Peter Doggett tells Steve Scott about the creation of his CSNY biography
Q: Why did you want to write a book about Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young?
A: The obvious answer is that I’ve been obsessed with them, and their music, for more decades than I care to remember. I’m a bit old to have a ‘favourite’ band, in that teenage way. But I’ve definitely spent more time listening to the music of CSNY, in all their individual and collaborative permutations, than to anyone or anything else since I was a teenager.
That doesn’t make me an uncritical observer of them or their work. There’s a good reason why one of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s hit singles was called ‘Wasted on the Way’, as their career is a saga of missed opportunities as well as creative inspiration.
Q: Were there times when, as a fan, you lost faith in them, as people and musicians?
A: Absolutely – in the 80s, most of all, when each of them seemed to lose sight of who they were and what they were best equipped to do. Leaving aside David Crosby’s perilous adventures with cocaine, CSNY also struggled for many years with the need to sound ‘modern’. Some of the records they made during that period – I’m thinking of the CSN album Live It Up, of Graham Nash’s Innocent Eyes and Neil Young’s Landing on Water – were a total embarassment. But I never lost interest in them, as people or as artists. There was this constant sense that if only circumstances were slightly different, they could produce great work again, and to an extent those hopes were eventually fulfilled.
Beyond the music, which has the power to touch me on a deep emotional level, I got sucked into the psychodrama of their lives, and their eternally combustible personal relationships. In a way, I suppose that’s a negative reflection of them as artists, because their work should have been enough to transcend their lives. And it can also be taken as an indictment of me as a fan, because there’s a sense in which it’s very immature, as an adult, to be so compelled by watching celebrities at war with each other. But, for good or bad, I couldn’t take my eyes off the dramas that surrounded them – especially when it seemed likely that David Crosby was about to die at any moment. The more fragile his day-to-day existence seemed to be, the more precious his music became, in my life at least. Once you open yourself to that kind of passion for someone’s music, then it becomes part of the texture of your own life – a way of understanding your own situation, or escaping from it, or simply waking up in the morning with a smile on your face. Hearing CSN sing together does it for me every time – though it helps when they sing in tune, which wasn’t always the case!
Q: What will people get from your book that they won’t already know?
A: The basic details of their career are well known: CSN issued their first album in 1969, recruited Neil Young, appeared at Woodstock, released a CSNY album in 1970 – and then, as they were always going to, given the personalities involved, they fell apart. That part of the story is written in stone. Even so, some really obvious facts have never been established before, such as the first time that CSNY all shared the same room together, so I was happy to get that straight.
That’s only the skeleton, however. What fascinated me was that despite the fact that Crosby, Nash and Young have all written autobiographies, and countless other people have chronicled their careers and their era, the actual story of CSNY had never been told. I wanted to write a book that would sweep away all of the mythology that has grown up around them, and get back to the absolute basics: the four individuals that make up the band. That’s why I go out of my way to portray Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as living people, rather than rock stars, and to chronicle their development in both psychological and artistic terms.
What was unique about CSNY in the late 1960s was that the band was a combination of four talents who had already matured – well, I say ‘matured’, but their behaviour didn’t always seem very mature! I mean that they had developed as individual creative artists, before they ever worked together. Most successful bands start as teenagers, more or less, and grow up together. CSNY had already grown – and grown out of the bands with whom they first found success. So their task was to see whether it was possible for four arrogant, wilful, driven, articulate and creative individuals to exist and prosper within a single unit. That’s the central drama of the book. You meet these four guys in all their flawed magnificence, and then watch them inspiring and infuriating each other to the point where they create something utterly magical – and they can no longer stand to be in the same room as each other.
Q: The book is very detailed, on an almost day-by-day basis. At times it was like being in the room with CSNY.
A: That’s certainly true for the two years between CSN first singing together in 1968, and CSNY’s collapse as a functioning band in 1970. During that period, which occupies more than half of the book, you can see three men create a vision of musical and almost domestic happiness, and then watch that dream corrode and die. Along the way, decisions that must have seemed unimportant at the time – and probably weren’t even thought about – end up having a catastrophic effect on the ultimate fate of the band. There was a lifetime of artistic achievement and personal drama compressed into those two years, and I wanted the reader to feel as if they were almost in the room with the band, experiencing all the ecstatic highs and the tragic lows along with them.
Q: Do you think it was inevitable that CSNY would fall to pieces so quickly?
A: Given the personalities involved, and the pressures they were under, I think that it was. They could only have carried on in 1970 or in 1974 if they were different people. As it was, there were too many giant egos squashed into the same band, and that was never going to be a recipe for stability.
Q: As I was reading, my sympathies kept veering from one band member to another. For much of the story, it seemed as if Stephen Stills was incredibly difficult for the others to work with, but you also seemed to have great sympathy for the way the rest of the band treated him.
