David Gambacorta | Longreads | March 2021 | 15 minutes (4,190 words)
They needed a song, but not just any song. It had to be a throat-clearing, lapel-grabbing, hey-what’s-that-sound number that could open what was shaping up to be one of the most anticipated albums of 1970: the debut of the super group to end all super groups, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “We don’t have that song where you know that a listener will not take that needle off the record,” Graham Nash told Stephen Stills sometime in the fall of 1969, after they’d already labored for countless hours in a recording studio in San Francisco. “We need that song where we’ve got them from the very beginning.”
Nash, a skinny, shaggy former member of the British group The Hollies, and Stills, a soulful, straw-haired survivor of Buffalo Springfield, knew plenty about grabbing listeners by the ear. A year earlier, they’d discovered — at Joni Mitchell’s house in California, maybe, or Cass Elliot’s, no one’s quite sure — that they could create heavenly harmonies with David Crosby, the ex-Byrds singer who wore a droopy mustache, and the amused grin of a man who was in on some cosmic joke. They released an album, Crosby, Stills & Nash, that was filled with instant classics like the soaring “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Then, at the urging of Ahmet Ertegun, the owlish Atlantic Records honcho, the trio turned themselves into a quartet, adding — with some reluctance — Neil Young’s reedy voice, barbed-wire guitar playing, and unpredictability to the mix. After the four of them played in front of 400,000 swaying, stoned people at Woodstock, their own concerts started to take on the feel of what Rolling Stone described as “mini-Woodstocks” that unleashed “effortless good vibes.”
Expectations for their debut album were through the roof. Atlantic reported millions of pre-orders. But the recording process was far from smooth. Crosby was drowning in grief for his girlfriend, Christine Hinton, who’d died in a car crash. Young proved to be only an occasional presence, playing on just half the album’s tracks. Stills worked at a manic pace. Nash was driven to tears, one night, over the widespread dysfunction that threatened to derail the band, which was proving to be highly combustible as a quartet. Oh, and there was too much cocaine.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Then Stills came up with something. He played a jangly, chugging riff for Nash. “He sang me ‘Carry On,’” Nash told me one March afternoon. We spoke over the phone, while Nash sheltered inside his New York City apartment, trying to avoid what was the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. “And I said, ‘That’s it! We’ve got it. If we cook that the way you just sang it to me, we’ve got that opening track where we know that nobody will take the needle off the record after that.”
Sure enough, “Carry On” was the perfect lead track for Déjà Vu, the album they released in March 1970. Fueled by a blend of plaintive acoustic songs, paeans to domesticity, and occasionally snarling guitars, it went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and ultimately sold eight million copies. While this success seemed to announce the arrival of the music industry’s Next Big Thing, other once-harmonious superstar acts were simultaneously cracking under the weight of infighting and simmering resentments, and releasing their final albums together: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, and the Beatles’ Let It Be. Could Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young be to the ‘70s what the Beatles had been to the ‘60s — a musical guidepost for millions of people? For most bands, that would have been an impossible proposition. But a few months after Déjà Vu hit record store shelves, CSNY channeled the horror of the Kent State massacre into a generational anthem, the defiant and urgent single “Ohio,” proving they were more than capable of creating a meaningful dialogue with listeners about the turmoil of their era.
But the band didn’t use this promising start as a stepping stone to a second studio album together; instead, each member started working on solo records. “I had to break away,” Young would later write in his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace. “…The band didn’t break up; it just stopped. It did not regenerate itself. It stopped functioning, like it had a lapse or a heart attack or something. No new songs came forward from anyone.”
Nash was driven to tears, one night, over the widespread dysfunction that threatened to derail the band, which was proving to be highly combustible as a quartet. Oh, and there was too much cocaine.
