The world described in 4 Way Street: The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Reader, edited by Dave Zimmer (Da Capo Press; $17.95), although of the last third of the 20th century, is seemingly as far removed from today as is the 19th century. Listen to David Crosby in 1970, talking with Ben Fong-Torres for a Rolling Stone interview, on the subject of ticket prices for CSNY: “the last time that I checked on it. . . our top scaling was $6.50. If it is $7.50, I’m sorry it is, ’cause I think it’s outrageous.” That’s like tales of cigarettes for 15 cents a pack and gas for 30 cents a gallon (although the comparative multiplier for concert tickets for an act that has the magnitude that CSNY did then is much greater today).
This is a world where Stephen Stills auditions for becoming one of the Monkees and doesn’t get the gig because he is dentally challenged. He’s asked for a recommendation. He suggests Peter Torkelson. Tork gets the job. Tork gets rich. Stills joins Buffalo Springfield. Tork buys a Laurel Canyon estate. The Monkees end. Tork goes broke. Stills buys the estate.
A world of Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian, Clapton, Ringo, Hendrix, Garcia—when they were at their peak of vitality (and in the case of the last two, still vital)—dropping by to jam.
It’s a world where Crosby gets booted from the Byrds because the ranted about the Warren Commission (!) during the band’s set at Monterey.
A world wherein David Geffen, then a CSNY manager and not yet a bazillionaire, would tell New Musical Express in 1972, “An artist shouldn’t work too much, because the more you’re on the road the less you’re able to be in touch with yourself. We’re more interested in an artist remaining creative than in generating huge fortunes of money.”
A world when CSNY was the American alternative to Blind Faith (i.e., they were the American originals despite the fact that N was from England and Y from Canada; the other group contained a bunch of money-grubbing ponces).
And there is more of this. Much more in the 31 pieces that Zimmer has collected from venues ranging from Creem to Crawdaddy, from Hit Parader to People. There is a patina covering these texts, a certain richness to the coverage, as though they are papers found in an archeological excavation of a temple of yore.
A fundamental sense that grows by going through the pieces is that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were musicians first and foremost, people who were more concerned with and interested in working their craft with consistency, dedication and intensity so that the craft would be elevated to artistry. So far as they were concerned, it wasn’t about personality—although because journalism often relies on controversy to sell the papers, what is often known about the four is that the four-way street was one of repeated head-on collisions—but about performance. The past tense is used here because (1) this is a retrospective collection and (2) it is not clear whether that remains the case for all four of the musicians, as except for Young, the others have essentially dropped from the macro view of the scene. But reading about the band and the individuals who constitute it is a lesson of not only what was, but a cautionary tale for those who can create what could be.