PUBLICATIONS > Articles > 1970s > Stephen Stills – New York

Stephen Stills – New York
Author: Steve Lake
Journal: Melody Maker
Date: July 12th, 1975


Fred Neil wrote a song, a great song, back in the days when Bob Dylan used to open for him, called “Travellin’ Shoes.” The first few lines went something like this: “Y’know, there’s too many people too many times been complainin’ too much about their troubled minds. So many people just-a-itchin’ to speak, Y’know there’s very few practisin’ the things they preach … ”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the whole folkie protest movement was in full swing with Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and all, moralising from the safety of their drawing room sofas, all getting righteously indignant about the state of the nation – as seen on television.

With the passing of time and with McGuinn and McGuire in the ascendant, cracker-barrel philosophy became the domain of the rock and roller, except that, as befits the music, the message was generally angrier.

The Jefferson Airplane urged that walls be used to back “motherf—–” against; the Fugs attempted to exorcise the demons at the White House; the MC5, with the endorsement of John Sinclair and the White Panthers, told us to “kick out the jams”; and John Lennon at the nadir of sloganeering politico rock, simply shouted “Power to the people right on.” Very little of the lyric content of that music has stood the test of time, even though it can be fun to listen to for nostalgia reasons.

But, pre-dating a lot of that material was the first cut of the debut album by Buffalo Springfield, a song called “For What It’s Worth,” one of the first coherent and rational “message” songs put down in the three-minute pop medium.

Stephen Stills wrote it, the first of a number of very pointed observations on political and sociological peculiarities. Stills in summer ’75 has a new band, a new record label and a new album, called simply “Stills.” The album contains no overt political statements, but the band played Saratoga Springs in upstate New York last week and although they didn’t attempt “For What It’s Worth,” they did play Stills’ paranoia classic “Special Care” and the futuristic sci-fi Noah’s Ark story “Wooden Ships” written by Stills in collaboration with David Crosby and Paul Kantner.

Coincidentally, Stills also played a Fred Neil song in his acoustic set and, for what it’s worth, the group got a vastly warmer reception than did the Stones in New York City

In yet another Holiday Inn, somewhere in Saratoga Stephen Stills rattled the ice cubes in a tumbler full of Scotch and narrowed his eyes when the subject was raised. Donnie Ducas, Stills’ new guitar sparring partner – and more of him later – had just observed that there was no way that any rock and roller can change the course of history. There’s no way that a writer is going to reach a majority, that’s what he said.

Stills breathed in deeply.

“I can’t accept that. Hey, we’re still dealing with the sheep syndrome for Chrissake …” A brief flash of anger in the eyes then softening, shrugging. “I don’t know – I don’t write as much about it because as I get older it becomes increasingly more difficult to put things in the kind of simplistic terms that I did before. But I did have a grasp of it before it happened. And, in any case nobody noticed we won.

” Right now, I’m at the point where I’m too well read and too … like my capacity for the argumentation that it takes to get into that on a sophisticated level – the scales are refined to the point where I can’t put it in those terms any more. I suppose that’s the fate of any political animal.”

But sophisticated or simplistic, who’d deny that even one of the Stills’ less celebrated songs – like ” Four Days Gone ” for example, a draft dodger’s lament, has survived far better than David Crosby’s ” Almost Cut My Hair”. Stills, at his best, can be poignant in a given situation. Less perceptive Crosby has tended to fasten onto the superficial.

” Well … ” and the reluctance to slag off an old buddy is evident; ” I gotta cop to havin’ a little start on him. I was much more closely involved in that kind of thing, in the everyday, immediate sense.

.”Living abroad sharpened my perspective – and I’ve always had what I think is a historical perspective. Writing those early songs was a fairly unconscious activity, which is probably why I could do it.

“It’s a tricky one to try pull off or explain away or deal with because on the one hand, you can seem totally pompous or totally foolish. And I’m guilty on both counts, to a degree, but in another sense, not so.

“My approach was and still is the right one – look at it from the point of view of history and how it relates to you and it tends become understandable.

“The rationalisations and justifications become totally superfluous – the first and toughest thing to accept is that it’s the only game town – you think God this is ‘bull’, but it’s happening, that’s it, so you contrive to connect up what you learn to what you read and …”

And presto! Instant protest, it would seem, but the fact remains that Stills isn’t doing it right now, and nor, come to that, is anybody else I observed that “the Revolution” is very much spoken of in the past tense in America now – unless you’re a member of the Grateful Dead, that is – and record companies seem more geared to throw-away pop pap than ever before The conveyor belt rules, it seems. It was an observation that Stills didn’t appreciate very much.

