“Déjà Vu” is the title track to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s first album as a quartet. With Neil Young now in the mix, the album reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
By the time it was released in March of 1970, the band was already apart and working on other projects. Nevertheless, it remains a high point for the supergroup, having sold over 7 million copies. Also on the record are hit singles “Teach Your Children,” “Our House” and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”
The late David Crosby penned “Déjà Vu” for the group. Though it wasn’t released as a single, it gave that iconic album its name and has subsequently received its fair share of love from CSNY fans. In light of Crosby’s death earlier this week, we’re going through the meaning behind the track below.
Behind The Meaning
“I’m one of those people who thinks we go round again,” said Crosby back in 2008. “The Buddhists have got it right. It’s a wheel and we get on and get off. I think life energy gets recycled. That’s why I wrote ‘Déjà Vu.'”
In the liner notes of the 1991 box set, Crosby, Stills & Nash, he reiterated that point saying, “The law of conservation of energy applies: life force just doesn’t go away. The identity print gets wiped, mostly, but sometimes there’s a ghost print and some stuff hangs around. How else can I explain knowing how to sing harmonies at age six and having a persistent delusion, all my life, of having been somebody else before.”
While Crosby was a long-time believer in karmic energy, there was a specific incident that inspired the lyrics. In the 2019 book Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, he recounted a sailing trip he took on his friend’s boat. Despite it being his first time sailing, it seemed to come easily to him—like he had done it in a past life.
He wrote, “It’s as if I had done it before. I knew way more about it than I should have. I knew how to sail a boat right away. Not an instinctive thing. It doesn’t make sense. I wasn’t thinking about that specifically when I wrote the song. It just came, but in hindsight, the song was informed by those experiences.”
If I had ever been here before
I would probably know just what to do
If I had ever been here before
On another time around the wheel
I would probably know just how to deal
With all of you
And I feel like I’ve been here before
Feel like I’ve been here before
And you know, it makes me wonder
What’s going on under the ground
Do you know?
Don’t you wonder
What’s going on down under you?
CSNY took a while to craft the album—which is largely considered their magnum opus. “Getting that second album out of us was like pulling teeth, there was song after song that didn’t make it,” Stephen Stills once said. “The track ‘Déjà Vu’ must have meant 100 takes in the studio. But ‘Carry On’ happened in a grand total of eight hours from conception to finished master. So you never know.”
Déjà Vu acts as a mouthpiece for the era in which it was released. Though there aren’t many overt references to the ’70s hippie culture, the spirit of the movement is felt throughout the record. The album covers a wide breadth of topics, including love, heartbreak (Crosby’s girlfriend had died in a car accident around this time), and the ongoing culture war.
Photo by Steve Morley/Redferns