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After the Kent State Massacre, ‘Ohio’ Spoke to the Country — and Helped Save CSNY

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded one of their most enduring songs, a response to the National Guard opening fire on a college campus. But the band itself was on the verge of collapse

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released "Ohio" just days after the shooting at Kent State.

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Nearly 50 years after it was written and recorded, Neil Young’s “Ohio” remains one of rock’s greatest protest songs. Over the decades, it’s been covered and resurrected by the Isley Brothers, Devo, Paul Weller, and, three years ago, the combo of Jon Batiste, Leon Bridges, and Gary Clark, Jr. But at the time it served a dual purpose— expressing rage over what had taken place on the campus of Kent State on May 4, 1970, and helping reunite one of rock’s most formidable but volatile supergroups.

On the heels of the release of their Déjà vu album in March 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young launched an eagerly anticipated tour to promote the album; the first show, at an arena in Denver, took place on May 12th, eight days after four students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio were killed (and nine injured) when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd that had gathered on campus to protest the Vietnam War. “If the Army guys show up, just get outta the way,” Stephen Stills told the audience, half serious and half-joking. Hampered by sound system problems and internal group tension, the show would prove calamitous, culminating in Young throwing down his guitar and walking offstage before the last song. In the days after, the group returned to Los Angeles and their entire tour was cancelled.

Faced with possible lawsuits from concert promoters, the group was eventually forced to reunite and resume the tour. In this excerpt from Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 (Hachette), Rolling Stone senior writer David Browne chronicles one of the things that helped bring Young, Stills, David Crosby and Graham Nash together again — that new and very timely song from Neil Young.

The sun was breaking through the clouds and drenching the redwoods when the groceries arrived. Shortly after the band meeting in Los Angeles, Crosby and Young, whose bond was becoming especially unbreakable, left town for Northern California. After stopping at Crosby’s home, they piled into Young’s car, toked up. and took the drive to their road manager Leo Makota’s home in Pescadero, south of San Francisco. Surrounded by trees, the house on that May 19 morning couldn’t have been a more ideal retreat from the craziness of the L.A. scene and CSNY turmoil. Young was also having difficulties with his wife Susan, with whom he was living at their home in Topanga. “The falling-apart stuff always involved Stills,” Crosby said. “Neil and I stayed friends the whole time.”

The new issue of Life magazine, dated May 15, spilled out onto the breakfast table along with the food. “Tragedy at Kent,” announced the cover line, over a photo of students leaning over the body of another. The eleven pages that followed constituted the first, most extensive, and most unnerving look the public received of the shootings: gas-masked Guardsmen aiming to fire, a distraught girl kneeling beside Jeffrey Miller’s lifeless, jacketed body. Young looked away. He turned back and looked again. As Crosby watched, he walked over, grabbed a nearby guitar, and began writing a song. In fifteen minutes, out came an irate chant he simply called “Ohio“; Crosby worked on a harmony part while Young was writing.

Since Crosby and Young were due back in Los Angeles soon to begin rehearsals for the resuscitated tour, Crosby called Nash at home that night. Crosby rarely wavered in his role as the most excitable member the band, but this time he was noticeably charged. “You won’t believe this fucking song Neil’s written,” he told Nash, before ordering him to book time in the studio as soon as possible. The fact that Young had written a topical song — an extremely rare occurrence, especially next to Crosby’s and Stills’ work — was doubly shocking. Business obligations were pulling them inexorably back together, but so were the times.

Luckily for them, a new drummer was already in hand. Another visitor to Makota’s home during Crosby and Young’s trip was Johnny Barbata, the lanky, shaggy-haired twenty-five-year-old former drummer for the Turtles. Makota knew Barbata socially; he was dating the sister of one of Barbata’s friends. Hanging out with Crosby and Young, Barbata heard them discussing Dallas Taylor’s firing, and soon enough Makota suggested Barbata step in. Since Barbata was a firm drummer who already knew most of the members of the band, the solution was easy and logical.

On May 20, the day after Young had written “Ohio,” he, Crosby, and Barbata were all back in Los Angeles, with orders to meet at a massive soundstage at the Warner Brothers studio lot to begin rehearsing with the new rhythm section of Barbata and Samuels. They’d be playing on the same stage where They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? a drama about a Prohibition-era dance rivalry in which contestants hoofed until they dropped, in some cases dead — had been filmed the year before. The band found dark humor in the leftover sign from the production that hung over the stage: “How Long Will They Last?” Tempting fate, they posed for pictures beneath it.

At the soundstage over the next few days, everyone worked hard to play nice. Photographer Henry Diltz, a close friend of the band who had shot the cover of Crosby, Stills & Nash, stopped by on the afternoon of May 21; as he snapped away, the band traded grins while rehearsing, and Stills and Young huddled together in conversation. Laura Nyro, the alternately earthy and flighty New York singer, songwriter, and pianist (and fellow David Geffen client), visited, and she, Crosby, Nash, and Stills gathered around a piano, harmonizing on her song “Eli’s Coming.” The mood was convivial and nonconfrontational; the fact that Elliot Roberts was on the set, keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings, also helped.

That same night, Bill Halverson, the engineer who had worked on both Crosby, Stills & Nash and Déjà vu, was at the Record Plant studio, setting up to resume work on Stills’ in-progress solo album, when he received a call. The entire band, not just Stills, would be arriving shortly to record a new song — Young’s “Ohio.” (“Neil needed us back,” Stills cracked.) Although Halverson had been an eyewitness to tension in San Francisco six months before, during the making of Déjà vu, the four men who strode into the Record Plant and set up in a crammed corner of the studio exuded a more unified front. Stills thought the song needed another verse and had conflicting thoughts about the massacre. “I thought, there has to be more to this,” he recalled. “I’m sure a lot of the guys in that platoon were told they didn’t have live rounds. Some part of me went, ‘Guys just don’t do that—that’s too much like the Germans. We’re more honorable than firing into unarmed civilians.’”

But since they’d been rehearsing the song all day at the soundstage, the recording was remarkably efficient. In two takes with no overdubbing, they had a finished track; even Crosby’s improvised finale, pained screams of “Four, how many more,” was live. The recording, particularly the interplay between Young’s twisty opening guitar figure and Stills’ coiled-up leads, had a crackling energy and group dynamic rarely heard on Déjà vu.

When it was done, they gathered around four microphones and recorded a B-side, Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom,” written but rejected for the Easy Rider soundtrack. In contrast to “Ohio,” “Find the Cost of Freedom” was quiet, almost elegiac: a simple, dramatic showcase for their voices and Stills’ acoustic lead. Young had the A-side, with Stills’ song on the flip, but for once the old Buffalo Springfield wars between them failed to materialize. “They were on a musical mission to get this done and out,” Halverson recalled. “It was, ‘We’ve got to get on the same page and make this right.’”

The tape was flown to Atlantic’s offices in New York. For financial rather than political reasons, some at the company weren’t thrilled: The label was in the midst of pressing up 45s of “Teach Your Children,” the next single from Déjà vu. But “Ohio” felt like the right move at the right moment.

The afternoon following the session, Crosby, Nash, and Young went to their friend Alan Pariser’s house in Hollywood. Pariser, who managed bands like Delaney and Bonnie and was a well-known scene-maker, had massive speakers in his living room, and CSNY would often light up joints and listen to their new music there. Another guest at Pariser’s home that evening, Albert Grossman, wound up in a heated discussion with Crosby about politics in music. The times were so combustible that the man who had signed Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary had mixed feelings about releasing a song about Kent State. In a remarkably fast turnaround, “Ohio” was on the radio days later, even before it was in stores.

By the time they rolled into the Fillmore East on the afternoon of June 2 for their first soundcheck as part of a multi-night run at the venue, theater owner Bill Graham had made the band’s status clear to his staff. Gathering them outside his office, Graham explained that CSNY was a major act who expected to be treated a certain way. “He talked about how everything had to be special and that they certainly thought they were special,” recalled Allan Arkush, a New York University film student who worked part time at the theater. Graham referred to the foursome as “the American Beatles” and told the staff to give CSNY anything they wanted.

During the first soundcheck in the empty theater, “Ohio” made its New York stage premiere. When the band finished rehearsing it that afternoon, the theater’s staff gathered around Young, thanking him for writing it and ex- tolling, “Right on!” Young accepted their praise and told them why he was moved to write the song.

Before it was performed each night, the band would introduce it as “an important song” (Nash) or “sort of a downer” (Young). On cue, the Fillmore staff would all emerge from their offices to watch CSNY blast out a song that captured the uncertainty and anger of the moment. Young would begin playing the song’s doomy opening nine notes, Stills joined in, and off they went. By the end — Stills jabbing away, Barbata keeping up the incessant drumbeat, and Crosby shouting out the “How many — how many more?” — the song served as both rage and release.

From the book FIRE AND RAIN: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne. Copyright © 2011 by David Browne. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, New York, USA. All rights reserved.