A: I think both halves of that statement are true. In fact, I’d go further and say that, in their different ways, all four members of CSNY could be difficult to work with – though Graham Nash had much more patience, and diplomacy, than the rest. Without him, there would have been much less CSN music made over the past 50 years – and he was the one who wrote ‘Wasted on the Way’, to capture his own frustration at the band’s internal conflict.
Q: But Crosby and Stills weren’t quite such obvious diplomats . . .
A: Understatement of the year! You can see from the book that Crosby was always a natural rebel, who resisted any kind of authority. I’ve always been fascinated by the chasm between the way he acted in the Byrds and in CSNY, and the transcendent power of his music. He has written many of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in my life, but his attitude to his fellow band members was often anything but beautiful, or transcendent.
Meanwhile, as Stephen Stills explained to me, he was brought up in a situation where he was trained to be a leader, but was often subject at home to what sounded to me like emotional bullying. As he told me, that will leave its mark, and he carried that sense of confusion with him into CSN and CSNY. If you try to combine a natural rebel and a natural leader in the same unit, it’s bound to end in chaos.
Q: Neil Young seemed to have a much more passive attitude to the band, stepping away whenever the situation became uncomfortable. Yet by the end of the book, he is the one with all the power.
A: That’s right. There’s a total shift of power between Stills and Young – and yet nobody seemed to notice it happening, least of all Stills, who assumed that he would always be the dominant force in the band. You mentioned my sympathy for Stills, and you’re right. He must have been an incredibly difficult person to collaborate with, yet at the same time he was so talented, on so many different levels, that he had won the right to shape the band’s vision. Without Stills’ energy, and his songs, there never would have been a CSN or a CSNY for Neil Young to take control of.
Q: Where did Crosby and Nash fit into this power-play?
A: Beyond anything else, they very quickly formed a partnership, a creative bond, which meant that Stills became something of an outsider in his own band. You can see as the story unfolds that they found Young much easier to work with, especially on their 1970 tour, than Stills, and there was even a moment when the three of them almost decided to work as Crosby, Nash and Young, because their relationship with Stills had become so fragile.
Q: I couldn’t help wondering whether Young had deliberately set out to take control of the band, or whether it just happened.
A: I think everyone who reads the book will have to make up their own minds about that. I don’t imagine for a moment than when he joined CSN, he had any plans to dominate them in the future. He just saw an opportunity to make interesting music and – he was quite blatant about this – to boost his own profile.
Q: At the end of the book, you add a fascinating Coda about memory, and how that affected the way you wrote the book.
A: One of the advantages of having been a music journalist since 1980 is that I had accumulated a vast archive of interview material related to the CSNY story. I’ve never interviewed Neil Young, but I’ve been fortunate enough to talk with Crosby, Stills and Nash, together and individually, on many occasions over the past three decades. Plus I’ve spoken to many of the most important people in CSNY’s creative lives – their original drummer, Dallas Taylor; the man who signed them to Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun; close musical friends, such as Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Bob Weir and Paul Kantner; their archivist, photographer and artistic collaborator, Joel Bernstein; and their cohorts from the Hollies, the Byrds and Crazy Horse, to name but a few. All of that material obviously went into the pot.
But there’s something else I’ve gathered from several decades of journalism, which is that the human memory is fragile and often unreliable. That doesn’t apply just to rock stars, although some of their more excessive personal habits don’t help! It goes for all of us, however much we don’t like to admit it. Every one of us starts to misremember the events of our lives almost as soon as they’ve happened – not on purpose, but because that’s how our brains work. And that process speeds up as we get older and further away from what we’re talking about.
I didn’t want to write a book that was entirely filled with people trying to remember what happened half a century ago, and getting the story wrong. All the way through, I balanced my interview material against what I discovered in the archives. I unearthed thousands of contemporary press reports and interviews relating to the CSNY story, most of which had lain forgotten since they were first published, and hundreds of hours of unreleased music. That featured not only the band members, of course, but also their wives and girlfriends - and even in some cases their parents. All the best of that material is in the book, and I hope that even diehard fans will find themselves saying, ‘I didn’t know that’, on almost every page.
Q: What would CSNY themselves think if they read your book?
A: I’m sure they would find some of it uncomfortable reading. After all, who wouldn’t feel uncomfortable being reminded of mistakes they’ve made in the past? But I hope that they would appreciate that my book has been written by someone who loves their music – and who has done his best to remain scrupulously fair and accurate in telling their story.
Q: Finally, do you think there will be a CSNY reunion?
A: While all four men are still alive, I would never rule it out. Yes, there are major personal issues to overcome at the moment, but goodness knows they’ve got past similar issues many times in the past. But to be quite honest, I would rather they looked to the future than lived in the past, and if that means working apart rather than together, that’s fine by me. CSNY should never be something that happens because it’s an opportunity for people to make money: it should only happen when the four participants have new music that needs CSNY to bring it to life. But, of course, large amounts of money are very difficult to turn down.
Peter Doggett (vintage sweater) and David Crosby (new suit) in London, 1989.