PUBLICATIONS > Articles > 1970s > Stephen Stills: The Reformation Of a ‘Jive’ Artist
Stephen Stills: The Reformation Of a ‘Jive’ Artist
Author: Judith Sims
Journal: Rolling Stone
September 27 1973
LOS ANGELES – It’s difficult to name a rock & roll star who’s been put down, chopped up, dismissed and generally hated as much as Stephen Stills. Not hated by the public who buy his records and concert tickets, but by those people who’ve spent more than five minutes dealing with him personally. He’s been an ostentatious spendthrift (everything from a $36,000 Mercedes snowplow to expensive microphones he never even unwrapped), a conspicuous consumer of drugs, notably cocaine (allegedly $18,000 a month up his nose), a notorious boozer onstage and an insecure egotist. Whenever he got near a stage and a microphone, he would lay on a thick Texas accent, drawl inanities and coyly play the humble blues man.
But Stills has changed, reformed and improved, and he wants people to know it. He’s never been fond of his bad reputation, although at times he seemed to deliberately cultivate it. Everyone around Stills agrees he’s changed – and not just the people on his payroll: His former manager, David Geffen, who hasn’t spent much time being complimentary to him, admitted, “Yes, Stephen is much easier to deal with lately.’
Some people say that Stephen’s new health and positive attitude is directly related to his wife of five months, Veronique Sanson, a popular singer-songwriter in her native France. According to one old friend, however, ‘Stephen is always better when he’s in love; he was great for a short time with Judy Collins, and now he’s married and probably much nicer. I’ll bet he gets even better when they have kids.’ – But that’s not to detract from Vero; she’s direct, unaffected and intelligent.
Stills and Manassas went out on a short three-date tour to Maryland; Saratoga Springs, New York, and Edwardsville, Illinois, each gig opened by Stills’s Colorado neighbors, Barnstorm. “I’ve never put anyone on in front of me, but Joe Walsh, yeah,” said Stills. “He’s about three times the guitar player I am.”
It was an efficient, understated little tour; no limousines, no fat cats and very few starfuckers; the band is protected, but not coddled. “Nobody plays king of the mountain in this band,” Chris Hillman once said. Michael John Bowen head of the road crew and an executive of Stills’s Gold Hill Enterprises, is a former Special Services sergeant. “We’ve managed to survive a whole lot of crises that would have busted up somebody else,” Stills said proudly.
There was only one crisis in Saratoga – drummer Dallas Taylor was too weak, and the set lagged toward the end. Earlier the same day Johnny Barbata had been flown in from California to substitute for Taylor, but Barbata spent most of the night waiting in the wings. He drummed for one song, but he didn’t know the material and Stills, frowning mightily, demanded Taylor’s return. Stills was pissed but calm.
The trouble with Taylor was simple; he was still weak from his recent heroin withdrawal, an experience that left him wobbly and unrehearsed. Stills seemed to think any mention of Taylor’s former addiction would embarrass Taylor, but Dallas took a more generous view: “Maybe it’ll help somebody, you never know.”
It wasn’t an elaborate tale; a former girlfriend had introduced him to smack and he tried it because he tried everything. “I was always real curious, but I’ve been lucky in controlling myself … but I couldn’t handle it …” He realized a couple of months ago that the drug was running away with him, so he checked into a hotel in Phoenix to dry out, but it wasn’t easy. “Finally, Michael John came down and took me to Stephen’s place; I can’t begin to describe what it was like. And I’m told I didn’t have much of a habit either.”
Stills, sitting tensely on a Holiday Inn bed at three in the morning, was more dramatic but no less sincere: “I’m involved in a war against smack,” he declared. “It’s everywhere, and it scares the shit out of me. An old friend of his had recently died of an overdose.” Stills paused. “We got rid of the smack dealers in Boulder,” he said, suddenly. “But some people wouldn’t approve of our methods.” He stared straight ahead. The “methods” were vigilante raids on pushers, midnight visits from armed men who urged the smack dealers to leave town soon. Stills probably didn’t participate, but he certainly approved. “Smack dealers are the lowest,” he said “Anything it takes to get rid of them, anything that works … ”
He continued: “I know I’ve blown my music and offended my friends because I was crazy behind coke, but I’m not like that anymore, and I think people should give other people the benefit of the doubt, you know”
In past concerts, Stills (like David Crosby) included ranting and raving everything from unoriginal opinions of political leaders to “Right on!” cliches. Rubbing his hands together slowly, Stills stared at the floor and said, “I’m still political, but I’m just not so sophomoric about it anymore.”
