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Four way street revisited … CSNY revisited
Author: Barbara Charone
Journal: Sounds
May 22nd 1976

 

How Steve Stills learned to stop worrying about his own solo career and appreciate Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. A case of deja vu for Barbara Charone

IT’S 3 am Eastern standard time on a hot and muggy Florida evening. Down at the beach front, Ann Margret is finishing up the late show at one of Miami’s many celebrated hotels. Down at Criteria studios, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are winding up a session for what ultimately could be their first studio album since ‘Deja Vu’.

Dressed in the faded, patched denims that have become his trademark, Neil Young stands in the foyer with his lanky arms placed round Stephen Stills’ shoulders lazily singing ‘Don’t make a zombie out of me’ to a non-existing Zumaesque beat. Stills grins. Crosby and Nash chuckle. It has been a rather long day.

Eight hours earlier, Criteria was the scene of chaos as they hosted a reception for 150 prospective studio engineers, eager to learn the hows and whys of professional recording. Drinking whisky and dry while touring the studio complex, these 150 hopefuls stared vacantly at the gold albums impressively decorating the walls. Two stood out among the others – ‘Manassas’ and ‘Stephen Stills II’.

These eagle eyed novices had already visited studio C where the Bee Gees were busy working on their next album and, now curiously wandered around the reception area, hypnotically drawn towards the familiar sounds coming from the closed doors of studio B.

“Where you going,” Harper the receptionist demanded of the few who strayed dangerously close to the outer limits of studio B. “To the washroom,” came the meek prospective engineers’ reply crawling past a door clearly marked DO NOT DISTURB/ KEEP OUT/ EXCEPT FOR A GIBB/ ANY GIBB FOR THAT MATTER scrawled in sloppy, home-made print.

Inside the secretive studio, the atmosphere was extremely flammable. An eggshell aura surrounded the room, often making the air incredibly oppressive. This wasn’t your average session. This wasn’t a reunion offer prompted by some crazy promoter’s 15 million dollar dream. This was the real thing.

The music blasting from the enormous speakers was the kind of music that those 150 prospective engineers fantasise about. The kind of music that dreams are made of. A Stills composition ‘Black Coral’ bursts out of the speakers with royal grandeur, supplemented by the 1001 guitars of Stills and Young and the 1001 voices of Crosby and Nash. This must be a dream, the scenario for some movie made in heaven.

They’ve been here in Miami for over a week now and tonight’s the night, the last night. Then a two week break to allow Young time to go back home, still exhausted from an extensive European tour. Time to allow Crosby and Nash to finish mixing their second album for ABC, scheduled for an early August release. Time for Stephen to submerge himself in the studio, feeding his insatiable appetite for writing and recording.

CSNY aren’t supposed to be working on a group album at Criteria. It was basically an accident and for that reason this whole crazy escapade just might work. Knock on wood.

COME BACK in time to last autumn when Neil Young guested on several California Stills dates, playing electric guitar and occasionally singing. It was then that the seeds of the Stills/Young album were first planted, finally beginning to sprout in the spring when the crop was healthy and the weather warm.

Once on-stage Young discovered the obvious merits of the Stephen Stills band and eagerly agreed to head down Miami way for some serious recording before setting off for his own European tour. Using a band comprised of drummer Joe Vitale, keyboard player Jerry Aiello, percussionist extraordinaire Joe Lala, and bassist George Perry, these former Buffalo Springfield companions got down to business.

“We cut about 12 tunes in 15 days, ” Stills recalls of those early sessions. ”We had Tommy Dowd in here to direct a bit. Ostensibly he was the producer and got things moving along more efficiently than even we would have done. He was a great deal of help.

“But finally he just said ‘listen I’m not producing I’m just directing the band. You’ve got the material. You’re trying to do an incredibly difficult thing, get out there every night and perform a new song and that’s something very few artists in the world can do’. I took that as a very high compliment,” Stills smiles dressed in Jeans, moccasins, and an army fatigue shirt.

The prospect of a Stills/ Young album was exciting. Since the Springfield, Neil had only really worked with Stephen on ‘Deja Vu’ and even then he was only prominent on his particular tracks. Now creative sparks stood a good chance of colliding in mid air.

Sure enough the combination proved extremely fierce and passionate. You should hear Young’s ‘Midnight On The Bay’ performed acoustically on his recent tour here. What were once empty spaces with only harmonica punctuation now contain lethal doses of restrained wah-wah playing from Stills that could easily make your head spin. Team work.

