PUBLICATIONS > Articles > 1970s > Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – HIGH MASS AT WEMBLEY STADIUM
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – HIGH MASS AT WEMBLEY STADIUM
Author: Mick Gold
Journal/Book: Rock On The Road
The audience is fairly well defined. There are few blacks, and the young dudes are out at other football grounds. The number of people over thirty is negligible. The audience is white and mostly middle-class, ranging in age from those who entered adolescence with Dylan to those entering it now. The children of the British Empire sitting in its stadium.
They’ve so far sat through, some of them danced to, Jesse Colin Young, the Band, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, and Joni Mitchell. They’ve absorbed a fair amount of wine and beer with the music and their lunch; the smell of dope is in the air. It’s a fine day, an occasion. A reminiscence in the making ….
The scoreboard flashes the 72,000 attendance like a First World War bulletin announcing enemy killed statistics. Visions of Woodstock. “The Bakerloo Line is jammed, man … all the way to Neasden, man.” Wembley Nation?
Everyone’s waiting for the group who played their second gig at Woodstock, five years ago, the reputed ‘magic band’ who persevered with a dream against the rising tides of brother deflation and sister decadence. Walking that thin line between sunshine music and a darker reality. Two Americans, one Canadian, one Englishman. Four millionaires. Guilt-free entertainment, almost.
They bounce onto the stage, strapping on guitars, checking microphones. Crosby starts unrolling one of his inimitable rhythms that seem to have no beginning, and he beams at the panorama before him. Stephen Stills shuffles purposefully towards the right-hand microphone.
Concentration slips away
‘Cos your baby’s so far away
Well there’s a rose in the fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove ….
‘Love The One You’re With’ by Steve Stills
Crosby and Nash join in on the chorus, their harmonies soaring high above the guitar rhythms. It’s such warm music. It sounds so good. Behind them, Russ Kunkel on drums and Tim Drummond on bass are anonymously laying down the bedrock. To the right, half-hidden by the organ he’s playing, is the darker presence of Neil Young.
He shambles into the spotlight for the fourth number. He is dressed like a superstar scarecrow, straw hat, loose black jacket, the usual multi-patched jeans on his almost endless legs, as he launches into ‘Helpless’:
Blue blue windows against the stars
Yellow moon on the rise
Big birds flying across the skies
Throwing shadows on our eyes
Leave us helpless, helpless, helpless….
‘Helpless’ by Neil Young
Having once travelled by train across Ontario, through a pine forest that seemed to stretch forever beneath such a yellow moon, I always identified the wailing chorus of the song as a simple paean of submission to the eternity of nature. But as the same chorus floats across the audience in a twilit Wembley Stadium, Young’s voice quivering in the air like some supernatural presence, the echoes are of something different, of a dream that was invited but failed to sustain. Not a dream about music, but about life itself.
A few years ago Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were all set to become the new Beatles, and Young was odds-on favourite for Dylan’s thorny crown. They were applauded for their talent, looks, and experience. Mention of the Buffalo Springfield was guaranteed to elicit appreciative murmurs, The Hollies had always been firm singles’ favourites, and the Byrds were revered as the group that had almost single-handedly forged the genre of folk-rock. The Crosby, Stills And Nash album demonstrated that Nash and Crosby had few equals as harmony singers, and that all three could write songs of a rare quality. Neil Young’s first two solo albums had both been classics. The second, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, displayed powerful guitar playing to equal Young’s unique sense of wasted imagery. So when the four of them joined together, it looked promising to say the least.
The promise was not kept, for what they promised was not mere musical pleasure, it was nothing less than a new system of values. Dylan and the Beatles were responsible for the fusing of rock’n'roll to some undefined ‘youth culture’. The main ingredient of this fusion was the meeting of intellect and music, synthesising them into something truly revolutionary. They were innovators, and yet they spoke for and to a huge section of society undergoing big changes in their perceptions. In doing so they created a dream, a dream that didn’t last long because of its over inflation and instant commercialisation. Nevertheless, the premise of that dream of ‘our generation’ lingered long after its shortcomings became apparent. No new premises have been laid down, no other path has been publicly accepted. The first-stage rocket achieved orbit, and Western youth was flying round and round waiting for someone to light the second stage.
