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Shadow Captain - Crosby, Stills and Nash

David Crosby's best album was "CSN", Crosby, Stills and Nash's second studio LP as a trio, released in 1977. I say "best album" as it contained more good Crosby songs than any other record he released or participated in, whether those self-indulgent offerings he made with Graham Nash as Crosby and Nash (I should know, I've got a few of them, gathering dust), his solo albums, or those recorded as part of the trio Crosby, Pevar & Raymond. The problem is that Crosby's songs tend to be a little low on distinctive melody, with an overall sound that meanders like a sleepwalker in mud and makes most of them sound much the same. The other day, just to make sure I wasn't mistaken, I relistened to "Croz", his widely praised 2014 LP, but by track 7 I was ready to give up my name, rank and serial number along with my car and house, just to listen to something else.

Crosby famously was a "connoisseur" of cannabis, even developing his own brand, "the Mighty Croz". He once said:

"All those hit songs, every one of them, I wrote them all on cannabis" and this could be the problem.

It also depends what you mean by "hit". As far as chart success goes, of the 13 songs by Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) that reached the US Hot 100, Crosby wrote none, not even getting a co-writing credit. Of his solo and non CSN songs, only his 1993 "Hero", featuring and cowritten by Phil Collins, made the US chart, at number 40. Another song, the ponderous "Drive My Car", made it to number 3 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in 1989.

"Hero", which opens with the memorably awful line

"It was one of those great stories that you can't put down at night,

the hero knew what he had to do and he wasn't afraid to fight....",

is a salutary example of a man selling his soul to the devil, and, as for "Drive My Car", a little research reveals that listings on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart basically mean you've had a lot of radio plays on heavy rock stations (as opposed to sold any significant amount of records), which goes to show that at the end of the 80's the relevant deejay's were probably heavier than the music they championed and were overdue for clearance.

They should have gone back in time, and played "Shadow Captain" instead.

"Shadow Captain is the opening song from the album "CSN" and represents the hero that his collaboration with Collins does not, a Melvillian character, possessed, like Captain Ahab, a deep wound that drives him obsessively on, a secret tragedy that darkens his every action. Crosby is a sympathetic Ishmael (Craig Doerge wrote the music, Crosby the lyrics), searching out his captain's affliction, offering him comfort, punctuating the tune with arresting poetic images such as

"I can see your hands are roughened by the wheel and the rope, I'd like to look to you for hope - I think it's hiding there".

and, even better,

"If I were to spy a city floating just above the sea,

could we stop and look for me among those playing on the pier?"

A wonderful song. To paraphrase Longfellow: when Crosby was good, he was very good, but when he was bad he was awful. Which, unfortunately, was quite a bit. It's worth it for the good though:

"Shadow captain of a charcoal ship, shadow captain of a charcoal ship, trying to give the light the slip."


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