Among his many talents, Stephen Stills has always managed to surround himself with the finest musicians.
The 18 months he spent with Manassas were particularly fertile. With ex-Byrd Chris Hillman at his side, and five of Southern California’s most versatile players, Stills had a band that was able to translate his quicksilver musical impulses – from rock ‘n’ roll to Latin, from blues to bluegrass – into something extraordinary.
“We knew we were on the cutting edge of something,” Stills says. “It took what the Flying Burrito Brothers and all of them were supposed to be, and made it more of a marriage between Rolling Stones rock ‘n’ roll and country. It widened the tent, if you will.”
Manassas arrived at a crucial time for Stephen Stills. It was the fall of 1971, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, despite the devotion of the world, gold records and very, very deep chests of money, were barely speaking to one another.
Meanwhile, Hillman was dispirited, playing to half-filled halls with what was left of the Flying Burrito Brothers.
“We looked at each other like a breath of fresh air,” Stills says. “Even though we were crazy, we weren’t mean to each other and we didn’t put each other through head trips … we judged everything on the music.”
In September, Stills and his road band – which included Dallas Taylor (the drummer on Crosby, Stills & Nash and just about everything that had come after), bassist Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels and pianist Paul Harris – finished a lengthy tour in support of Stills’ second solo album.
Conga player Joe Lala had joined the tour for the last five shows. A former member of Blues Image (“Ride Captain Ride”), the Italian-American Lala had become fast friends and running buddies with Stills when they discovered they’d both grown up in the same mostly-Cuban section of Tampa, Florida, and shared a passion for Latin music.
Stills booked Criteria Studios in Miami, where some of Stephen Stills 2 had been cut, to begin his next project.
He was feeling the pressure – from the public, the press and mostly from Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun – to “make his peace” with David Crosby, Graham Nash and Neil Young.
“They just didn’t realize how untenable CSNY had become,” Stills says. “Everybody was becoming iconic, and that was kind of getting under my skin. So the idea of a band – just a bunch of guys that make a collective noise – I liked that.”
There was no cohesive plan, other than the feeling that he should have another strong voice to sing with. A born collaborator, Stills knew that he needed a partner.
On a whim, he got in touch with Hillman – an old friend from the ‘60s – and invited him to bring the rest of the Burritos to Criteria, just to see what would happen.
“It couldn’t have hit me at a better time,” Hillman says. “I needed to be re-energized, and that was the perfect thing. I was completely burned out with the Burritos. I’d kept it going as far as I could.”
A mandolin tucked under his arm, Hillman arrived with pedal steel player Al Perkins, fiddler Byron Berline, bassist Roger Bush and singer/guitarist Rick Roberts.
For several days, they played acoustically, jamming on country and bluegrass chestnuts and eventually getting several of Stills’ new songs on tape.
For Stills, the wheels were turning. Hillman, Perkins and Berline were invited to continue on a more permanent basis. Berline politely declined and flew home to California.
And suddenly there was a seven-piece band, with pedal steel guitar alongside Latin percussion, pumping electricity into Stills’ rock, blues, country and CSNY-style acoustic music. “As to how big it was – as long as we were doing it and making some noise, that was fine with me,” Stills says. He played acoustic and electric guitar, and piano, and was challenged by to sing better than he ever had before.
“The chemistry in that band was perfect,” remembers Lala. “When Stephen was on, he was on. He was really good. The rest of us got along great. We had a lot of fun together. It was a great bunch of guys, and we enjoyed being with each other.”
Stills had enough clout to keep Criteria’s Studio B – and engineers Ron and Howard Albert – available around the clock.
“We had a few songs going in, but the majority of it was made up on the spot,” Taylor says. “That’s why it ended up being a double record, because we had so much material. That was the magic.”
Early on, Hillman – a star and bandleader in his own right – decided he was fine playing second banana on a Stephen Stills record. “Other than playing the mandolin, or offering my country influence and my tenor singing, I think my role in the band was just playing rhythm guitar,” he says. “Which was OK. It filled out the sound.”
A large house was leased in the swanky Coconut Grove neighborhood, and all the musicians – Stills included – moved in. They’d have a meal together before heading over to the studio, about a half-hour’s drive away.
Everyone understood that it was Stills’ project – they were his songs, after all, and he was footing the bill. He referred to the band as a “quasi-democracy”; he was the “benevolent dictator.” Secretly, the others called him The Boss.
“I was having a great time being productive,” he says. “I was also female-less; look what happens when you’re between having your heart broken, or you’re mad or something. It’s hard to write when you’re really happy.”
Fueled by insomnia and a tireless drive to create, Stills often summoned the players on a whim, regardless of the time. All he had to do was walk down the hallway and open their bedroom doors.
“I’d get the shake at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning,” remembers Taylor. “‘Come on Dallas, I got this idea. Let’s go record.’ And that’s the way it was from Day One. Even during Crosby, Stills & Nash he would get an inspiration and drag my tired ass down to the recording studio.”
