California Dreaming: Woodstock

Crosby, Stills, and Nash had not originally intended to form a band at all.

Crosby and Stills had both been at loose ends after leaving their respective bands, and were looking for something else to do, and had been jamming together a little and writing the odd song. Graham Nash had left his own band, The Hollies, and moved to LA recently. But when they first got together, it wasn’t with any particular intention in mind.

It was just normal for the musicians who hung out in the Laurel Canyon area, where most of the LA-based musicians had moved, to sing and play when they got together in Peter Tork’s pool or Cass Elliott’s kitchen.

And Cass Elliott’s kitchen might be where it happened — or it might have been Joni Mitchell’s house. No-one seems quite sure. But either way, there was a party, and Steve Stills and David Crosby were singing a new song of Stills’, You Don’t Have To Cry. Graham Nash asked them to sing it again. And then he asked them to sing it a third time, and improvised a high harmony line over them.

The three-part harmony sounded stunning to those listening — the three men’s vocals gelled in a way that Crosby and Stills on their own hadn’t. It was very quickly decided that the three would try to get signed to the same record label (Stills and Nash were at the time signed to different labels, while Crosby had been dropped by Columbia) and record an album. The result, Crosby, Stills & Nash, featured two top forty singles and was one of the most influential albums of the late 60s.

But they had a problem when it came to playing live. Apart from the drums, played by Dallas Taylor, and a couple of acoustic guitar parts, all the instruments on the album had been played by Stills, and neither Crosby nor Nash was an especially accomplished instrumentalist.

The original plan was to hire a bass player and keyboardist to fill out the band’s sound, but instead of the keyboard player, they were persuaded by Ahmet Ertegun, and rather against their own initial urges, to take on an extra lead guitarist — Neil Young.

Young became a full partner in the band, now officially a quartet, while Greg Reeves, their new bass player (and flatmate of Young’s former bandmate Rick James) did not, although the next album, Déjà Vu, was credited to (in large lettering) Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (in smaller lettering) Dallas Taylor & Greg Reeves.

Young joined half-way through recording that album, but in time for the band’s first gig, supported by Joni Mitchell (who was at the time Nash’s girlfriend). Their second gig was rather more stressful — a music festival in Woodstock, New York, whose organisers had decided at the last minute to make it free. Half a million people showed up.

Joni Mitchell hadn’t gone to Woodstock herself — she’d had other commitments — but she heard about it from Nash, and she wrote a gentle song about it, with the chorus “we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”. Her song, titled simply Woodstock, was released on Ladies of the Canyon and as the B-side to the hit single Big Yellow Taxi.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young also recorded the song. They made a few minor lyrical changes — notably adding the line “we are billion year old carbon” to the choruses (it had originally just been a backing vocal line in the last chorus of Mitchell’s version), but the major change was to the music. In their hands it was a loud, noisy, hard rock track, with duelling squealing lead guitars played by Stills and Young, and with Stills growling out a blues-rock lead vocal.

The result had little to do with the pastoral, gentle, song that Mitchell had originally written, but was chosen for the end credits of the film released of the festival, which became a massive success, and the single went to number eleven on the charts. And Déjà Vu, the album from which it was taken, did even better, going to number one and having two other top forty singles released from it.

The band’s success was short-lived though — Stills and Young’s relationship had always been fractious, and Crosby was going through a particularly difficult patch in his life — and by the end of their summer 1970 tour they had split up, having released one last single, Young’s Ohio, a protest song about the shootings at Kent State University, which went to number twenty. While they would all continue to work with each other in various combinations in the future, and there would be occasional reunion tours, there would not be another Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young studio album until 1988.


Composer: Joni Mitchell

Stephen Stills (guitar, vocals, keyboards), Neil Young (guitar), David Crosby and Graham Nash (vocals), Dallas Taylor (drums), Greg Reeves (bass)

Original release: Déjà Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Atlantic SD-7200

Currently available on:
Déjà Vu, Atlantic CD

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9 Responses to California Dreaming: Woodstock

  1. David Summers says:

    Hi, Andrew,

    I love your music writings, as I think I’ve told you a couple of times, but I think your piece on “Woodstock” is a little less thorough than your usual writings and you may have missed an interesting 60s cultural link.