“Well . . .” (when Stills is slightly irked, most of his retaliations begin with a “well …”), “I must say, in all good conscience, that that judgement is a little tainted by the British perspective. You guys don’t have to go through the kind of hassle we do, and since the resignation of our last President most of the people who helped achieve that have drawn back and are puzzling over it.

‘For once we’re being a little responsible, and if I may say so, without being pompous and without being, shall we say, obstreperous, it’s very easy for a writer like you to come over, comment on the state of the American psyche, rip off a lot of dollars and then go home. But again, it’s another matter to be here and try to deal with it when it’s our bloody country, and we just bloody well better, because there ain’t nobody else gonna do it.

“Nonetheless, your comments are quite astute on a surface level. It’s just that there was an undertone to your summation of the situation hat I found a little crass and quite distasteful.”

All of this, strangely, comes across very cool, making it difficult to know whether he’s actually irritated or merely playing at high power interview tactics (After we’d finished, and I’d turned off the tape recorder, he clasped my hand in one of those inverted black power drug brothers handshakes, slapped me on the back and said, ‘Hey, heh heh, I sure got my ‘—— you’ in there, didn’t l?’, and fairly bubbled over with friendliness.

Most probably, Stills thrives on a little challenge, both on and off stage, which helps explain why he always stacks the cards against himself in the bands he’s put together. Every one has featured a very strong sparring partner first Neil Young, then Chris Hillman, now Donnie Ducas.

Which is not to mention the recorded encounters with Jimi Hendrix, and Eric CIapton. Stills is generally dismissed as an “ego maniac” in the rock press, a description rendered foolish by the man’s generosity. Egomaniacs don’t consistently give up the spotlight to their peers; they hog it themselves. No, Stills is into being argumentative, musically (and otherwise) – feeling that you can learn from any dialogue, and the traditional rock star “preacher” role is one that nauseates him.

But anyhow, I’d fastened on Stills’ phrase “the British perspective” – which, carried an implicit sneer – ah,’ I figured, this must be a reference to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Wembley, gig last autumn when the audience was ecstatic and the press brought out the hatchets. Stills reportedly was very hurt by the criticism, and all of the band refused to talk to the press in the ensuing weeks.

So, taking the bull by the horns, and swallowing nervously, I said that I’d seen CSNY at the Albert Hall in 1970 and that I’d seen Manassas and I didn’t think that the Wembley gig got anywhere near the musical highs of those events.

Stills raised an eyebrow. For a second I half expect him to lean across the table, fists flying. But no he leaned back in his chair, smiled and said: “You were right.”

I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard you correctly?

“You were right. Listen. We should have had a week to relax and get ready for Wembley. We were dog tired but we went ahead and did it, and everybody, everybody, except, you guys,’ that is told us it was .the greatest thing ever hit Britain, and we almost believed it.

Then we saw a video tape on the show a while later and couldn’t believe how sloppy the show was. We were awful, no two ways about it, and the harmonies were way off … really excruciating. I mean painful. I just don’t’ know, how we got away with it.

“Graham Nash was almost in tears when he saw the video. He wanted to crawl under the carpet. He kept saying ‘what can I do now?’ He was really furious. I told him “C’mon man, the show’s over. Forget it.”

“But yeah, Wembley is the reason that CSNY aren’t together now. We went into the studios to cut a new album after that and all the enthusiasm was gone. Tried a few things, nothing happened and it was like ‘p—- on this, I’m cutting out, see you sometime’ and we went off in different directions.

“But,” Stills underlines this conjunction, “the point about Wembley is that no goddamn critic actually talked about the music. We deserved to get panned. I admit it, but it got into personalities and petty insults.

“I appreciate that there’s no such thing as objective journalism, but one cannot less than try. The British rock press seems to specialise in the banal, and in so doing invariably misses the essence of the subject in hand.

“But on the other hand,” Stills continues the debate, you’ll notice even when he’s holding the floor, “the group was guilty of over-seriousness. Before we came over we sat around for hours trying to think of a title for the whole show. In the end, I think, we came up with something very heavy … very portentous, like ‘The California Jam’.

“Now, I really wanted to call it ‘Crosby, Stills, Bangers and Mash’, and I mean, the other guys just did not want to know. But we should have done it because it would have put the thing in the right perspective.”

This Band took the stage at the Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center at around 7.30 and I stayed there for almost three hours – and nobody got bored; an exceptionally pleasant gig, about 20,000 people, I’m told – and lots of room – the auditorium a very unusual structure, a kind of vast park bandstand with covered front stage area and seating for the first few thousand, and then opening up to rolling grassy slopes, flanked by giant conifers.