“It’s great for my guitar playing and great for Neil’s,” Stephen enthused. “Neil thinks of putting things on record that I wouldn’t and vice versa. I mean Neil and I have been together for so long. We’ve got to the point where we’ve grown up enough. Neil and I would never have a scream out. We don’t raise our voices to each other.

“I’ll walk in the studio, close all the doors and yell expletive deleted at the top of my lungs for about 15 minutes if I’m really mad,” Stills says in animation. “People can really make me mad. And when I blow my stack I really blow my stack. Everybody scurries for cover.”

Stephen got really mad that night CN&Y left the studio to go home to California, promising to return in two weeks. Stephen didn’t really care about record deadlines, tour schedules, or family visits. Stephen was burning with creative energy and he wanted to play. It’s the duality in him that makes him vulnerable and strong.

Immediately after singing ‘Don’t make a zombie out of me’ Young departed. Frustrated, Stills threw himself into the studio, closed all the doors, yelled a certain expletive deleted, and kicked in the console with ferocious power and aggression.

15 minutes later he stormed out of the studio, woke Perry and Lala who were dead to the world on couches in the foyer, and instructed them that recording would continue. “Who’s left,” Lala said. “The band,” Stills spewed like a raging volcano.

A Cleveland friend of Vitale’s who wants to make it as a rock ‘n’ roll musician could not believe these 4am goings on. “Was Walsh ever like this,” the kid asked Vitale incredulously. “Oh yeah,” Joe laughed. “All the time.” Creative genius does not stop for sleep when the soul is possessed.

Wearing a T-shirt that says ‘I’m An Exhibitionist’, Stills plugs his guitar in and turns his amp up to concert volume to heighten the aggression running through his system like adrenaline. Bassist Perry cannot hear himself play so he sets up in the control room.

Stills kicks off a mean and nasty guitar riff and Vitale follows forcefully. Adlibbing, Stills begins to sing words about ‘being let down’ to a very intense beat. Engineer/ producer Don Gehman knows Stephen too well to assume this is a wasted exercise. “I’ve seen him do this before and come up with something brilliant,” he says twisting the knobs at 5am.

An hour later Stephen has adequately worked out his musical frustrations and disappointments over not being able to finish the CSN&Y album right now. “It’s OK,” Gehman reassures Stills, “we’ll add the rest of the vocals in two weeks.”

“Two weeks,” Stills pouts, “Two weeks!”

Assistant engineers rewind the tapes and play back the impromptu jam like song. Somewhere in the middle of all the passionate electric guitar fire Stills hits a chord that will no doubt surface on a future album. Just when we were all thinking the hurt lyrics were about his fragile relationship with CN&Y, Stills challenges our perspective.

“Have you seen ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’,” he says to no one in particular as the sun is rising outside the studio. “Well that song is about Billy. He had the joy of life in him.”

STEPHEN STILLS is not the hardened, insensitive, egomaniac public opinion labels him. Much like his contemporary Neil Young, Stills has just entered into yet another creative phase of his long and respected career. Like Neil he has worked hard at getting himself together. The only thing Stephen Stills is addicted to is music. This boy literally can’t get enough.

At 6am Stills is adding piano to a raucous blues tune ‘I Got The Miserables’ while Vitale experiments with a flute part. Both cagey and restless, Stills mentally reworks parts on several tunes CSN&Y had recorded that evening, determined to make them perfect. At 7am he departs to a house he has rented for himself and the band.

THINGS CHANGED considerably when Crosby and Nash arrived. The peaceful coexistence Young and Stills had enjoyed before and after Neil’s European tour has been invaded by familiar friction and nagging frustrations. Hostilities from recurrent encounters come back to haunt like a bad dream that won’t go away. Yet the bond is strong – respectful friction.

“We wanted to do one of our albums in our style,” Stills says of the Young collaboration. “Neil got back from Europe and played the tapes for David and Graham and they wanted in on it. Sure it was weird,” Stephen sighs. “They had to settle into our groove cause Neil and I had an established groove. They of course disrupted the groove which was completely alien to them. But it balanced out. They began to get the idea and understand what we were doing right and what they were doing wrong and vice versa.”

Yet the proceedings were expectedly far from harmonious. At times Crosby and Nash seemed like cautious observers. At one point Nash told the amiable receptionist Harper ‘Tomorrow we go back to work.”

