PUBLICATIONS > Articles > 1970s > Stills – from fish bowl to Pleasure Dome

Stills – from fish bowl to Pleasure Dome
Barbara Charone
August 16, 1975


THE KANSAS City Holiday Inn is not the kind of place you would want to call home. Situated right off an interstate highway, the rooms provide a scenic overview of 24 hour traffic. Two weeks ago, a rather unfortunate customer got stabbed on the first floor, forcing the management to increase their rent-a-cop security force. This act of violence, however, has done little to discourage Summer time business.

Aside from a bunch of rock and rollers that make up the latest Stephen Stills group, there’s a national convention of veterans from foreign wars celebrating those wonderful, wacky days of combat. Balding men with large paunches strut round the lobby, clutching cans of Budweiser beer and wearing funny little badges that proudly proclaim ‘America: Love It Or Leave It’.

“Oh Ruth you are luc-ky to-day,” one maid is drawling to her friend standing outside the room with the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. “All yo’ rooms are out of action,” she giggles, “no mo’ work.”

Behind the closed door, Stephen Stills stares at the familiar Holiday Inn cubicle. To avoid complete claustrophobia, lie has been travelling from city to city on his Summer tour in a large mobile camper nicknamed ‘The Pleasure Dome’, featuring a wide assortment of liquid delicacies.

With a new album just out, that has already been favourably compared with his first solo effort as it glides easily up the American charts, Stills is back in good form. With a new record company and a more amiable ‘image’, his reputation as the arrogant bad boy of rock is finally taking a back seat to his musical dexterity. The folks at CBS Records, Stills’ new label, are quick to tell you that Stephen has changed. “When we first heard he was on the label,” one CBS executive admitted, “I thought he would be nothing but trouble. Surprisingly he’s been really co-operative.”

“Stephen is basically a very shy person,” Joe Lala observed, a percussive part of every Stills group since 1971. “People misinterpret that as being uncooperative.”

Because of negative personality assessments that always appeared in print, Stills rarely shows the sensitivity, on stage or in public, that he continually reveals in between the lines on record. Even at this Holiday Inn haven, young Kids, eager to mingle, play on his vulnerability.

“Hey Stephen,” one adolescent screamed out earlier in the afternoon when Stills was trying to swim, “why are you such an asshole?” “Stills,” another barked, hanging from the diving board to get a better view, “wanna get high?”

Stills, of course, is bored with the monotony of similar encounters, doing his best, at present, to avoid such incidents. He has not changed, but he has become more adept at disguising real emotions. Today he can walk away from these incidents without illustrating his distaste for the whole scene.

“When you live in a fish bowl as long as Stephen has you can’t help being defensive,” Rick Roberts said later. “When I first met Stephen there was this very drunk guy determined to give him his grandmother’s expensive antique watch. The guy insisted Stephen take it but Stephen said no.

“That guy wanted to say ‘Stephen Stills has my watch. People use you for their own ego gratification. I’ve gotten more defensive and I’m still small fry.”

“I don’t know where he’s gotten the reputation,” Lala wondered out loud. “I’ve seen him get drunk and obnoxious but then again I get drunk and obnoxious. But because he’s Stephen Stills people like to say ‘last night at so and so’s ..”

“The sad thing is,” Stills said several days later, peeling away his protective covering and exposing real feelings, “that out of necessity I’ve become more tough skinned with my art and a trifle less apt to react to sensitive situations. I’ve got to get rid of this image ’cause I’m bored with it. I ain’t the asshole everybody wants to make me out as.”

The trouble first erupted when the remains of the Buffalo Springfield re-emerged as Crosby,Stills, Nash & Young, undisputably THE supergroup of the Seventies. In between the back slapping, self congratulatory posture, and ego conflicts, Stills acquired a personality misnomer that fed more on vicious rock gossip than concrete proof of his songwriting, arranging, and playing ability. Basically CSN&Y were very sanctimonious,” Stephen said late one night drinking beer in the Pleasure Dome. “There was some thing about the vibe that bunch put out that was annoyingly sanctimonious and I was a part of it and yes, I’m equally guilty.

“But I’m a little older now, or a little younger. An artist cannot be responsible for what people make of their art. An audience loathe giving up preconceived images of an artist,” he spits the phrase out like a diseased growth. “Every once in awhile some of us come along that refuse to be pigeon-holed.”

