Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Boxed Set Explores ‘Deja Vu’ All Over Again: Album Review

Several CDs' worth of mostly unreleased demos and outtakes and a lengthy historical essay by Cameron Crowe add up to a compelling commemoration of a classic, 51 years on.

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A boxed set can include dozens or even hundreds of unreleased tracks, never-before-seen photos and copious historical liner notes, but sometimes it really only needs one raison d’etre to justify its sprawling existence. With Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s new five-disc “Déjà Vu: 50th Anniversary Edition,” for me, that one singularly validating factor is the existence of a demo version of “Our House” by Graham Nash and the then-paramour he wrote it about, Joni Mitchell.

Who knew this existed? Why didn’t it rock our worlds any time previously in the last 51 or 52 years? Isn’t this kind of like finding a manuscript of one of the four gospels in which Jesus himself put pen to scroll, just to underline the good parts?

Okay, maybe I’m in danger of overselling it. The Nash/Mitchell vocal collaboration is the most crudely recorded of all the 48 tracks spread across the new set, recorded by a friend who probably pressed “record” on a primitive cassette player. It was recorded in a New York apartment, not a studio or the actual house Mitchell and Nash fleetingly shared. But if you romanticize that period and that locale at all — and as last year’s documentary, “Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time” proved, a lot of us do — there’s a certain swooning that must be done in finally getting to hear the object of Nash’s affection sing along with him on the freshly written classic. Seemingly caught in a flub, he blurts out a “shit!” before he’s even gotten to the chorus, and Joni bursts out laughing at his chagrin, and then she proceeds to dance around his melody with a sweet harmony part that’s just a little different than what Stephen Stills and David Crosby would add to it later.

Maybe this modest, raw demo won’t mean that much even to most of their fans… but for a certain subset of us, it’s like an archeologist came up with recorded proof that gods not only walked the earth, but that they shared hippie-dippy moments of domestic tranquility before everyone got kicked out of the garden.

Harmony was certainly the key word for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all around… on the record. IRL, it was in diminishing supply by the time “Déjà Vu” was being recorded in the latter stages of 1969, as Cameron Crowe’s generous liner-notes essay reminds us. Probably anyone with the slightest CSNY consciousness now has a sense that there was a White Album aspect to the proceedings, with everyone in the foursome working up their songs individually outside the studio before bringing them in — or after after bringing them in, as Neil Young was known to take the tapes of the tracks he fronted with him after a session, to finish up on his own. (Last year, on the occasion of the album’s actual 50th birthday last year, writer Steve Hochman had a very good piece in Variety demythologizing the idea of “Déjà Vu” as a group-effort ideal.)

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“Deja Vu: 50th Anniversary Edition” from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Yet there’s a reason supergroups endure as a fantasy, if not that much of a reality for the last 49 years or so, give or take a Wilburys, Highwaymen or Boygenius. We want to believe that lone rangers can lock in together. And we largely believe it because, on enough of “Déjà Vu” to bolster anyone’s faltering faith, these guys did. Even Neil “Quitter” Young managed to stay long enough for the one-two-three punch of this album, the subsequent “Ohio”/”Find the Cost of Freedom” double-A-side, and the “4 Way Street” live album (and a quadruple punch, if you want to include the 1974 tour) to make us believe — heck, make them believe, too — that fleeting unity was worth every dirty look or dressing-room fight. To hear CSNY at their peak was to know that angel choirs really do exist, with the possibility of an impending demonic guitar squall making it all the more heavenly.

But make no mistake: If this album were to be properly billed in the current parlance of the musical day, it would be “Crosby, Stills & Nash feat. Neil Young.” And that hasn’t changed with this deluxe edition: Young reportedly pulled some of the bonus material that would have featured his voice and songs, and thus has even less of a presence among the demos and outtakes discs than he did on the original album. Not that he seems exactly ashamed about it, either: You can find the full collection proudly offered on his NYA (Neil Young Archives) website, and the one previously unreleased number that he does sing lead on, “Birds,” has received its own lyric video with his Shakey Pictures production imprimatur. Presumably there’s more that he’s holding back for “Archives 3″… or “5.” But what we do get of Unheard Neil here also mostly falls into that price-of-admission-worth territory, whether it’s “Birds” — the noblest-sounding song ever written, maybe, about abandoning a chick — or the alternate version of Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” that runs 10 minutes instead of the original album’s paltry four. Suffice it to say that none of the additional six minutes has to do with clipper near-misses and all of it is about the Stills/Young guitar interplay that for decades has been of rock’s greatest but most elusive elixirs.

The demos disc, aside from Young’s “Birds” (accompanied by Nash ), is fairly split between Nash, Stills and Crosby solo acoustic tryouts of songs that did and didn’t ultimately make the record —  18 in all. The outtakes disc consists of full-band versions of 11 compositions that didn’t make the record, and this particular CD is dominated by lost Stills cuts. And even if there was wisdom in setting aside most of the material in favor of what landed on the album, a whole disc’s worth of Stephen Stills working out what was, for him in 1970, B-grade material still amounts to an A+ experience, if only for the sure ambiance of soaking in the vibe the band had going on and particularly the creative fire that was going on in Stills’ soul. Some of these songs by S, C and N should have made an album; fortunately, a good amount did, just not this one.