“Hasn’t this been work,” Harper wondered out loud.

“Observing,” Nash said succinctly. “Observing.”

“The only trouble is confusion when everybody gets to talkin’ at once. Then I usually clamp my jam and wait for everybody to subside and say ‘can I make a suggestion’,” Stills says on good behaviour.

“Right is something that’s sometimes immediately apparent to everybody and sometimes doesn’t fit together till a couple days later cause you’re too close to the tune.”

Heated arguments still occur but this time everyone is older and wiser. Stills is more inclined to hold his tongue guiding the band in a way more tolerable to the others. Despite apparent frictions most notably between him and Nash, the band eagerly wait for Stephen’s arrival before making hasty policy decisions on any tracks. They still look to Stephen for direction.

“They do. But when Neil told me that Graham and David were showing up I said ‘OK you’re the leader, you get it this time pal, I ain’t gonna stick my foot in that meat grinder again’. So I just try and go along, try and get things moving,” Stills says with group maturity.

“Sure there’s communication breakdowns, but they don’t result in fights. Neil and I operate in an almost telepathic sense whereas a lot of times it’s very time consuming trying to explain to anyone else what I have in mind. Neil and I can speak in half sentences.”

Closing the communication gap means compromise and concession, the very things that probably destroyed CSNY in their previous existence. If it works this time around it’s only because the four of them want it to. It has to be great not merely good. Their reputations are on the line.

“Of course I have to make concessions,” Stills spits out the words. “It’s a compromise. I have to make more concessions than when I’m making my own albums. More concessions than when I’m working with Neil. I have to make more concessions than when I’m working with probably anybody I’ve worked with in my entire career.”

Despite all the anguish and rejection, all the frustrations inherent in not being able to do things your own way when you excel at studio production, is that price worth it for harmonies that make a song perfect?

“Yeah I suppose so,!” Stephen says not about to fight a losing battle for the sake of a better record. “It is frustrating for me cause basically I’m a musician and I can’t stand all the talk, all that standing around and just talking. Before David and Graham came, the first thing we’d do every night was play.

“I want this to work cause it will disprove a lot of irresponsible gossip,” he pauses awkwardly. “I’m not cut out to be a solo artist. I’ve got to have immediate approval from my peers. It can be a bit heart-wrenching if you don’t get it which makes me despondent.

“I don’t know,” Stills sighs in frustration, “A lot of practicalities come into it that make the whole situation rather tenuous. It’s touchy. You’ve got to pull all your diplomatic tools together.”

As Stephen is quick to admit he’s had to bite his tongue on more than several occasions during these intense CSN&Y sessions, all part of group diplomacy. As Stills so adeptly stated in his song ‘Different Tongues’ from the just released ‘Illegal Stills’ album “it’s all a part of growing” and sometimes that growing means biting your tongue even though you know the answer to the question.

Back in studio B, Crosby and Nash are adding beautifully constructed harmonies to ‘Midnight On The Bay’ taking the song even one step further with their vocal top layer and making the track truly CSN&Y. Most of the 150 prospective engineers have gone home but several curious onlookers wander round the DO NOT DISTURB sign trying to work out who owns those familiar voices.

A long piece of gaffer’s tape runs down the mixing panel marking off each of the 24 instrumental tracks. The gaffer’s tape however does not stop at 24 running down to 28 with four separate vocal tracks for the star attractions. The words Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young look terrific even on smeared gaffer’s tape. The voices coming out of the speakers sound even better.

Nash in his Orange County, California Boy Scout shirt and baggy pyjama styled pants and Crosby in his red corduroy shirt and baggy beige work pants make an odd couple indeed. Despite teething problems Crosby and Nash are an integral part of the puzzle.

The eggshell atmosphere is broken by restless bursts of energy sending one of the quartet out of the studio in a fit of frustration, walking round the lobby in aggression as a left over engineer stares intently and vainly tries to place the famous face. Stills does not emerge from his studio alcove until Young screams ‘don’t make a zombie out of me’.

Before departing they work on a brand new Nash composition called ‘Mutiny’ where he sings to a ‘Chicago’ type marching band beat. Stills paints an eerie landscape with some interesting guitar figures, while Young decorates the song with haunting ARP work. Crosby stalks the lobby.

