CSNY's FIRST GATHERING

from Alison Martino's 'Vintage Los Angeles'

Wednesday, February 14, 1968:

The lines formed around the corner of Sunset and Clark hours before showtime. Hundreds of fans chose to spend a chilly Valentine’s night outside the club that billed itself as ‘Hollywood’s a Go Go’. They watched as a procession of celebrities slipped through the Whisky’s narrow doorway, their numbers swelled by scenemakers and teen columnists. Finally, the less privileged were allowed to squeeze inside and gawp at the elite melee. The go-go dancers strutted in their cage above the dancefloor, while the booths hummed with insider know-how and indiscreet gossip. So intense was the crush that stars spilled out of the peacock-fan sofas onto the floor, attempting to maintain their air of distinction beneath the flashing light show while open-mouthed girls nudged each other in disbelief.

Mid-song, the DJ faded down his record and the lights flickered into darkness. Then a single spotlight on the stage illuminated the face of one of America’s most recognisable pop idols, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees. For a few seconds, he held his practised smile, before gesturing over his shoulder and uttering the briefest of introductions: ‘Everybody – here’s The Hollies’. And after that the collective attention of the Whisky a Go Go – insiders and voyeurs, icons and the idol-struck, Brian Wilson, Sonny and Cher, Marvin Gaye and sundry Animals, Monkees and Byrds – was focused on five sharply-dressed young Englishmen. For more than 90 minutes, the quintet reeled off an unfeasibly slick set of their own gemlike pop hits, separated by impromptu comedy skits, covers of American folk-rock favourites, and break-in fragments of Top 40 standards – ‘Teddy Bear’, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, John Sebastian’s ‘Daydream’. Steel drums and startling orchestral interventions, taped specially for the show, were skilfully blended into the Englishmen’s live instrumentation.

In a booth, Cass Elliot of The Mamas & The Papas, who had taken The Hollies under her wing on their first West Coast trip two years earlier, beamed with passionate pride, while alongside her, record producer Lou Adler and ex-Byrd David Crosby exuded a refined blend of hip and exhilaration. Standing a few feet away was another of the same elevated breed, Buffalo Springfield leader Stephen Stills. He recalled that he and Crosby ‘were there as the kind of unofficial cheerleaders. We got up and yelled and screamed at them because we knew they were so great.’ After the encores – riotous revivals of Peter, Paul & Mary’s ‘Very Last Day’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ – The Hollies stumbled offstage to frenzied demands for more, from notables and unknowns alike. Then Stills, Crosby, Elliot and friends headed for the dressing-room, to hurl their congratulations at the band. Four of the English quartet were already clamouring for alcoholic refreshment away from the crowd. But not the fifth: as The Hollies’ unofficial leader, Graham Nash, told Dave Zimmer, ‘I wanted to go hang with David and Stephen and get wasted!’ The three musicians, united in their partiality for pleasure and sublime vocal harmonies, headed across the street to Stills’ car. Behind in the Whisky they left Mama Cass, who had facilitated the vital introductions that brought the three men together; and Stills’ bandmate and sometime sparring-partner, Neil Young, who slipped away from the venue with practised, anonymous ease.

For two hours, those four men – David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young – had shared the same room for the first time. But it was merely a trio who giggled their way back to Stills’ house, where they lost themselves in Crosby’s famously exquisite and always-at-the-ready joints and added their voices in chorus over some of the era’s most creative records. ‘It sounded nice’, Nash remembered vaguely a year later; and so potent was the chemical accompaniment to this encounter, and countless more to follow, that none of the participants was clear exactly what happened next, or where, or with whom; precisely how that ecstatic post-gig celebration triggered personal and musical upheaval, joyous communion, and – once Neil Young had been enticed back into their company – a lifelong cycle of musical fulfilment, frustration and fragmentation. All that was certain for now was that these three would meet again, and create a sound that was both stylistically and geographically far-flung – and yet quintessentially Californian.