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The end of a repeating dream: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s 'Deja Vu'

The idea that the greatest works of art explode into existence in a short amount of time is a lazy myth perpetrated by the disillusioned and bored. Any work of art, especially when recording music, takes dedication to one’s craft, patience and, perhaps most of all, an appreciation for the nuances of creativity. There is no better example than Deja Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, of which Stephen Stills said: “Getting that second album out of us was like pulling teeth, there was song after song that didn’t make it. The track Déjà Vu must have meant 100 takes in the studio. But ‘Carry On’ happened in a grand total of eight hours from conception to finished master. So you never know.”

When one thinks of the concept of the musical genre of ‘classic rock’, this album is front and centre, placed impeccably as the stronghold of the kingdom of the hippie-counterculture. While Deja Vu doesn’t necessarily exude the quality and characteristics of the hippie culture, the album, more so, possesses the spirit of the movement, as it was created by the important figures associated with the counterculture. So while the music — perhaps with the exception of ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, and the poignant ‘Woodstock’ by Joni Mitchell — doesn’t necessarily speak of the counterculture.

Deja Vu is brilliant because it is somewhat of a timestamp, an ode, and a farewell to the cultural battle that was, ultimately, lost. The songwriters are coming to grips with this on the record, they know that the dream has died; this information is apparent in a couple of ways. The songs are cynical, bitter, yet beautifully written with harmonies to perfectly transmit this message. The other factor was a lot of heartbreak which was embedded, and naturally so, within the record. The three members of the band, with the exception of Neil Young — who is already perpetually heartbroken — had broken up with their partners. The most tragic one of them all was the case of David Crosby, whose girlfriend had died in a car accident. The heartbreak can be felt on Deja Vu; something that most people wouldn’t associate the album with is sorrow.

David Crosby told Crawdaddy in 1974: “I was at the worst place I’d been in my whole life. I would walk into the sessions and break down crying. I couldn’t function. I was in love with that girl.”

When Crosby, Stills and Nash finished their first eponymous album, they were going to need another member to present their record live. After a lot of pushback, especially from Stephen Stills who had been in a Buffalo Springfield with Young, Graham Nash would end up being Young’s champion and convinced that the group definitely needed the musician. Stills had been reluctant simply because of Young’s intensity. Stills figured out quite quickly, Young would try to take charge of the group.

In an interview with Music Radar, Graham Nash said: “When we finished the first record, we realized two things: One, that we had a big hit on our hands, because everybody was just wiped on the floor with it, and two, that we would have to go on the road. Stephen played every instrument on that record except for the drums and the acoustic guitars that David and I played on our songs. He played bass, he played organ, he played lead guitar, he played rhythm guitar, he played everything. Captain Many Hands we called him.”

When it came time for Deja Vu to be written and recorded, the songs were written individually and even recorded so. It’s a wonder how cohesive the group sounds on the record. The three tracks that were performed together as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as a whole were ‘Helpless’, ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, and ‘Woodstock’. These songs were performed and recorded with the entire band in the room and are enriched because of it. 

The biggest hit from the record, ironically, is the one that was not written by any of the members of the band. ‘Woodstock’ was written by Joni Mitchell, and performed well in the popular charts. Joni Mitchell, as it so happens, did not attend the famous 1969 music festival, but instead, was told about the events through her boyfriend at the time, Graham Nash.

The track is the diamond of the album, the unifying heart that binds the rest together. It could not have been written by anyone else but Joni Mitchell and it seems fitting that she should write it, as she was the saviour of the hippie counterculture. Mitchell’s song on this album certainly has a lot to do with making the record the countercultural anthem that it was at the time. For those who listen to it, it may perhaps be reminded joyously and with fondness of the historical souvenir that Deja Vu is. To the younger generations, to those who may not know anything about the late ‘60s, the record may just sound like a great sounding collection of folk-rock songs.

Neil Young commented on ‘Woodstock’, and shared his thoughts: “‘Woodstock’ was a great record at first. It was a great live record, man. Everyone played and sang at once. Stephen sang the shit out of it. The track was magic. Then, later on, they were in the studio for a long time and started nitpicking. Sure enough, Stephen erased the vocal and put another one on that wasn’t nearly as incredible. They did a lot of things over again that I thought were more raw and vital sounding. But that’s all personal taste.”

Each of the individual members’ memories are slightly foggy; Graham Nash recalled ‘Helpless’ being the only track that the band performed together on: “The only track that I remember we played on together was ‘Helpless,’ and it was only at three in the morning when we’d run out of cocaine and we could play slow enough for Neil to dig it. Neil would record in Los Angeles, then he’d bring the recording to the studio and we’d put our voices on, and then he’d take it away and mix it himself.”

The other countercultural hippie anthem is ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, penned by David Crosby. It is a hardline statement against the establishment, proclaiming to let his “freak flag fly.” Besides a great use of alliteration, it is an anthemic line that invites solidarity and comforting the outcasts.

The title track, ‘Deja Vu’, another David Crosby track, is about Crosby’s belief in reincarnation: “I’m one of those people who think we go round again. The Buddhists have got it right — it’s a wheel, and we get on and get off. I think life energy gets recycled. That’s why I wrote ‘Déjà Vu.” Deja Vu, of course, means having an episodal moment of clarity but yet confusion, a sense that we’ve been here before, in a particular moment. The wheel of history turns and therefore repeats. Perhaps through this concept of ‘Deja Vu’, a meditation on loss is made possible. The idea that perhaps we don’t always know what’s best for ourselves, and there will be another day or even another lifetime to rectify our wrongs.

The song that stands out like a pleasant sore thumb is ‘Our House’. It’s not surprising that it is written by Graham Nash, who is British and American. It sounds like Nash had just finished listening to The Kinks and Simon and Garfunkel before writing the track; it has a very distinct British sound to it but flecked with Americana folk. Probably, for this reason, the song (which is quite an accomplishment) is the most sorrowful song on the album.

Up until ‘Our House’, you think it’s the saddest song found on the record, then of course, ‘4+20’ comes on. A story about an older man born into poverty and died out of poverty, the track stands out as it features only one member performing it; it is just Stephen Stills and his guitar. 

Overall, despite the fragmented creative process of the record, there is an unspoken understanding between the members of the band that runs like an underlying current throughout the album.

Ultimately, it is the anthem of a sense of loss, most likely affected by the end of the dream of the hippie counterculture. It would be too obvious if the songs were written about this. Instead because they, themselves are hippies at heart, and seem to be trying to cut themselves free from this umbilical cord; perhaps in denial, perhaps in futility. Hope is irrelevant in this case when there is an understanding between close friends that all things must come to an end.