Earlier in concert, he had taken his obligatory rap somewhere in the middle of “For What It’s Worth” (his first political song and his first hit): “This used to be the place where I ran down some political jive, but I gave that up a while back, mainly because there wasn’t anything to talk about, and who wants to hear it run down by some jive rock & roll star?” He was shouting. “What I used to talk about was the revolution. But the way I look at it, even with Nixon President the revolution has already been won. Just dig Uncle Sam and Talmadge and all those other cats; to me that’s living proof that the revolution in fact has been won.” The audience loved it. They always do.
Stills was pleased with other improvements, too – that outrageously expensive house in England that he bought three years ago from Ringo for £90,000 against the advice of David Geffen – well, he’s sold the house for £180,000. It’s a business coup that makes him very happy, not just because of the money but because he proved millionaire genius Geffen wrong for once.
After three or more years of ill-concealed mutual antagonism, Stills and Geffen have finally achieved a kind of truce. Stills spoke of Geffen the way a blind man might walk a tightrope: sloooowly.
According to him, it was all just conflict over business investments that caused the vitriolic split: “Geffen made his reputation with that incredible deal for Laura Nyro” Stills ventured, “and he wanted to make the same kind of deal with me, but I said no. I didn’t want to be dealing in stocks and papers, I wanted to take a crack at getting my own publishing company built up. Geffen was really incensed, but I wasn’t about to be manipulated like that, it’s not in my nature.”
But there were other things besides business deals: “I mean, how did a good manager allow it to happen, that I would sell out Madison Square Garden there would be three cracks in the wall from people standing on their seats – and nobody paid any attention. Why, because George Harrison [for Bangla-desh] was going to be there three days later?”
His voice got bitter and even slower.
“Elliott [Roberts, Geffen's managerial partner] and David made it very difficult for me to put my band together [the Memphis Horns aggregation, before Manassas], so by the time we had the tour I was so frightened that I really made an ass out of myself.”
He paused and seemed to realize where this was taking him. “But I can’t blame that on Geffen,” he said.
Though some people say Manassas won’t be a group much longer, Stills says it will exist the way Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young did – as a base from which to do other things until the members come together again. Chris Hillman will do an album with Richie Furay and J.D. Souther; Paul Harris (keyboards) and Al Perkins (steel guitar, electric guitar, banjo) have been busy sessionmen since before Manassas; Dallas Taylor is working with Stills mixing Stolen Stills, an album on which he played a prominent role, and he hopes to make an album of his own; percussionist Joe Lala will continue doing sessionwork (most recently for Chicago). Bassist Fuzzy Samuels is no longer in the group. “He didn’t quit,” Stills said, “he just really wanted to develop something else on his own.” Meanwhile Manassas uses Barnstorm bassist Kenny Passarelli.
Stills himself is abandoning Manassas this fall for a regrouping of CSNY. The album will probably be recorded at Neil’s ranch studio in Northern California. Stills doesn’t remember just whose idea it was to record and tour together again, but, he promised: “I’ll do anything I can to make it easy and pleasant. I don’t want to be the pusher this time; I’m looking to somebody else for the energy.”
Despite his obvious self-improvement, Stills has yet to conquer that unintentional but often embarrassing self-pity that creeps into his voice. Bracing himself in a Lear Jet (the one Manassas extravagance), he discussed his need and desire for his own recording studio – and why he doesn’t have one: “I’ve always been considered such a foolish punk in business … I spent my money on a band and another situation in order to prove myself. I’m a positive enough person to build something that will live and keep on turning out product … but I couldn’t raise the money.” His voice almost cracked. “I’ve got to get a studio so I don’t have to worry about how much it’s costing. I’ve spent all this time learning how to run the board … ” He might have added, but didn’t, “I deserve it.”
What he doesn’t deserve, according to him, is the mass of nasty criticism from reviewers. Here the self-pity gives way to righteous anger: “After I’ve spent 90 hours straight in the studio and some guy calls it pretentious, that makes me hot.” He thrust one foot against the wall as if kicking an imaginative critic’s ass. “If they insist on treating me like some kind of asshole, then they’ll bloody well get an asshole. But if they want to know how I do my job and the respect I have for my audience, then let them talk to a few promoters.” He calmed down a bit. “I’m not so much of a star that I can swallow my feelings and be nice to the press. Fuck ‘em. I’ll deal with Playboy.”
He finished his scotch and water and seriously (always seriously, the man never seems to laugh) talked about changing his career someday. “I really want to direct films, but I’d probably have to start in front of the camera, acting.” He’s hoping to write a book that’s “been nagging at me for a long time” (not about rock & roll), and has already written five stories for possible screen-plays.
“I want out of this rock & roll circus,” said Stills. He’s said that before, but he’s still in the circus, and apparently he’s not going to be destroyed by it or destroy himself because of it. As one of Stephen’s friends said, “He’s very strong; after all, he didn’t die.”
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