    At risk of nit-picking, your third sentence is wrong. Graham Nash had not left the Hollies when he first sang with Crosby and Stills. Following a Hollies tour of the West Coast at the start of the year, he made regular visits to the US throughout 1968 to meet up with numerous musical friends and kindle a love affair with Joni Mitchell, who he’d met in Toronto, but he remained a key part of the Hollies throughout this time. The first occasion when CSN sang together was actually engineered by Cass Elliott, who sensed that their voices would mesh and ensured that the three of them met up together during one of Nash’s visits. (She had done something similar to bring John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky together a few years earlier, essentially acting as catalyst for the creation of two great 60s groups.) Crosby and Stills immediately felt that Nash was the missing ingredient for their new musical venture but didn’t believe he would ever leave the Hollies. They started plotting to “steal him away”, not realising that Nash was already fairly disenchanted with his group’s management and musical direction and would be easily enticed. Things finally came to a head between Nash and the Hollies in September 1968, when the Hollies single “Listen to Me” entered the UK top 20 and they were invited to appear on Top of the Pops. Nash refused to return early from California and the Hollies had to turn down their TOTP spot. When Nash eventually returned to England he began the process of breaking his links and serving his notice with the Hollies, completing his final concert with them at the London Palladium in early December. Crosby and Stills moved to London to rehearse with Nash while he was completing his final Hollies commitments and attended the last show, to the obvious disgruntlement of Clarke, Hicks and Elliott.

    Your ninth paragraph is also wrong. Neil Young had already joined CSN before they started recording the Déjà Vu album, but was absent for many of the recording sessions, largely because he was working and recording with Crazy Horse at the same time. In retrospect it would be fair to say that Young was semi-detached from CSN from the start: he only brought “Helpless” to CSNY after failing to achieve a satisfactory recording with Crazy Horse, and his other contribution, “Country Girl”, was a medley of three leftovers from Buffalo Springfield. Meanwhile Stephen Stills was so energetic and impatient in the studio during this period that he wasn’t going to wait around for Young to be available, preferring instead to overdub all the lead guitar and keyboard parts on songs like “Carry On” and “Déjà vu” himself. With Stills, Nash and particularly Crosby also unavailable at times because of emotional traumas (Crosby lost his girlfriend in a car accident), it is astonishing in retrospect that the album turned out so well.

    Stephen Stills was obsessed with “Woodstock” the first time he heard it and quickly persuaded Joni Mitchell to allow him to record the rockier arrangement he envisaged for it. He first recorded the song at the Record Plant in New York in September 1969 with a line-up including Jimi Hendrix on bass (amazingly!), Buddy Miles on drums and John Sebastian on rhythm guitar. This was nearly two months before he recorded the more familiar version with CSNY, Taylor and Reeves. If Stills’s first version had ever been completed, legal issues would almost certainly have scuppered a credited release as both Hendrix and Sebastian were embroiled in contractual disputes with record companies at this time, but astonishingly the recording did emerge quite quickly and in the most unlikely of circumstances. Alan Douglas, who was overseeing some of Hendrix recording sessions during this period, picked up the discarded session tape, overdubbed a tripped out Timothy Leary press conference over the discarded “Woodstock” backing track and released it in early 1970 as “Live and Let Live” on the Timothy Leary album “You Can Be Anyone This Time Around”, where it was simply credited to Leary. A few folks with keen ears who chanced upon this rare LP found they could sing a karaoke “Woodstock” over the recording, and the true origins of the musical backing were confirmed definitively forty years later when copies of the original recording session, including a rough Stills vocal, started to circulate amongst Hendrix and CSN collectors.

    Finally, although the ups and downs of the Stills-Young relationship made CSNY unstable from the start, the final CSNY bust-up in 1970 was actually between Stills and Nash after Rita Coolidge left the former for the latter. Young, by that time had long since made himself scarce, as was his tendency.

    Best wishes


  2. Andrew Hickey says:

    Thanks a lot. I’d not read up as widely on CSN as on some of the other bands, and clearly what I *had* read was wrong. I’ll get hold of a couple more books on the band and rewrite this one extensively before I put it in the book…this is precisely why I post these things here first.
    (That said, I don’t think my description of the break-up is wrong as such — CSN*Y* ended as soon as Young left…)
    Hadn’t heard at all about the early version of Woodstock. I’ll have to look out for that…

    • TAD says:

      What you read was probably up-to-date a few years ago, but Nash has since gone on the record with his autobiography and filled in more of the details. I’ve seen some recent Stills interviews too where he talked quite a bit about the “Woodstock” song and how it came to be a CSN&Y song.

