There exists a recording of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s performance at the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1969 that perfectly illustrates the inherent differences between the three men.
Stills is tuning his guitar when a heckler begins haranguing the trio for “playing for money, man.” Crosby and Nash engage the guy from the stage, trying to gently explain that they’re on his side, they’re doing the show for free.
Suddenly, the exchange is interrupted by loud cheers from the audience. “Stephen,” Nash shouts, “if you push him in the pool, I’ll never forgive you!”
Stills is in the crowd, in the heckler’s face.
A gifted singer and songwriter and a brilliant guitarist, Stephen Stills has had a career with more ups and downs than the mountains of the moon. While he can be fiercely independent, his most lasting works have always been as a collaborator. His relentless perfectionism, confrontational spirit and mile–wide stubborn streak have caused him to be his own worst enemy at times; his talents have brought forth some of the most shimmering and beautiful music made in the rock ‘n’ roll arena.
That’s the way it is with art.
For what it’s worth, Stephen Arthur Stills was born in Dallas on Jan. 3, 1946. His father, William “Otie” Stills, was the kind of man who took on all kinds of work – selling, driving, building, fixing – and uprooted the family when he got bored, or went broke.
So Stephen spent his young years in Louisiana and Illinois, and his high school years in Florida, and graduated from a tony prep school in Costa Rica.
As part of the early ’60s New York folk scene, Stills joined the Au Go Go Singers, a sort of poor man’s New Christy Minstrels. They cut an album for Roulette in 1964.
Eventually, several of the Village folkies, including Stills and his 12–string buddy Peter Tork, relocated to Los Angeles, hoping to find some action. Stills recalled answering a “cattle call” ad in the fall of 1965, for a new television program called The Monkees.
“I didn’t want to be in the TV show – even if they’re trying to be hip, it’s not gonna be hip,” he said. “So I went to see the guy, and I’m kind of too cool for school, but I want to find out who’s writing the songs. And they already had a deal with somebody.
“I said well, I’m not really interested in this, but I know somebody you would like, he’s very, very charming and I’ll send him up. I called Peter and I said ‘Peter, you ought to go check this out. It could put you on the map, and even if it only lasts a couple of seasons you’ll have a career.’ Little did I know.”
Contrary to legend, Stills wasn’t “turned down” for The Monkees because he had bad teeth. He’s always loved that story, though.
The same year, fate had introduced him to Neil Young. “The leftovers from the Go Go’s formed a group called the Company,” Stills said. “We got a little tour through these coffeehouses in Canada. And the first one was in Fort William, Ontario, which is now called Thunder Bay.
“On our second night, this kid comes in and wants to do a set in between our two shows. He was doing folk music on an electric guitar, a Gretsch.”
The “kid” was writing his own songs – something Stills hadn’t even tried yet – and his combination of musical intensity and off–the–wall humor convinced Stills and his fellow Company man Richie Furay they’d made an important new acquaintance.
At that time, Stills said, “Neil wanted to be Bob Dylan. I went back to New York City and worked it out with the Night Owl to get Neil a visa, and hire him for a gig.
“And I called Neil’s mom, and she said ‘He’s broken up the band and he’s living with some folksinger.’ She was really vexed with him. She said ‘I can’t find him, Stephen, and I know that you’ve gone to all that trouble.’”
Non–plussed, Stills went back to Los Angeles and started plotting. “I called up Richie and I said ‘OK, we’re gonna get a band.’ He came out, and it was me and him. Next, the gods intervened, and Neil Young is on Sunset Boulevard right in front of me.” Young and bassist Bruce Palmer had driven west in Young’s black hearse, looking for Stills. They found each other in traffic.
Buffalo Springfield had a turbulent but productive 18–month existence, bringing together folk, rock ‘n’ roll and country music. Stills and Furay’s Everly–like harmonies, balanced by Young’s dark tenor, drove the band into wonderfully unexplored places.
Stills came to life as a writer and guitarist in this period; his songs “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman,” “Bluebird,” “Four Days Gone” and “Hung Upside Down” displayed a keen virtuosity, and the Springfield seemed poised for superstardom.
