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Why Crosby, Stills and Nash is Overrated.

The infamous Woodstock Festival in 1969 launched quite a few careers.  Santana, for example, was an unknown cover band that became a famous cover band after their concert appearance (with hits like “Oye Come Va” and “Black Magic Woman”).  Joe Cocker was a growling cover singer who became a famous cover singer (thanks to a cover of “With A Little Help from My Friends”).  Sha Na Na was a fun nostalgia act that became a very popular nostalgia act.  The list goes on.

The band that might have become most synonymous with the legendary festival, though, and who actually recorded a song called “Woodstock,” was Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN).  Interesting footnote to the band’s appearance at the concert: As Stephen Stills acknowledged in the Woodstock movie, this was only the band’s second-ever live performance.

Nice work if you can get it, being an unknown band that gets the chance to play to an audience of 500,000.  In actuality, it’s testimony to the band’s veteran insider status of the time.  They had connections, and they used them.

In the ensuing decades, CSN has remained a superstar act, reuniting in various configurations to release the occasional album, embark on a tour, or appear at social causes (like the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest, where disenfranchised Americans vented their concerns about the wealthiest 1% of America).  What has propelled the band’s career for 45 years, though, remains their first two much-heralded albums in 1969 and 1970.

So, when music fans talk about CSN, they invariably think of those two highly touted albums, the self-titled debut in 1969, and the follow-up effort in 1970 (with Neil Young added), ‘Déjà Vu.’

Two questions arise: Are these two albums really as good as their historical weight?  And, are they so good as to forever sustain the band’s career, no matter the quality of their later output?

For example: The debut album produced two Top 40 hit singles, “Marrakesh Express” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and peaked at number six on the Billboard albums chart.

But is it any good?

Well, for starters, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is indeed a masterpiece, filled with great melodies, great lyrical nuggets, and a doo-wop singalong hook.  But “Marrakesh Express” is annoying fluff—typical of the vapid, happy-hippie ditties that ruled late-60’s radio.  And if “Marrakesh Express” isn’t trite enough, there’s the precious crooning of “Guinnevere” and the bland musings of “Lady of the Island.”  Stills proves to be the workhorse of the album, contributing the album’s other highlights, “You Don’t Have to Cry” and “Helplessly Hoping.”  Crosby’s “Long Time Gone,” however, initiates the band’s penchant for “message” songs, advising the listener to “Speak out, you got to speak out against the madness.”

That madness, no doubt, was Vietnam, riots, assassinations, etc.  But a simple contrast with Neil Young’s far-better “Ohio” demonstrates that what separates generic folk-fluff from creative genius is concise and penetrating wordplay.  (“Ohio” doesn’t worry about “something that’s going on around here.”  No, it nails the heart of the matter: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming.”)

“Wooden Ships” is another popular track from the album, and it became omnipresent on classic rock radio.  But what sinks the tune is more of CSN’s overwrought lyrical warnings about “anguished cries…human feelings die.”

In general, that first album is a mixed bag.  Some great songs by Stills surrounded by Nash’s and Crosby’s lesser musical and lyrical clichés of the era.

So what of the second album?

‘Déjà vu’ hit number one on the Billboard albums chart and spawned three Top 40 songs, “Woodstock,” “Teach Your Children,” and “Our House.”

“Our House” is a catchy ditty, good stuff for the emerging FM radio of the time.  And “Teach Your Children” is a pleasant, though obvious, sing-along tune.  But much of the album suffers from the same problem as the first, namely, inconsistency.  Yes, there is Neil Young’s stark classic “Helpless.”  But Crosby’s banal output is a poor counterbalance.  “Almost Cut My Hair” is now considered his signature tune, but it’s a dumb song.  Yes, long hair was more of a political statement in 1970 than in later years.  But the irony of a wealthy, self-indulgent musician whining about such tedium comes off as irksome.  And while Stills crafts a good melody with “Carry On,” he still retreats into clichéd hippiedom with a chorus that proclaims “Carry on, love is coming, love is coming to us all.”