  3. David Summers says:

    Andrew, your logic is impeccable. CSNY ended their first chapter after the last scheduled concert at Minneapolis on 9 July 1970. It was another 15 months before they appeared on a stage together again (S&Y turned up at a C&N concert) and they’ve been stop-start ever since. Incidentally, even though I know all this stuff I still prefer Joni’s version. Best wishes, David

  4. TAD says:

    For what it’s worth, I’ve never heard anything about an earlier recording of “Woodstock” with Jimi Hendrix on bass. After Buffalo Springfield broke up, Stills played a bit of bass with Hendrix and for a brief time considered joining Hendrix’s band on bass. I’ve never heard anything about Hendrix playing bass for Stills, though. Stills, in the interviews I’ve seen, asked Joni if CSN could have the song from the getgo. Stills always intended it for CSN, as far as I know. Stills has never mentioned an early version with Hendrix in any interviews I’ve seen or read.

    • David Summers says:

      Hi, TAD, I don’t think Stills has ever mentioned the earlier version of “Woodstock” in an interview, but I don’t think anyone has ever asked him about it. But it certainly happened! There’s a detailed account of the recording session in John McDermott’s book “Ultimate Hendrix: an illustrated encyclopedia of live concerts and sessions” (Backbeat, 2009). (John McDermott has been archivist for the Hendrix estate for the past two decades and has access to all the tapes owned by the Estate.) On pp.177-178 you can read all about the “Woodstock” session led by Stills on 30 September 1969, and the numerous instrumental and vocal takes recorded that day. The account includes an explanation of what happened next, supported by recollections from two of the recording engineers: “Neither Stills nor Hendrix returned to these tapes after this session. However [Alan] Douglas later excerpted an extended take 5 of “Woodstock” from reel three on February 18 1970 and retitled it “Live and Let Live”. It was released as part of the Timothy Leary album “You can be anything this time around” issued by Douglas’s own label, Douglas records, the same year” (McDermott, p.178). The issued recording was mixed to emphasise the jamming, but the origins of the recording are clearly audible in a couple of places, notably on the chorus. The musicians were never credited on the release but Stills’s smooth lead playing is immediately recognisable. In the past few years some extended segments of the Woodstock recording session, including a full vocal take, have also appeared on Hendrix bootleg and collector’s recordings, notably “Tiptoes in the Foam” and “The Blue Thumb Acetate”.

      Incidentally, Hendrix often played bass when recording or jamming with friends, so his choice of bass on the Woodstock session would have been unusual but not remarkable. However, your comment that Stills for a brief time considered joining Hendrix’s band on bass is not quite correct – he never received an invitation. This is a story that has changed a few times in re-telling, but the best account is in Mitch Mitchell’s book. Stills jammed on bass with Hendrix a few times when Noel Redding or Billy Cox were unavailable, but Billy Cox was Hendrix’s closest friend and was always his preferred choice as bassist. It was only when Billy Cox fell ill part-way through Hendrix’s last European tour in September 1970 that a brief temporary vacancy arose. According to Mitchell, Stills’s name came up at that point as one of a handful of possibilities for a stand-in for Cox, but they couldn’t reach him. With Cox ill and no replacement found, the tour was cancelled and Hendrix found himself at a loose end in London, where he died just over a week later. By the time Stills found out from Mitchell that Jimi had been looking for him it was too late. Stills has said in interviews that it would have been the thrill of his life to have toured with Jimi, but the invitation never reached him.

      Hope this helps!


      • TAD says:

        Interesting! I suspect the early version of “Woodstock” was mostly a jam, and not a serious attempt to make a record. Thanks for the info. I’m not much of a Hendrix fan myself, but I enjoy reading about the history of that time.

  5. Mike Taylor says:

    One more tweak for the printed version: you are technically correct, of course, that “there would not be another Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young studio album until 1988.” But I think most people think of CSN and CSNY as two variations on the same band, so that statement reads oddly to me in light of the (confusingly named) 1977 CSN (without Young) album CSN. I think it would make things clearer if you mentioned that one.

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