Almost Cut My Throat

by Clive James

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As the world well knows, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young have a live double album out, called 4 Way Street. A fair percentage of this effort’s playing time is devoted to applause: the audiences at the Fillmore East, the Chicago Auditorium and the Los Angeles Forum plainly liked them very much — not an opinion I want to contradict, although I do want to take the album apart and see from what elements it is composed. There is also a new individual album out, from David Crosby, making him the third of these millionaires (after Young and Stills) to go it alone: this album is called If I Could Only Remember My Name and strikes me as being pretty much of a disaster. Nevertheless Crosby remains the most interesting artist of the four. He has got into trouble more completely than the others mainly because he has a more substantial gift — powerful motors induce bigger skids.

It was Crosby himself who christened Stills ‘Captain Manyhands’, and I think nobody would deny that as an executive musician Stills is the most remarkable man in the group; but as a writer he has not progressed very much since the heyday of Buffalo Springfield — he has merely become more ambitious in his forms, usually at the expense of his melodic line and too often at the expense of his lyrics.

Young’s voice is a bewitching instrument, even more so than Stills’: like a Bugatti clutch, which was always either in or out, Stills’ voice has only two levels of attack — he’s either loud or soft — and at both ends he sounds as if he has just swallowed a cigarette. Vocally, Young is capable of far more complex modelling and colouring. As a writer of melodies Young is about equal to Stills and slightly his inferior as a handler of language. Apart from his voice, his chief advantage over Stills is his willingness to stick to a simple regularity in his stanza forms, and although there is nothing inside these forms to demonstrate a vigour of language equal to what Stills can occasionally produce, nevertheless the general effect in each song is one of formal neatness and argumentative development — and this despite the fact that his tactical sense has never markedly improved from Buffalo Springfield until now. (The Young songs on the double album, like even the finest of his Buffalo Springfield efforts, suffer from his inability to get his ideas in order — he is forever playing his ace in the first stanza.)

Graham Nash is the sweetest ingredient in the group’s vocal blend, but of his abilities as a writer there is not much to say. His song ‘Chicago’ on the double album is an effective exercise in radical chic — a toe-tapping rabble rouser, if you will accept the term — but the general aura of lush good-will should not deafen the listener to the pure corn of its verbal content.

In both stages of the super-group — C, S & N and later C, S, N & Y — David Crosby has, in my view, stood out. The plain fact that of all four men he understands his own talent least does not alter the further fact that he has the most of it. He may rank slightly beneath both Stills and Young in facility of melodic invention but in his matching of words to music he is far more interesting than either, and in his command of the language itself he possesses a gift which Stills has only slightly and Young not at all — he has an ear for the common speech going on around him and can exercise a creative selectivity in isolating and setting its resonant phrases. It is on this specific ability that the ‘booster’ effect of setting words to music acts most impressively, and, for those who possess the ability but who fail to discipline it, most dangerously.

With Neil Young, from the excellent Buffalo Springfield song ‘Broken Arrow’ right through to his best song on the double album, ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’, the tone is very even and never marred by verbal excess: linguistically, his songs are simply neutral, and while offering none of the emotional intensity of a successfully established interplay between a poetic and musical phrase they offer none of the shuddering embarrassment consequent upon an interplay unsuccessfully established.

With Stills the interplay is there (witness the setting of the words ‘I’m down on my knees’ in his song ‘49 Bye-Byes’, which was on Crosby, Stills and Nash and turns up again on the double album), but rarely on a level to make success piercing or failure conspicuous: the grip on language is simply not strong enough, and although in ‘4+20’ on that same first album he got very close to writing a masterpiece through accepting, for once, the fruitful constrictions of a very tight form and through extrapolating his radical critique from a personally felt situation instead of loosely deriving it from the shallow kitty of the rock culture’s political myths. And of course there is rather more than meets the eye in his ability to lay out the matched stresses and fluent open lines which will ensure the lilting hustle and bustle of a song like ‘Carry On’, the wonderfully effective introductory number on Déjà Vu which is again present — but with infinitely attenuated musical resources — on the double album.

With Crosby, though, we get straight up on danger level and stay there. His song ‘Triad’ on the double album is the same song that McGuinn was understandably reluctant to let him sing when he was with the Byrds. As with all his songs, the attack is extremely specific, the emotion unshielded — it is personal in a way that the songs of the other group members tend not to be, even when they avowedly grow out of personal experience. Also present is the rather self-consciously pretty ‘The Lee Shore’, which Crosby sang on the Stanley Dorfman In Concert programme he did with Nash when they were here last year. This one is a companion piece to ‘Wooden Ships’ (co-authored with Stills for Crosby, Stills and Nash and much mangled at one point by Jefferson Airplane) but is considerably less companionable — it’s a song written in isolation. The only Crosby song on the double album which is even partially designed for the other guys to get a look in is ‘Long Time Gone’, which from the point of view of ensemble singing was the high point of Crosby, Stills and Nash — indeed it seemed for a short while then that the group would discover a new kind of operatic utterance, using as fuel the short, stabbing neo-apocalyptic phrases that Crosby seemingly pulled out of the air at will. ‘It’s been a long time comin’/ It’s goin’ to be a long time gone’ — this kind of writing, on the face of it little more than a regurgitation of assimilated demotic speech, was in fact, and remains to this day, the most sophisticated material available within the group.