Three years later, in the spring of 1973, the musicians embarked on the first of what would be multiple attempted reunions, gathering in paradise: the Mala Wharf in Maui, where Young had rented a house. Everyone brought new songs. An easy camaraderie took hold, and with it, a chance to recapture what they had lost so quickly — the ability to create music that was strong enough to overcome the tensions that so easily divided them. They tentatively named their new project Human Highway.
“We all went there and hung out for a week or so, learning the songs and trying to figure out the album,” Nash said. They even posed for a photo that was meant to grace the album cover. It showed four brothers, tanned and bearded, arranged together in front of a blue sky, looking less glum than they did on Déjà Vu. “And then something happened. I’m not even sure what happened now, it was so long ago,” Nash said. “But those plans were shelved, and we went on with the rest of our lives.”
In the months and years that followed, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would take several ill-fated stabs at recording Human Highway. Fans would speculate about the lost project for years, piecing together theoretical track lists from songs that were released sporadically. The story of the album was, in a way, the story of the band — prolific but wholly different talents, drawn to each other’s music, repelled by egos and infighting and drugs, locked in a cycle that would leave them splintered and bitter even now, five decades later, as they approach the sunset of their lives. But in a surprising twist, the member most opposed to reuniting — Neil Young — recently gave the public an intriguing glimpse of what Human Highway could have been, and rekindled his ex-bandmates’ interest in seeing the project find some sort of late-stage redemption.
Well, there’s one thing to try
Music gets you high
—Graham Nash, “And So It Goes”
The idyllic Maui brainstorming sessions were, unfortunately, a template for how the band would operate for years to come, with so many embers of magic stamped out, in a huff, by one member or another. Nash, in his memoir Wild Tales, recalled that “some business, some cocaine thing, went down, and suddenly we weren’t talking to each other.” But within a few months, the band was back on good terms, and gathered at Young’s sprawling Broken Arrow Ranch in Redwood City, California, to tackle their new material.
“Human Highway” was the work of Young, in full rustic-troubadour mode, and sounded like another potential CSNY classic when they debuted it during an impromptu live performance later in 1973. Stills had “See the Changes,” an airy song about maturity that was well suited for the band’s lush harmonies. Nash, meanwhile, offered a handful of songs that were several shades darker than what he’d contributed to Déjà Vu: “And So It Goes,” “Wind on the Water,” and “Prison Song,” which railed against criminal justice policies that unfairly punished the poor. Crosby had written “Carry Me,” a tribute to his recently deceased mother, and the meditative “Time After Time.” “We had great songs. It was going to be a great album,” Nash told me. “We had a great title. Human Highway? Are you kidding me? That’s fabulous.”
The idyllic Maui brainstorming sessions were, unfortunately, a template for how the band would operate for years to come, with so many embers of magic stamped out, in a huff, by one member or another.
During the three years that followed Déjà Vu, each of the four musicians had released solo albums — in Young’s case, two of his most critically lauded, After the Gold Rush and Harvest — that proved they could thrive on their own. But there was no denying that a group project still held some allure. Young later wrote with surprising fondness about how he viewed his sometime collaborators: Crosby was the catalyst who pushed everyone further; Nash, the consummate professional who wrote the group’s most recognizable songs; while Stills was Young’s conflicted “brother.”
Yet work on the ranch proved slow. “That studio is like a log cabin,” said drummer Johny Barbata, who’d played with the band on 4 Way Street, a live album released in 1971. “We were in there, and it was a really cool environment, but I don’t remember getting much done.” Barbata had seen how easily things could go south between the band’s four stars. He recalls one concert performance being interrupted, mid-show, by a backstage argument between Nash and Stills over the number of songs Stills had played during an acoustic set. “Boy, Graham was on him,” Barbata said, “and Stephen was bending a beer can in his hand.”
There is a certain amount of romance and mystery associated with the idea of a lost album, a sense that an artist’s career might have turned out differently if they had completed a passion project that eluded their grasp. But in his book Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup, author David Browne described the rehearsals at Young’s ranch as dysfunctional and uninspired, with Stills sleeping all day while his bandmates were preoccupied by televised footage of the Watergate hearings that would presage the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the villain of “Ohio.”
