Deja Vu was a pivitol time in the career of Crosby, Stills & Nash. In 1969, they had released their self-titled first album. It was a huge success with critics and the public alike, but they felt they needed another guitarist for live performances. Eventually, they decided to add Neil Young…the same musician Stephen Stills fought with when they were in Buffalo Springfield. Stephen thought it would be different this time.
My wife and I were newlyweds living in Memphis, TN while I attended electronics school. The day Deja Vu was released (March 11th, 1970), we went to the record store…but it had closed for the day. We looked in to see a huge display at the front of the store with lots of copies of the album…only a locked door away. We may have wanted to break in, but we came back when the store was open. Deja Vu had the leather-looking cover with the gold embossed letters, and an actual photograph glued to the front.
Memphis FM radio stations started playing the album right away. “Carry On” by Stephen Stills was the first song I heard. It was the perfect album opener, with excellent harmony and a driving rhythm…a worthy follow-up to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” which had opened their first album. The hit singles from Deja Vu were Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children” (with Jerry Garcia on steel guitar), Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, and Nash’s “Our House”. The Stills solo song “4 + 20” got a lot of airplay, and so did David Crosby’s “Deja Vu” (with John Sebastian on harmonica).
Looking back, we know that Neil Young only played on his two tracks “Helpless” & “Country Girl”, plus three more songs “Almost Cut My Hair”, “Woodstock” and “Everybody I Love You”.
It could certainly be debated whether Neil Young’s addition was good or bad for Crosby, Stills & Nash. Drummer Dallas Taylor, Bassist Greg Reeves, and Engineer Bill Halverson have said the first album was made with great cooperation and enthusiasm, but Deja Vu had the musicians butting heads. We’ll never know if CSN would have had smoother sailing if they hadn’t added the Y. What we do know is that even though Neil Young had two very good solo albums prior to joining CSN, they were not very successful. His solo success came after Deja Vu gave him a much higher profile. He clearly showcased his talent with After The Gold Rush and Harvest…which were his next two releases. Those were filled with songs CSN would have loved to record.
Deja Vu hit #1, and eventually went 7-times Platinum in the U.S. alone. It’s also one of the best titles ever for a second album. The album’s popularity not only helped Neil Young’s solo efforts, but the other members of the group had major success with their individual releases.
As originally expected, Neil Young was a great asset to the group’s live shows. His lead guitar duets with Stills added energy to their electric sets, and his solo songs were a welcome part of their concerts as the years went on.
Neil Young’s greatest contribution to the group’s recordings came in 1970, shortly after the release of Deja Vu…the single “Ohio”. That song about the Kent State shootings by the National Guard, fit right in with the band’s political awareness. It was similar to what Stephen Stills did with “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)” after the Sunset Strip demonstrations in 1967.
It’s hard to believe we’re approaching 50 years years since the release of Deja Vu. It’s songs reflected the times, and yet they still hold up today. Although Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had a rocky relationship, maybe their combustible passion helped produce such great music.
Bonus story: If you’re wondering why I didn’t include a photo of my original first-printing copy of Deja Vu, it’s because someone stole it. When I was a Broadcast Journalism student at the University of Nebraska in the mid ’70’s, we could use our own albums for our DJ shifts on the campus radio station. One time I forgot my albums there, and when I returned for them, the only one missing was Deja Vu. I had to buy Deja Vu all over again.