50 Years Ago: Crosby, Stills and Nash Become Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
The genesis of CSN with the added Y came out of the original band’s first record. While Crosby, Stills & Nash was a true masterpiece of harmony and musicianship, the group quickly came to the realization that it would be almost impossible to reproduce live. At the behest of Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun, the band acquiesced to at least considering the idea of bringing Stephen Stills’ old Buffalo Springfield band mate on board so that they could present their material to the public at large.
While it seemed like a good idea from the outside looking in, there was a great deal of trepidation about bringing Young in and it took some doing to make it happen. “It was like lobbing a live grenade into a vacuum,” Graham Nash recalled of the idea in his autobiography, Wild Tales. “Neil was a guy with immense talent who was utterly self-centered. Bands for him were merely stepping-stones, way stations to a personal goal. That’s the way it had gone down with Buffalo Springfield. They could never count on him at crunch time, never be sure he would turn up at gigs.”
David Crosby was on board with the idea, and after a bit of convincing, Stills, who had been burned by Young on numerous occasions in their old group, came around as well, but Nash wasn’t entirely convinced. “Stephen mentioned, 'Maybe we should just get Neil.' I was totally against it. I didn’t want Neil in the band -- I didn’t want anybody else in the band -- and I said as much,” he wrote.
After a bit of cajoling from the other guys and the group's management, Nash finally agreed to at least meet with Young and then see how it felt. “Turns out Neil Young was a funny motherf---er,” Nash recalled. “Now, maybe he understood that I was the group’s lone holdout where he was concerned and he was on his best behavior, but at the end of breakfast I would have nominated him to be the prime minister of Canada. Based on his personality and my intuition, I went back to the guys and said, 'I get it -- he’s in. Let’s give it a shot.'”
As much as CSN wanted Young, there was a significant condition to be met as set by his manager Eliot Roberts. “He’d have to be a Y,” Roberts stated in the book, Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography. Initially the group balked at the thought, but the idea of Young’s involvement was too enticing and thus, CSNY was born.
Rehearsals began shortly thereafter, and what was once a three-headed democracy became more akin to a monarchy with the rest of the band following Young’s lead. “As soon as they started to rehearse, it was clear that Neil was gonna be in charge,” Roberts recalled. “Everyone was afraid of Neil, because Neil walked. When Neil said, ‘F--- you, I’m leaving,’ Neil left.”
The group’s manager David Geffen reportedly negotiated a deal for the band to play their first two shows to take place on Aug.16 at the Auditorium Theater for a then-staggering sum of $100,000. Joni Mitchell, who was at that point was one of music's biggest breakout stars (and Nash's girlfriend), served as their opening act.
CSNY began the night with an all-acoustic first set led off by the Stills-penned ode to girlfriend Judy Collins, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." After the acoustic portion had finished, they strapped on electric guitars and played a charged set, which included some of Young's solo work and a smattering of unreleased songs.
Looking back, Nash was completely satisfied with his band’s coming out party. “The Chicago gig lived up to everyone’s expectations, including ours,” he wrote. “We did three and a half hours: all the stuff on the first album, stuff that would later be on Deja Vu, all of Neil’s songs, some Springfield stuff. And we would talk. A lot. It felt great to finally put it all together and to hear the crowd’s reaction, which was beyond delirious.”
The next day, CSNY found themselves on one of the biggest stages in music history, the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in Bethel, N.Y.