“I showed up to play . . . and one day we stopped playing. I just don’t know,” Stills explained to journalist Cameron Crowe in 1974. “I don’t want to talk about how incredibly famous we are or how we could set the world on fire if we got back together. I want to play. I want to sing. I want to make good records. And if that doesn’t happen, I’m gone.” The musicians had managed to overcome multiple stumbling blocks during the recording sessions for Déjà Vu, and emerged on the other side with a cultural touchstone and enduring songs: “Teach Your Children,” “Helpless,” “Our House.” That success now seemed like a rare moment of creative symbiosis they couldn’t repeat, even with material that was worth the effort. “But this band has never played by the rules of any band that I know of,” Nash told me. “It’s always been a little strange. It’s always been a little weird.”
Highway had derailed. “It’s the Smile of the seventies,” Browne said, invoking Brian Wilson’s mythical 1960s masterpiece, which sat unfinished for decades. “They were at a point in their career where their singing was still strong. There was a lot of indulgence going on, but their singing was still strong. They hadn’t blown their voices out in ‘73 or ‘74. They were still at the top of their game. It would’ve been a more mature, wiser, beaten up Déjà Vu. And so yeah, you’re kind of reminded all over again, what a missed opportunity.”
But they didn’t stay away from each other for long. In 1974, they were lured back together by a massive stadium tour that promised to generate record-setting sums of money for them, creating a template for rock star excess — fancy hotel rooms, lavish amounts of food and drugs, too many groupies to count — along the way. The band rehearsed on Young’s ranch, where they recorded several demos, including a Young song, “Through My Sails,” that he would release in 1975 on Zuma, an album he recorded with the band Crazy Horse. Only two minutes and forty seconds long, the song is light and breezy — just an acoustic guitar and a soft beat, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s sweet harmonies effortlessly lifting Young’s verses into the sublime, a reminder of how good they could sound once they cut through the bullshit.
In 1974, they were lured back together by a massive stadium tour that promised to generate record-setting sums of money for them, creating a template for rock star excess — fancy hotel rooms, lavish amounts of food and drugs, too many groupies to count — along the way.
“We are such different people and we write so differently that it gives us what I like to call a much wider palette out of which to paint the album, much more than most people have,” Crosby wrote, years later, in his autobiography Long Time Gone. (He declined to be interviewed for this story; Stills couldn’t be reached.) Barbata observed a degree of competition, too. “Stephen and Neil were great writing partners, like Lennon and McCartney, kind of trying to write better songs than the other guy,” he told me. “Crosby and Nash were like buddies together.”
The ’74 tour afforded them a chance to air out some potential Human Highway material— Crosby’s “Time After Time” and “Carry Me,” Young’s rumbling rocker “Pushed It Over The End,” Stills’ Santana-esque “My Angel”— and after the tour ended, the band gathered at Nash’s house, in San Francisco, to try to resurrect the album in his basement studio. Instead, they bickered like petulant school kids. Stills and Nash argued about a vocal part, and then Stills used a razor to slice up one of Nash’s demo tapes. Nash responded by kicking Stills out of his house. “The pressure for that group [CSNY] to happen again is a destructive force on us all,” Stills would complain years later.
Over-the-top feuds are a staple of the rock band archetype, but most successful groups find a way to tolerate each other long enough to get down to business. “With these guys,” Browne said, “things would just blow up and end.” The quartet attempted to continue on at the Record Plant, where they worked on a Crosby song, “Homeward Through the Haze,” which built to a chorus about “the blind leading the blind.” This effort soon ended with Young abandoning the sessions, without offering his bandmates an explanation. Crosby later summed things up with deadpan understatement: “We always had a fair amount of conflict between us.” But they weren’t done with each other yet.
