Tuesday, November 10, 2015

DVD Review: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Fifty By Four: Half a Century of CSNY

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Fifty By Four: Half a Century of CSNY
Executive Producers: Rob Johnstone
Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Pride Films / Chrome Dreams Media
165 minutes, 2013 / 2014

I was wondering what should be the next DVD I would review. There is a backlog, so I have quite a few from which to choose. While out at the supermarket, as I pondered, weak and weary over a quaint and curious walking through the door, while I nodded, even though shopping, suddenly there came a sound over the PA. It was “Our House,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash (CSN). I took that as a signal that Fifty By Four was next. I had avoided it, honestly more due to its length of nearly three hours, so I decided to delve in and review that, and then watch it…er…nevermore.

Growing up, with the possible exception of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Ohio,” CSNand/orY were pretty peripheral to me, even though they were one of my older brother’s favorites. By the time the late 1960s came around, I had essentially stopped listening to the radio much, and focused more on film and television for entertainment. When they reunited on Live Aid in 1985, their set had some wincingly off-key harmonies. It wasn’t until the Ramones came along that I was lulled back into music. The catalog of CSNY was not really on my menu then either, as the punk revolution took me over. It wasn’t until someone gave me a CSN/CSNY Greatest Hits CD during the late 1990s that I started to enjoy more of their material, though a lot of it still leaves me scratching my head. And now, here we are.

Chrome Dreams (and their subsidiaries, such as Sexy Intellectual, Prism, and Pride) is a British company that does extremely detailed histories of both British and American bands or singers, including Clapton, Dylan, Zappa, the Stones and the Beatles. I have seen a few Neil Young bios by them before, and even reviewed a couple, but this is the first one I’ve seen for the whole megillah (though I know there are others from them).

CSNY fans tend to run towards the rabid, much like the Dead’s, so there is a question of who is going to watch this. For the die-hard fan, at least the first 2 hours are probably not going to be anything you don’t already know. If you’re more of a casual fan and are into music history, such as me, well, this is ideal (hell, I even read Slash’s annoying autobiography).

The DVD starts in the Laurel Canyon of Los Angeles during the mid-‘60s, with David Crosby in the Byrds, Stephen Stills and Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash in the Hollies over in the U. of K. It was the time just before the hippie revolution and the counterculture was on the cusp beyond that. It was the rise of the singer-songwriter (as opposed to the folkie, which would overlap) essentially begun the day Dylan went electric (okay, Dylan is credited here, but that last part isn’t in the documentary, but is my theory, which is mine, too).

Then, as now and always in any singular scene, bands were incestuous, and members often flow from one band to the next. Young quit Springfield, Crosby is brought in after the Monterey Pop Fest (but not before he discovers Joni Mitchell), and Nash is bored by the stuffy Brit band and wants to go all Carnaby Street. He hooks up with them and Crosby, Still and Nash are sprung. One might consider this one of the first supergroups, and that’s even before Young kinda joins the fold.

CSNY then
In a hippy dippy dopey (pot reference, FYI) idealistic mentality, they decide they are not a band, but will creatively shack up as individual singer-songwriters who perform together. But like common-law marriages, things start to get complex, especially when Stills comes out as macho Alpha Male, taking the word control of the control room literally. He ends up playing most of the instruments on their first album, Crosby, Stills and Nash (1969). By the time they start to tour, Crosby and Nash have no idea how to play the material and they get some back-up, including drummer Dallas Taylor and ex-Motown bassist, Greg Reeves. Soon, they are joined by Young (after his two failed solo albums), also an Alpha. Now the non-band is a band (see: complicated).

Over the next few decades, they would dance around each other, alternatively quitting, firing, rehiring each other due to (among other reasons) Crosby’s drug use (possibly due in part to the pain of losing his girlfriend, Christine Hinton, in a car crash), Nash and Rita Coolidge developing a relationship after she and Stills had a “tryst” (as it is described on the DVD; same thing happened with Joey and Johnny Ramone a decade later), and more ridiculously, the macho ego posturing of Stills and Young. It seems the only time they actually all worked together well was during periods of political outrage, such as the post-Kent State shooting “Ohio,” which pretty much became the anthem for the unrest in the period.

Again, most of their catalog and history are well known and documented through the late 1960s and ‘70s. The DVD especially became interesting in the last hour as the documentary starts focusing on the later part of their career, from the 1980s on, as I know so little about this period, as I was way too involved in the whole first wave punk movement to give a care about CSN(Y). Yet, even with that, I noticed that there was no mention of the media attention of Y’s joining CSN at the abovementioned Live Aid in ’85.

I know I talk about this every time I review one of Chrome Dream’s releases, but here ya go: This label has an easily identifiable, nearly auteur way of presenting their stories (usually produced by Rob Johnstone). Usually, it’s Tom Arnold doing the narration (he does a great job), as we see lots of photos, clips and interviews. The clips are a mixture of live in-concert, television performances, music videos and occasionally record cuts. Some of them are easily accessible, and some are quite rare, but in nearly all cases, they almost never last more than 20 seconds before Arnold begins talking. In some ways this is annoying because you want to hear the song, but on the other, well, this is already almost 3 hours, and it would have been more than double that if the full clips were shown. I’d like to see them include a second disc that just includes the full musical segments.

CSNY now
As for the interviews, as I’ve whined about before, there are all males talking, like women were only peripheral. The band’s momentum constantly changed due to women, including July Collins, who is never mentioned even though one of their earliest hits, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is about Stills’ relationship with her.

That being said, this is one of the better selections of interviews I’ve seen for one of this label’s releases. Sure, there is still the writers who give us second-hand stories and opinions (and they didn’t include the excellent Jeff Tamarkin or Richie Unterberger, both of whom write extensively on this period), but there is a large number of people who were actually there¸ giving first-hand anecdotes, rather than stories. All four of CSNY are represented, though it is via previous television interview clips through the years. However, their producers, studio engineers, and band members (yes, I’m using the term “band” and not “collective”) are interviewed specifically for this release. There are, in part, four drummers (Dallas Taylor, Joe Vitale, Joe Lala, Chad Cromwell) and three bassists (Greg Reeves, Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuel, George “Chocolate” Perry) represented, some telling what it was like in the studio, or on tour. As much as I like the writers, even those who saw the band live, it’s the ones who were in the trenches (an appropriate word considering all the conflicts within the performers) that mean more to me.

The nicest thing about this is that so many stories about ‘60s musician end with an untimely demise, but as of this review all members of CSN and Y are still kickin’ and performing – and getting somewhat along. They finally realized they “gotta get down to it.”

The extras are scarce but interesting. Other than some text info about the interviewees and a link to see more online, there is a 14+-minute short titled “Joe Vitale: The American Dream Sessions.” The personable drummer tells about recording the album at Young’s ranch in 1988.


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