with three Hamlets. Or four or two: No one is certain who will show up when, not even the actors themselves. Now move the action from a castle in Denmark to a recording studio in Los Angeles, and instead of fratricide and revenge, let king-size egos drive the drama, boosted by a mountain of cocaine and an ocean of alcohol. Give each Hamlet a dozen Ophelias, even a wife or two from time to time, and encourage swapping.
Now you have a sense of what it was like to witness the rise, fall, resurrection and multi-car pileup that was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the folk-rock supergroup that shaped and were shaped by 1960s and ’70s counterculture while propelling millions of music lovers to near-orgasmic levels of joy, and almost killing themselves (and each other) along the way. David Browne’s “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup” is for music lovers, but it should also be required reading for students of group dynamics. Bands implode all the time, but it’s rare for one to operate so dysfunctionally over five decades while also spawning so many imitators, influencing so many musicians and producing so much memorable music, including such hits as “Teach Your Children” and “Ohio.” Veteran journalist Browne is a senior reporter at Rolling Stone and has written books on the Grateful Dead and the Beatles, among others. It’s clear that he is a huge fan of these guys, which means that he likes them a lot more than they liked each other.
The story begins on Feb. 14, 1968, at Hollywood’s legendary Whisky a Go Go, where the Hollies were playing. At the center of the so-called hippie riots two years earlier, the club often booked grittier acts like the Doors and Frank Zappa, yet here were five young men from Manchester, England, including guitarist and singer Graham Nash, pumping out such frothy tunes as “Bus Stop” and “Look Through Any Window.”
In the audience were Nancy Sinatra, Cass Elliot of the Mamas and Papas, and other pop music royalty, including David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Crosby had just been fired by the Byrds, and Stills wasn’t sure whether his band, Buffalo Springfield, even existed anymore. On the sidewalk after the show, the two musicians waxed eloquent on Nash’s performance and wondered aloud whether he might be the bridge to a new and better band. According to one account of the evening, Crosby said, “Maybe we can steal him.”
It wasn’t long before the three men were touring together and recording for Atlantic Records. But something was missing, which was why Atlantic co-founder and president Ahmet Ertegun suggested that they fill out their sound by bringing in Stills’s old Buffalo Springfield bandmate Neil Young. As with many of their momentous decisions, this one turned out to be both the best and the worst choice: Young’s prolific songwriting and distinctive countertenor gave the band an extra dimension, but his abundant ego added volatility to a group dynamic that was already strained.
Young was a veritable fountain of songs — he wrote “about three of ‘em a day,” Crosby told one concert crowd. And whereas the others, notably Stills, often insisted on having things their way in the studio, Young was a master of persuasion using aw-shucks diplomacy. “Neil has this way of acting like a bumbling kid, awkward and talking in half sentences,” said producer Bill Halverson. “He fumbled his way into tricking them. It was masterful. He knew exactly what he was doing.” Perhaps because he was so successful in his solo career, though, Young never really seemed to belong to the group, sometimes even failing to show up when he was on the bill.
Then there were the drugs, which seemed as ubiquitous as oxygen. Browne describes a jam with the Grateful Dead during which someone put a stash of cocaine in drummer Mickey Hart’s tom-tom. When Hart brought his stick down, the flakes flew up and then fell like snow, with everyone sniffing them on the way down. Crosby came so close to losing his life while freebasing cocaine that the band hired a minder to keep him from overdoing it. This bodyguard had had the same job with John Belushi, who had died of an overdose a few months earlier. “Great reference,” Crosby said when the two men were introduced.
Stills provided Browne with a darkly comedic metaphor that best describes the interactions of the four musicians at the band’s peak. It was “a four-way street,” he recalled, “four horses pulling in different directions. Which is the method they used to use for executions.” Of course, that just led to more songs: “We externalized everything,” Crosby said, and that meant duking it out lyrically. As Browne writes, “one could compile an entire album of the barbed tunes they wrote about each other.”
One of the group’s employees estimates that they broke up eight times during his tenure alone, yet somehow they managed to keep getting back together. And even though Crosby underwent a liver transplant in 1994, all four are active today. Does this mean we’ll see them together onstage again? Nash stated in an interview not long ago that the band was offered $100 million to go on tour. But that’s not going to happen, he said, for one simple reason: “We don’t like each other.”
As Crosby told Browne, though, “It’s always been strange. It never wasn’t strange.” At this point, perhaps the strangest thing of all would be not for these four irascible geniuses to reunite, but for them to fail to.
David Kirby is the author of “Crossroad: Artist, Audience, and the Making of American Music.”
By David Browne
480 pp. $30.