‘Déjà Vu’ sounds more polished than its predecessor, and contains more industry sheen.  But it also feels very produced and deliberate, something of a greatest hits collection from the different writers.

Here then is the crux of the problem with CSN.  After ‘Déjà Vu,’ the three principal CSN artists drifted into the rarefied ether of super-stardom, issuing various solo and duo albums throughout the decade.  But they wouldn’t reunite until 1977’s ‘CSN’ album, which hit number two on the album charts while featuring Nash’s catchy “Just A Song Before I Go.”

Really, though, there’s nothing much of true significance in CSN’s entire catalog, post-1970.  And therein lies the problem.

Nash’s first solo album featured the track “Chicago,” and promised “We can change the world.”  It was the start of Nash’s run of grandiose statements, best exemplified by his quote in the Robert Greenfield biography ‘Bill Graham Presents,’ with Nash praising Graham because he “understood the social importance of the band.”

Stills released a string of musically adventurous, though sometimes dissonant, albums in the 70s, and enjoyed the accomplishment of a Top 20 hit with the funky “Love The One You’re With.”

And Crosby, well he got high and higher, releasing ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’ in 1971 before gradually sliding into a harrowing decade of cocaine addiction.

What this really points to, though, is how readily the threesome retreated into complacency.  In the above-mentioned Bill Graham biography, Fillmore East lighting director Joshua White lamented the group’s indulgent 1970 performances, when they came out onstage obviously “stoned up the wazoo” and “sang flat.”  Sadly, the audience, primed by the hype of Woodstock and the hipness of the first CSN album, loved them.  White observed that the music industry was changing, enough that the audience was “now applauding the presence of the artist…rather than the performance.”

CSN easily succumbed to the trappings of fame and stardom, never again writing or recording songs as potent as the best material on their first two albums.  But such laziness, or loss of focus, need not have been a byproduct of fame.  Young’s career, by contrast, took off following ‘Déjà Vu’, and saw the release of classic albums throughout the decade, culminating in the 1979 masterpiece, ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’  More importantly, Young never took the easy road throughout his career, instead releasing uncompromising and sometimes harsh musical detours in the 80s.  But his artistic drive also produced late-career milestones, like the tremendous, four-album run of 1989-1994 that resulted in ‘Freedom,’ ‘Ragged Glory,’ ‘Harvest Moon,’ and ‘Sleeps with Angels.’

CSN, by contrast, were already an oldies act in 1989.  It’s commendable that they released albums in the 90’s, but with none of the musical impact that Young achieved.

More recently, Nash published an autobiography that leans heavily on his early history, including his romance with Joni Mitchell, before segueing into proud recitations of his sculpting and photography skills.  Peeking under the surface, though, is a continuing egotism over CSN’s exalted place in the rock pantheon, including frequent observations on the band’s need to “educate” their audience.

The bottom line is that CSN has always depended on the history of their first two albums, with an overall body of work that hasn’t aged well.  Those two albums have remained an overstated calling card, though, and allowed the band to continue long past any point of real creativity.  Nash astutely observed in the Bill Graham biography that it may only be Stills’ “fame and his notoriety” that have “shielded him from being out there on the street.”  That seems a fairly good summary of CSN’s career, too.

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COWS AND THUNDER Releases New Album, ‘Scenes’

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The Woodstock, NY-based band Cows and Thunder has released ‘Scenes,’ an experimental new set of folk-rock recordings.

‘Scenes’ features a number of songs that developed from various group collaborations and jams. The overall album is a deliberate departure from the band’s previous efforts, which were often recorded quickly, during live-in-the-studio sessions. This time, as singer-songwriter Steven Capozzola explains, the group took more time to produce the songs, and to experiment with overlaid guitars, keyboards, and harmonies.

The band recorded 14 songs for the album, but ended up picking the 8 “best,” most cohesive songs. The result is typical Cows and Thunder in that the songs aim for a melodic country-rock style, with sing-along choruses. The added production, however, adds a layer of sheen and vocal flavor reminiscent of 70’s pop and rock.

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Click here to listen to a reggae song, “The Tree.”

Click here to listen to a folk-rock tune, “The Monkey Fell.”

DOWNLOAD ALBUM.

CREDITS:

  • Songs written and produced by Steven Capozzola.
  • Mandola, mandolin, and slide guitar by Dennis Sharkey.
  • Jamming and collaboration by David Andersen, Robert Ramirez, and Dennis Sharkey.
  • Mastered by Alex Saltz at APS Mastering.
  • Photography by Sigal Mandelker.

The new Cows and Thunder EP, ‘Sessions’

Liat Aug 2014 photo. east village

Woodstock, NY folk-rock band Cows and Thunder has released a new EP, ‘Sessions.’

The band hit its stride in the summer of 2014.  After a fun gig at the Woodstock ‘Concert on the Green,’ the group decided to record some new songs and a few unrecorded favorites during two days of live recordings in the living room of the band’s singer-songwriter, Steven Capozzola. The resulting EP, ‘Sessions,’ is a candid snapshot of a peak period for the band.

Recording took place in Saugerties, NY on August 20-21, 2014, and features:

Steven Capozzola: Vocals, acoustic guitar.
David Andersen: Bass.
Josh Tyler: Drums.

Woodstock musician Connor Kennedy makes guest appearances on piano, organ, and electric guitar.  David Andersen recorded, produced, and engineered the EP.  The final album was mastered by Alex Saltz.

CLICK HERE for a free listen/download of the new EP.

A Swift Kick.

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I had just boarded my flight to New York, and sat down in first class, when a stewardess told me I was in the wrong seat.  I had taken the aisle seat, 3B, and the stewardess said that I should be sitting in the window seat.

I stood up and pulled my ticket out of my pocket.  I showed it to her.  “There, it says ‘3B,’ right?”

The stewardess squinted at my ticket.  “Well, that is just the darnedest thing.” She turned to a tall blonde girl who was standing behind her.  “I’m sorry, miss, but somehow you both got assigned the same seat.”

The girl looked at my ticket, then at me, then at the stewardess.  Her eyes started to fill with tears.

I smiled at them both.  “No problem.  I’ll just take the window seat.”

The stewardess shook her head.  “I’m sorry, this is a full flight.  That seat is already taken.”

The blonde girl blinked at the stewardess.  A tear rolled down her cheek.

I turned to the stewardess.  “I could take a seat in the back.  Maybe you could comp me or something…?”

“I’ll check.  But I believe this flight is sold out.”

A man stepped around the stewardess.  “Excuse me.  I’m traveling with her.” He gestured to the blonde girl.  “I can give her my seat.”

The stewardess shook her head.  “Sir, if you disembark, your seat will get turned over to our waiting list.”

He shook his head.  “Please.  Can’t she just take my seat?”

“I’m sorry, sir.  If you’ve checked baggage and you get off now, I have to call the air marshal.  And your seat will automatically go to the waiting list.”

The blonde girl started to whimper. A silent tear swelled in her right eye, then slid down her shiny cheek.  She wiped her hand across her face.

The man tried once again with the stewardess.  “Please, you don’t understand—”  He leaned close to her.  “—This is Taylor Swift.  We need to get her to New York.  She’s playing Madison Square Garden tonight.”

“I’m sorry, sir.  Just give me a minute, please.”  The stewardess turned and rushed up to the cockpit.

I turned to Taylor and her friend.  “Listen guys, I’m so sorry about this.  I totally know what it’s like.  I have to get to New York, too.  I’m doing an AT&T audition tomorrow.  I usually do movies, but my agent thought—”

“Please—”  The man cut me off.  “Just give us a moment, okay?”

The man started to pet Taylor’s head.  Gradually, she leaned her ear against his shoulder.  After a moment, the tears stopped.  She stared off into the distance.

The stewardess returned and grabbed my arm.  “Sir, let me see your ticket.”

I handed her my ticket.  She put on her reading glasses and held the ticket up in front of her face.  “Sir, you’re not sitting in first class.  You’re back there, 3B.”

I looked at my ticket.  “Oh, I assumed I was in first class.  I’m auditioning for an AT&T commercial tomorrow—”

“You’ll need to get your stuff and move.”

“Oh, okay.”  I reached up and grabbed my laptop bag from the overhead.  I turned to Taylor and her friend.  “Sorry about that.  Good luck.”

I nodded to the stewardess and shouldered my bag.  I walked into the economy cabin, and found row 3.  I stuffed my laptop into the overhead, then climbed over a passenger and squeezed into my middle seat.
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The new COWS AND THUNDER album.

Cows & Thunder

Cows and Thunder is the result of a longtime musical partnership between singer-songwriter-guitarist Steven Capozzola and slide guitar-mandola player Dennis Sharkey. For more than a decade, the two have performed an original stew of folk, country, and blues music throughout the northeastern United States.

In recent years, the two have established Woodstock, NY as their musical home base, and have begun collaborating with a number of local musicians, including bassist/producer David Andersen. The resulting band, Cows and Thunder, focuses on sing-along country-rock and Americana music.

The ‘Cows and Thunder’ album was recorded entirely in Saugerties, NY, in the shadow of the famed Overlook Mountain. Several of the album’s songs were debuted at the 2013 Woodstock ‘Concert on the Green.’

The thick woods and pine trees of West Saugerties inform much of the album’s vibe, and Capozzola says he particularly enjoys the crickets that remain clearly audible throughout the album’s closing track, “When The Money Runs Out.”

He explains, “We love Woodstock, and we love the music scene up here. We’re not worried about breaking new musical ground. We just want to play the kind of songs that we love to listen to. When I listen to the finished record, I think of driving along Route 212, or strumming guitars on the back porch and looking up at the mountain. Hopefully we’ve captured some of that on the album.”

Cows and Thunder continue to play gigs throughout the Woodstock area. The featured track on the album, “Driving,” is now available on iTunes.

Ovitz and Out

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Ovitz and I were sitting in the bar of the Hotel Roosevelt, talking about women, baseball, and life.  Richard Simmons was supposed to join us.  But he called from his cell phone to say that he couldn’t make it.  Ovitz was hurt that Richard was blowing him off.  He threw back his martini.  “Jesus.  Richard doesn’t even have time for me.  My ex-wife wants more alimony.  I can’t get arrested in this town.”

I took a sip of my whiskey.  “Come on, Mike, you’re the king.  You and Geffen, man.  You guys are IT.”

He shook his head.  “I don’t feel like I’m ‘It.'”  He waved to the bartender for another martini.

We sat quietly for a moment.  The bartender shook up a new martini and set it down in front of Ovitz.

I gestured to the bartender.  “Put it on my tab.”

Ovitz looked at me slowly.  “You don’t have to do that.”

I patted him on the back.  “It’s no problem, baby.”

Suddenly Christina Aguilera drifted through the lobby with her entourage.  I waved at her.  “Christina, baby, I love you…come have a drink with me and Mike Ovitz.”

Christina strolled over to us.  Two of her bodyguards followed.  Christina’s hair was braided with little red-white-and-blue ribbons.  Just as she stepped in front of us, I caught sight of a shiny silver ring piercing her navel.  She smiled at us politely.  “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

I raised my whiskey.  “Baby, we bumped into each other at the post-party, you know, after the Heston funeral thing.”

Christina looked at us.  “I wasn’t at the Heston party.”

I looked at her.  “Oh, baby, I’m sorry.  I had you confused with someone else.  Can you ever forgive me?”

“It’s all right.”

She started to walk away, but I pointed at Ovitz.  “Hey, Chrissie, you know Mike Ovitz, right?”

She paused.  “Umm…I know the name…”

I nodded.  “Everybody’s heard of him.  He’s the best agent in Hollywood.”