Despite two innovative and richly textured albums, however, the band only managed one hit single: Stills’ protest anthem, “For What It’s Worth.” The world was just not interested.
“Bruce Palmer was the heart and soul of it,” Stills recalled. “He was the glue. And he kept getting thrown out of the country. He would have a traffic accident and get busted and thrown out of the country. We had managers, and they were too fuckin’ stupid to go get him an H–1 visa. Every time we’d start to get someplace, we’d have to fuckin’ replace the bass player.”
But Palmer’s problems – usually drug–related – weren’t the only forces working against Buffalo Springfield.
“Neil was afraid to be trapped in a group. We were about to do the Johnny Carson Show, which would’ve kinda put us on the map, because we were a really good band. And Bruce was even back.
“Carson was taping in New York then. And the night before we were supposed to leave, Neil quit the band.”
The mercurial Young returned, then left again and came back, and after the Springfield’s spring ’68 tour as support act for the Beach Boys, he bailed for good. “The inside story on that tour was Mike Love turning into this svengali influence on Neil,” Stills said. “It was weird. They were always off in a corner, whispering. And Mike Love is just a spooky character.”
The band’s third album, Last Time Around, was released posthumously.
“I wanted to get on with it,” Stills said. “I had all these songs showing up, and I was getting a vision of the kind of thing I wanted to put together, at least for that period of time. And Neil had a different vision. And we weren’t breaking through. We were one–hit wonders so far.”
Stills spent 1968 jamming and making demos. He cut the Super Session album with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper; he turned down an offer to sing with Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Ex–Byrd David Crosby was one of his running buddies – “he always had the best pot” – and he was soon adding harmonies to Stills’ new compositions. They sang together at parties.
Stills explained what happened next. “Mama Cass was the one who plotted and schemed the whole thing,” he said. “She came to me outside the Troubadour one night. She said ‘Do you think that you and David would like a third voice?’ And I said, if it’s the right thing. She said ‘Just when David calls you and tells you to come over to my house, drop whatever you’re doing and do it. That’s all I’m going to tell you now.’
“Now, I had known Cass since New York. We used to stand out in front of the Night Owl and just crack wise about the passers–by and the musicians. We would entertain each other for hours. The funniest person in the entire universe.
“She said ‘I’ve got an idea, but David’s got to think it’s his idea. You know how his ego is.’
“We had all been to see the Hollies about a week before. Neil went too, and we all sat up in the front because we were crazy about ‘em, they sang so fuckin’ good, and that guy with the high voice! The one that looked like Stewart Granger…”
The guy turned out to be Graham Nash, who was unhappy in the Hollies. The British pop band wasn’t evolving fast enough for Nash, who had been hanging out with Cass and the L.A. hipsters.
When he added his voice to those of Stills and Crosby on a song called “In the Morning When You Rise,” everyone in the room had to stop and do a quick inhale.
“We couldn’t get through it the second time, we were laughing so hard,” Stills remembered. “All the answers were there. It was like, it’s all over, we don’t have to worry any more.
“John Sebastian was off in what he called the mogul chair, that little chair with floats, laying in the pool. And I said ‘Sebastian, you ought to get in here and be in this!’ And he said ‘No, I’m doing good.’”
Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun green–lighted their album.
Manager David Geffen told them Crosby, Stills & Nash would be the one to put them over the top. “There’s a whole undercurrent of marketing philosophy that says if you cop that attitude, it happens,” Stills said. “Geffen just reiterated it over and over like a mantra: We’ve got to call it a supergroup. They’re not going to know what it is, but keep telling them it’s great and they’re just gonna roll over. Watch.”
Stills’ seven–minute “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was an instant FM radio classic.
The album went straight to No. 1, and the guys were in business. “We were trying to figure out how to go on the road, because we wanted a band,” Stills said. “We had Dallas Taylor on drums, and we needed a good bass player – we went through a couple of bad ones.
“We were looking for a really good keyboard player, and Ahmet said ‘Why don’t you just get Neil?’ And I said ‘You’ve gotta make that call. You call him and see what he says.’
As Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, they played Woodstock, and Altamont, and their reputation as the most creative (and literate) of the hippie–era bands was cemented by the release of Déjà vu in the spring of 1970; another million–seller, it showcased the differences in their writing and performing styles, as well as the brilliant cohesiveness of their harmony singing.
Stills sang lead on Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” the first of four smash hit singles. Overnight, they’d become the American Beatles.
When Déjà vu hit the stores, Stills was in Florida, easing his stress by working as a stableboy at the racetracks he’d known as a youth. He rose at 4:30 a.m. and started shoveling shit.
A visit to England turned Stills’ world upside down. He fell in love with the country, and purchased a 14–room estate in Surrey from his new best buddy, Ringo Starr. The house had stables, so naturally Stills cast about for some trotters.
It was at this point – he was a “country squire,” riding horses, playing polo and working on a solo album (Stephen Stills) with Hendrix and Clapton in a London studio – that Rolling Stone interviewed him at length.
Although Stills was allowed to do a little pre–publication editing on the piece, “I still left in the part where I offhandedly described Graham and David as ‘my harmony singers.’ The term was really offensive to them. I didn’t mean it that way.
“My horses experience led to a kind of an unfortunate turn in my career. I looked elitist in the middle of the hippiedom and anti–war movement.”
The comment, he said, “resonated in ways that were totally unexpected. Being young and oblivious, you tend to do that – you say things and they make print. And suddenly your friends get very hurt. Apparently this affected David and Graham.
“Actually, I had some satisfaction from it, because between that and the fact that I’d made my solo album, it kicked them in the ass to make the Crosby–Nash album, which is a beautiful album.”
That album was made in the aftermath of the group’s first official breakup, which found Stills and Nash at loose ends over the affections of singer Rita Coolidge. There were musical reasons, too – Young wanted out, and everybody was interested in solo projects – but the main reason was that they were too stoned and their heads were all too, too big.
In London, he buddied up with Jimi Hendrix, another expatriate American. “He kind of taught me how to play lead guitar,” Stills said. “Even though his hands were twice the size of mine, he was left–handed and I could sit in front of him, like in a mirror. And we would sit, hanging around in hotel rooms and stuff.
“He was a pretty shy guy. He either kept to himself or went out to a club, took it over and started to play, and then would leave. He really wasn’t into hanging around the scene.”
At one point, Stills was to join Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies; at the time of Hendrix’s death, the two were planning to do further studio work. “He was fucking drinking and doing those fuckin’ mandrax, and those things are dangerous as shit,” Stills recalled. “I kept telling him, ‘Don’t you take everything that everybody hands you!’ God damn it.
“And sure enough, I’m out at the beach house in Malibu and I see it on TV. I just went ‘Fuck!’ I threw the television into the ocean.”
Stills was not involved in the assembly of the 1971 live CSNY album Four Way Street.“I said dudes, if we don’t have the class to go in and make the effort to clean up these harmonies – I couldn’t listen to it. It was so out of tune and so all over the place. So I just basically bowed out and let it go.”
After two solo albums and a hit single (“Love the One You’re With”), as far away from Crosby, Nash and Young as he could get, Stills in 1972 began assembling another band, something bigger, more ambitious.
“I basically wanted a partner,” he said. “I wanted a running buddy besides Dallas. Somebody that had a sense of songs. Chris Hillman invented the phrase ‘the lyric police’ and was a tremendous help.
“But I was still on that real powerful, energetic, ‘let’s go I know what I’m doing’ kind of thing. Chris realized it was my band, and it was OK for him.” Hillman, another former Byrd, had been one of Buffalo Springfield’s staunchest supporters.
Stills dubbed the seven–member aggregate Manassas. “Manassas was, if not the first, the best version of what Nashville rock is now,” he said. “We had a steel guitar, and Al Perkins could make spectacular slide guitar soloing on his steel. And Fuzzy Samuels, being from the Third World, added a different thing to the mix. Joe Lala provided me the ability to reach into my real Latin roots.”
