‘Déjà Vu’ All Over Again: What Resonates About the CSNY Classic on Its 50th Anniversary

The supergroup effort, released March 11, 1970, is revered as a great communal project, but it reflects its moment in time by being more fractured than we remember.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young -
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Two minutes into Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Déjà Vu” album, there’s a moment of true glory. What had been a bluesy shuffle about a fractured relationship stops, the dark clouds part, and in comes a bright, heavenly choir:

Carry on!
Love is coming
Love is coming to us all

For that moment, first heard by the public 50 years ago with the album’s release on March 11, 1970, the Aquarian idealism of the 1960s carried on into the new decade, proclaimed from on high by the ultra-supergroup, now made more super with the addition of Mr. Y. For many this was, and remains, an essential — perhaps the essential — album of 1970. That’s been further magnified of late through the documentaries “Echo in the Canyon,” looking at the whole Laurel Canyon scene that birthed the group, and “David Crosby: Remember My Name.”

Well, glory is ephemeral. Clouds return. Halos slip.

Half a century later, it’s hard not to hear “Déjà Vu” as a portrait of fractures and dissension, of sadness and disillusion. It is certainly clearer than ever that this is essentially four solo projects jammed together, with a few exceptions. And unlike with the Beatles’ White Album, which now sounds remarkably coherent, time has only increased that perception. While there are times at which the sum is greater than the parts, much of the album shows the parts being, well, the parts, and often at odds with or at least apart from the others, a sense affirmed through the years in interviews with the participants.

First, the dirty little not-so-secret of the album is that Neil Young is absent for half of it, and more or less a bit player on most of it. His voice is only heard on two songs, his own “Helpless” and the “Country Girl” suite. So those heavenly harmonies on “Carry On” is still a blend of three, not four.  Same for Graham Nash’s “Our House” and “Teach Your Children.” Same for David Crosby’s title song and “Almost Cut My Hair.” Bringing in Stephen Stills’ ex-Buffalo Springfield partner Young to boost the sound in deference to needs of a now-touring band was a good idea, certainly (though it came only after Steve Winwood and, reportedly, Jimi Hendrix turned down invitations). But the fact is, Neil never fully integrated into the group. Super.

Of course, in some key ways that mirrors what was going on with America’s youth at the end of one decade and the start of the next, with factions and divisions cracking the peace-and-love vibe. It’s not exactly Altamont to the Woodstock of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut from the previous May. But the analogy serves on some level.

To repurpose and paraphrase lines from Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” the rocked-up treatment of which is the group-est track made by the supergroup for the album: Maybe it was the time of year, maybe the time of humanity. 
Richard Nixon had been in the White House for more than a year when the album was released, and the anti-war movement took some dark turns with bombings by the Weathermen and other violent actions. The rise of the Black Panther Party was met with sometimes deadly force from law enforcement. Five of the Chicago 7 were convicted that February of crossing state lines with intent to cite a riot and were sentenced to five years in prison. In music, both the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel were soon to split amid great rancor, Bob Dylan still seemed to be sputtering in his fitful return from his post-motorcycle accident seclusion, and later that year both Hendrix and Janis Joplin would be dead from drug-related causes. In movies, 1970 was the year of “MASH” and “Patton,” of “Love Story” and “Little Big Man,” of “Airport” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” 
Whatever it was, for CSNY, it was a tough time for all involved, well beyond the inevitable ego clashes and pressures of expectations following the wide embrace of the CSN landmark debut. 

Stills, of course, had parted ways with sweet Judy Blue Eyes Collins. And Nash and Joni Mitchell had also split, meaning “Our House,” the quintessential ode to Laurel Canyon hippie-artist domestic bliss and one of the album’s most enduringly cherished songs, was a sad memory for its writer by the time it was released.

More tragically, David Crosby’s love Christine Hinton had recently died in a car crash, and he was, understandably, an emotional mess, breaking down crying in recording sessions. “If I had ever been before I would probably know just what to do,” he sang in the title song. But he hadn’t, and didn’t.

It’s unlikely that anyone, or anything, could have provided a unifying force. But Young wasn’t it, regardless. The four worked for the most part separately, crafting their own songs on their own and then bringing them in to add the others’ vocals. At the time, it still sounded like a collective coming together, though that may have been our own collective will to hear it that way, a need to hear it that way as things around us were tearing apart. But now it really does sound like four solo projects.

The much-ridiculed “Almost Cut My Hair” could well have been on Croz’s 1971 solo debut, “If Only I Could Remember My Name.“ “Our House” is of a piece with Nash’s “Songs for Beginners” album, also from ‘71. “Helpless” would have fit nicely on “After the Goldrush” (released just five months after “Déjà Vu”), while “Country Girl” has the lush production heard on Young’s 1969 solo debut. Stills’ efforts, including “Carry On” and the arrangement of “Woodstock,” are the ones that sound most like they hold the team spirit, not surprising given that he was the architect and primary musician of the CSN sound on the first album. (And let’s not overlook the unifying elements of the rhythm section here, drummer Dallas Taylor, who was also key to the first album, and bassist Greg Reeves, the two appearing in the cover photo and given at least smaller-type credit beneath the group name.)

Yet…. there are other undeniably glorious moments on “Déjà Vu.” And even today we can still hear them as threads tying it all together: “Teach Your Children,” with Jerry Garcia’s sinewy pedal steel lines complementing the group harmonies, sweetly reminds its generation of the responsibilities it is assuming as it grows from childhood to adulthood. “Woodstock” carries both nostalgia for the still-fresh event (and in the “Mr. Soul”-esque reprise of Stills-Young guitar duels of yore) and a sense of energetic urgency to keep the spirit alive and meaningful. “Déjà Vu” itself is a marvel of musical construction and mysticism that transcends its times. Even in this age of skepticism, you know, it makes you wonder. And wonder, in all its forms, is always a mark of great art.

Ironically, the most truly CSNY recording came after this album was done, and it was Young’s doing. That, of course, is the single “Ohio,” the pounding, angry, bitter response to the May 4, 1970 killing of four unarmed Kent State University students protesting the U.S. incursion into Cambodia. Written and recorded just weeks after the tragic event and released as a single within weeks of that, it’s a masterpiece of immediacy and raw emotion, visceral in the music, words and impassioned vocals, Crosby’s anguished wails piercing through the fade. And paired with it as a B-side was Stills’ ruminative complement, “Find the Cost of Freedom,” another set of heavenly harmonies closing it out.

In these two songs, the promise of this supergroup fully, finally came together, never to be fulfilled again. Sure, 50 years later we can ask a bunch of what-ifs. But those are questions of a thousand dreams.