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"We Have All Been Here Before"
Fifty-one years of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Deja Vu
Two early memories of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu predominate.
Every summer growing up, my family and I would head up to Haliburton in Ontario for a week at a cottage. One day, we went to a local chips shop to pick up dinner. Behind the counter was a radio playing and soon, there was the distinct sound of Neil Young singing about a “town in North Ontario” and then the tight harmonies of Young & Co. repeating the word, “Helpless.” For whatever reason, that moment has stuck in my mind for thirty-plus years.
I also remember the first time I heard the title track. It was on a legendary program that ran on Toronto’s Q107 for years and years on Sunday afternoons, Psychedelic Psunday. David Crosby quietly scatted in the background doubled by a guitar and was quickly joined by Dallas Taylor on drums, Stephen Stills on bass and blending on the vocal, Graham Nash. After 25 seconds or so, the jazzy groove paused, Crosby counted everyone back in before a fuller sound emerged and soon after, a swirl of voices. I must have been immediately hooked because I recall the shock when out of nowhere, everything came to a thunderous halt. While the final note rang out, Taylor hit his snare and Crosby sang, “And I…” and then, joined with Nash, “…ffffffffffffffffeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeellllllllllllllllllllll like I’ve been here before,” and the song changed into something entirely different: a slow, ethereal and mysterious representation of the often-eerie and unsettling feeling when we realize a moment we are experiencing may not be the first time we’ve been in that situation.
I remember thinking it was such a nervy thing to do. Start a song one way and then shift in a drastically new direction without warning or expectation. Of course, with any piece of music with a twist or trick, you can never replicate the experience of hearing it for the first time but the memory of that surprise can be replayed and pondered each time you hear it afterwards, such as when listening to the 50th anniversary box set of Deja Vu.
Here, the original LP—included in both remastered vinyl and CD versions—is augmented with three bonus discs: 18 demos, 11 studio outtakes and alternate versions of nine of the 10 tracks that make up Deja Vu—Neil Young’s stunning ‘Country Girl’ suite is the only one that exists solely in its final released version.
Young is the wild card here. While he is only present for half of Deja Vu, the decision to bring him abroad—primarily motivated by the guitar fireworks created by Young and Stephen Stills while they were bandmates in Buffalo Springfield—helps alter the overall feel of the album compared to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s debut. Whereas the latter has almost a hazy feel, Deja Vu is vivid technicolour. Contributing to the fuller, deeper sound is the presence of Greg Reeves on bass and Dallas Taylor on drums.
That Deja Vu is an acknowledged classic seems inevitable when considering that four of the era’s foremost singer-songwriter-musicians are involved.
But, as the liner notes penned by Cameron Crowe make clear as well as recalling the often-tumultuous history of Crosby, Stills, Nash & (sometimes) Young post-Deja Vu, the making of the album was tough. David Crosby’s girlfriend at the time, Christine Hinton, tragically died in a car crash during the sessions, Graham Nash’s relationship with Joni Mitchell slowly chipped away and Stephen Stills’ drive didn’t help things either.
The inner turmoil that engulfed Crosby is clear in his scorching ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ and the title track. Their presence here elevates Deja Vu beyond a tranquil back-to-basic aesthetic that the rustic cover evokes. They also provide striking contrasts to Graham Nash’s two contributions to the record.
‘Teach Your Children’ precedes ‘Almost Cut Your Hair’ and is one of three hit singles from the record. Here the harmonic blend of Crosby, Stills & Nash is heard to full effect—a reminder that the sound their voices jointly created is the reason why they decided to form a band together—and Jerry Garcia’s steel guitar is essential to turning the track into a simply lovely example of country-rock.
Out of the mystery of ‘Deja Vu’ comes ‘Our House,’ easily one the grandest statements of domestic bliss ever committed to tape. Simply put, it’s Graham Nash at his absolute best with Crosby & Stills’ backing vocals adding sweetness and calm. The inclusion of a snippet of Nash singing an early version of the song with his muse at the time, Joni Mitchell, is a priceless addition to the box set.
Following ‘Our House’ is the most intimate recording on the album: ‘4+20.’ Just Stills on vocal and guitar—the only track on the album recorded live from the studio floor without any overdubs or embellishments. It is a tranquil prelude to Neil Young’s grandiose ‘Country Girl’ suite—the most expansive production on Deja Vu, full of tympani, multiple keyboards and four-part harmony, arguably the fullest expression, both musically and vocally, of CSN&Y.
Their version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ is a close second. Here is the guitar firepower generated by Young and Stephen Stills in full effect, but what’s really pushing this recording is the drums of Dallas Taylor, which create a relentless pulse and groove—hear how he sets things up for each of the song’s choruses with a decisive bomb on the snare. Just before things fade out, Taylor kicks it up to an even higher gear—how much longer did the band play? Did Young and Stills duel it out for a few more minutes, or did everyone cut out just seconds after the fade out? The box set offers no answers.
What it does offer is an abundance of demos, studio outtakes and alternate takes that attest to the fact that there were countless songs circulating as potential candidates for the album, and that in selecting the 10 tracks that would comprise Deja Vu, the right choices were made.
Among the highlights of the bonus material are early run-throughs of David Crosby’s ‘Song With No Woods (Tree with No Leaves)’ and' ‘Laughing,’ which would both eventually appear on his solo debut If I Could Only Remember My Name, the only other studio run-through of Stephen Stills’ ‘4+20,’ Graham Nash and Neil Young harmonizing on Young’s ‘Birds’ and a groovy version of Crosby’s ‘The Lee Shore.’
It’s clear that judiciousness has been used in selecting the bonus material and that selectivity ensures that, perhaps unlike other expansive box sets, the listener will give it more than one or two obligatory listens out of pure curiosity.
Today, the idea of having David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young on the same stage—let alone in the same room—is unimaginable for reasons that are well-documented. Deja Vu remains to remind us of what they could collectively create together. As an album as well as the individual tracks that comprise it, it is one of the most pristine artefacts of the singer-songwriter era of the late-60s and early-70s. The sheer quality of the music resulting in the luxury of having four singular talents contributing their unique musical voices makes Deja Vu an album that can continue to be savoured again and again and again and again…
A New Podcast Recommendation: Back in the mid-1960s for rock and pop albums, mono was king and stereo, more often that not, was an afterthought. It was not uncommon for the mono and stereo versions of the same LP to sound different in both obvious and subtle ways. Anyone who went all in and bought the remasters of the Beatles’ catalogue in both mono and stereo can probably rhyme off the ways the mono and stereo versions of Revolver, for example, differ. Similarly, anyone with a decent collection of vintage 45s knows how they often feature hotter, dramatically punchier mixes that what appeared on LP and reissued on CD.
Exploring these fascinating variations drive a podcast that I recently stumbled upon: the very literally named Mixology: The Mono/Stereo Mix Differences Podcast. Each episode goes track-by-track through LPs such as Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends and the Mamas and the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears and points out the many ways—some significant, some slight—their mono and stereo versions differ. Whether it’s a shift in how a track’s layers of sound are mixed or a longer fade-out in mono than in stereo or different elements that are present in stereo and mixed out in mono, this podcast covers it all and makes for deeply addictive listening.