Stephen Stills: Sparkle and Fade, and Sparkle Again
Stephen Stills was once my favorite musician. That was long ago.
I was a little too young to appreciate his first acclaimed group, Buffalo Springfield, but I loved what he delivered in Crosby, Stills and Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He was a tremendous guitarist, a talented songwriter, and a powerful singer whose voice could alternate between sweetness and gruffness. He also was a strident spokesman for the Sixties Generation, a voice that we could count on to boldly speak out against the injustices of the U.S. government, the Vietnam War, and the American political machine.
On CSN’s debut album in 1969, Stills wrote the incredible opening track “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and two other fantastic songs: “You Don’t Have to Cry” and “Helplessly Hoping.” He also co-wrote “Wooden Ships” and wrote the lyrics to “49 Bye-Byes.”
The group added Neil Young for their brilliant second album, Deja Vu. It opened with Stills’ driving rocker “Carry On” and included a beautiful acoustic folk-blues song, “4 + 20.” Stills and Young co-wrote the record’s memorable final track “Everybody I Love You.”
Though critics most appreciated Stills’ work with CSN, it was his first two solo albums that I treasured. They made me feel really close to the man and his music.
I remember, when I was 16, excitedly ripping open the Christmas wrapping and unveiling Stills’ first self-titled solo album. The front cover had a great photo of Stills playing his acoustic guitar in the snow, while sitting on a stump about 9,000 feet above sea level outside his newfound mountain home in Gold Hill, Colorado.
How could one not be excited by Stills’ debut album? It opened with the hit “Love the One You’re With” and then delivered great song after great song, including “Do for the Others,” “Sit Yourself Down,” “Black Queen” and “Cherokee.” The album was a stew of rock, folk, blues, and gospel and featured a stellar cast of guest musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Cass Elliott, Booker T. Jones, John Sebastian, Rita Coolidge, and Claudia Lennear.
Stills’ second solo album, released in 1971, didn’t get as much critical acclaim, but several songs have the most beautiful textures and remain some of my all-time favorites. They include “Change Partners,” “Fishes & Scorpions,” “Sugar Babe,” and “Marianne.”
In 1972, Stills lured Chris Hillman and Al Perkins away from the Flying Burrito Brothers and formed a new band, Manassas. The self-titled double LP that resulted is as good as the best Byrds, Beatles, or Rolling Stones albums — one of the best releases in rock and roll history. The ex-Byrd Hillman deserves some credit for Manassas’ unique mix of rock, bluegrass, folk, country, blues, and Latin music, but he told me a few years ago that it was Stills’ band with Stephen fully in control.
It’s hard to single out the best songs on the album, because there are no weak links. There were no big hits — “It Doesn’t Matter” and “Johnny’s Garden” probably became the most well known — just great song after great song. Stills expressed his love for Gold Hill and the rest of the state in “Colorado,” a different song than the one with the same name that Rick Roberts wrote and recorded with the Flying Burrito Brothers. “The Treasure (Take One)” was a rocker that would have fit perfectly during some of CSNY’s most frantic, electric moments on stage.
The wonders of Colorado always seemed to be on Stills’ mind during those days, and Hillman, too, had a house in the mountains west of Boulder. In 1974, I joined in, first moving to Boulder and then, seven months later, heading up the canyons into a geodesic dome just outside remote, half-hippie, half-redneck Gold Hill. There I could really feel Colorado’s majestic beauty and the distant peaks Stills was pointing at while sitting on a mountaintop boulder in a photo inside the Stephen Stills 2 album.
Stills saw tiny, unknown Gold Hill—a former gold mining town with about 100 residents—as a place to retreat and kick back from the fame, fortune, and demands he faced in California. He stood out, though, driving a Mercedes truck around town and becoming a volunteer member of the local fire department.
If you would like a more complete account of Stills and other musicians’ lives at Gold Hill way back then, go to my ShortEscapes.net travel website.
One month after I moved to Boulder, I got my first chance to see Stills live — with Crosby, Nash and Young and about 60,000 spectators at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. It was a concert that never seemed to end and blew my mind. Each member of CSNY stood out during the three-hour show, and Young debuted songs from his terrific solo album On The Beach. The highlights were Stills and Young trading guitar runs, all four members huddling up and wailing away on their electric guitars, and the talks to the audience and interplay among the band between songs.