We’re running in rhyme
In a slow easy climb
Up the road that’ll we run together
—David Crosby, “Time After Time”
Crosby and Nash discovered they could have a smoother time performing as a duo, playing theaters instead of stadiums, and recorded a pair of melodic albums in the mid-70s — Wind on the Water and Whistling Down the Wire — that became a home for some of the songs they’d meant for Human Highway. CSNY was firmly in their rearview mirror.
Then Stills called drummer Joe Vitale in 1976, inviting him to Criteria Studios in Florida. “He said, “Hey, I have two surprises. We’re gonna start a Crosby, Stills, and Nash record,’” Vitale told me. “And I said, ‘That’s really amazing. What’s the second surprise?’ And he said, ‘Neil’s coming.’ And I said, ‘Oh my God.’”
Stills and Young had planned only to record an album’s worth of songs together. But when the bulk of the project was in the can, Young paid a visit to an old friend on the West Coast. Nash remembers being contacted by Young, “and he said that he was working in Miami with Stephen, and wouldn’t David and I be interested in going down and singing on some of the songs? And he sent us some of the songs, and they were great songs — ‘Midnight on the Bay,’ and stuff like that. And so we went and spent about two weeks putting vocals onto all of the tracks.”
We count on member support to bring you thought-provoking essays. Please consider a one-time, or — better yet — a recurring annual or monthly contribution. Every dollar counts!
Crosby and Nash added their rich harmonies to one song after another — “Ocean Girl,” “Midnight on the Bay,” “Long May You Run,” even “Human Highway”— and the record unmistakably became a CSNY reunion. Vitale wistfully recalled a memory from those sessions: watching Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sit with their guitars in a circle, separated by just a few feet, as they recorded live, the years and any past grudges melting away. “It was the blend of their voices,” he said. “It was just unbelievable how good they were.”
Outside the walls of Criteria Studios, Americans’ taste in music was undergoing a shift. Disco songs like “Boogie Fever” and “Love Machine” were starting to occupy a noticeable amount of pop chart real estate. But there was still an appetite for CSNY and other artists who mined similar veins of pop and folk-rock — Linda Ronstadt , James Taylor, the Eagles, and a legion of imitators.
The promise of more success, and a batch of strong songs, should have been enough to persuade the band to get the project to the finish line. “It’s usually the songs that bring us together. Because if Stephen has four and Neil has four and David has four and I have four songs, we’ve all got a project to work on, and we’ll get it done,” Nash said. “So it usually comes down to, the songs drive our relationship in many ways.”
Yet the cooperative atmosphere once again soured. As Nash tells it, he and Crosby were due back in Los Angeles, to finish Whistling Down the Wire. When they explained that they had to leave, the reunion came to a screeching halt. Stills and Young were committed to a looming tour, and needed the album of songs they were recording in Florida to be ready; they couldn’t wait for the other two to return. The news apparently rankled Young. The musicians had been staying in Miami, at the appropriately-named Mutiny Hotel. Nash, who described the hotel as “seventeen floors of cocaine dealers,” learned from an employee that Young had checked out abruptly and headed back to California.
In what could only be read as a spiteful move, Young stripped Nash’s and Crosby’s vocals off the songs they’d recorded, and released the tracks on an album called The Stills-Young Band. “I never should have erased that,” Young would later tell an interviewer. “But I thought I was doing the right thing at the right time.”
Nash still puzzles over it. “And to this day, I still have no idea whether they actually wiped me and David’s tracks, or whether they were smart enough to make a 16-track copy of that and then do overdubs to the copy,” he said. “So I still don’t know where any of those vocal tracks went to. I do have rough mixes that were made on the last couple of days that we were there, and they sound fabulous to me.” When we spoke in the spring, Nash had no way of knowing that the mystery surrounding those missing vocals would be resolved months later — 44 years after things had ended so badly in Florida.