Music comes out of the society and the time. This is the society and the time of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The fusion of ‘hard’ words and ‘cutting’ music either loud (‘Like A Rolling Stone’) or quiet (‘A Day In The Life’), rested on the arrogant certainty that was necessary for a rejection of the prevailing culture. Dylan knew “how it felt” and the Beatles knew what it was to be “turned on”. But this rejection of one set of social and personal values did not in itself create a new set. That is a long process. In the meantime you “feel like you owe it to someone” and you create a little harmony for the world of jagged edges. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young do that … and onIy that. No amount of talent can pull a rabbit out of no hat.
Inside Wembley Stadium the audience sits entranced by a tiny, floodlit stage where four superstars sing about the isolation of stardom, and of a lost simplicity through the best PA system. A dream that did away with stars, proclaimed by stars. This is the reality beneath the myth of Woodstock.
Into this web bounces David Crosby, a long thread of continuity for a bear-like frame. Back in 1964, when the Beatles were playing Shea Stadium and Dylan was singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ at the Newport Folk Festival, and it didn’t seem too likely the twain would meet, the young Crosby and a few others were plotting the style and the venue. One of Californian folk-rock’s founding fathers, he’s come a long way since he sang harmony on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ with a different hairstyle and the same insane grin.
Two of his concerns have remained consistently clear – shouting abuse at the US Government and extolling the oceanic life-style. A rather fine dialectic. This evening, doubtless feeling as responsible as anyone for Nixon’s welcome downfall he’s more concerned with the ocean. He sings ‘The Lee Shore’ with its images of a land far removed from Wembley – and his music has a grace that is rare, suggesting a strength in serenity.
From here to Venezuela
There’s nothing more to see
Than a hundred thousand islands
Flung like jewels upon the sea.
‘The Lee Shore’ by David Crosby
Next Graham Nash strides out in a Buddy Holly T-shirt. He sits down at the piano, announces that he’s smoked too much, and then says that he’s managed to fall in love again and that it feels great. He sings a song he wrote to celebrate, and follows it with the famous ‘Our House’. Simple piano chords, simple Iyrics. His parents are down from Manchester to see him, and they probably like it too. In a scene like this, a healthy shaft of simplicity can get you an ovation. He takes it standing, both arms to the sky like a prize-fighter.
Nash and Crosby stand there, both spreading their huge, stoned grins around the Stadium, anchoring the band to the audience. They’re enjoying themselves and it’s infectious. They know that love is right, they know that society’s insane. The audience knows it too and it doesn’t seem too awe-inspiring. Records can nail this feeling to specific experiences. Concerts nail the records to the social experience. Crosby and Nash, as stoned as their audience, continue to uphold some simple values that they’re growing older with -
You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
‘Teach Your Children’ by Graham Nash
So, some fear is the future. Young shambles once more into the spotlight. He is not one of the audience. He has power, presence. Crosby and Nash are rich rock musicians who still seem, from a distance, like people you might know. From the same distance, Young’s image and person are one. He’s sold himself as a microcosm of his audience, gone through the fires in public, focused their fears and dreams by laying bare his own. Partly it’s an image – the sad, stretching voice and the look of loner isolation. But the Iyrics are too real for mere imagery, the stuttering guitar-style too apposite for mere technique. Many of his audience have been across the bleak landscape Young described in ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’. They know what he knows, and what they both know cannot be defined with words alone. Young’s songs cannot be condensed into slogans: they remain cryptic, pared-down, oblique.
At least half their meaning exists in a purely musical dimension, in the metallic landscapes of sound outlined by Young’s guitar-madness, anger, resignation, all come tumbling out of his manic, single-note guitar solos. And when Young smiles, it isn’t just infectious – it’s like hope revisited.
He sits down mumbling to himself and discovers that he’s got two harmonica holders around his neck. He looks at the audience. “It’s good to be here,” he drawls, somehow sounding both genuine and sardonic.
Whenever he’s in the spotlight there’s a feeling of expectation. This is more than music, more than entertainment. In a few lines this man can encapsulate an experience that will never free itself from his words. Our lives are influenced by this man’s songs.
Old man take a look at my life
I’m a lot like you are.