What wasn’t available to the group, though, but was only available to Crosby himself, was the key song in the outfit’s entire short history — ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, to my mind the most interesting effort on any of the albums either directly under review or tangentially under discussion. Richard Williams of ‘Melody Maker’ is merely the most prestigious of the many critics who wondered what the devil the song was doing on Déjà Vu at all, and there were persistent rumours (whose accuracy I can’t judge) that the rest of the chaps weren’t too happy about its presence either.

Yet it’s the mark of a good critic (which Williams almost invariably is, when he isn’t being driven up the wall by Crosby) that he will reserve judgement on what disturbs him until he finds out whether or not he is being called on for a new response. And it was quickly apparent that ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ was on a different plane of achievement from the rest of the work on the album. Ideologically it embraced the same set of values — which are anyway subscribed to throughout the rock culture — but linguistically it had the phonetic force, and not just the easy gesture, of belief: which meant that its political assumptions fairly yelped at you, instead of soft-shoeing elegantly by in that self-contented way which sometimes, especially when the lyric is by Nash, makes C, S, N & Y so uncomfortably reminiscent of the Kingston Trio. Certainly Crosby’s raging decision not to cut his hair was the only thing that could have even momentarily persuaded me that I ought perhaps to grow mine.

But as well as demonstrating the force of Crosby’s talent to select and set phrases, ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ is the perfect demonstration of his inability to analyse how that talent operates. Phrases like ‘I’m not giving in an inch to fear’ and ‘Separate the wheat from the chaff’ are chosen with an insight, and set with a power of attention to their stress and balance, that are given very rarely to a single individual. Phrases like ‘It increases my paranoia’, on the other hand, would never complete the journey from the brain to the fingers of a trained writer — they are simply tat, the detritus of semi-intellectual introspection. Given the same pointing and lyrical reinforcement as the good, the bad passages in the song rang with a falsity that stripped the enamel off your teeth. What was happening was not just Crosby’s miscalculation, but its reinforcement by the simplistic assumptions of the rock culture in general. Where the distinction between the public artist and the private man is encouraged to collapse, the merest self-regard will pass for expression incarnate, and even a man of Crosby’s intelligence is prone to look upon his every squib as a delphic utterance.

The future will tell whether Crosby can develop, in the context of the band, to the point where what was best in ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ can come to him regularly, naturally, and minus these damaging antibodies of dumb-bunny exhortation. The double album is no guide to these possibilities: to sum it up, it’s just another whistle-stop for the whole group, and although it’s nice to hear the boys in action without the mixed benefits of a couple of hundred hours of studio engineering, the stuff in the grooves would scarcely exist if we could not mentally refer it back to previous versions. (Significantly, the electric disc is immediately more engaging than the acoustic one, principally because the vocal interest — there is scarcely any ensemble singing — is pretty low all through.)

But if it’s a wise postponement not to count 4 Way Street in the question of Crosby’s development, it’s an imperative act of generosity not to count If I Could Only Remember My Name. Richard Williams got himself into deep shtuck with fans for knocking this one (and I suppose the front-page photo of Crosby in the following week’s Melody Maker was an attempt to cool Polydor down), but it happens that Williams was dead right. The album is an Edsel, a Tucker Torpedo, an RB211. Three-quarters of the membership of the entire Californian rock epicentre (Mitchell, Quicksilver, Dead, Airplane etc.) are in there to help Crosby get himself killed, and the whole enterprise reminds you of that Jonathan Winters character who had two hundred pigeons sellotaped to his arms and got wiped out when someone tossed bird-seed into a quarry.

The only song on the album which stands up at all is ‘Traction In The Rain’, a fine number premiered here on the In Concert programme referred to earlier. Even with this one, though, Crosby is suicidally intent on throwing away his best linguistic effects: ‘thinkin’ about/ Gettin’ out’ is substantially less enticing when rendered as ‘thinkin’ about/ Gettin’ ounnh’. Everywhere else the singing — and with it the song itself — is just washed away by the massed instrumentation. In a way this album is welcome: it should forever squash the notion of a ‘family’ approach to rock music, and perhaps, by reaction, reintroduces into Californian music the lost ideal (lost with the breakup of the Spoonful) of a lean approach in which the song is paramount and the ‘beauty’ is kept well in control. I should say though, and end by saying it, that Crosby’s obvious intention to make something unutterably lovely is an intention worth respecting: of all four men he is definitely the one with the requisite capacity for a large-scale failure.

It is likely that this coming decade will see the final collapse of the collective ethos and the restoration of competitive individualism in rock — the arts are the only permanently subversive forces in history and it is not conceivable that rock music can continue to pay even its current lip-service to the political assumptions of the culture which sustains it. In such a cultural crisis the men will be separated from the boys. We can look forward to Crosby’s future movements with great interest.

Clive James

Ink, 31st July 1971
© Clive James
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