The Manassas album covered plenty of stylistic ground, with Stills’ sandpaper voice and distinctive guitarwork always to the fore.
“Everybody said ‘Why are you doing a double album?’,” said Stills. “I listen to it now – it overreached a little bit. It didn’t quite get there, but it was sure damn close. Live, we were just great.”
The two–record album sold nearly one million copies, “which with a double album is quadruple platinum.”
The band toured and toured, and had spectacular success in Europe, but Stills clashed frequently with manager Geffen over Manassas’ relative failure. “Somehow, it sort of died on the vine,” he recalled. “I said, I really would like to have what I’m trying to do focused upon, rather than just being a sort of respite from the mothership, that group.
“We did work a lot, but it was never a big deal, you know? If you’re really paying attention you make your entrances a big deal. Which David Geffen was always serious about. It kind of just got sloughed off, so I fired him.”
Stills refused to wax too negative about Geffen. “We worked hard, and we worked together,” he said. “It was just a broken promise that I contributed to by allowing myself to deteriorate into believing the Rolling Stones’ biography. Trying to do everything they did and getting entirely too high.”
Cocaine and whiskey were running Stills’ show by ’73, and he was dealing with a massive tax bill, and his marriage to French pop singer Veronique Sanson that year only amplified the stress. After a limp second effort from Manassas – “it’s all over the place, and it’s obvious Chris is waiting for a ride” – Stills decided to start afresh, signing with Columbia Records.
“I was done with Atlantic,” he recalled. “I felt like I was being dissed. I felt like I was being pressured into making my peace with David and Graham, which was going to happen as it would, in time.”
Meanwhile, Crosby and Nash toured and recorded as a duo. “There was a lot of hurt and misunderstanding, and drug–induced confusion, on everyone’s part at the time,” Stills said. “And it just sort of all collapsed.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young attempted a studio reunion in the fall of ’73, but the old bitterness reappeared and it failed. By the following spring, however, they were rehearsing at Young’s ranch for what turned out to be the first all–stadium rock ‘n’ roll tour.
“We did this wonderful, monstrous tour, but no album came out of it,” Stills said of the summer ’74 jaunt, which had many fans bitching that the foursome been brought back together – remember that guy at Big Sur? – for the money.
Stills has an answer. “We grossed $11 million,” he said. “But we were getting away with a profit margin of less than 20 percent. They were spending so much money on this grandiose shit, and the parties, and the backstage, and taking care of all of their friends.
“We didn’t do enough press; we were not doing the right things because everybody was too hip for that or something. I found that a little disconcerting. There’s such a thing as too cool.”
He tried to get the band to rehearse a proper set. “The rehearsals were like jam sessions. I was the burr under the saddle, and the irritating force that kept telling them ‘could we please get a cogent arrangement together here?’
“And the potheads were all about ‘oh, just let it happen.’ This is my perspective – please take it in context – we’ve got this enormous opportunity to get up there on the tall dogs’ level. So I’m of a mind that there’s a certain amount of discipline that should be exercised.”
Today, the stadium tour is remembered for the unruly crowds, drowning out the acoustic sets; and for the more–fiery–than–ever electric guitar interchanges between Stills and Young.
“By this time, I’d played with Hendrix, I’d been playing lead guitar in my own band for a while, and I didn’t suck,” Stills said. “Like I did before.
“There was a lot of manic energy around. The same kind of stuff that used to have the Who beating the shit out of each other, the same kind of stuff that broke up a lot of other bands. We kind of steeled ourselves to it.
“But I was angry a lot. There was one time after a show where I thought I’d really played good, and we walk off the stage. On the stage I’d gotten a lot of stink–eye from David, and Neil said ‘You played all over everything.’
“There was this ‘CSNY’ made in ice backstage. There’s a picture somewhere, and I’ve got an expression on my face that says this guy is ready for a fight.
“They start giving me shit, and the show blew. We were playing too loud and the harmonies weren’t together, we weren’t using any methodology to get ourselves singing correctly. There was too much of everything around, including old girlfriends, every sycophant you could possibly imagine – each camp had its own set of sycophants. We were just buying into the whole act.