And there’s Stills divine ‘Black Coral’ built around an infectious dirge-like beat with an ARP break and an excellent piano foundation. Crosby and Nash top it off with high harmonies.

Left over and untouched from the original Young/Stills sessions is Stephen’s junkie song ‘One Way Ride’ with Neil singing back-up harmonies that are instantly reminiscent of the Buffalo Springfield. Well hello Mr Soul. There’s also a Zuma-like tune called ‘Ocean Girl’ which sounds a bit like ‘Midnight On The Bay’ but rockier.

David, Graham and Neil leave the next day for California taking tapes of the precious recordings with them for at home inspection. Neil will return in a week and Crosby and Nash in two weeks. Hopefully.

Summer plans are tenuous. Crosby and Nash have an August tour booked in America to coincide with the release of their upcoming album. Stills kicks off his own tour in June which will include one date in Britain. Later in the summer Neil and Stephen will tour together for at least 10 dates at medium sized halls. The baseball stadium days are over.

But, if this piece of vinyl becomes a finished product a CSN&Y album could be in the shops by July on Atlantic Records who still retain rights to the group even though they have all individually left the label. Ahmet Ertegun had been on the phone several times, eager for release dates and consumer product but the band refuse the shortchange themselves on quality for the sake of speed.

And. If the CSN&Y album is out in July then those Young/Stills dates could possibly become CSN&Y dates. All very tenuous stuff but exciting.

STEPHEN STILLS sits in the studio with the lights dimmed. Tonight he is more subdued and his ‘I’m An Exhibitionist’ T-shirt is appropriately absent. So are a good many of the 1001 guitars that decorated the studio yesterday. Musically frustrated over this temporary halt of action, Stills wallows in quiet desperation.

“I like to work when everybody’s on the same team, trying to be efficient and not attach so much importance to it. I mean rock ‘n’ roll is for fun for pity’s sake,” he says in exasperation. “Art is art but …

“It’s like a painter who’s working on a painting and can’t get something to work so he just takes every bucket of paint he’s got and throws it against the wall, cuts out the piece of wall, hangs it in the museum of modern art and it turns out to be a masterpiece,” Stills laughs as his mood simultaneously improves, “and it’s all because of a temper tantrum.

“We’re all children. Every single one of us are children. I’m just trying to get things moving along ya know?” he shoots off one of those helplessly hoping looks. “Everything tends to get so serious with the four of us. It’s all so important it’s absolutely disgusting.”

“The older I get the more honed my skills become and that means playing every day with a band. To lay off for two weeks is a big let down. My chops were just starting to come back up and pooph. I suppose,” he says softly, “that’s what hurt the most.”

Sullen moods disappear as the talk changes to ‘Illegal Stills’ an album that will undoubtedly make Stephen Stills a hero again to a once dubious public. Joe Vitale supplies Holiday Inn lounge type muzak on organ as Stephen sips last night’s Southern Comfort.

Stephen had been saving his guitar playing virtuosity for the album with Neil so he resorted to lead work on piano for his new album, a refreshing change to hear keyboard based songs.

“Guitar just wasn’t needed on some of those songs. I didn’t have anything to inspire me to the scale. It’s the last time except on the rarest of occasions that I’ll try to overdub a lead guitar solo. That’s one of the things I learned onstage, that I play so much better and with so much more fire live.”

Always a south of the border swing fanatic, the Latin American feel running throughout ‘Illegal Stills’ was no departure but rather a sophisticated progression from earlier album attempts. ‘No Me Niegas’, another Spanish speaking foray, is Stills’ most successful slice of Latin swing.

“A lot of my formative years of learning music was in Latin America so to me there’s always a place for it. Besides Joe Lala was playing very, very well,” he says of his percussionist. “It’s that style of music from Panama played on organ, that club band thing. The style is real central American/south American folk music with just enough of a modern touch while maintaining its huh,” he begins to laugh at his words, “Ethnic roots.”

Another reason behind the album’s solidarity is the impressive strength of Stills’ band, now being used for the CSN&Y recordings.

“I’ve been quite fortunate to work with an awful lot of very fine musicians which makes the ones you end up with better and better. I don’t see anybody in this band taking off and doing something else. It’s like Jerry Aiello says ‘you’re stuck with me’.”

The only change in line-up from the first CBS ‘Stills’ album has been a switch from drummer Tubby Ziegler to Joe Walsh’s former rocky mountain drummer Joe Vitale. Originally, Stephen had wanted Ringo Starr who had played with him on his first Atlantic album.