Stills would often say he did his best work at “A million in the morning.”
Says Perkins: “He and Dallas had this agreement that they wouldn’t play a song more than seven times. So if we didn’t get the take we wanted, a lot of times he’d release us at 4 or 5 a.m. and he’d stay in there until morning editing with Ron and Howie.”
Hillman had never liked playing music into the wee small hours. “I’m just not a guy that likes to be up late at night,” he explains.
“At the time, Chris had a pretty short fuse,” Lala says. “He grabbed Stills by the collar and said look, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this like normal human beings.”
A halt was soon called to the practice, mostly to keep Hillman happy.
“Chris and Dallas and Stephen had a heart-to-heart, and then they called a general meeting,” Lala recalls. “From then on, we would start at 4 or 5 in the afternoon and stop at a reasonable hour. Chris would keep an eye on things and say OK, that’s it, I’m going home.”
Stills: “It was just being consumed by the music – ‘let’s go get it now!’ I was pretty compulsive.”
And he loved working in Miami. “There were boats, and beaches, and warm water and girls in bathing suits,” he says. “The only trouble was, we got so obsessed with work that we never took any time to enjoy that stuff. Occasionally we’d go fishing, or make a trip to Bimini or the Bahamas, or down to the Keys. Being an old Florida boy, that was an elixir for me!
“Then we’d get into the studio and go for stupidly monstrous runs of time.”
The next step was to take a cool photo for the album cover.
An obsessive Civil War buff, Stills flew the entire group to Washington, D.C. and had them driven out to the vintage train station in Manassas, Va., where the Confederacy had claimed its first major victory at the Battle of Bull Run.
They photo they liked depicted the seven musicians standing in a line on the railway platform, underneath a large MANASSAS sign.
And so the band had a name. Simple as that.
“That’s how things happened back then,” Stills laughs – “and shit worked all the time. For no apparent reason! And now they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on focus groups and research, on stuff that we just went out and did.
“It was one of those ‘what the hell’ things. That’s the way the name Buffalo Springfield happened, too.”
In January, with 21 songs in the can, everyone went to England to stay in Stills’ mansion, a country estate he’d bought from Ringo Starr, who’d got it from Peter Sellers. “The house,” Hillman recalls, “was big enough for the whole band and two roadies to live in.”
All the road equipment was set up in Stills’ massive recreation room, and the idea was to rehearse for Manassas’ inaugural tour, set to begin in mid-March in Amsterdam.
Still, says Hillman, “The rehearsals were few and far between. And they’d always be at the whim of the benevolent dictator. Which could be at midnight. We got some work done; God knows how.”
The two-record Manassas album was released while the band was on the road in Europe. Reviews were glowing, and by the time the tour reached America, it had gone gold.
Manassas barnstormed the United States for most of 1972. It was a brilliant show, with Stills at the top of his game and earning the best reviews of his solo career. He clearly loved the camaraderie and the musical interplay on the stage.
“One time when we were on the road,” Hillman recalls, “I had to sit him down and say ‘Do you realize that I net more than you do every night? As an employee?’ Because it was costing him so much in overhead. And he was very generous with his guys.”
Sadly, it wasn’t to last. Things had changed by the time Manassas returned to Criteria in early 1973. Enthusiasm had waned considerably – Stills had met and married French pop singer Veronique Sanson, while Hillman re-united with the rest of the Byrds for a one-shot reunion album. Hillman was also entertaining a big-money offer from David Geffen’s Asylum Records to form a new super-group with John David Souther and Richie Furay.
Apathy, antipathy and arguments, coupled with a dramatic increase in drug use by some members of the band, dragged the sessions perilously toward a standstill. “The first album was magical, and so was the first year of touring,” Hillman says. “But the second album was just like pulling teeth.
“We weren’t prepared, and the album was very self-indulgent. I remember walking out of the studio one night and thinking ‘What am I doing here?’”
Despite some stellar songs, Down the Road wasn’t nearly as strong – or cohesive – as the double Manassas album. The Albert brothers, weary of battling with an increasingly combative Stills, had quit halfway through recording. The album was completed, with other engineers, at studios in Colorado and Los Angeles. And Atlantic had rejected some of the songs, which necessitated re-recordings, which resulted in a patchwork quality.
The soufflé, as it turned out, could not be re-heated. As Hillman (along with Perkins and Harris) decamped for greener pastures in the Souther, Hillman, Furay Band, Stills joined Crosby, Nash and Young in Hawaii for an (ill-fated) reunion.
And so Manassas passed into legend. “I look back at that as one of the highlights of my life,” Hillman says. “He’s an incredibly gifted singer, songwriter and musician, and there was so much that I learned from him.”
Stills has, for the most part, nothing but fond memories of Manassas. “What we were doing, this whole mixture of Latin, country, rock and R&B, that was friggin’ genius,” he says. “Most of Nashville started sounding exactly like Manassas about 10 years later.
“And they made much more money than we did!”
WRITTEN FOR RHINO RECORDS 2009
MANASSAS PIECES SONG-BY-SONG:
From the moment the full complement of Manassas musicians first gathered together in Miami’s Criteria Studios, Stephen Stills was energized. The sessions were so much fun – the band was always on fire – he couldn’t wait to get to work every evening, and to run his latest songs by the others. He wrote most of the Manassas album, and a good part of Down in the Road, in the studio itself. With everyone contributing ideas, the band was locking in and laying them down as fast as Stills could work out the guitar chords.
There was, when decisions had to be made, an overabundance of riches. The tracks on PIECES, recently discovered in the Stills archive, range from rough mixes, rehearsals and run-throughs to finished masters that, for one reason or another, didn’t make the final cut for the two original Manassas albums.
There’s rock ‘n’ roll here, and blues and country and bluegrass and Latin, and exquisite harmonies, magnificent playing and shiver-inducing creative camaraderie – from Stephen, Chris, Dallas, Al, Joe, Paul and Fuzzy, comrades, band-mates and brothers for one all-too-brief moment.
- “Witching Hour.” Stills, uncharacteristically, is writing about himself: “It’s about the reason I took off from CSNY in the first place – like ‘I’m being used here, and I’m not sure why.’ And when it comes time to get down to it, I’m the go-to guy – that’s the witching hour, when you make up songs.” Left off the Manassas debut, “The Witching Hour” was later recorded by Hillman for his first solo album, Slippin’ Away.
- “Sugar Babe.” Manassas warms up in the studio by playing a sweet and supple version of this Stephen Stills 2 song – an arrangement that would become a staple of the band’s live shows.
- “Lies.” Hillman’s gritty rocker appeared on Down the Road in a later version, re-recorded in Colorado. This is the original from Miami, much harder-edged and featuring Joe Walsh guesting on guitar.
- “My Love is a Gentle Thing.” Stills’ love song to his beloved Hawaiian Islands – alone and overdubbed, in the middle of Criteria Studios at a million in the morning.
- “Like a Fox.” “One of those things that was half done, and then a bunch of people showed up,” Stills remembers, “and so I had to write a chorus like NOW. To me, it wasn’t quite enough song … it was a little quick.” Bonnie Raitt turned up to sing on the chorus – still, it was never “completed” and was relegated to the vaults.
- “Word Game.” “That’s bad to the bone, isn’t it?” Stills says about this originally-acoustic firecracker from Stephen Stills 2, given new life – and energy – during a Manassas rehearsal. “We were just fucking around,” he says, “and now, I want to learn that song electric and play it like that. It kicks ass.”
- “Tan Sola y Triste.” A lyric-less jam for the second album that Stills eventually turned into “Pensamiento.” With equal focus given to piano, congas and pedal steel, it’s that thrilling Manassas alchemy in miniature.
- “Fit to Be Tied.” Heavy on the wah-wah, this sinewy blues was later toned down and re-recorded – for the 1975 album Stills – as “Shuffle Just As Bad.”
- “Love and Satisfy.” A Hillman original recorded for Down the Road, but left off at the last minute. It was later re-made by the Souther, Hillman, Furay Band.
- “High and Dry.” Over the years, this slow blues – based on a riff from Ray Charles’ “Lonely Avenue” – was often jammed and recorded as a warmup. “That’s something that just kinda flew out,” Stills explains. “Somebody played some wicked slide there – I don’t know, it was another one of those middle of the night things – it’s very vague, but really cool.” Although Stills performs “High and Dry” in concert to this day, the live audience sound heard here was added, as an experiment, in the studio.
- “Panhandle Rag.” Stephen Stills and the Burrito boys, jamming during their first week in Miami. “Joe Lala is playing the tempo on a box,” recalls Stills, “and gets really out of it. But we all got going so good, I just said ‘Don’t stop recording!’” That’s Byron Berline playing fiddle and offering a tip of the hat to Chris “Curly” Hillman, who’s speed-playing his mandolin.
- “Uncle Pen.” Berline sings Bill Monroe’s classic fiddle tune, with front-porch harmonies and heart-stopping flat-pick guitar (Stills) and mandolin (Hillman). At the time, “Uncle Pen” was a staple of the bluegrass segment of the Burritos’ live show.
- “Do You Remember the Americans?” On Down the Road, it’s a mid-tempo country-flavored tune. This is an earlier version, old-timey, double-time and on fire, with Perkins’ bluegrass banjo to the fore.
- “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music).” The great Joe Maphis’ honky tonk classic and another one the Burritos had been playing in concert.
- “I Am My Brother.” Stephen Stills as nature intended: All alone at the microphone, conjuring ghosts and spirits out of his acoustic guitar on a blistering country blues. The lyric speaks to the sweet salvation of blood brotherhood – a last testament to the enduring tensile strength of Manassas.