photo by Eleanor Stills
Stepping into a modestly large suite of an Upper East Side hotel, I come face to face with the only artist ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in the same year. In 1997, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Stills accepted his nominations into the prestigious pantheon for his pivotal roles in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The Springfield, which also included Neil Young, Richie Furay, and Jim Messina among its members, revealed Stills as a musical genius. His eclectic blend of folk, rock, blues, jazz, country, and Latin is unique in the musical universe, and his influence upon popular music cannot be underestimated. Crosby, Stills and Nash has become an American institution of sorts, with anthems such as “Carry On”, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, “Love the One You’re With”, and “Southern Cross” permanently woven into America’s cultural tapestry.
Now, I’m not one of those guys whose handshake is more of a bone-crushing display of strength, but it’s no cold and clammy claw either … just your normal, average, hey-how-you-doing-nice-to-meet-you variety. Time stops as I realize that the man whose hand I’m shaking is wincing in pain. “Hey, it’s not a contest!” he says through clenched teeth, leaving me absolutely mortified and at a complete loss for words. (Stills has carpal tunnel in his right hand, which he later explains.)
With that inauspicious start, Stephen Stills and I sit down and begin one of the few interviews granted for the release of Carry On, a 4-CD boxed set featuring 82 songs, including the essential recordings, live cuts, new mixes, and 25 previously unreleased tracks, spanning 50 years of a career that can only be termed extraordinary. From his earliest recording at age 17 to a live version of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” from CSN in 2012, a lifetime of creativity is anthologized with loving care and exquisite production with the help of Graham Nash and long-time friend and CSNY archivist Joel Bernstein. We spend the next half hour or so covering as much ground as time and memory allowed.
Stephen Stills: [Laughter] You can tell I’ve been doing this all day. I get really acerbic by the end of the day!
Roy Abrams: I know that you really don’t like doing interviews …
SS: No, I detest it, pretty much. [Smiles] I mean, it goes to the question of why you started playing an instrument in the first place, because talking wasn’t quite enough. And to analyze it and talk to somebody after the fact seems … I don’t know, I thought Miles Davis was just great. He always scared everybody so bad nobody ever talked to him, and that sounds great to me! [Laughter]
RA: Regarding the process of compiling the tracks included in the boxed set, what was it like to revisit the earliest songs, the alternate takes, and the unreleased material?
SS: I gave a lot of that to Graham [Nash] to do. Graham is the one who said, “Me and Joel [Bernstein] will do your boxed set.” I said well, you’ll do it with me, but if you want to go and pick some of the work, go ahead, because I was facing a room the size of this [sweeps his arm around the hotel suite] completely full of two-inch tapes, so and somebody had to go through all the awful stuff and the “before-we-learned-it” stuff and find the gems. So they did the first rounds. I basically kept myself at a very distant mode so when they were prepared to bring me a set of choices, I would really listen to it. I wouldn’t even listen to the whole thing; whatever my first decision was, that was it. “No, let’s use the record. No, that was a great alternate take.” And those were all those mixes that we did on the night we cut them, and I sat down at the console and did them myself … I was very generous with giving other people producer credit but make no mistake about it; virtually every song I ever did was my own [production]. I didn’t easily put myself in the hands of others.
RA: On the CSN 2012 DVD, you referenced three pivotal experiences from your youth that left an indelible mark upon your muse: seeing the nighttime Zulu parades in New Orleans the night before Mardi Gras when you were six, being surrounded by salsa music when you were a teenager, and the discovery of old blues music with your best friend.
SS: There’s a little piece of [that] in everything I do. All those blues records that we sat around listening to, we learned to play to Jimmy Reed, which is where everyone should learn to play lead, and I found that I had that in common with my British guitar master idols; they all learned to Jimmy Reed, because that was the first thing you could play, and it taught you how to keep a groove.
RA: You were recognized and hailed as a musical genius by the late Ralph J. Gleason of Rolling Stone through your work with Buffalo Springfield. How did accolades of that nature affect you at that point in your career?
