Of the two authors, Browne is the more likely to produce sentences such as: “Between snorts of cocaine, the trio rounded up a few other musicians …” He seems not to know what “unison” means, which is odd for a man writing a book about one of the world’s most famous vocal harmony groups, and has a regrettable fondness for telling us that people “reached out” to each other. But he does have the granular detail, including the White House face-off, which Doggett misses. Doggett is the better writer, however, and has the sense to deal with the last 45 years in a dozen pages, while Browne spends 230 pages labouring through the endlessly repetitive disintegration of all that bright promise, by the end of which the reader’s spirits are thoroughly lowered.
Despite clashing personalities, their mellifluous vocal harmonies and powerfully melodic songs symbolised the hippy ethos of togetherness. Songs such as “Marrakesh Express” were secular hymns welcoming the new psychedelic age of liberation. Meanwhile, its collapse into violence and disillusionment was addressed by the likes of “Ohio”, a powerful condemnation of the slaughter of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent University in 1970.
Browne, a senior editor at Rolling Stone, has a brisk, reportorial style, moving at breakneck speed through their early years, covering the histories of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies in under 35 pages. Thereafter the pace slows as the author audaciously attempts to chronicle the entire careers of all four members, individually and together, a seemingly impossible and hubristic undertaking given their output. At times the text reads like a high-grade, ever-extending magazine piece. Americanisms abound, notably the phrase “hunkered down”, which is used on one too many occasions. The musical descriptions are pithy but impressive in scope.
For fans who want detailed chronology, it will be a joy, but Doggett’s book is also a deft portrait of a golden age tarnishing even as the band sang. CSNY played Woodstock and Altamont, one boot in glorious late-1960s utopia, the other in the curdled cynicism that crept over the 1970s. On stage in Chicago in 1969, Crosby introduced Wooden Ships, a song about survivors of nuclear war escaping to sea. “So they work out a common language, with music or whatever, and find that they really dig each other, that they’re kinda brothers — and they sail off into the sunset,” he said. “Mind you, it’s only a fantasy.”
Browne’s in a more comprehensive fashion, use the saga of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as a metaphor for the Woodstock generation and their doomed mission to return to the garden. “Sixties radicals found it easier to build new homes for themselves than to rebuild American political culture,” one historian wrote. True, but at least the Buddha on the mantelpiece of those new homes served as a reminder of the ideals former Sixties radicals once had, just as the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young captured the best of these difficult, incompatible men. That’s why we are still reading about them, talking about them and, most significantly, listening to them 50 years later.