A month later, I went to western and central New York to visit some friends and, on the hitchhike back to Colorado, stopped in Chicago to see CSNY at Chicago Stadium, an indoor sports arena that was a far more intimate space than a football stadium. Nash’s encore song, “Chicago,” may have stolen the show, but I remember Stills doing a great version of “Johnny’s Garden,” and he and Young dominating with their guitar leads. To this day, the two CSNY shows stand out as probably the best concerts I have seen.
CSNY split up for decades after that Chicago show, but the thrills with Stills for me hadn’t ended. In fall 1974, I somehow got a ticket for a solo Stills performance at a benefit concert in downtown Denver to support Gary Hart’s bid for the U.S. Senate. The show was at intimate, 238-seat Ebbets Field, which had bleacher-type seats and was named after the Brooklyn Dodgers’ former stadium.
Spirit warmed up for Stills that night, and I was astounded by my first taste of Randy California’s electric guitar virtuosity and Ed Cassidy’s charismatic drumming. Stills followed with a lone acoustic set that was probably more powerful than any I have ever seen to this day — except for Warren Zevon’s solo tours more than a decade later.
Stills also was very powerful and impressive a year later when the Stephen Stills Band brought the house down at Red Rocks amphitheater with some loud, and even raunchy, vintage-Stills rock and roll. I also was mesmerized by another member of Stills’ band that night — Rick Roberts, who sang a spellbinding version of his own “Colorado.” (You can read my account of that here.)
But then the Stills magic, in my mind, began to fade. Young’s music was stronger and became more important to me, and too many songs on Stills’ albums were yawners. I tried to keep my allegiance by seeing Stills live whenever I could, but too often he repeated the same set lists, never working up new versions of old songs, never seeming to challenge his muse. I thirsted for new songs that would come close to Stills’ brilliance in the early 1970s, and they never came. I swore that if I heard Treetop Flyer — Stills’ song about a drug runner — one more time in concert, I would jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Yes, Stills’ guitar playing in CSN remained exciting through the years, but that group also suffered from playing the same material — even its few cover songs — over and over again. Finally, in 2013, I felt a rebirth of Stills when he left the CSN/ CSNY umbrella. He became one-third of a new band called The Rides with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Barry Goldberg. Though their debut album, Can’t Get Enough, had few new, original tunes, Stills’ singing and guitar playing — pushed by Shepherd’s phenomenal guitar runs — seemed to be finding its was back to the 1970s glory days. The Rides in concert were a vital hard rock and blues band that could knock you outta your seat. I wished that Stills would tour longer with that band, but, despite a second album that is supposedly forthcoming, he returned to CSN.
A few months ago I caught Stills and his latest band at the City Winery, a New York City club. I was very excited to attend — like I was excited before the small club show at Ebbets Field in Denver 41 years before. His voice, though, wasn’t strong, and the club’s vocal mic was poor (as it was a week or so later for Ian Tyson), rendering Stills’ dialogue with the audience and many song lyrics inaudible. His voice was flat during the opening number, “Helplessly Hoping” and Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country.” They were part of a spotty acoustic set with Stills’ band adding little or no color. It was nice, though, to hear him do Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” and a soft, folkie version of Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” He also performed a very slow, mellow version of Nash’s “I Used to Be A King,” though a few notes were missed.
Two Stills fans at my table were not enamored with the opening acoustic set and left during a half-hour intermission. They left too soon. It was time for some vintage Stills.
He opened with a solid version of “Southern Cross” and then remarked how enjoyable it was to be on stage in Manhattan looking through the club’s windows and watching the cars pass by on Varick Street. “Next time I play here I will put a speaker across from me and play car-crash noises,” he quipped.
Then the dreaded “Treetop Flyer” began with a semi-funky beat, and I didn’t head for the Brooklyn Bridge. I still can’t believe that I actually liked this electric version, accented by Stills’ short guitar bursts.
The Rides’ “Don’t Want Lies” was next, an excellent blues-rock number and the best song so far that night. Another Rides’ song with a raunchy beat, “Roadhouse,” followed, and Stills’ blistering leads put me fully back on the Stills bandwagon.
Stills had awakened the previously moribund band and was now playing exciting rock and roll. It sometimes bordered on garage rock. Stills began bending notes, using his tremolo bar to make the music more psychedelic and unleashing amazing solos. He finished with Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” — also a song he covered on The Rides’ album — followed by “49 Bye-Byes” and “Love the One You’re With.” It may not have been Colorado in the early 1970s, but it was clear from where the magic in those days had come.