These bonus tracks on discs 2 and 3 aren’t unlike the demos and rough tracks on the Beatles’ White Album and “Abbey Road” boxed sets, for the amount of first tries at songs that ended up on subsequent solo albums, or made their debut as live tracks “Four Way Street.” (Well, one of them wasn’t a first attempt; Crosby had already had his menage a trois song “Triad” recorded and rejected by the Byrds, before it got set aside here. His other “Déjà Vu” contributions were about reincarnation and being a hippie Samson, so it’s saying something that his threesome ode was still too weird for the record.) Nash’s “Right Between the Eyes” is a superior example of a non-country cheatin’ song, thinking of the cuckolded party in the adultery as he sings the memorable refrain, “A man’s a man that looks a man right between the eyes.” That song got its moment soon enough, anyway, on “4 Way Street,” as did Crosby’s “The Lee Shore” and even “Triad.” (Did someone say four-way? Don’t tell Croz.) It’s nice to have both solo and electric versions of “Laughing,” the anti-guru rejoinder to George Harrison’s spiritual pursuits that would end up on Crosby’s first solo album. A group version of John Sebastian’s “How Have You Been” is to die for and would have made a fine addition, even if it makes sense Sebastian kept it for his solo debut. Throw in Stills’ “Everyday We Live,” “Horses Through a Rainstorm” and a few others and it’s easy to imagine “Déjà Vu” having become a double-album, even if Young had kept saving most of his good stuff for his concurrently recorded “After the Goldrush” album.

As for the early drafts of classics that did make the record, “Déjà Vu: 50th Anniversary Edition” is again like those aforementioned Beatles boxed sets in that we can see how close some of those songs came to not being classics, quite, without the final bit of vocal arrangement or an extra melodic element that sent them over the top. Most fascinating in this regard, to me, is the first demo version of “Teach Your Children,” which just flattens out at the end of the chorus instead of taking the twist during the “if they told you, you would cry” section that generations have known and loved. Think of the millions of campfires that might have ended prematurely, potentially sending dangerous embers into the air, if this song had not become one of the great sing-alongs of the last century. Only “Teach Your Children” can prevent forest fires.

The fourth CD, “Alternates,” is, yes, an alternative version of nearly the full album. (It will be released on Record Store Day on its own as a single LP, a la Warner/Rhino’s tradition of issuing alternate “Moondances” or “Rumours” culled from boxed sets for RSD.) These aren’t all revelatory, though it’s interesting to hear “Teach” without the ingenious addition of neophyte pedal steel player Jerry Garcia or “Helpless” with a perhaps superfluous Neil harmonica part. For a finale, Stills’ “Everybody I Love You” is replaced by “Know You Got to Run,” and I think the album (which was always weakest in the final stretch) works just as well by ordering off the demos menu for a different closer.

The fifth disc is an LP version of the remastered original album that is disc 1 among the CDs. Some without turntables may consider the inclusion of a slab of vinyl a waste of their time, although it’s hard to conceive of most classic rock fans as not being double-teamers with formats these days and grateful for the opportunity to have the O.G. LP in both. In any case, Rhino’s penchant for including vinyl and doing most boxed sets as 12×12 packages has never been any better justified than it is in the case of “Déjà Vu,” where, if you’re of a certain age, you remember rubbing your fingers with glee over the unique fake leatherette of the gatefold LP jacket, lovingly reproduced here in all its tactile glory. (Crowe’s liner notes point out that the standard cost of manufacturing a gatefold cover in 1970 was 19 cents, but this album cost 69 cents. No wonder that a record company memo reproduced among the pictured artifacts warns that the list price for “Déjà Vu” will go up from $3.99 to a highway-robbery $4.99.)

Crowe’s excellent liner notes, which run in the thousands of words, are another reason to be glad this edition wasn’t reduced to clamshell packaging, along with the many outtakes from photo sessions by Henry Diltz and original jacket photographer Tom Gundelfinger. (Did Young actually put in more hours with CSN at photo shoots than in the studio? These are the things we ponder.) Crowe, not unexpectedly, puts everything about the original album into context, relying on recent interviews with everyone but Young… and for his recollections, he can crib notes from his own ’70s Q&As for Rolling Stone or Crawdaddy. What it often comes down to is that the boys were a mess. Romantically, Nash had split with Mitchell by the time the album came out, and Crosby had suffered the death of his girlfriend in a car accident early in its making, which left him curled up on the studio floor in a fetal ball. Throw in the more mundane squabbles about whether hundreds of takes were necessary and you’ve got a recipe for a kind of deja vu that they wouldn’t necessarily want to immediately repeat.

But for fans, wanting to hear it all over again hasn’t diminished over 50 years. (Or 51 — between this, the “Plastic Ono Band” boxed set and probably others to come, the pandemic is causing us to get a lot of archival stuff a year later than planned.) Does the album have at least a slightly darker tone than the Young-less “Crosby, Stills & Nash” record that immediately preceded it in ’69? Sure — although an album with Nash leading the two greatest group-sings since Mitch Miller is only going to go so dark. Is it fine, maybe even preferable, that this one feels less about letting the sunshine in? Maybe the better question is: Did a little tension in the air ever ruin a rock ‘n’ roll record? Not in this case, it didn’t. It’s helpful to remember that the most anticipated album of 1970 (and that includes Beatles solo debuts!) was not greeted as a disappointment, nor does it feel like one with a half-century of hindsight. Only time will tell whether it holds up like billion-year-old carbon but, you know, it’s off to a good start.

And if there’s something about the whole that fails to strike you as greater than the parts, them’s some parts. The Stills-arranged cover of Mitchell’s “Woodstock” is as great a Side 2-starting centerpiece as any rock record had, ever. But for myself, personally, at the moment I’m gravitating to that other Joni moment — the “Our House” demo that has her voice on it. When you’re having dental work done and they tell you to imagine something idyllic to get through it, the next time I’m in that situation, I might think of myself in that moment of time at their house in Laurel Canyon, maybe pre-incarnated as one of the two cats in the yard, listening in on counterculture icons creating their own version of domestic bliss.

Deja Vu - 50th Anniversary (Deluxe Edition) $88.94 Buy It