Crosby, Stills, and Nash–CSN

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Quite a while ago, though I recall 8th grade pretty clearly (or was it the 9th?), I had an English/Literature teacher who contributed to my early musical foundation with several recommendations.  For this, I forgive him for making us memorize and recite in class the bloody dagger speech in Macbeth.  One of those was Crosby, Stills and Nash, particularly their self-titled first album and CSN, which they released in 1969 and 1977, respectively. I’ve listened to most of their music, and these remain my favorite – crisp harmonies, good song structure, good lyrics.  Sure, Neil Young joined the group for a while, but even before I had a political inclination, I wasn’t interested in their counterculture and social protest tendencies between these two releases.

 
I replaced their first album some time ago on CD, but only recently found a copy of CSN for $5.99.  Listening to it is like getting reacquainted with an old friend.  I had forgotten most of the songs until I heard the first several notes.  This is a consistently good album, and despite gaining a #2 sales position behind Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, I think it’s largely forgotten.  One song that my teacher recommended was “Cathedral,” and it was a favorite.    Musically, it’s primarily a dark and tightly written piano piece with a tension that breaks only for the chorus.  Splendid.  But what the heck was I listening to?  This happens fairly frequently when I listen to songs to figure out what they’re singing about, rather than hearing voices as an instrument.  You be the judge:

6 o'clock in the morning, I feel pretty good
So I dropped into the luxury of the Lords
Fighting dragons and crossing swords
With the people against the hordes who came to conquer

7 o'clock in the morning, here it comes
I taste the warning and I am so amazed
I'm here today, seeing things so clear this way
In the car and on my way to Stonehenge

I'm flying in Winchester cathedral
Sunlight pouring through the break of day
Stumbled through the door and into the chamber
There's a lady setting flowers on a table covered lace
And a cleaner in the distance finds a cobweb on a face
And a feeling deep inside of me tells me this can't be the place

I’m flying in Winchester cathedral
All religion has to have its day
Expressions on the face of the Saviour
Made me say, "I can't stay"

Open up the gates of the church and let me out of here
Too many people have lied in the name of Christ
For anyone to heed the call
So many people have died in the name of Christ
That I can't believe it all

And now I'm standing on the grave of a soldier that died in 1799
And the day he died it was a birthday and I noticed it was mine
And my head didn't know just who I was
And I went spinning back in time
And I am high upon the altar, high upon the altar, high

I'm flying in Winchester cathedral
It's hard enough to drink the wine
The air inside just hangs in delusion
But given time, I'll be fine

Open up the gates of the church and let me out of here
Too many people have lied in the name of Christ
For anyone to heed the call
So many people have died in the name of Christ
That I can't believe it all

Now I'm standing on the grave of a soldier that died in 1799
And the day he died it was a birthday and I noticed it was mine
And my head didn't know just who I was
And I went spinning back in time
And I am high upon the altar, high upon the altar, high

I’ll forgive myself something.  Fourteen year old was no doubt caught up in dragons and swords and left the rest of it alone.  And, funny, I thought “I taste the warning” was “I taste the morning.”    In any case, listening to it today, I have no idea what “I’m flying in Winchester Cathedral” even means.  And here I introduce an element that would have unfathomably changed my life, and probably for the worse, had it been around back then.  Google.  Turns out Mr. Nash, who wrote the lyric, was recalling a LSD trip (online mentions are unreferenced) and suddenly things start to click a bit.  He was indeed traveling near Stonehenge and stopped to visit Winchester Cathedral “under the influence.”  We see now how he got his wings. 

Winchester_Cathedral_High_Altar,_Hampshire,_UK_-_Diliff

It’s a grand, ornate place with ample history, and as one puzzles over the grandeur (and expenses) of many places built for worship, this one strikes me as both awesome and, as such things may be, self-serving to the church.    It speaks to a time when “all religion has to have it’s day.”  This place has, and for centuries.  But, that’s the thing about viewing religions – they’re segregations of spiritual pursuits organized in categories by man for academic purposes.  Theology, now, that’s a different thing.  It’s a God centered view of spirituality.  Nash has written off religions probably long before he entered these ostentatious trappings.
 
What follows is a trite polemic heard many times before and many times to come. 

Too many people have lied in the name of Christ
For anyone to heed the call
So many people have died in the name of Christ
That I can't believe it all
 
The first stanza harbors a truth and inserts opinion as fact.  For people looking to escape the obligations of a God centered view of life, I’m certain that blaming believers for being imperfect is suitable cause to throw the baby out with the bathwater, never mind that Christianity invites those that were made imperfect and will remain that way.  Still, despite all that, people have actually heeded the call, and continue to do so.  Then there’s those that died.  That’s a reasonable approach for questioning Christ’s church in comparison with his teaching, though it ignores ample scriptural evidence that fighting in a just war is permitted.  A “just war,” though, can suffer the redefinitions of the powers that be, which seem to boast their imperfections consistently through the centuries.

“Expressions on the face of the saviour made me say, I can’t stay.” 

And that’s the rub.  When it comes to Christ, whatever his carved expression may be, what choice is there?  Throw accusations that He isn’t good enough?  Some would and some do, dissatisfied that a loving god would allow people to be the way he made them in a world where bad things happen.  But, left absent of any arguments in recorded history to reject the person of Christ as handily as he does Christians, Nash chooses to leave.  I wonder if he’s fought further about that moment.

Per Nash,  “I was once walking down the central aisle of Winchester Cathedral and felt a presence at my feet.  I happened to be standing on the grave of Hugh Foulkes, a soldier who died in 1799 on the same day that I was born.  I find that most wars are fought in the name of God.  You know, my God’s better than your God, and I’ll kill you to prove it.”  Such coincidences, and much less, have caused others to find faith.  One wonders about someone who enters a cathedral while high on acid.  For what was he searching?  To meet God?  Or to find additional reasons to reject Him?  I don’t know.

In any case, now that I know the LSD angle, it remains a great song, and an honest one as well.

Regarding the remainder of the album, the production values are high as is the artistry.  There’s not a single song that I like dislike hearing, and it’s a pleasure to hear it again (never mind having the bother of flipping an album).  They obviously worked very hard at this album, and it shows.  What went unnoticed those years ago is the subject matter of the lyrics that speak through each of the artists’ contributions:  broken relationships, the transience of life, and a search for meaning in life.  There’s a sad irony there in context of the one song, but it’s the human condition. 

Favorite songs:

“Cathedral,” “Shadow Captain,” “Dark Star” "See the Changes"





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