The Essentials: Wind on the Water by Crosby & Nash
The death of David Crosby this past week has brought forth a litany of testaments from friends and fans alike, including from me. As a result, his classic works with and without Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young are being celebrated alongside his contributions to the Byrds, from his earliest demos to his latter-day recordings.
I have not read any of the critic-penned obits, as I don’t feel the need, but hope many are pointing to his 1971 solo LP, the communal-minded If I Could Only Remember My Name…, as an under-appreciated gem. (For the uninitiated: It’s akin to Van Morrison’s Listen to the Lion, just tinged with Southern California soul.) Another album that should not be forgotten is his 1975 collaboration with Graham Nash, Wind on the Water, which is as stellar a record as any released. (As the picture below shows, I picked it up almost a decade after its release, on October 4, 1984, the same day that I bought Dave Zimmer’s CSN biography.) It’s an album I’ve considered “essential” since that first listen.
Years long ago, for the original Old Grey Cat website (1997-2006), I put together a quick-hit discography of Messrs. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young that offered my snappy takes on their many albums. For Wind on the Water, I wrote:
If it’s not already in your collection, it should be. Quite simply, this is C&N’s best album and on a par with anything they, Stills or Young in any of their many combinations, whether solo or together, have released. Consider the lead-off track, “Carry Me.” Written for David’s mother, it chronicles the desire to slip from this life to the afterlife minus the maudlin or morose moments one might associate with such a topic. It’s a moving, haunting testament. “Bittersweet” is another damn near perfect song. “On the one side, truth towers like a cliff…” David’s entries catch him at the peak of his songwriting prowess—same goes for Graham. “Cowboy of Dreams,” said to have been inspired by Neil Young, may not get radio play anymore—but it should. Same goes for “Take the Money and Run” (his take on 1974’s “Doom” tour?) and the rest of his songs here. (A+)
(The only thing I’d change now? I’d swap out “the” for “her” in “it chronicles the desire to slip from this life….”)
The album came together after yet another studio reunion with Stephen Stills and Neil Young had fallen apart. Rather than retread the same ground most fans know, I’ll point the uninitiated to Cameron Crowe’s Uncool website, where he’s shared an article about those machinations that first appeared in Rolling Stone on October 23, 1975. The album itself features the studio stalwarts known as “The Section,” aka keyboardist Craig Doerge, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, bassist Leland Sklar, and drummer Russell Kunkel; when backing Crosby and Nash on the tour that followed the album’s September 15, 1975, release, they came to be known as “the Mighty Jitters.” Also joining in on the fun: Jackson Browne, who provides backing vocals on “Love Work Out”; Carole King, who plays Hammond organ both on “Bittersweet” and “Homeward Through the Haze” (and sings on the latter); and James Taylor, who plays acoustic guitar on “Carry Me” and provides backing vocals on “To the Last Whale.”
The personnel aren’t what makes the album great, however. It’s the lyrical and melodic acumen that both Crosby and Nash demonstrate time and again; it’s a thoroughly adult set of songs, with the hippie dreams of yore replaced by grown-up concerns. “Carry Me,” for instance, deals with transcendence in its first two verses before veering to the ultimate transcendence—death—when Crosby recounts something his mother said while in the hospital while literally waiting to die. As he recounted in the liner notes to the 1991 CSN box set, “She said she felt like a bird with weights tied to her feet, that if somebody would just untie them she could fly. What an image—I couldn’t ignore it.” The song is sure to hit home with anyone who’s lost a parent or loved one. “Mama Lion,” written by Nash, is about Joni Mitchell, the “mama lion” of two cats: “She’s living in the future/and it lies in her hand.”
“Bittersweet,” another of Crosby’s meditative musings, digs into why clouds often crowd the blue sky that should be life; along with several others, it shows that he was still processing the tragic 1969 death of his girlfriend, Christine Hinton. Nash’s fiery “Take the Money and Run,” on the other hand, was inspired by his disillusionment with CSNY’s 1974 stadium tour, but could well be about normal life, too. Some folks see life as a series of money-grabs, little more. “Naked in the Rain,” a Crosby-Nash co-write, is another that delves into the inner turmoil facing Crosby. What makes it, and the other songs here, so powerful isn’t the inspiration, however; it’s how we, the listener, relate to them. “Love Work Out” finds Nash, in the words of Neil Young, looking for a love, while recognizing what it takes to make it last.
“Low Down Payment,” one of my favorites from the album, is a flat-out rocker that finds Crosby exposing the star-making machinery for what it is. (Interesting to note, the song began life as a jam with the Grateful Dead during their Blues for Allah recording sessions.) “Cowboy of Dreams” is another Nash ode, this one inspired in part by Neil Young—“So I went to the country/To look up a friend/Cause I heard that the house/And the barn had a blend.” (That’s the “More Barn” story right there!) “Homeward Through the Haze” was first recorded for the never-realized CSNY album Human Highway; that version can be heard on the box set. Nash’s “Fieldworker,” about the conditions faced by migrant farmworkers, is the lone political song, though I suppose some would argue that the closing “To the Last Whale” is, as well.
“To the Last Whale” is actually two songs in one, the opening “Critical Mass,” which is a wordless vocal treatise courtesy of Crosby’s imagination, and then Nash’s “Wind on the Water,” about the senseless slaughter of whales. I remember, when I saw Crosby, Stills and Nash perform it in 1984 at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia, the stage was bathed in darkness for “Critical Mass” (maybe to hide the fact that it was a pre-recorded track?) before “Wind on the Water” swept everyone away. Just a magical moment, that song and performance.
Anyway, the Wind on the Water album was met with positive reactions in most of the contemporaneous reviews that popped up in newspapers in the months following its release. L. Pierce Carson of the Napa Valley Register opined, “This is one of the best albums to hit the market in many a month. Don’t pass it by.” The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer’s David Everette agreed, calling it a “lyrical masterpiece” and summing up with a simple, “If you don’t buy this one, it’s a mistake.” Rich Tozier of the Bangor Daily News chimed in with: “What we find in WIND is a bargain which is all too rare these days: a disc whose every cut fairly leaps with vitality.” A few critics disagreed, of course. In a capsule review, for instance, Dale Anderson of the Buffalo Evening News wrote, “They make for a pleasant way of passing time, but there’s not much substance to stick in your mind.” But the naysayers were few and far between. Even Rolling Stone liked it, with Stephen Holder noting what I said up top, albeit it in more colorful language: “Wind on the Water is not an album made by, for or about kids, but the work of men who face being beached like whales on a sandbar by the youth culture and who are determined to survive. They will.”
The track list: