The smell of rotting hippies filled the air, and it wasn’t helped by the 109 degree temperature. The security and logistics guys all looked like my dad, middle-aged guys, affable and earnest about their work. (I write this, realizing that to the untrained eye, I also look like my dad, but until I walk into the bathroom in the morning, and that old guy in the mirror frightens me, I am always and forever, nineteen in my mind.) The security guys, the guitar technicians the sound engineers, the bus drivers, were all middle-aged and professional, and strangely, not sweating, despite the fact that hell had sprung a leak in Concord and was spewing fire out over the Bay – or maybe that was just my impression.
The bus was outfitted like a spaceship for bored whores. Maybe more masculine. Not so pink. But, you know, nice. Fridge, flat screen and stuff.
“We’re on in eight,” Bill said into the mike on his shoulder. (Bill looks like a strange crossbreeding experiment between Santa Claus and Rambo, and he is no more in his element than when he’s doing logistic work for the band.) He nodded to us and said, “Would love to hang out, but we have to get these guys on in eight minutes.” Then he left the bus.
“We’d better get to our seats,” Susan Nash said. She led us out of the air-conditioned bus into the East Bay version of the inferno, through the back-stage area where more middle-aged guys checked our crew badges, and to our seats. We’d only just sat down when four old guys walked out on the stage and started playing. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, were on tour. Some 38 years after they played at Woodstock, they threw down on Truth and Justice and Freedom — and they were pissed. It rocked.
I was at a lecture once, where I heard the science fiction writer Fredrick Pohl speak, and he was asked, as writer’s always are, if he had any advice for aspiring writers.
“Yes,” he said. “Have something to say.”
Sounds easier than what the student wanted to hear, yet it’s the hardest and truest thing he could have said. For any artist, having something to say is what makes the difference between creating art out of passion, and just marking time. It’s easy enough to get your indignation on when you’re eighteen, twenty, even twenty five, but to have something to say, and to have the skill to entertain and inspire while saying it, well that’s the mark of the vitality of an artist, not how high he can jump or what kind of brain-jarring head-banging he can perform.
But at the age when most of us are either looking for a track-suit embroidered with rhinestone poodles, or considering spending the balance of our being in a bass boat, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are still out there, with something to say, and saying it well. They played for over three hours, and the whole time, you could see the fire in their eyes and their joy in making music, in getting it right.
Great air turbines spewed mist over the stage, as CSNY banged out the first forty five minutes of angry songs, many from Neil Young’s newest album, Living With War.
Well, you guys know that they were preachin’ to the converted – I’ve been fairly vocal about my opposition to this war since before it was a war, and you won’t get on my good side any more quickly than by starting a conversation with, “How did this evil fucktard get elected anyway?” So I can’t pretend to be unbiased about the content, and I really don’t know squat about music, so I can’t comment on that, but I do know something about being an artist, and I’m always willing to learn more, and what I learned tonight was that you have to keep carrying a passion, challenging yourself, getting up in the morning with a purpose, and endurance is defined by maintaining your sense of outrage.
Neil Young looks like he is pissed off when he sings every song – even “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”. He looks like he would kick love’s ass for doing it too, if he didn’t have this concert to play. He’d drown love in it’s own bath water. Fucking love. It’s hard to keep that kind of hard-on well into your sixties, I think we all know that from commercials, yet Neil belts out “Let’s Impeach the President” with every bit as much conviction as he belted out OHIO thirty years ago. (My dad was a highway patrolman working a riot squad at Kent State when the shootings took place, so this song has a special poignancy for me, but I’ll write about that another time.)
When Stephen Stills sings “there’s something happening here”, it gives me chills more now than when I was a kid, and Vietnam was still a very real storm on my personal horizon. When Nash sings “we can change the world” from his song, Chicago, an appeal, years ago, for Stills and Crosby to come to Chicago to benefit the defense of friend who was being persecuted, you know he believes it. I know he believes it. That’s what the fuck he’s doing up there in the first place.
They gave us a breather then, with Nash and Crosby doing the ever so sweet Guinnevere, Stills belting out Southern Cross, Young doing Only Love can Break your Heart, Nash doing Our House, reminding us that these guys are not just a bunch of angry fucks talking about freedom and justice and keeping your kids alive and out of harms way because that’s their schtick — they know why freedom and family are important. (More on this some other time. ) Then they came back with another forty-five minutes of protest and indignation, new songs mixed with old — the old made relevant and vital once again, because, frankly, that same kind of evil shit is going on again.
At first I thought that there was no one under fifty at the concert, but that was largely because we were in the nice seats where you either know someone or you have a buttload of disposable income. But as the concert ended, and everyone cheered, I looked back and there were a lot of kids there too, and instead of the lighters, they were holding cell phones, the blue screens lighting up the whole amphitheater. (Yes, I know it’s been a long time since I’ve been to a concert. Shut up.) Whatever these guys were saying was reaching people across four decades, and here were kids holding up their cell phones, right next to geezers with defibrillators built right into their bongs. I was verklempt.
Like I said, this isn’t a review. I was a guest of Graham and Susan Nash, because Susan is a mad woman and will befriend anyone, so a review would be necessarily biased. What I needed to write, what I was inspired to write, is what I took away from the concert as an artist. I’m about the finish up my tenth book, I’m decidedly beginning the final approach to the great dirt nap, but more than losing my vertical leap, my sub ten-second hundred yard dash time, or my pound railroad stakes into oak beams erections, I worry about losing my edge, about seeing that scary old guy in the mirror some morning and him not having a word to say to me. So that’s what I took away from the CSNY Freedom of Speech Concert. Hope.
You can be vital and creative and passionate and rock the free fucking world was long as you are taking in air, as long as you want. You just have to want it. So thanks guys, for that. Thanks Graham, thanks Susan, thanks Bill, thanks Nile. Carry on.