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Still Rocking and Protesting in the Free World: CSNY Déjà Vu

by Jessica Mosby

Neil Young does not mince words. During his Freedom of Speech 2006 tour with on-again-off-again band mates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, the group energetically performed Young’s new songs titled, “Let’s Impeach the President” and “Lookin’ for a Leader.” But the responses to CSNY’s new songs haven’t all been positive; one woman walked out of the group’s Atlanta concert saying, “Neil Young can stick it up his ass.”

Music, politics, and controversy are all part of the powerful new documentary CSNY Déjà Vu. The film – directed by Young under his filmmaking moniker, Bernard Shakey, and currently playing at theaters nationwide – follows the “four balding hippie millionaires” (as one concert review described the aging rockers) while they tour country with their anti-war message.

The personal and creative differences that have plagued the group since the start seem to be resolved – or at least on the back burner. Maybe it’s their age; Cosby, Stills, and Young all look worse for the wear. During a Toronto show, Stills loses his balance and falls over in the middle of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Although he appears completely sober, he can’t get up and tries to keep playing his guitar while lying on this back. After the song finishes, a roadie runs out and helps him up. Geriatrics aside, they can still put on a rocking show.

The Freedom of Speech tour is not a golden oldies experience where CSNY and their fans relive the group’s heyday by collectively singing their greatest hits. Nor is it a quiet and introspective look at Young in the vein of his last music documentary, 2006’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which captured two solo shows at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. CSNY Déjà Vu is Young returning to the troubadour roots that made him famous during the Vietnam War, but in a new and original way.

After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Young wrote and recorded “Let’s Roll” in honor of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who fought hijackers attempting to fly the plane into the White House; their efforts diverted the plane to rural Pennsylvania, where it crashed killing everyone on board. Young even publicly supported the Patriot Act asserting that limited civil liberties were necessary to fight the War on Terror. But by 2006 he had become disillusioned with the Iraq war and the President he once supported, and recorded the album “Living with War” in only two weeks before making it available on the internet. Acting as CSNY’s “benevolent dictator,” he called the group back together for a two month nation-wide tour.

Concert footage, band interviews, crowd reactions, and the group’s interactions with veterans outside of the amphitheatre comprise the bulk of CSNY Déjà Vu. Young does use the occasional 1970s flashback, but sparingly. While the anti-war platform is anything but neutral, the film does give a significant amount of its 96 minute running time to disappointed and angry fans who walk out of their concerts and to the press that criticizes the tour – namely for the sometimes preachy new songs and ticket prices that ranged from $33 to $259.50 USD.

At every show in the documentary, people walked out in protest during anti-war songs. Ironically, CSNY couldn’t see them leaving because the stage lights were so bright. What I couldn’t understand was how people didn’t know what they were getting into – have they not heard the group’s song “Ohio” about the killings of anti-Vietnam war protestors at Kent State in 1970? CSNY has always been a liberal band that mixes politics with music.

Despite some unhappy fans and negative press, just about every gig on the Freedom of Speech tour sold out. When CSNY toured in 2000 and 2002 the ticket prices were comparable to the 2006 tour, and those tours grossed $42 million and $35 million, respectively. One would think that the prohibitive cost of the concert tickets would generally mean that people would research the event a little more. But it seemed that many of the people who walked out of the concerts, and were then interviewed about their reactions, expected the Young who spoke of his support for the Patriot Act – not the Young who wants to impeach President Bush.

About halfway through, CSNY Déjà Vu becomes more than concert footage. A Canadian, Young must have anticipated that some people would consider his songs anti-American, so he makes it undoubtedly clear that he supports the service men and women but not the war. He enlists the help of Vietnam veteran and reporter Mike Cerre, who covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for ABC news, to interview veterans and their families.

Even if you’re not a CSNY fan, the group’s involvement with veterans and advocacy groups is truly inspiring. Stills campaigned on behalf of veterans running for Democrat and Republican political office, including Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee who lost both of her legs when her helicopter was shot down over Bagdad.

Young connected with a number of service people who have written music about their experiences; there is a database of their songs on his website. In one of the film’s most emotional scenes, Iraq veteran and songwriter Josh Hisle performs an off-stage acoustic duet of his song “A Traitor’s Death” with Young.

CSNY’s powerful lyrics strike a chord with Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq veterans – and their families. At a Bay Area concert, Karen Meredith, whose son Lt. Kenneth Ballard was killed in Iraq in 2004, breaks down when fallen soldiers’ headshots (including Kenneth’s) are projected onto a large screen behind the band. As CSNY plays the Vietnam War-inspired “Find the Cost of Freedom,” the human cost of war is too much to ignore. After her son’s death, Meredith has very publicly spoken out against the war and started a website in her son’s honor.

Even if veterans come home physically unharmed, many must still overcome the increasingly common Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Vets4Vets is a non-partisan group that helps veterans “heal from any negative aspects of service” by talking with other veterans; workshops and peer support groups meet across the country where veterans are able to candidly discuss their experiences. Young makes a concerted effort to document Veterans groups – including Vets4Vets – that are helping service men and women readjust to civilian life.

Enjoying a music documentary generally means you must enjoy the music on the screen. But what is so ingenious about CSNY Déjà Vu is that you don’t even need to know nor like Young’s music for the film to resonate; the documentary is ultimately about more than music and the war the music protests. What Young is able to capture – in an uncharacteristically neutral way for a filmmaker with such a strong anti-war opinion – is that even if the war were to end tomorrow, the veterans who fought have had their lives forever changed, most often for the worst – and that is the message that no one should walk out on.

About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in San Francisco, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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