Stills emerged unannounced and casually strapped up the big white guitar, waved “hi” to the raving crowd and socked into “Love The One You’re With,” deafeningly loud.

Joe Lala is still there in the rearguard, looking a little like a bespectacled Lenny Bruce and ex-changing fours with drummer Tubby Ziegler; adding the same kind of authoritative weight to the proceedings as did Chris Hillman is Rick Roberts rhythm guitar and vocals, bearded, shades jammed high on his forehead, San Tropez-style.

On bass is a massive 21-year-old black cat named George Perry, a former Motown sessioner. On keyboards, Jerry Aeillo, olive-complexioned, a mound of black curled hair and a considerable technique – not as yet utilised at a premium.

But best of the lot is Donnie Ducas, very much Stills’ trump card. Ducas looks about 18, but probably has a few more years than that. He was previously with Spirit, and has the kind of scrawny teenage good looks that sell teenybop magazines.

Blonde-haired, he looks like an amalgam of Brian Connolly, Mick Ralphs and Kid Jensen. But more importantly, he plays the hell out of a Gibson, and on bottleneck particularly is imply superb. His fluidity is really remarkable, and his stage presence is a breath of fresh air. He smiled a lot, moves around lot and generally injects youth – you remember, the lifeforce of rock – into everything the band touches. To cap it all, he’s a fine harmony singer, and an embryonic songwriter.

And Stills? He looks on Ducas with a kind of fatherly affection, fixing him with a look of bemused toleration, like he’s reliving the folly and impetuousness of his own youth through him. A teacher and disciple relationship? Yes, that seems to be the size of it.

But Saratoga seems cheerfully oblivious to any such subtlety and most of them get off simply by responding reverently to any of Stills’ raps. “Yeah!” “Right On!” et cetera.

The group proceed to run rings around the ragged performance that was CSNY’s Wembley bash, balancing new songs – “Cold Cold World”, “My Favourite Changes”, “First Things First” and “Turn Back The Pages” (an upcoming single), with older material almost all of which is enhanced by Ducas’ presence.

(Stills warms when I mention the Hendrix-ness of this performance. “Jimi? Yeah, well he was my guru man. I trailed him halfway across the States. Finally he says to me, ‘What you doin’ here?’ and I said ‘I’m followin’ you man, learnin’ how to play lead guitar.)

For the final number Stills’ band tackles “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and the reaction is unbelievable, everyone up on their feet, clapping, singing along.

An encore of course and what better than that long serving crowd cool out number, “Find The Cost Of Freedom” – Stills alone now, a man, his guitar and a red light. And that’s it – everyone, except Stills is very jazzed with the whole performance.

“Nah,” he says, “my amp sounded like it was gonna eat me alive – the first electric part was too loud. The acoustic set was, well, I never got into the acoustic set. And the final section had the bass going out of tune – which is really a bummer to have to contend with.”

Stills, a lot of people are saying, is a changed man.

“I gotta little zoned out for a while,” he admits freely, “I didn’t know what was happening. But I’m in good shape now. Never felt better.”

This new peace of mind and general physical upswing is very much in evidence on the new album, where Stills pays homage to his missus (French chanteuse Veronique Sanson) on a tune called “To Mama From Christopher And The Old Man”, Christopher being Stills’ son. Musically, too, the sound is very “up,” gloomy introspection vanquished.

Stills, finally, is a loner no longer, married man and now one with a songwriting partnership, to boot. He extended a hand in the direction of Donnie Ducas, sitting the other side of a table full of empty glasses.

“That’s the reason I’m optimistic. Donnie played a very large part in the direction of the album there’s none of that …”

“There’s none of that competition,” interjected Donnie, immediately chirpy if not exceptionally articulate, “like, I’m in music to have a good time and to be creative and Stephen’s the first person that I’ve met to be creative with. He’s the only person I’ve ever written a song with. It’s fate … its fate that we’re together,”

“Actually, it’s nothing that metaphysical,” said Stills dryly.

They kicked that one around for a while, and it turned out that Bill Halverson, co-producer of “Stills,” was instrumental in bringing them together. “He’s got a solo album in him,” said Stills, ” and I’m gonna see to it that he gets it done …”

And then Donnie started gushing about how Stephen is so literate and how sometimes he (Donnie) will be unable to express his frustration in the studio and Stephen will pace around the room a while and Stephen will get it, express exactly what Donnie is feeling. Stills looked me squarely in the eye. “You get the picture sure,” he said. “It’s a mutual admiration society.”

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