The issue with deja vu

At home for Thanksgiving on the weekend, I was tinkering around with the parents’ DVR and came across the documentary CSNY Deja Vu on the Bell Expressvu concert series. The film, directed by Bernard Shakey (that’s Neil Young’s alias, to those not in the know), chronicles the 2006 reunion tour of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in support of Young’s Living With War album. It was equal parts frustrating and fascinating.

The whole documentary reeks of self-importance, the band tying their rabble-rousing tour to the experiences of various servicemen and women in Iraq. The film is chalk full of doublethink: in one breath, one of the band members is talking modest talk about how they really don’t expect to change minds with this tour; then in the next frame, you’re hearing a harrowing story of a soldier in Iraq and how they were influenced by CSNY! If this all wasn’t so significant, why attempt to make a documentary about it?

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m probably a bit prejudiced against the film because I hated the whole idea of a CSNY tour to begin with. Never mind the fact that CSN hasn’t produced anything remotely relevant without Neil since the early 1970s. Mostly it’s that the tour was a disservice to Living With War, a record that hasn’t aged that well – it was certainly a product of its time – but had an exciting spark about it. It was an urgent recording, put to tape in a week and rush released days later. And Young smartly used a hundred-person choir to sing along with him, turning one man’s semi-cliched protest rants into a blistering chorus. For all its faults, it didn’t feel to me like a calculated grasp at relevancy; it felt like a record that Young needed to make.

Everything right about Young’s record was wrong when paired with CSN. Now it did become a calculated grasp at relevancy, the old hippie rebels together again to tell the “kids these days” what protest music is all about. I’m all for the idea of linking the failure of Vietnam with the Iraq debacle, but why did it have to be CNSY carrying the torch? Why not unite with younger artists to try and get their message across too? Why not tour Living With War as its own worthy creation, instead of saddling it down with almost 40 years of weight?

That was the frustrating. The fascinating, though, was the crowd reaction to some of the less subtle political songs (recall that Living With War famously included a song titled “Let’s Impeach the President).

You all know the simplistic mythology of the hippie movement: that the protesters and paraders of the 1960s “sold out” and became the suits and stiffs of the 1980s. I’ve always found that more than a bit reductionist – mostly because the “hippie movement” is somewhat overemphasized in popular history – but I struggle to find other explanations for what happens in CSNY Deja Vu. The band’s tour is going along just fine until they hit Georgia. There, when the band starts to play “Let’s Impeach…” dozens of patrons get angry. They throw up their middle fingers, they swear at the band and many of them walk out in digust. Outside, a cameraman confronts them and they all blow off about how disrespectful it was for CSNY to do that.

Really? You went to a show by four of the most famous protest singers of the late 1960s, icons of that era’s protest movement, and you expected all rainbows and sunshine? It’s called the “Freedom of Speech” tour, and you expected them to shut up and sing?

It made me think that perhaps my initial reaction of the film and the tour itself was too harsh. Maybe CSNY weren’t trying to recapture past glories, or reassert their relevance over a new generation. Perhaps it was to slap their fellow children of the 1960s out of their complacency, to point out their acquiescence in their country’s latest foreign policy escapade. And really, who am I to argue with that?

Watch: CSNY: Deja Vu trailer

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