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So there are countless reasons to skip Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at the Arrowhead Pond on Saturday. Steep ticket prices ($56 to $100? Jeez, are we still paying for David Crosby's new liver?). Crosby and Stephen Stills' lardasses. Graham Nash missing—but still sustaining—those dental-drill-on-the-chalkboard high notes. Or is that Neil Young's guitar? Or—worse—Neil Young's harmonica? And then there are the potential cardiac arrests, the post-traumatic acid trips, and the balding guys with short gray ponytails as far as the eye can see.
But try to think of an artist today who is as radical (by which I mean really shaping rock music and politics) and successful (by which I mean making money) as CSN&Y were 30 years ago. These guys were mainstream, and they raged against the machine. Everyone bought their records and went to their concerts. Everyone.
Perhaps that's because they weren't really pop or rock or folk, so they drew fans of all three. With or without Young, the group set stinging rock commentary to soothing acoustic music, creating a sound simultaneously counterculture-friendly and staunchly traditional. It was like Woody Guthrie writing for the Lettermen.
When Young plugged in, they were something greater still, with his buzzing riffs and calculated counterpoint with supremely underrated guitarist Stills giving the music muscle and urgency. Combined with his songwriting and almost reluctant vocals, Young made the act more than contemporary: they were in the exact moment the music was being played.
And Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are credited with creating some of the era's most potent anti-war anthems, something they managed to pull off with one little song that barely had anything to do with Vietnam or CSN&Y. Stills penned "For What It's Worth," about a 1966 flare-up on the Sunset Strip between hippies and the LAPD, for his previous band, Buffalo Springfield. (Little-known Buffalo Springfield factoid: the band played its final show on May 5, 1968, in Long Beach.) You've heard "For What It's Worth" a million times—it was recently used to sell lite beer or prescription allergy-relief medication or something like that, but in the late '60s, it was on the soundtrack for dissent.
"Wooden Ships," which was written with Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner, has been dismissed by some as dripping with dopey hippie imagery. But other people love that kind of shit. And no one argues that for real anti-war action, there's no beating Young's "Ohio," which he wrote on the fly to mourn the four students shot down by National Guardsmen during a Vietnam War protest at Kent State on May 4, 1970. The song ends with the line "four dead in Ohio" repeated over and over, punctuated with yelps straight out of primal-scream therapy. Maybe that's the sound you make when government storm troopers snuff you out. Or as you watch your classmate being snuffed out. Or when you hear your daughter has been snuffed out.
Plenty of other songs by CSN&Y and its respective members rail against The Man and stick up for all the little people—something you certainly don't hear enough of in today's Clear Channel world. If that's not enough to wipe out thoughts of off-key hippie burnouts or a lesbian-impregnating David Crosby on the loose, consider that most fan and critic reviews from the CSNY2K tour were positive. Even those who expected a standard 90-minute has-been-stravaganza were pleasantly surprised to witness three-hour shows that included the hits, songs from the members' various incarnations (solo or otherwise) and even new stuff—all played with astonishing verve, considering the old-fartiness factor.
Of course, that was before Sept. 11, which not only changed the world as we know it, but also Neil Young as we know him. Two months after that fateful day, Young unleashed "Let's Roll," a redneck-y patriotic ditty taken from the famous words of Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer to an Airfone operator, shortly before he and several others apparently gained control of the plane, crashing it into the Pennsylvania countryside. Despite changing times and musical tastes, Young has had an uncanny ability to get his latest stuff in heavy rotation, and that's what happened with "Let's Roll." Only it wasn't on all the usual rock stations; it was picked up by hundreds of right-wing talk shows across the country, including Imus in the Morning.
In case you think that's just Neil being Young—you know, honoring the common man aboard the doomed plane and not necessarily the politicians who capitalized on the event afterward—think again. People for the American Way gave Young their Spirit of Liberty award in December in Beverly Hills. He used the occasion to proclaim his support for the USA/Patriot Act.
"To protect our freedoms," said Young, a Canadian, "it seems we're going to have to relinquish some of our freedoms for a short period of time."
So much for rockin' in the free world.Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 704-2000. Sat., 8 p.m. $56-$100. All ages.