Friday, July 24, 2009

Change Partners

Graham Nash just couldn’t play the music business game. An album of Dylan songs sung in the group’s bubbly style? The Hollies didn’t have enough to do justice to Dylan, and Nash wouldn’t do it, even if everyone agreed it would be a sure smash. Who was Nash to argue? He was moving forward artistically, writing things like “King Midas in Reverse.” But the tune had lived up to its title and, rather than turn gold, it was a flop. Nash’s pleas to experiment, to grow, were not going to convince anyone after his song didn’t sell, especially after The Hollies had three top ten songs hit the American charts. So he left the group, a hard decision since they’d been together for years. He knew Allan Clarke since they were five years old! He had no choice; they were too far apart on how they viewed the band. It wouldn’t be announced officially until the end of the year, but now he was solo, living in a loft, trying to figure out his next move. Things happen, magic connections are made, you just never know.

It was kind of Cass to invite him to her Hollywood home that night. He knew most of the people that were expected to show up. David Crosby, he was heavy. When Graham first saw him and other members of The Byrds strolling down Bleecker Street when The Hollies were playing the Paramount in early 1966, he was way too nervous to say hi. Something in the vibe that Crosby exuded made Graham nervous. Graham liked the Village, checking out the jazz clubs and getting the chance to see Mingus and Miles at places like the Village Gate or the Vanguard. He heard Stills might be there as well. He liked Stephen, had met him during a Hollies American tour. They hit it off, talked about making some demos together.

Stephen Stills loved to ride. It was the reason he chose to live in Topanga Canyon instead of Laurel, where so many of his friends set up house. Topanga was horse country, Laurel Canyon was motorcycle territory. Astride his chestnut mare, wearing worn cowboy boots, faded jeans, dark brown Hank Williams hat and a beat up old football jersey, he had lots of time to think. The horse paused for a moment, slowly turning, unsure of her next move. Where was he headed? Stills wondered.

At 23, he had already hit some major highs and lows. Buffalo Springfield ended up a bad scene, but, man, they had a Top Ten song with “For What It’s Worth.” Who would have thought that a pop song about the Sunset Strip “riots,” the establishment’s name for when cops beat on kids grooving to the new music scene, would be a big hit? Springfield was at the heart of that scene, had really started it, but now Stills watched it go by without him. He and Neil surely had a wild ride. Their relationship was always turbulent, from the very beginning when Steve was touring Canada with a folk group, early ’63 he thought, and saw a 17 year old Neil Young playing kinda folky, kinda rock. Now it was June 1968 and Stills was without a band, without direction.

Having just cut an album with Al Kooper, Stills was playing, and playing well. After Judy’s sessions at Elektra Studios in April, Stills peeled off a few hundred bucks to keep the engineers at the board so he could get all his new songs out. The guys were happy to hang and just roll tape, especially after a tedious night of easy listening Collins tunes. It felt good, but aimless.

Drifting was not new to Stephen. He moved a lot as a kid - Texas, Illinois, Louisiana, Florida, even Costa Rica. Topanga felt like home. This was real hippie country, and Stills dug it, riding horses he would give names like Major Change and Crazy Horse. It was a fine way to kill time while waiting for something to come up.

Tonight’s party at Cass’ house would be fun. He knew David Crosby would be there. Stills and Crosby had a deep spiritual connection. Perhaps they would write together some day. He hoped Peter would be there as well. Stephen had auditioned for The Monkees in September of ’65, and while the producers thought he was perfect, Stills had a different point of view. “This is really not my bag, but I have a friend who would be great.” That friend was Peter Tork, who was washing dishes at a Santa Monica coffeehouse. Now Peter was huge, making big dough and big news. Stills had heard there was a July 4th party in New York that Peter was hosting. The Who would be there, along with Cass Elliot, John Sebastian and Harvey Brooks of Electric Flag. Steve wasn’t sure if Peter had left for the east coast yet.

At least Crosby would be there and they could play. Plus, there was bound to be a lot of coke, and Stephen looked forward to that frozen feeling at the tip of his nose.


If Cass Elliot was “The Queen of Los Angeles Pop Society” as one of The Mamas & The Papas, then David Crosby was the prince regent. The two were tight, so tight that David would often pop in unexpectedly for a swim. Cass always had delicatessen food for Crosby, his favorite. Sometimes the visits were so square that they would sit and watch The Huntley- Brinkley Report at 6:30 and just talk. Other times were wild, and Cass’ parties were always a riot. There was the time when Eric Clapton and Steve Stills were there, and Crosby joined the jam session. Then Buddy Miles walked in. Buddy knew Stills from a jam session with Jimi Hendrix at Stephen’s house.

Sometimes David needed to get his head ready for the party, but usually there were plenty of drugs at her pad. Crosby was already deep into coke and heroin, ever since that first time he tried some China White. Cass was doing it too. Man, the fans would go apeshit if they knew that “Mama” Cass, the fat, funny one, was a junkie. The party tonight was bound to be a trip. Stills was expected to show up, and so was Neil Young. Graham Nash, too, and David had grown to feel a strong bond, almost brotherly, with the soon to be ex-Hollie. Yeah, he had heard Graham was splitting the band. Couldn’t blame him for not wanting to do pop tunes for 12 year old fans. But leaving a band was tough and he knew that sure enough.

After three years with The Byrds, after the former young folkies became rock stars, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” both hitting number one, Crosby was shitcanned. Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman pulled up one fall day in ’67, one Porsche after the other entering Crosby’s driveway. Crosby wasn’t that surprised when their words came flowing out, “We can’t work with an egomaniac like you.” And, “Hey, man, we want you out of the band.” And, “ We don’t dig your songs.”

No shit, David thought. During a Crosby song like “What’s Happening?!?!,” McGuinn would play and then stop to look at his watch, wanting out of the tune. Hillman’s bass line would crash to a halt, maybe for six bars, enough time for to take a drag from his cigarette. True, man! It was a bad scene with the Byrds, but getting fired hurt, deeply.

The Byrds were freaked out when Crosby ranted about the Kennedy assassination at Monterey a few months back. They were even more uptight about Crosby playing with Buffalo Springfield. When Neil Young split, Stills turned to Crosby. After all, the Byrds had hired Springfield to open for them at $125. It was their first gig. Crosby really dug that Stills liked to play, not like McGuinn and Hillman who always were looking for excuses to argue. Steven had become a bigger part of Crosby’s life in the last couple of years. There were few people David admired more. He thought Stills was a stone genius and wanted to hang out with him whenever possible.

Escaping L.A. after his dismissal, Crosby went down to Florida to his pride and joy, The Mayan. Sailing was a dream of David’s since he was a little over 11, and when he saw the boat he had to have it. What he didn’t have was money, so he borrowed $22,500 from Tork, flush with Monkee money. Crosby always laughed when he thought, “that’s a lot of bananas.” Now he was back on his home turf, Los Angeles, with a young singer he discovered in Florida, Joni Mitchell. Crosby saw her, blonde, waif like and beautiful, at a club in Coconut Grove and brought her back with him. He used his clout, what was left of it, to act as a producer . She was ever-thankful that the record, Song to a Seagull, came out just how she wanted it to. David had protected her. He was like that. Good vibes were present during the sessions at Sunset Studios in Hollywood. Buffalo Springfield was there, too, and Joni had a chance to introduce David to her old pal Neil from Canada.

Always following a singular path, Crosby chose a house that was not in the counterculture nature retreat that was Topanga Canyon. Nor was it in Laurel Canyon, a psychedelic swath that ran from Schwab’s Drug Store all the way to the San Fernando Valley. Instead, he settled into a little wooden house on Lisbon Lane in Beverly Glen Canyon, which separates Beverley Hills and Bel Air. He decided to take his hippie house on wheels, a beige VW bus with a Porsche engine and headed south to Sunset.

Ah, Sunset Strip. The Byrds’ first success was here at Ciro’s, a club decorated like a plush Vegas lounge, cheap looking. Here began Crosby’s ascent to star status, the paranoid king of the world as a Byrd. Now, since his firing, he was virtually dead as a recording artist, and, though still volatile and definitely opinionated, he was now more at ease. Living with Joni helped a lot. He drifted back a couple of years to Pandora’s Box, the purple painted coffeehouse on the Strip across from Schwab’s. The fuzz came down hard, said the kids were conducting a riot and brought out the mace, batons and tear gas. “For What It’s Worth” was released one month later. That Stills, he was too much.

Getting off to a late start, Crosby hoped he hadn’t missed the fun. He was going to take Sunset up to Mulholland and hoped there wouldn’t be too much traffic. Steering with his left hand and fiddling with the radio dial with his right, Crosby paused for a few seconds at the sound of a pedal steel guitar. At first he thought it was a sitar, which he loved, but, man, he hated this corny country shit. Hillman used to play that crap all the time. It drove David nuts, racist crackers singing about stupid shit.

While fiddling about for another station, Crosby heard a loud boom and he lost a little control. He pulled over and got out. Fuck, fuck, fuck. A blowout. He would never get a tow truck and it was too far too walk. He paced, leonine, his long hair, receding and swept back like a mane, his droopy mustache looking like whiskers. He tried to hitch for a bit, but no luck. He looked pretty scruffy. A pay phone was nearby, but he didn’t have a dime. He wasn’t about to ask a cop for help, not with a bag of weed in the pocket of his fringe jacket.

He squatted down on the curb, trying to figure what to do. This was a bummer and he was in no mood for the party. He just wanted a ride home. Looking up, he saw, to his amazement, a rare L.A. cab. Flagging it down, he gave his address and headed back for a restful night with Joni.

Crosby, Stills and Nash did attend a party at Cass Elliot’s Hollywood home in June 1968. Nash asked Stills and Crosby to sing “You Don’t Have to Cry.” Nash looked at the ceiling and, after about 10 seconds, started a third part like he’d sung it forever. CSN was formed that night. By early 1969, Joni Mitchell was living with Graham Nash in Laurel Canyon.


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