SS: I’m curious as to why Jann Wenner has forgotten that! [Laughter] The first column that Ralph Gleason wrote about me was before Rolling Stone existed and he wrote a half page about the Buffalo Springfield, and he knew exactly what we were doing. My mother got [the article] and she saved it for me. That’s why I can’t remember what month it came out, because I didn’t read it till months later. I went back to visit my mother in Palo Alto, and she had kept it. I wish I could find it in the archives, because it was like, “Buddy! That’s what I’m trying to do!” My confidence just soared. You have to remember, I was really bashful except when we were at our business. But I was socially just completely inept and it just gave my confidence a tremendous boost.
RA: Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun was another pivotal figure in your career who championed your work with Buffalo Springfield and CSN in the early days. What are your memories of him?
SS: He came into the studio, and I just hit it off with the guy immediately because he was the guy who would get in the car and go down and search for the musicians. If you want to have a record company, that’s what you did. Go find them, record them, and fight to sell them, and pay them. But getting money out of him was like pulling blood from a stone. But that’s another story—it’s the businessman in all of them.
RA: Regarding the success of CSN and CSNY and the impact that both groups had upon popular music and culture, did you see it coming?
SS: One could only hope, but when the reality of it hit, I ran like a scalded cat. I went back to the racetrack and started galloping horses, just for something else to do, to get away from all those people who were so obsequious. It was a little teeny version of what the Beatles went through, but it was weird; everybody was weird. Joni Mitchell wrote a great line about it in "Both Sides Now" ... you have to look at the lyric, but it’s about that moment when you look over and you’re famous and your friends aren’t.
RA: Any particularly memorable musical experiences from your solo career?
SS: Well, working with a horn section took me back to my school band days, and I actually started paying attention to the written music and working with the London Symphony guys on “To a Flame” and [producer] Arif Mardin, and how he drew that arrangement out of me by about ten minutes into it he realized that he wasn’t going to write a note; it was all in here [points to his head] and he made it his business to draw it out of me. I’d say, “You finish that line,” and he’d say, “No, you finish that line. It goes this far, now what?” He was such a gentleman and so kind and it was like composing and going to music school at the same time. I got a year’s worth of musical training out of that for the three hours that we spent devising that arrangement that was played by the London Symphony guys. That was a great moment in my career.
RA: Manassas, your legendary band with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, is very near and dear to many people—
SS: Only arcane music freaks! They have a whole Stephen Stills section [in their private collection]. I get letters from people that are quite odd. Who is it out there that gets this stuff? It’s greatly appreciated, I must say.
RA: Watching live performances of Manassas, one can see that the band meant a great deal to you as well.
SS: Well, until it didn’t! It became too unwieldy because there were so many guys. Al Perkins was the key behind it and Chris [Hillman], but Al’s the first steel player that I met who knows how to take his hands off the strings. He actually had a double neck with a little velvet rest to put his wrists, and then he could stop playing for entire sections where it wasn’t called for, and it allowed the whole [song] to become more of an orchestra.
RA: CSN’s performance at Westbury last June was fantastic, and you seemed to be having a tremendous amount of fun onstage. At one point, you referred to the revolving stage and suggested to David and Graham that you rename yourselves the Lazy Susan Band!
SS: We detested [the revolving stage], but it was the greatest show of the tour! [My attitude] came from sitting around on my ass waiting for Neil [Young] to get the Buffalo Springfield together and having my financial house almost fall apart and so I just got my head cleared and said, “I’m really delighted to be here!” Something about the commitment that Graham had made to making the boxed set and … we got nicer to each other.
RA: The last time we talked [in 1994], you described how you felt about making music with David and Graham, saying, “The noise that we make when we open our mouths is a gift from God.” Do you have anything to add to that statement, or does that still sum it up for you?
SS: That’s true! That was true from the moment it happened in Cass Elliott’s house. I mean, it’s a combination of neurological accidents, I mean, Graham’s North of England Celtic thing with my little gravelly whatever the fuck it is and David’s Glenn Yarbrough smoothie sort of California crooner thing that all just sort of worked together instantaneously.