The quartet made no other attempt to complete the studio album they first started toying with in 1973. “We tried to put it together with Neil, but it wasn’t happening. Let’s be diplomatic and say that it was a conflict between me and Stephen or me and Nash and Stephen,” Crosby would later explain. “For whatever reason, it didn’t work. The rapport between us did not transcend our personal problems. … We have traditionally gotten too drunk or too loaded or too high or too screwed up to keep our shit together.”
But CSNY’s on-again, off-again relationship soon became the least of Crosby’s problems. While getting high had been as much a staple of his life during the ‘60s and ‘70s as writing and singing songs, the 1980s found him consumed by even more dangerous addictions: he freebased cocaine, then began using heroin. To Nash and Stills, Crosby became a friend they couldn’t reach, and a partner upon whom they couldn’t rely. “I would take my life’s steering wheel and turn it to the right and my life would veer sharply to the left,” Crosby would later recall. He was arrested on multiple occasions, and ultimately did time in a Texas state prison. Young made a public promise that was intended to lure his old bandmate out of the darkness: If Crosby could get clean, Young would commit to a CSNY reunion.
To Young’s credit, he made good on his vow. In 1986, CSNY played together at a charity concert, and then began working on a studio album, American Dream, which was released in 1988. It sold well, but found the band trapped in glossy ‘80s production, with little of the yearning or magic that flowed so freely from Déjà Vu. Eleven years later, CSNY recorded another surprise reunion album, Looking Forward. On songs like Young’s tender “Slowpoke,” Crosby, Stills, and Nash added harmonies that came close to approximating the sweet sound of their youth. But they were not the same band anymore, not really. “They were a little bit more careful than they were in the ‘70s,” said Vitale, who played on both reunion albums. “They were wonderfully loose about stuff back then — ‘Let’s try this, let’s try that!’ In the ‘80s, it was more like, ‘Well, I never do that.’ By 1999, it was, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do it like that.’ But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of magic on American Dream or Looking Forward.”
In 2000, CSNY launched the first of several lucrative reunion tours that saw them play their old hits to arenas full of fans. Drummer Jim Keltner was part of the touring band that year. “When I played with all four of them together, you could plainly see that they deferred to Neil a lot. Neil is a very strong personality. And musically, he’s kind of the opposite of the CSN thing,” Keltner told me. “Even though he and Stills were very close, they were completely different kinds of people. But when the four of them did come together, they did make extraordinary music.”
The new century could’ve marked the beginning of a rosier chapter in CSNY’s story. Against long odds, they’d managed to survive the meat grinder of rock stardom. “We have been through a lot together: the Summer of Love, hell, distrust, and hurt,” Young wrote in his memoir. “When we play now, our audience still feels it, like a candle that is flickering, like a sun that is setting. A fog is rolling in.” But an even uglier clash was lurking down the road, one that would drive them away from each other, perhaps for good.
All the good times
Getting harder to come by without weeping
— Stephen Stills, “See the Changes”
Plenty of aging rockers have seized on a reliable formula in recent years: If they can’t put the old band back together to make new music, they can raid their vaults for forgotten demos and alternate takes, and peddle beefed up anniversary editions of iconic albums. When the 50th anniversary of Déjà Vu arrived last March, though, CSNY didn’t bother to acknowledge the historic moment with any kind of celebratory rerelease — a reflection, perhaps, of the miserable state of relations between the band.
This time, Crosby was the instigator. During a 2014 interview, he declared that Young had made a mistake by divorcing his wife, Pegi, and beginning a relationship with actress Daryl Hannah. “I happen to know that he’s hanging out with somebody that’s a purely poisonous predator now. And that’s karma. He’s gonna get hurt,” Crosby said.