Ovitz stood up and shook Christina’s hand.  “Pleasure to meet you.”

Christina turned to her bodyguards.  “You guys can go get a drink or something.”  She waved them away and they drifted off.  Christina took a seat next to Ovitz.

Ovitz lifted his martini.  “Here’s to you, Christina.  You and I could make millions together.”

“I’ve already got an agent.”

“Oh, really.  Who?”

“Brad Grey.”

“Oh.  Well, I’ll get you away from him eventually.”

I tapped Christina on the shoulder.  “Baby, do you want a drink?”

She smiled.  “Are you buying?”

“I sure am.”

“Okay.  A whiskey sour.”

I turned to the bartender.  “One whiskey sour for this fine lady, please.”

The bartender hurried off to make the drink.  I turned to Christina.  “Baby, you are so fine.”

Ovitz slugged his martini.  “Damn right.  She’s finer than frog’s fur.”

Christina giggled.  “I’ve never heard that one before.”

“What?  ‘Finer than frog’s fur?'”

“Yeah.”

The bartender brought over Christina’s drink.  I nodded at him.  “Put it on my tab, Darryl.”

The bartender squinted at me.  “It’s David.”

“Oh, right.”  I handed the drink to Christina.  We all clinked our glasses and sipped our drinks.  I looked at Christina and smiled.  “Baby, you are finer than the finest grain of sand.”

Ovitz nodded.  “You are finer than the finest Persian silk.”

Christina giggled.  She pointed at me and said, “I like it better when he tells me how fine I am.”

I patted her arm.  “That’s right, baby.  I know just how fine you are.”

Ovitz took another sip of his drink.  He looked at Christina intently.  “Well, let me tell you, words can’t begin to express how fine you truly are.”

I nodded.  “Yeah.  Scientists can’t even measure a grain of sand as fine as you.”

Christina laughed.  She touched my arm.  “You are so funny.”

Ovitz glared at me for a moment. “Yeah, he’s funny all right.”

I looked at Ovitz.  “Come on, Mike, lighten up.”

Christina nodded.  “Yeah, lighten up, Mike.”

Ovitz frowned.  “I’m trying to talk business here and you’re getting in the way.”

“I’m not getting in the way.”

“Yes you are.”

I turned to Christina.  “Baby, if Mike and I keep arguing like this, we’re gonna end up going “No I’m not,’ ‘Yes, you are’ until both of us throw up our hands and say, ‘FINE.’  But let me tell you, you are finer than both those ‘Fines’ put together.”

Christina touched my leg.  “WOW.  You are so funny.”

I grinned.  “Baby, you are finer than all the fines I’ve ever paid for overdue library books…”

Christina giggled out loud.  Her breasts started to tremble with laughter.  “Ah-hah-hah…”

Ovitz slugged down his drink and stood up.  “That’s it.  I’m out of here.”

I waved casually at Ovitz.  “Okay, Mike, see ya.”

Christina continued touching my leg.  It was a good night.

All Aboard

yoko

I’m not sure when it was, or for what movie, but my agent once sent me to New York for a movie audition.  I flew into New York and took a cab into midtown Manhattan.  I found myself hurrying down the main escalator of Grand Central Station, in a rush to catch a train to my audition.  I had probably a minute-and-a-half to make a train on the lower level.  I was sort of pushing my way down the escalator, ducking past people, muttering, “Excuse me, excuse me.”  Near the bottom of the escalator, I half-stumbled into a short, dark-haired woman.

“Pardon me,” I said.

The woman poked me in the shoulder.  “Why don’t you watch where you going?  You knock me over, why not?”

I continued down the escalator.  I half-turned to the woman.  “Sorry, baby— I gotta make a train.”  I continued jostling down the escalator.  “Excuse me, excuse me…”

Behind me, the dark-haired woman shouted, “`BABY’— you don’t call me ‘baby.'”