“Vitale was the last piece of the puzzle. Tubby wasn’t working out and I had the Neil thing coming up so I asked Ringo to play drums. I didn’t think it would be fair to hint that it might be a CSN&Y album even though the thought had crossed our minds.

“Ringo didn’t fancy it. He seems to be going about things in a very helter skelter fashion. He’s one of the best drummers in the world and he would have been great for this. I think if he did it he would have got the musical satisfaction he’s been searching for.”

The band is a driving force behind Stephen’s present creative winning streak. As he admits to needed approval and advice from his peers, this band gives him that and a whole lot more.

“This is my band. I’ve been trying to get them to play with CSN&Y for years. I won’t play with another band except perhaps a combination of the Bee Gees band and us. We made an INCREDIBLE track INCREDIBLE,” Stephen enthuses. “I’ve yet to finish the lyrics. They wanna use it in the movie of ‘Grease’.

“Barry Gibb and I were just sitting around saying whatever happened to the good old days when we sang each other’s songs. If you nicked something from someone they’d nick something back later. Everybody got so protective and competitive which really destroyed a lot of great music,” he says sadly. “That destroyed the artistic end of the business that was essential to the great upheaval of music in the 60′s.”

Right now the only person he’s stealing riffs from is himself borrowing ‘Love The One You’re With’ tempo for the new ‘Buyin’ Time’ which marks a return to active politics.

“I’ve always been political. If ‘Buyin’ Time’ had been released as a single the week Time came out with that ‘Brother can you spare 4 billion’ cover it would have been a hit.

“Did you see Mac David on TV tonight,” Stephen asks just slightly changing the subject. “He opened his show with ‘Love The One You’re With’, and sang the shit out of it.”

When the man from CBS had come to the studio yesterday with the finished pressings Stills glowed listening to the virginal piece of vinyl. Although he thinks it’s more consistent he still maintains that he’s ‘basically just a blues cat’.

But record sales do matter. He’s slightly disappointed that ‘Stills’ just missed going gold, a situation that irks him even more because the last Crosby/ Nash effort hit 24 carat.

“I’m a funky old cat from the south. I’ve been in drag races and shit and I like to have my trophies on my wall,” Stills admits with a grin.

Suddenly the dim studio lights become brighter and a voice says hello over the intercom. Tom Dowd has just returned from finishing up the new Rod Stewart album in LA and wants to check out these CSN&Y rumours. Dowd is one of the few people who commands Stephen’s respect. The finished CSN&Y tracks are played for fresh ears. Just as Crosby and Nash add their beautiful bit on ‘Midnight On The Bay’, Dowd inquires about the personality conflicts.

“Yeah, ” Stephen muses “but they sure sing good.”

After the last chords of ‘Black Coral’ have faded away there is respectful silence. Dowd likes ‘Black Coral’ best of all. “There’s still a few things that aren’t quite right,” says the perfectionist Stills.

“It’s just about there Stephen,” Dowd says as a high compliment.

Stephen then plays the Stills/Gibb composition which is indeed a snappy toe tapper that sounds very commercial and chart bound plus being a whole lot of fun.

“It’s been such a strange career,” Stephen reflects after Dowd has departed. “You’d probably find out more about me from other people cause I’m always thinking about what I’m gonna do in 15 minutes. A lot of things I say either turn out to be a put down or boastful or someone will say ‘why did you say that man’ and all that crap,” he says determined to avoid such unpleasant encounters.

“You have no idea how easily things get twisted, how easily bands get broken up cause of what they read about the rest of the band members. If you start to believe all that crap it’s self defeating.”

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Ironically the current issue of ‘Hit Parader’ contained a Crosby/Nash interview conducted several months before where Nash defiantly declared he’d never work with Stills again. But time heals all wounds and talent hypnotically draws certain people together despite personality conflicts and sometimes because of personality conflicts. Most great bands depend on friction for real creativity.
With luck Stephen Stills’ waiting period is now over. By now he should be back in studio B with the DO NOT DISTURB sign busy at work with Crosby, Nash and Young.

“Right now I’m on fire,” Stephen Stills declared, radiating electric energy. “That’s I why I was so disappointed when they all cut out. They need to be hungry. Hungry for the dough or the music. Mostly hungry for the music. Me, I’m famished.”

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