Before all the in-fighting that we now know them for, once upon a time, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY) were all friends, to differing degrees, of course. Together, the quartet made a lasting impact on popular culture, and their 1970 record, Déjà Vu, remains one of the most important of the era. Furthermore, in a strange way, it can be taken as somewhat of a sonic embodiment of the death of the hippie dream, and all the excess it would give way to in the ’70s.
How, might you ask? Well, there was actually a boatload of personal tragedy that went into the record. Folk-rock at its core, both musically and lyrically across its 36-minute run time, each member of the band managed to espouse some of the heartbroken sentiment they were feeling at the time.
Stephen Stills had just broken up with Judy Collins; Graham Nash’s once blossoming relationship with Joni Mitchell was quickly coming to an end and worst of all, David Crosby‘s girlfriend, Christine Hinton, had been killed in a terrible car accident after taking the cat to the vets. You’d had thought all of this darkness that was poured into Déjà Vu would create something wholly gloomy, but it was not so.
As well as alluding to the end of the hippie dream in the post-Woodstock era, the record became a symbol of triumph in the face of adversity. A real juxtaposition, this is what afforded the album a density that has culminated in its timeless feel.
Understandably, the record holds a very significant place in Crosby’s heart. “I was in terrible shape,” Crosby told CBS in May 2021. “I was damn near destroyed. I’m just really lucky we were making that record because it gave me a raison d’être.” Definitively, Crosby explained that the record was “what kept me alive”.
The effect Hinton’s death had on Crosby was life-changing, and this is unsurprising given just how in love with her he was, and how deeply tragic her accident was. During the sessions for the album, Crosby would break down and cry, unable to cope with the magnitude of his loss. He told Crawdaddy in 1974: “I was not at my best as a functioning person, completely unable to deal with it all.”
Around this time, it was up to the man who was then closest to Crosby in the band to offer him some support. It is a widely known story that Graham Nash and David Crosby were always on talking terms and remained very good friends.
When Crosby was at the height of his depression, which was exacerbated by his excessive lifestyle, and when Nash needed some company as he and Mitchell’s relationship was drawing to a close, the two embarked on a mammoth boat trip. Crosby has always been an avid sailor, ever since he went on his first boat ride as an 11-year-old. In fact, it was aboard his beloved schooner, ‘Mayan’, that he penned the iconic Crosby, Stills & Nash song, ‘Wooden Ships’, alongside Stephen Stills and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane.
Circa 1969, the pair set off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on a 3,000 mile round trip to San Francisco, the spiritual hub of the hippie movement. Of the trip, Nash wrote in his memoir, Wild Tales: “Back in the US, with Crosby torturing himself over Christine’s death, he and I took his boat and embarked on a trip from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to San Francisco: 3,000 miles, seven weeks at sea, with a bottomless supply of weed and coke.”
Not much else is known about this raucous journey apart from two things. The first was that, on a pit stop in Panama, refuelling and enjoying some time on land, Nash and Mitchell would have their last major argument, which culminated in her quickly leaving the country and flying back to LA. When he returned home, one night when Nash was lying on the kitchen floor, he received a telegram from Mitchell which read: “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.” That was the end of one of the counterculture’s most lauded couples.
Then, on the other hand, the journey would just be one of many instances of excess for Crosby, who became so ill because of the various addictions that in 1983 he was convicted of cocaine possession and in 1994 he had an emergency liver transplant. After the boat journey, Nash said: “Drugs were beginning to take an even more serious toll on David.” This was to be the start of Crosby‘s most hectic chapter.
Not too long after the boat trip, things became too decadent for the quartet as a whole. On July 9th, 1970, the band broke up. They each would embark on solo careers, to varying successes, and in 1974, they reunited for a tour that made them millions. After that, they wouldn’t tour as a four-piece for another 26 years.