Book Review: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young – The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup by David Browne

If you’re a fan of the dynamic rock group Crosby, Still, and Nash, or its sometimes line-up that included fellow icon Neil Young (CSNY), then you’ll be interested in the thorough, detailed book about the famed quartet by music historian David Browne. The book delves into significant detail about the band’s experiences and exploits from the stage of formation through recent years. The subjects of the book are sometimes endearing, sometimes frustrating, but always intriguing. While it goes into more depth than the average “fan” reader might want, Browne’s book gives a definitive look at the 20th century American rock supergroup.

One of the most important elements of the book is realizing the varying dynamics between the group members. By most accounts, David Crosby was the affable and charming cohesion to the group. Stephen Stills was the business-like worker who brought intense long-hour sessions to the studio to achieve his idea of perfection. The amiable Graham Nash brought UK-based folk bonafides to the group and provided a songwriting catalyst to the others. While Neil Young came in a bit later, his larger-than-life persona and songwriting prowess changed the group’s dynamic. Young provided some of the fodder for CSNY moving from a major rock act to a generation-defining sound.

Of course the group had big hits like “Marrakesh Express,” “Teach Your Children,” “Ohio,” and “Helplessly Hoping” just to name a few. But one of the great aspects of Browne’s book is that there’s an exploration of many of the songs that didn’t quite make it into stardom. Browne tells the background on songs that including backbiting comments between the band members, who fought over everything from money to women to ego. As the band members argued over the image of the band, the sound and style of their music, and the overall place in the music industry, the storyline followed an intriguing chronology.

The book is organized into chronological chapters that focus in on the important stages in the life of the band. The early years were full of inspiring stories of band members writing for hours, exploring unique sounds, and bringing their stardom from earlier bands into their own sound. The term “supergroup” is appropriate for this band, literally uniting forces of successful songwriters from a number of different bands. Of course with that kind of prior success, each member had to work to cooperate with CSNY.

The book tells the tragic story of Crosby’s life. He experienced a horrifying loss of a loved one early in his career which seems to have launched him into a life of substance abuse. Of course that background combined with the success of a mid-20th century rock star meant considerable temptation for the quintessential “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” experience. It ended up putting Crosby in the hospital several times and prison for a bit. Browne’s chapter on the early 90s is almost entirely filled with stories of how Crosby’s well-numbed 80s had caught up with him.

For a band with so many successes, the book was a surprisingly sad read. It was not nearly as much about the iconic appearance at Woodstock or the stories of writing some of America’s favorite folk rock tunes. Instead much of the book explored the backbiting, lawsuits, and overall angst that the band members had for one another. Of course the undercurrent of the book is that although these talented artists had conflicted, often fraternal relationships, they did ultimately need one another. Crosby’s partying needed Stills’ hard work. Stills’ workaholism needed Crosby’s fun and Nash’s folksy charm. Nash’s calmness needed the energy of Stills’ rock. They all, of course, needed the mystery and genius of Neil Young to disrupt and at times provoke them to make better art. It’s ultimately the story of one big dysfunctional musical family of brothers.

This book is for historians of rock music certainly. It would be welcome in any collection of rock music fans, especially those with a focus on the greats from the 60s and 70s. The book does not work well for a “general reading” book as it is far too deep at 418 pages for a quick skim read. However, serious fans of CSNY or the counterculture movement of the 1960s will enjoy the tour, studio, and “real life” stories of this truly iconic American folk rock supergroup.

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