The blowback was immediate. “He tore the heart out of CSN and CSNY in the space of a few months,” Nash told one interviewer, adding that he’d written a song for Crosby called “Encore,” that wondered if his old friend was really a decent person offstage, or a “fucking asshole.” Young, who once claimed that he couldn’t have asked for a better friend than Crosby, swore off ever reforming CSNY. Crosby apologized publicly, and occasionally pined on social media for the band to reunite, particularly amid the civil and political unrest that shook the U.S. throughout 2020. His pleas were ignored. “I still have friends, but all the main guys that I made music with won’t even talk to me,” he admitted in David Crosby: Remember My Name, a Cameron Crowe- produced documentary. “One of them hating my guts could be an accident. But [Roger] McGuinn, [Graham] Nash, Neil [Young], and Stephen [Stills] all really dislike me, strongly.”
Crosby apologized publicly, and occasionally pined on social media for the band to reunite, particularly amid the civil and political unrest that shook the U.S. throughout 2020. His pleas were ignored.
I asked Nash in the spring if he still speaks to his ex-bandmates; the pandemic, after all, has provided a relentlessly grim reminder that none of us has unlimited tomorrow to get our relationships in order. “I’ve been in touch with Stephen and Neil,” he told me, “but not David.” Keltner is struck by the sadness of this split, which, unlike prior ones, seems permanent. “I really like David a lot. I don’t like that he and Neil are not talking,” he said. “It’s not surprising. David speaks his mind. And he should’ve chosen his words more carefully. I don’t blame Neil. That’s too bad. Because I hate to see that in any situation.”
Nash insisted he doesn’t spend too much time looking back. “I just deal with now. What am I doing now,” he told me. “Because all the stuff that we’ve done in our past, some of it, you know, 50, almost 55 years old stuff. It’s past. It’s gone. We did really well. We were a fabulous rock ‘n’ roll band. That’s why I spent several years of my life putting that CSNY box set together, from our 1974 stadium tour. I wanted people to know we were four strong writers, four strong musicians. And we were on top of the world.”
But the past has a funny way of resurfacing. Remember those Crosby and Nash vocals that Young infamously erased from their 1976 sessions in Florida? Vitale, the drummer, told me no such thing happened. “They did not erase those vocals,” he said. “Especially Neil — Neil is such an archivist.” Vitale was proven right a few months after we talked. On November 20, Young released a massive collection of archived material — 139 tracks that he’d recorded between 1972 and 1976. Included in this trove, with little fanfare, were full CSNY recordings of “Midnight on the Bay,” “Ocean Girl,” “Long May You Run,” and two versions of “Human Highway,” one from 1973, another from 1976.
The sound of “Highway” is crisp and arresting, four voices rising and falling together like a ship on the open sea, buoyed by a plucky acoustic guitar and a simple tale of a person trying to make sense of a puzzling world. “I come down from the misty mountain. I got lost on the Human Highway,” they sang. “Take my head and change my mind. How could people get so unkind?”
These newly unearthed tracks caught the attention of Young’s ex-bandmates. Crosby, on Twitter, endorsed the idea of reconstructing the lost album. Stills — who maintains the quietest media presence of CSNY — got in on the act, too, sharing black and white photos on Twitter and Instagram of the band at Young’s ranch in 1973. One photo was hashtagged: #HumanHighway #ItsNeverTooLate.
Whether this chatter will lead to something concrete remains to be seen. For now, the only CSNY project on the horizon is a belated deluxe reissue of Déjà Vu, hastily assembled after the album’s anniversary passed.
That the group is still divided, its members still prone to fighting and hurting one another, is a sad but perhaps fitting coda. The trappings of rock stardom — the money, the excesses, the ability to create something that endures — weren’t enough to hold them together even at their creative peak in the 1970s. Human Highway was the clearest distillation of what made the band so fascinating, and so frustrating.
“We had a golden time, and then we lost our way,” Young once wrote about the band. “Be great or be gone.”
David Gambacorta is a writer at large at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s also written for Esquire, The Ringer and Politico Magazine.
Editor: Aaron Gilbreath
Fact checker: Lisa Whittington-Hill