‘Old Man’ by Neil Young
“I’m a lot like you are”. Was Woodstock just one more of history’s lemming conventions signifying no real change? “Only love can break your heart” he sings in his next number. None of the lines mean too much in isolation. Young’s work is cumulative in the same way that Dylan’s is. The tensions exist between the songs, as much as within them. Here in concert, that tension comes out of the audience’s memory, the threads they weave between their stereo system and their experiences, between their private lives and this public occasion.
Stephen Stills looks happier than he used to. He still seems to be burning more nervous energy than the rest of the band put together, but the smile on his face shows the distance he’s travelled from the drugged and unrequited days of earlier years. Like Young he’s sold his private experiences with unnerving directness, making possible those flashes of recognition concerning the audience’s relationships with each other and with him.
He sings ‘Word Game’, his Dylanesque litany of injustice. He does it much too fast but the crowd love it. Half of the words are lost but the intensity of the performance, which would seem ludicrous on record, is just the right projection for the mood and the arena. He flails his right arm across his guitar, screwing his face up to spit out the lyrics -
Or you will be missing high mass
At the evening rock’n'roll show.
‘Word Game’ by Stephen Stills
And here we all are accused of worshipping the music that’s accusing us of …. The contradictions are bare and the music’s lifting everyone. The struggle continues, let’s boogie to it.
The highpoint of the evening, in some ways its summation is Young’s ‘Don’t Be Denied’. It recounts Young’s rise to stardom in heavily ambiguous phrases, offsetting them with the double-edged sword of the title line. The performance is magnificent, Young’s voice ringing out above the inevitability of the electric rhythm:
We used to sit on the steps at school
And dream of being stars
‘Don’t Be Denied’ by Neil Young
He became one – on Sunset Strip with the Buffalo Springfield. They “played all night” – and then the killer line: “The price was right”. Now he’s “a millionaire in a business man’s eyes”. Don’t be denied and you can become a star. Don’t be denied and you can even overcome stardom.
It’s four years since I saw them at the Albert Hall, and I’d begun to doubt whether they were as good as I remembered them. But at Wembley Stadium they are. Partly it’s the multi-dimensional element of the group. This isn’t four musicians performing one man’s vision; it’s four people, each with his own vision, who can play. It isn’t just between them and the audience, they’re playing to each other as well.
The first hint of this comes early in the evening, during Crosby’s ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, written in response to frequent police busts of his boat. Stills and Young are staring across the stage at each other, forcing each other higher and higher in the old art of electric guitar dueling. Now they’re at it in earnest, through ‘Black Queen’ and ‘Carry On’, standing back for each other to take off, encouraging, sending lattices of guitar lines out into the air. Whenever they seem to be flagging, Crosby jumps in between them, punching out the rhythm, pushing them back up there. Nash is dancing round the stage, completely lost in the music. The arena is positively jumping.
The music and the words continue to strike sparks off each other. Crosby’s joyous rhythm and ‘love is coming to us all’, Still’s tortuous guitar lines and ‘the questions of a thousand dreams’. “Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice … but to carry on”. To leave the stage to a Cup Final cheer that asks them to do just that.
By this time it’s completely dark outside, just cigarette and joint ends glowing around the arena and red pinpoints of light on the giant banks of amplifiers show that they’re still on. The applause continues.
They return for an encore, grinning in triumph, arms around each others’ shoulders, and take up positions at microphones six feet apart. A song starts rolling out on Crosby’s rhythm. It is ‘Ohio’, the generational call for a response. The others sing around Young’s intoning lead vocal: the horror of Kent State, the implications for all of us.
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio.
‘Ohio’ by Neil Young
When do you turn and make a stand? Now, says the song. It’s been saying “Now” since 1970. The refrain – “Four dead in Ohio” – rolls away punctuated by Crosby’s screams of bewildered anger: ”Why? … How many? … How many more? …” Young’s guitar is climbing high above it all, like the sun rising above a battlefield.
And then, they’re gone. Backstage to celebrate a great performance. To wait for the limousines to carry them away. In the Stadium, the lights are on – revealing a harvest of empty wine bottles strewn across the terraces.
The audience are walking out into Wembley, many queuing for the Tube by billboards advertising fresh horrors from Belfast. “What a guitar player Stills is,” says someone. “I thought Young was the best,” says his friend.
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