By Robert Windeler
Updated December 12, 1977 12:00 PM

The end of the turbulent ’60s saw a radical transition in the world of rock, and no group reflected—or catalyzed—it more than Crosby, Stills & Nash. Virtually born as a live act at Woodstock in 1969, they refined the heavy metal and acid idioms of their time and made possible today’s mellower West Coast sound. David Crosby was a Southern California folk rocker, Stephen Stills a closet hard-rocker from the South and Graham Nash an English rocker. Their other influences were romantic: Crosby’s lover muse was rock poetess Joni Mitchell; Stills’ masterwork, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, was inspired by Judy Collins, his onetime and ageless folkie lady; and the esthete Nash fought—and beat out—the extroverted Stills for the affections of Rita Coolidge, several years B.K. (Before Kristofferson).

During the decade CSN themselves splintered acrimoniously several times over lesser causes and regrouped periodically, sometimes with gifted Canadian guitarist Neil Young. In 1974 they split, apparently forever. Then last year in L.A. during a Crosby/Nash duo tour, an old CSN fan left his seat to go onstage and sing along on an encore of Graham’s classic Teach Your Children. It was Stills, and the fans’ encouragement led the old trio to their fifth and most triumphant reconciliation. CSN, their first studio LP in eight years, retains their lucid vocal intimacy, a sparkling clean sound, and sophisticated writing by all three. (They record only their own material.) It sold a million-plus, resulting in their biggest single hit ever (Just a Song Before I Go); a new $7 million, seven-album deal; and two glowing cross-country tours in the past six months. Thus, they have realized that most elusive of rock dreams: a second life at the top.

How did they get beyond the hassling? It wasn’t easy, recalls Nash: “When we got back together, our first thought was, ‘Oh sh**, here we go again.’ But I knew we had a great album and it was time to say ‘Screw all that ego stuff.’ We’re slaves to the music.” That, among other newer turn-ons, led CSN to grant the rare interviews that follow to PEOPLE’S Robert Windeler.

On land, David Crosby’s often in a ticklish situation, so he’d rather ply the Pacific in his wooden ship

David Crosby, 36, is no worse a name-or woman-dropper than anyone else in rock. It’s just a fact that he and Stills were in Joni Mitchell’s house when they first met and sang with Nash, who’d been brought there by Mama Cass Elliott. David’s current honey, Nancy Brown, is exactly half his age but knows that Joni was an ex and that a portrait she did of Crosby is in their closet. “I’m still not the easiest person to live with or work with,” says the man his band-mates call “the Cros.” “I wouldn’t want to live with me all the time.”

He was difficult enough to get himself thrown out of the formative Byrds in 1967, which made him feel the lousiest since his days as “the fat, uptight but mouthy kid from Santa Barbara,” whose father, Floyd, was an Oscar-winning cinematographer (Tabu). “What changed my life and my picture of myself,” David now analyzes, was buying his 60-foot schooner Mayan 10 years ago. Though he flunked high school algebra, he mastered the science of celestial navigation. “On the water very free and easy,” he wrote in Wooden Ships, perhaps his group’s most beautiful creation. His boat has transited the Panama Canal and sailed the Pacific and other points romantic.

Back on land, Cros and Nancy share a rambling woodsy house in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, where he’s got dozens of chandelier prisms in the bedroom, casting rainbows on his king-size bedsheets; recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Berlioz; and his collection of some 40 “finely handmade knives.” He is drawn to them for their craftsmanship only: “I don’t fight, and I’m not violent.”

His one unfulfilled ambition is to get into his old man’s business. He’s written two screenplays and studied acting with famed coach Jeff Corey. The pop artist he most envies is Art Garfunkel for his crossover into movies, but the one he most admires is the CSN linchpin, Nash. “If I stopped growing or playing meaningful music,” says Crosby, “Graham would drop me like a hot rock.”

Amid Haight’s hippie ruins, Graham Nash intends to teach his children

When he sings lead on his own tunes like Just a Song Before I Go, Graham Nash often affects a childlike sense of wonder with his empathetic, near-whispered storytelling. But, at 37, he has a Renaissance reach for a rock musician. “I want to use my mind to the fullest,” he says. “I want to get rid of the petty crap and put myself in the way of it all.”