Stills stubbornly avoided classification by shedding the sugar sweet CSN&Y tag, running the gamut of musical styles on the debut Manassas album, adding the Memphis horns onstage and record before it was considered hip to do so, and finally returning to what he does best on ‘Stills’, arranging and playing guitar.

“I’m sure that CSN&Y tag haunts him,” Donnie Dacus said sympathetically, a guitarist and writer in the new group. “It must be like a ghost shadow following you around. Even now, writers compare us with CSN&Y.”

“People resent him,” Lala said, “cause they’re jealous. If Stephen donated a million dollars to cancer research certain sections of the rock Press wouldn’t have a nice thing to say about it. If you listen to the man’s songs you’ll see the kind of person he is.”

Some people, however, refuse to listen, instantly proclaiming something that is merely honest emotion as ‘pretentious’. A track on that first Manassas album, ‘Bluesman’, dedicated to Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, and Al Wilson, mysteriously rubbed people the wrong way, misreading the sentiment.

“Everybody thought that was really jive. Isn’t that incredible?” Stephen asks barely raising his voice and still drinking beer. “That really broke my heart a little bit because they didn’t understand where I was coming from. The facts I was dealing with broke my heart.

“I guess it’s ’cause I’m cocky and I’ve got that same kind of up-yours-if-you-don’t-dig-my music attitude that the Beatles used to have. NOW they call it pretentious but it ain’t goddam pretentious. I meant every word of it.

“Look,” says Stephen adopting that hardened veneer with softer overtones hidden deeply, “there are certain aspects of my life that aren’t for public consumption. Sometimes I get a little drunk, sometimes I get a little out of it, sometimes I get out of tune onstage, but that’s something that shouldn’t be dissected. Sure I’ve got a little bit of that fuck-you attitude, it’s my militaristic background.”

It was that ‘fuck-you’ attitude which encouraged writers to relish in catching Stills off guard, probing till they found a vulnerable underside, then picking at the wound till it bled.

“They resent me ’cause I call them at their game. Where are the people who reviewed music in the 30′s and 40′s? All we’ve got now is a bunch of goddam hippies,” his voice becomes more passionately animated now, “hung up on how big Mick Jagger’s cock is. I’m sorry, but it just don’t wash. And it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with how well Keith Richard plays guitar.”

At this junction in his career, Stills has grown increasingly less passionate about this vindictive situation. He has grown bored trying to convince total strangers that he is no more an ‘asshole’ than they are.

Instead he has submerged himself in the music. Presently, he is enjoying a real creative resurgence, recently recording 15 new songs in 15 days for yet another new album that will be out by the year’s end.

“Stephen went through a slack period,” Roberts observed, “but he’s hitting it again. This new music is hot.”

“There was a time just before the CSN&Y tour that Stephen and I were sitting up drinking and he was complaining about being in a rut,” Joe Lala confides. “He was trying too hard and felt stale. Suddenly he’d call me when he was at Caribou, all excited about laying down demos. The main motivation behind Stills’ latest period of productivity is a concrete desire to ignore everything extraneous and concentrate on the music.

“I know who Stephen Stills is but if I can’t get through to communicate that to the audience then it’s my incapacity, my failure. I sure as hell can’t play any games. I just play my guitar. The music is not a stupid game but the rest of it is,”

Stills complained, slightly bored with one night stands. “Musicians have no business talking into tape recorders. Musicians play.”

“Once you decide that it is the art that is important and not how popular and well received you are, you no longer have an albatross,” Stephen said rationally, switching from beer to whisky.

“The only albatross is the hurt you divine from what people say about your art. And that’s a simple matter of how seriously you take it. If you concentrate on how well you do what you do, then you are a musician”, he says the word with supreme connotations. “I feel like that and I think it’s got a lot to do with why I’m such a mark. Because I just don’t give a goddam.”

Several silent seconds elapse broken by less passionate, but equally real, glimpses at an artist who really does care. Hard as he tries to disguise it, the sensitive side of Stephen Stills desperately wants critical acceptance. And he deserves it. “I know I sound awful bitter but it’s just the frame of mind I’m in now,” he says staring blankly at the whisky, mixing it around and around. “Sometimes it’s funny. But it’s not funny when you listen to Eric Clapton reading a review of his album saying ‘Wow man wot do they want to make us do? Quit?’

“There’s only one thing people enjoy more than creating idols,” Rick Roberts said simply “and that’s destroying them.”

Despite adverse public opinion, Stills has always managed to assemble high quality musicians attracting them magnetically by the sheer force of his talents. In Spring ’74 he toured with what was to form the basis of this new band: Dacus, Lala, and keyboard man Jerry Aiello. Throughout the tour Maria Muldaur opened the show, tasting her first real success.

“Sometimes I’d get mad at the critics that would rave about me and then pan Stills when he played well,” she recalled, “Things like that taught me a lot. I’m glad I was able to observe that particular showbiz phenomena, Stills had already made it so he was an open target, I was on the way up so everyone was enthusiastic.”

Part of the impetus that lay behind recent departure from Atlantic Records, with whom he spent the last 10 years, was a concrete desire to sever all ties with the past. CSN&Y will most probably never record together again, having failed after a brief studio confrontation following their reunion tour. Despite recent trends towards nostalgia, refuses to be part of what once was.

“I sat on that album for awhile because I wanted to change labels and take the album with me.” he says of the recently released ‘Stills’. “I had to convince one side that I was totally crazed and the other side that I was really together. And it worked like charm.

“It takes the whole onus of CSN&Y off me. I kinda felt like ‘Harry, when’s he gonna make another album? He’s only selling half-a-million. What’s the deal? Get the idiot back with those other three idiots. Why don’t we let a couple of his records die and maybe he’ll get the message”. Stills delivers this speech much like an American businessman, complete with imaginary cigar. “Anyways I’m happy to he off Atlantic”

Industry gossip offered other reasons for the split. There was talk that the album had been turned down by several companies before CBS made their offer and manager Michael John Bowen admits that he did go label shopping. Whatever the reason for the label change, the album signals a new period for Stills. Despite the fact that the tracks have been recorded over the last few years with different personnel, there is a spontaneous energy on the record, ‘g perhaps from past efforts. And the next album, a showcase for the new will be more consistent,

“The great thing about this band,” Stephen enthused, generally excited about the future, “is we just went in and did 15 tracks in 15 days. That’s incredible for me. I’m called the most expensive album maker.”

“Stephen spends’ lotsa cash,” Roberts said. “What it cost him to make ‘Stills’ I could have made five albums. But they wouldn’t have been as good. He is a genius. He’s got better command of the studio than anyone I’ve ever met. I envy the bastard,”.

“I know what I’m doing in the studio,” Stills said greatly understating his engineering abilities. “That first CSN album was my first studio album, and that was Bill Halverson making me sit down and mix, making me clarify my arrangements. He made me understand what I was capable of.”

Halverson brought Dacus to Stills’ attention, after the 23-year-old guitarist/ songwriter sought refuge from hawk-like managers out to mould him into another David Cassidy. The real test of strength came when Halverson had Dacus attempt to overdub a guitar part on ‘As I Come Of Age,’ a track from ‘Stills’ originally intended for a CSN&Y album. Dacus filled in the empty spaces no one else could plug. He was rewarded with a job for his efforts. Right now Stephen is helping the new band discover their own capabilities and limitations, the same way Halverson helped teach Stills everything he knows. The band supply the fresh energy while Stephen supplies the experience. In addition to the rest of the group, the Criteria Studio rhythm section of drummer Tubby Ziegler and bassist George Perry round things out. “What the band have to do is set me free to go over my head,” Stills said, excited about the group’s quick progress.

“There’s a lot of musicality without any extraneous bullshit or resentment. They understand what I’m trying to do without going into any amateurish trip.

“This band doesn’t have to be told. They understand the arrangements immediately. It’s the difference between amateurs and professionals. I can pull out of amateur musicians more than they thought they were ever capable of. Hence the resentment I seem to draw from certain quarters.

“Because of that, after a time, the amateur will resent what I do with their music. But with this band,” Stephen says, pushing away past memories of leadership battles, “everyone is a professional.”

Despite the enthusiasm and the show of strength on recent live performances, Stills refuses to verbally attach himself to the band’s future. “I’d like to have a permanent band but sometimes I find myself wanting to move on,” he said.

“Ya know Stephen had a band with Manassas,” Dacus remarked. “I don’t know what it did to him inside when it fell apart but now he’s just starting to realise how good it is to have a band again, not just people to tour with,” Stephen Stills wants band stability the same way he secretly wants critical acceptance. Typically restless, stubborn and proud, he is more evasive than honest when prodded. He is often hesitant to look directly at you in conversation. He is driven by the same artistic urgency that separates the good from the brilliant.

“Stephen Stills,” Eric Clapton said recently, a rather large grin on his face, he’s almost as manic as me.” “Going to the edge is part of my personality.” Stills admitted several whiskie later. When you go to the edge you get past vanity and it becomes drive. It’s knowing your limitations, knowing what you’re good at what you can push to the edge.

There are certain things that I can get real close to the edge. If I’m to be remembered as anything. I’d like to be remembered as an arranger”

What concerns him now, is his guitar playing. One late night, drinking in the Pleasure Dome, manager Bowen tells Stills that Dacus plays better bottleneck guitar in ‘The Treasure’ than Stills, Incensed, the next night Stephen betters everyone’s past performances on slide with a close-to-the-edge urgency that ignites both the band and the audience.

“I’m getting closer but I’m still not there yet,” he said victorious after the show. “I’ve still to put on record what I can do on stage. Sometimes I sound like Eric in the early days and sometimes I sound like shit. ya know?” he looked up sheepishly. “I strive for where Duane, Jimi and Eric were. And it’s no easy trick.

“It’s not how fast you play but what you play when you play it. Hendrix knew what was going on. Jimi literally kicked me in the ass and told me to play lead guitar. I followed that son of a bitch around like a goddam groupie learning how to play guitar.”

Not until the first of the ‘Super Session’ albums, with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, did Stills begin to emerge as an outright lead guitarist, possessed with passionate flair for the wah-wah style.

“Remember all those stories about who was THE LEAD guitarist in CSN&Y.” Stills asks becoming more animated. “Well that discussion lasted through the first guitar break in the first day of rehearsal the first time we did ‘Carry On’. Neil walked over and said ‘you’re the lead guitar player’,

“Neil Young backs me up better than anybody in -the world. He understands what I’m going for. There’s a lot of things I do that Neil can’t, a lot of things Neil does that I would never think of. Neil allows me the opportunity to explore my chops. What I want to do is make an album with Neil. We’d terrorise everybody.”

It’s not only Stills who appreciates his own guitar playing. “Stephen Stills,” Clapton said, the grin even larger now, “You know what blew me out? He’s the first picker I ever met that I could really pick with.”

Past the point of caring about public interest in personal habits, Stills now concentrates on finding a happy medium between what the audience want to hear and what he wants to play. Proud of his musicality, he does not want to be a rock and roll star again.

“I am a musician” he says defensively. “I am not bullshitting around. I am not Elton John, There’s an enormous brick wall between what is artistically satisfying and what commercially sells. Elton John is an incredible musician but he’s quietly destroying himself by being so excessive.

“Music goes through periods of flux. That’s why I’m glad I’ve got this album out now cause there’s a lot of people who are gonna do a fast fade soon and I don’t want to be one of them. I like my job a lot,” he says with a nervous edge. “I want to play.

“If this album starts to take off I think we’ll be able to get away from the old stuff. There’s a lot of old songs I’d like to do that haven’t been done before. By the time we get the next album out we’ll be able to change the whole show around.

“I seem to be getting a new audience. Lots of kids are there. Why are they here? I guess it has to do with legends and stuff. I’ve never been legendary before.”

Times, however, are changing again. “When I first joined up with Stephen some of my friends thought I was wasting my time,” Lala said. “People always ask what the hell he’s like to work with. If you really want to find out what kind of person he is you’ve got to get close to him. And to a lot of people it’s really a pleasant surprise. Honestly.”

The Holiday Inn was quiet now, even the security guards had long since retired. But the truck drivers were awake and they had the cold beer Stephen sat down with some of the crew, talking with them about names of truck handles as Brewer and Shipley sang trashy lyrics on the tinny wall radio about being a star. The drivers continued swilling beer and talking about a handle named Red Ruby when ‘Love Story’ from the ‘Stills’ album played on the tinny wall radio sounding just as pretty as it would on a real stereo.

“Hurry it’s time to make your move boy,” the voice on the radio sang. “Goodnight,” the voice in the room said quietly, exiting while the song played on.

“You know what,” one of the truck drivers said, still laughing about Red Ruby, “Stephen is all right.”

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