RA: Beginning with “For What It’s Worth”, you’ve always been politically outspoken. What are your thoughts on the current political climate?
SS: It’s like the Tower of Babel; it’s hard to believe this shit. They make this ridiculous device of the filibuster as it’s now being implemented where you have to stand up there and talk until you have to pee in your pants! Piss in a cup under the desk and keep talking! Fuck you! You can’t hold up the business of the country just because … we don’t have any judges, all these appointees aren’t getting made because they don’t like him [Obama] because they’re still fucking racists. They’re pigs, they’re fucking morons, they’re useless, and they’re an embarrassment to the promise of public service.
RA: What’s your take on America’s youth culture today compared with that of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s?
SS: It’s in transition right now. They think Facebook is it, but they’re getting somewhere, they’re beginning to find their own groove, and that’s hopeful to me. There’s a nasty streak of political incorrectness that kind of irritates me; like, I was in a hurry trying to get to the airport, and this guy’s on a bicycle, and he stays in the middle of the road when we’re behind him on a hill, and we can’t pass him because it’s dangerous, and he does that, and you could see that he’s doing it on purpose. I eat meat, I think everybody should be able to smoke pot, and I don’t believe in censorship, and I’m also in the Bill Maher school, I believe that religion is a neurological disorder … but I’m not an atheist. I believe in God, there’s something.
RA: From a guitarist’s perspective, can you talk more about the creative process and how it feels to be at the top of your game, after 50 years?
SS: Well, if you’re Rick Rubin, you spend a couple of weeks putting [guitar parts] down as overdubs. If you’re me, you can do it all day. You know when you start, and you know how long [until] it’s going to end, and you let it tell you, and your guitar and you become alive, and then you look at the band and say “We’re coming down now.” As a jazz musician, that’s how you play, that’s how it’s done. It hasn’t changed in a hundred years.
RA: After decades of performing, how do you keep the “fun factor” intact?
SS: Keep changing the arrangement! People [may] think it’s odd if they don’t listen and then it annoys them, but if they actually listen, they find something new and fresh in it. [Regarding performing], don’t you know that when you’re on, you’re on, and when you’re off, you’re off? When you’re on, you’re on, and you walk on and there are people there and they paid money to come and see you, so get your shit together! Quit fucking around! I’ve seen a film of me drinking onstage and abusing the privilege, and believe me, that only happened for a couple of years and I never did it again in my life and you do the best [you can] and if it sounds good, and you’re really connecting, you bring it. It’s when you find your 99 mph fastball, you find the slot, and you can throw breaking shit, and you’ve got your whole bag, your arm comes alive, and there you go! And when it finally dies, you know when to take a hike! I’m almost there, but only because it hurts. I’ve got carpal tunnel [in my right hand] and this is all getting withered. [Wraps his left hand around his right wrist] I couldn’t put my hand around my wrist like that ten years ago.
RA: The coming year is looking to be a big one for you as the legendary 1974 CSNY concert at Wembley Stadium is being readied for release on CD and DVD. Recently, Graham Nash alluded to a possible CSNY tour to follow. Care to comment?
SS: Man plans, God laughs!
RA: Final question … can you talk about your thoughts on the legacy of Stephen Stills?
SS: No! I’m not going to review myself! No, I’m a job creator—I’m not going to do your job for you! I just know that it was really fun to do, and I’m not done yet. There’ll be probably two more discs of archival stuff. Beyond that, I don’t know. We’ll see what the future brings! Right now, as soon as I get finished talking to you guys, if I ever do before I slit my wrists ... [Points to his head, laughing] Melted brie! You didn’t used to have to do this; you put your stuff out, and they bought it like hotcakes, and you never talked to anybody.
©2013 Roy Abrams
Note: an edited version of this interview appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Long Island Pulse
Note: an edited version of this interview appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Long Island Pulse