Yet it’s his head that does the roving—he’s basically a homebody with his now pregnant second wife, Susan. They live in a three-story Victorian townhouse in the hippie burial ground of Haight-Ashbury. To ensure privacy at a time when all his neighbors were restoring their exteriors, Nash says he “used the total tackiness of the front as a disguise. Everyone assumed I couldn’t live here and I was left alone.” But the inside is exquisite with Graham’s tasteful antiques, a photo darkroom, a remarkably accomplished bust of Crosby he sculpted, a recording studio where he and David work on their duo projects (like the new Crosby/Nash Live LP now rising on the charts), and some precious W.C. Fields memorabilia, including Mae West’s home phone number (Susan’s grandmother was Fields’ secretary). Then there is Graham’s renowned collection of rare old photographs, valued at $700,000 and sometimes loaned to museums. (“I’m just their caretaker,” he says with awe of the photos. “They belong to everyone.”)

For mental challenge Nash plays chess against a computer—then relaxes by taking on Crosby, his closest pal. The pair sail and scuba together too. Nash, like other British rockers, is also a soccer freak, and it may say something about the game’s progress in the U.S. that he will become a citizen early next year. Nash grew up in Manchester, the son of a machine shop engineer, and by his teens was playing a banjo-tuned guitar. At 22, with his best buddy, Allan Clark, he co-founded the Beatle-era Hollies, a folk-rock group that reflected Graham’s love of the Everlys and Elvis. (When the current CSN album took off he bought his pub-owner mom a seaside home in Blackpool.) His father’s death at 46 “had a great impact on me,” says Graham—intensifying his drive for a full, rounded existence.

Nonetheless, he says, “Music will always be the main thing in my life.” He’s got seven songs working in his head that he says will be finished “the first time I play them on the piano. Serious musicians who read music don’t understand what goes on with hippies,” Nash cracks. Whatever happens, he says he’ll always work with the Cros. “He’s incredible—bright, direct, but he can hurt me too.” Yet, Graham adds, “I think of solo album titles all the time, but they’re all unusable. I just can’t keep it lit by myself.”

He outrocks, outdresses and is prettier than his bandmates, but at home Stephen Stills isn’t the looker or necessarily the star

Although the group’s “most aggressive thumper and jumper” (as he puts it) and the most likely to play superstar with his athletic good looks, Stephen Stills is now, at 35, the one to wax sentimental. “The most satisfying things I do are with the other two,” he says. “I missed the guys, quite frankly. Graham has really good taste, and David’s ideas are wonderful. But we don’t hang out enough together. When they’re into a C&N focus, I’m kind of the odd man out.”

Stills’ feelings are due partly to self-exile after their 1971 fission—first to Colorado, then to England and Paris, where he met and eventually married French pop singer Veronique Sanson. They now shuttle with their son, Christopher, 3, between a million-dollar manse in Bel Air and a house near Paris. She works in France, Canada and Japan, and their poorly synched scheduling has only exacerbated past marital troubles, including several splits. For now, though, the nuclear situation has been rendered safe: The va-et-vient, says Stills, “is really rough on the little guy and we want to keep him stable.” That is one reason why the CSN tour was cut off at Thanksgiving and why the Stillses will be together in California through the holidays.

Though of aristocratic Southern origin, Stills grew up mostly in Central America where his dad ran a molasses business, among other enterprises. Stephen learned bass, piano and guitar, listened to Ella Fitzgerald and subliminally took in a Latin feel that later insinuated its way into the music of CSN. He lasted one week at the U of Florida, and in 1965 worked his way to and through New York’s folk clubs where he met Judy Collins. (“We had a very nice couple of years. Now whenever we can’t talk to anybody else, we call each other like old friends.”) He then hit L.A. and with Neil Young formed the folk-rock Buffalo Springfield, which Stills considers, musically, “the deepest roots of the whole family tree.”

As for the future of CSN, not to mention Y, Stephen says, “We all suffer the same malady. We’re exuberant and stubborn. When Neil’s not into being disruptive, he’s easy to work with.” Young, who’s left actress Carrie Snodgress and a succession of bar bands, invited Crosby and Nash to join him last summer for a United Farmworkers benefit. “I love singing with Neil,” says Nash, “and wouldn’t rule out any combination of anything.” “Good music is so rare and precious,” chimes in the Cros, “that it’s important for CSN to carry no history, no old dumb grudges.”