“I walked backstage and I was so frustrated, I took this thing apart with backfists and knucklepunches and karate. I took it apart right in front of them. This thing had to be 10 inches deep and four inches wide. I went through the ‘N’ with one punch, and it just shattered.
“Because I knew they were going to come after me about something that I’d done wrong on the stage, and I just put an end to it.”
Stills’ first Columbia release, originally called As I Come of Age, was released (asStills) in 1975. Song for song, it’s probably his strongest record. He followed the album – his last solo work to make the Top 20 – with a marathon tour.
In ’76, Neil Young sat in on a couple of shows, and the gigs were so strong that the old mates decided to make a record. Studio time was booked at Criteria in Miami – where Stills had worked since the first Manassas sessions – and the album came together quickly.
“I feel that when I do my thing, and I’m at my confident best, I bring shit out of Neil that he doesn’t get to with Crazy Horse, or with anybody,” Stills said. “Maybe when he worked with Pearl Jam, or with Booker T & the MG’s.
“The two of us have this marvelous way of working, and Long May You Run almost got there.”
The Stills–Young Band hit the road in June; it was not the earth–shattering event everyone expected. “When you’ve got a band, and you haven’t played in clubs, you’ve worked in the studio, you get a set,” Stills said. “You get a really good, flowing set, and you stick with it for a little while. So that you get comfortable with transitions and stuff.
“And then, you get 10 or 12 shows under your belt and then you start to fuck with it. But you get everybody comfortable first.
“Neil felt restricted by the set that always worked. And every time we fucked with it, it would die. Believe me, I’m not putting this off on everybody else. I certainly participated in it. But he just had to get out of there.”
So he did, leaving Stills a terse note in his dressing room.
Stills is circumspect about the incident. “You’ve got two choices. You can let it fuck with you psychologically, you can go into that place of being betrayed, or dissed, or you can realize that you have a responsibility and a commitment to the promoters that have put the cheese up.”
He finished four more concerts on the tour by himself, wondering what was up with his old friend. “I could not do that. I couldn’t just bail and leave a note. It’s not in my makeup,” he reflected.
“I can’t say as I blame him. It wasn’t that he was wrong; it was getting a little static. But my recollection is that it was right on the verge. We’d just done the first third. I thought OK, let’s get some long soundchecks together and go a little further back towards the Buffalo Springfield.”
The debacle couldn’t have come at a worse time, either – Stills’ wife, bored with rattling around their Colorado home (they’d sold the place in England), filed for divorce. And his record sales were slumping (Long May You Run wasn’t received well by the critics or the public).
And both Crosby and Nash were livid; at one point, the Stills–Young album was to be expanded into a full–blown quartet reunion, but Stills and Young had wiped their partners’ harmonies from the finished recordings.
“I went down to see David and Graham’s band in Denver, and just sort of went and made my peace,” Stills remembered. “And not longer after that tour, Graham’s wife Susan did a Cass Elliott. We meet up somewhere and she says ‘Come over to our house, and sit with Graham, and you guys get drunk.’ So we did, and we cleared away a lot of garbage.”
And so before ’76 was up, Crosby, Stills & Nash were back in Miami, with new songs and renewed friendships.
“We were into something good,” said Stills. “But there was this feeling over in our end of the building that we were making the album of the year. And I didn’t hear it. ‘Shadow Captain’ was a good song, and there were a couple other good songs.
“We didn’t practice enough. Neil loves that ‘hanging it out over the edge.’ Going in the studio and getting a bunch of people and just sort of jamming the song. He loves that immediacy. And I like that too, but I like to go work stuff.”
When Nash’s “Just a Song Before I Go” hit the Top Ten, the comeback was complete.
After the protracted CSN tour, Stills returned to solo work, issuing Thoroughfare Gapin 1978 and taking to the road with a band that included Bonnie Bramlett on backing vocals.
In an Ohio bar after a show, Bramlett ran into Elvis Costello, and another page in Stills history turned.