I ignored her and jumped down the last few steps of the escalator.  I landed on the tan marble floor of Grand Central’s main hall.  I began hurrying toward the north stairwell.  I had less than a minute to get to the lower level and catch my train.

I hadn’t gone more than 10 steps when someone crashed into me.  I fell forward, landing flat on my hands and knees.  My Bitterman trenchcoat— which I’d been carrying over my right arm— draped itself across the floor.

A woman’s voice shouted behind me, “That’s for calling me ‘baby.'”

I stood up and turned around.  It was the dark-haired woman from the escalator.  She was wearing large wraparound sunglasses and a black leather jacket.  Her face looked familiar.  She touched her bun of hair to steady it.  I suddenly realized that I was looking at Yoko Ono.

I hurriedly picked up my trenchcoat.  “My God, Yoko, honey— I had no idea it was you.”

Yoko glared at me.  “You a very bad person.”

I folded my trenchcoat.  “Oh, baby— don’t say that.  You gotta forgive me.  See, I just gotta make this train.”  I turned and pointed at the stairwell to the lower level.  “See, I gotta go.  All right, honey?…  Everything’s cool, right?  Okay, bye…”

Yoko stomped her foot.  “No, no.  You say sorry, right now.”

I was frantic to make my train.  “No, Yoko— I love you, baby, you know that—”

“Say sorry.”

I had to think quickly.  “My God,” I shouted.  “What’s that?”  I pointed to something behind Yoko.  She turned to look, putting up a hand to steady her hair.  Instantly I sprinted off to the stairwell.

I jumped down the first part of the stairs.  Behind me Yoko began shouting, “Creep, creep…”

I jumped the final steps to the lower level.  I could hear the clip-clop of Yoko’s feet echoing behind me in the stairwell.  She was chasing after me.  I ran down the hall to my train’s gate.  I ducked through the gate and sprinted down the ramp leading to the platform.

Yoko saw me run through the gate.  She began shrieking something unintelligible, “Eeeeeeeeeeeehhh…”

I spotted my train waiting along the platform.  At that moment, a bell sounded.  Just as I reached the first car of the train, the door slid shut in front of me.

I panted frantically.  I glanced back at Yoko and began pounding on the door of the train.

“Please, somebody.  For God’s sake— open the door…”

I pounded on the door again.  A Metro-North conductor walked by; he ignored me.

I glanced back again at Yoko.  She was bounding down the ramp.  Her bun of hair was flopping loosely around her ears.  I pushed off the door of the train and began sprinting down the platform.

I ran past the next car, and then past the dining car, trying to put some distance between me and Yoko.  I glanced back and saw her lurching clumsily along, half-trying to steady her hair.  Stray black hairs had fallen across her sunglasses.

The bell of the train rang again.  I ran to the next car and began pounding on the door.  “Please somebody— anybody.  Help me.  God—”

A conductor appeared in front of the door.  He was holding a clipboard.  He yelled through the window, “You got a ticket?”

“Yes, yes,” I shouted, still pounding on the glass.  “I have a ticket.”

“Let me see it.”

I reached into my pocket to pull out my round-trip voucher.  I glanced back at Yoko.  She had pulled a hairpin out of her hair.  She was charging toward me, holding the hairpin like a knife in her hand.  All her hair had flopped down crazily around her face.  She saw me glance at her and began to shout, “AIGHHH…”

I dug out my voucher and held it up for the conductor.  “Please, hurry.  She’s gonna kill me…”

The conductor glanced at my ticket.  Then he reached up and pushed the door release button.  A bell rang and the door slid open.  I fell inside, panting and wheezing.

“Oh, thank Christ,” I gasped.  “Thank you, Lord.”

The conductor released the button and the door slid shut.  Just at that moment, Yoko leaped for the door.  I looked up in time to see her face bounce off the window.  She fell back onto the platform.

The Metro-North conductor didn’t seem to notice Yoko caroming off the door.  He reached down and helped me to my feet.  “Let me have your ticket.”

I handed him my round-trip voucher.  The train began to rumble down the track.