“I missed it, and I was glad that I did, because I was drunk,” Stills said. “She was in the program, so she was stone cold sober and proving it by hanging out at the bar with the guys, drinking iced tea. But she’s also a good old southern Illinois shitkicker, and this guy starts cracking wise. He was being real surly, and I just walked off and went upstairs. I knew better.
“And apparently he kept at it. It was basically ‘Well, what do you think of…?’ various artists. He basically thought American rockers had all lost their edge, and they were all fuckin’ rrghh, rrgh, a drunken rant, you know?
“She said ‘What about Ray Charles, at least?’ And he said ‘The guy’s nothin’ but a blind nigger.’ And at that point she reaches back into somewhere in East St. Louis and hits him with a right cross that puts him through about three people. Cold–cocked him. And I was just as proud of her as I could be.”
Crosby, Stills & Nash turned the decade with a monkey on their back that would have crippled lesser men. Crosby’s drug problems had become so bad that Daylight Again,their 1982 release, started out as a Stills–Nash album. The record company insisted Crosby be involved.
“It’s horrifying to be around,” said Stills of his compadre’s crack addiction. “We propped him up for a while. Interventions weren’t so popular then, and he ran away a few times, and then got in trouble in Texas.
“It was terrible to watch. We did a tour of Europe that was just horrifying. We couldn’t do anything about it, so we stayed away from it.”
After Crosby’s release from a Texas prison, Neil Young made good on a promise and re–joined CSN in the studio. The album, American Dream, underwhelmed just about everybody.
Including Stephen Stills. “David and Graham didn’t think I had enough songs. Neil thought some of them were fabulous. We worked on it but we couldn’t find the right rhythm section, Crosby had that energy of the newly sober, and we just didn’t quite all click. Neil and I were trying our best, but there was a lot of pulling in different directions.
“When we had the final playback of what everybody thought the final album was, I went ‘(Sigh). It ain’t there, boys. If you want to put this out, do so over my objections.’ The old cranky asshole Stephen Stills would’ve said ‘over my dead body.’ Having gotten the picture that I had to modify my behavior some.”
Part of the problem with such reunions, Stills said, is that each of the four men uses a different method of writing and recording – they’re set in their ways.
“Graham’s incredibly fast, David’s pretty fast, and more inventive, and I bring the beef,” he said. “We’ve gotten into the bad habit of doing our parts separately, and then doubling it and tripling it. That seldom works.
“I just don’t put it to one side or the other. There’s some of the methodology that Neil likes to employ that I don’t like. I like to practice for a day or two, then put it away and come fresh after tennis or something. And then I’ll nail the sumbitch down in two or three takes.
“It’s like horse training. To me, there’s a little bit of that in eliciting performances in the alien environment of a recording studio.”
A similar set of cross–purposes arrived while the foursome made 1998′s Looking Forward.
“That was sort of like that last Springfield album,” Stills said. “Neil came in with finished pieces, and then we complemented them, and then vice versa. And then we cut some new ones. And it almost happened. We were just a couple of songs short. We had this division of labor, how many of who’s songs, blah blah blah.
“And at the end of the day, we dropped the ball on the album. It was like, we’re too young to be living legends and too old to compete, and the record company didn’t quite know what to do with that.”
Stills is currently finishing up his first solo album since 1991′s Stills Alone. He plans to issue the music on Gold Hill, his own label, via the Internet, and hopes that the next Crosby, Stills & Nash album will be made available the same way (the band severed its ties with Atlantic in the mid ’90s).
“An artist that’s been around this long, there’s no pigeonhole for us,” he explained. “Why should we even try to compete with the Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync, or any of that shit? I can’t move like that any more. But I sure could when I was young.”
And after the successful Looking Forward tour in 2000, he said, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young started talking about recording again. “I don’t want to talk out of school, but we ain’t done by a long shot,” Stills said. “It is still the mothership, and it’s way too much fun.”
Several years ago, Stephen Stills became the only person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in the same evening, as Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash were honored.
He’s not proud of every step he’s taken, but he’s not ashamed, either. “Hey,” he shrugged, “the story is the story.”