Wild tales and then some: Talking with Graham Nash (2008)

The ever-recalcitrant Neil Young was not at the session that produced this photo, used as the cover of the 1988 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion album “American Dream.” Young’s image was added later. Atlantic Records.


With the release of Reflections, a triple–CD anthology of music ranging from the ridiculously famous to the never–before–released, Graham Nash is a satisfied man.

“I’ve had an incredible life,” says the 66–year–old singer, songwriter and longtime least likely to implode member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “I’m probably one of the luckiest people you’ll ever know. And the soundtrack to that life is on this box set.”

At 64 tracks, Reflections spans over 40 years of music — from the Hollies, started in 1963 by Nash and his boyhood chum Allan Clarke, to the big Crosby, Stills & Nash (and occasionally Young) tunes, the duo work with David Crosby, and from Nash’s stop–and–start solo career.

Over the years, Nash has become the official keeper of the key to the vast CSNY archive; he’s currently assembling five other CD projects, including a Stephen Stills box set, a Crosby, Stills & Nash demo collection and — at the specific request of Neil Young — a live album from CSNY’s first “reunion” tour, in 1974.

Professionally and personally, it’s been quite the tug o’ war, with Nash often the referee in a game of cocaine–fueled cross–purposes and bullying self-interest.

“Money, stardom and ego are a deadly combination if not handled well,” he says, and he should know.

Older and wiser — well, certainly older — Crosby, Stills and Nash have just begun a series of studio sessions for their first album in 15 years. Working with ace producer Rick Rubin, they’re covering songs from their favorite writers. It’s an all–acoustic project, with the focus back where it was in the beginning — on the amazing harmonic blend of their three voices.

They made a wish list of 20 or 30 songs. “My criteria was this: “It has to have a great melody, and it has to say something great,” Nash explains. “And most importantly, we have to own that song — we have to make it feel like we’d written it, and that’s us singing it.”

For this interview, I told Nash, I wanted to avoid re–hashing stuff everybody knows already — about Woodstock and “Wooden Ships,” pot–smoking and politics — and pull questions from somewhere deeper. Things the serious fan might have always wondered about.

“Go ahead,” he responded. “Ask whatever the fuck you want.”

So I did.

Bill DeYoung: I’ve always wondered about the culture shock that you, a hard–working British pop star, must have experienced when you fell in with those California hippie musicians.

Graham Nash: The Hollies were five kids from the North of England who managed to escape doing what their dad did, and what their grandfather did. Which was expected of us: ‘Go down the mine, or go to the mill — if it was good enough for your dad, it’s good enough for you, lad.’ Music was the escape mechanism. We were in a certain kind of culture there.

When we moved to London and started making records — hit records — that was another, incredible, culture. By the time I got to the end of my time with the Hollies, when they refused to record some of my songs, and I’d kind of lost my grip on the reigns of that horse, I’d met Cass Elliot and she’d introduced me to Crosby. He’d been in England with the Byrds. The promoter there was touting them as ‘America’s Answer to the Beatles,’ which pissed off a lot of people in England, so it was kind of a funky tour.

But Crosby came and stayed with me for a while during that tour.

Valentine’s Day, 1968: When the Hollies played L.A.’s famous Whisky A Go–Go, Crosby — at Cass’ urging — brought his new best friend, Stills. “We kind of blew a lot of people away; we were fucking great,” Nash remembers.

Crosby had just been sacked from the Byrds, and Stills knew Buffalo Springfield’s time was short — although there were some touring commitments to honor, Neil Young wanted a solo career and had already served notice. So together they’d made some demos, calling themselves the Frozen Noses (that’s a cocaine reference, folks, and a harbinger of things to come) and trying to make something happen.

Nash: I fell in love with Stephen and David’s music, and with them as people, because they were free, and sunny, and devoid of all the ‘Well, if you don’t know John and Paul, yer fookin’ no one, are ya?’ kind of vibe that was present in England at the time.

They were working together, but I’m not sure they had a plan. I think they felt instinctively that there was something missing. And when they came and saw the Hollies live, they realized that the missing part of the plan was me. And I think that Cass Elliot, God bless her soul, had instinctively realized, vocally, what that sound would be. She realized that what David and Stephen were doing was good, but it could be better.

The Hollies had tried a bit of string-soaked psychedelia, with Nash’s “King Midas in Reverse,” and the single had flopped. One after another, his next songs — “Lady of the Island,” “Right Between the Eyes,” “Sleep Song” and even “Marrakesh Express” — were deemed “too weird” for the Hollies to record.

Nash: I was starting to doubt myself as a writer. I thought ‘Well, fuck, I guess they’re not that great.’ That’s when Crosby came along and said ‘No, no, no, no, wait a second. Let’s get real here. These are really fine songs. Don’t be put off, just keep writing.’ And in a way, he saved my life.

The Hollies had found a formula for writing pop songs. They didn’t want to change. They were great pop songs, but they weren’t very deep.

And then I see David and Stephen, who are writing “Long Time Gone,” “Guinevere” and “For What it’s Worth” and “Helplessly Hoping,” and I’m going ‘Holy shit! Now I get it.’

They just re–enforced the feeling I got when I started listening to Bob Dylan, and later Beatles stuff. There was more to making music than just getting a hit record. There was information, and emotions, to impart. There were feelings to be discussed. You could put your heart into a song, and turn it into a fine record.

It’s a famous story. At Cass’ house (or maybe it was Joni Mitchell’s) the Frozen Noses were impressing everybody, running through Stills’ new tune “You Don’t Have to Cry.” Nash listened carefully, then asked them to sing it again, and on the third go–round added a high harmony — and just like that, organically, a brilliant new sound was born.

Nash: I swear to God, in the middle of singing “You Don’t Have to Cry,” we all had to stop and start laughing. Because it was instant! That CSN sound happened instantly. Without any rehearsal or working on it for months. It happened within the space of half a song.

So I knew that I would have to spend years with these guys. I heard that sound. I wanted that sound. It was different that anything I’d heard before, and the Hollies and the Springfield and the Byrds were good harmony bands. But this was different.

So the decision to leave my home, and my first wife (we were getting divorced at the time), and my bank account and my band, it was a no–brainer for me. I knew in my soul that this could make incredible music.

Nash’s sprightly “Marrakesh Express” was the first single released from Crosby, Stills & Nash — rejected by the Hollies, it was the world’s introduction to the new trio’s acoustic–based, harmony–intensive hippie music. The album sold a bajillion copies, turned FM radio on its electronic ear, won a Grammy and inadvertently helped the “countercultural revolution” start turning a profit.

And you know the rest.

DeYoung: Were you the one who didn’t want to add Neil Young to Crosby, Stills & Nash?

Nash: I was. We had just discovered this vocal sound, and just made this great record. Obviously, we would have to go out and play it live, and although David and I are very decent rhythm guitar players, Stephen was used to being challenged by another lead guitarist. Because he’d spent years with the Springfield. After many discussions, after it was decided that Neil should be invited to join, I didn’t like the idea at first. Because I didn’t want to disturb that vocal sound. We were intimately linked, and we knew where we had to go with any particular piece of music. And that would all have to change with the addition of another voice.

I loved Neil; when the Hollies toured Canada, I’d brought a small record player with me, and the Buffalo Springfield Again album. I’d constantly play “Expecting to Fly” — it was one of the best records I’d ever heard in my life. I loved his voice, but I didn’t know how it would fit in with this three–part that was so strong in my soul.

And so I went to breakfast with Neil on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. And I swear to God, after that breakfast I’d have made him president. The guy was incredibly funny and very, very dry. I already knew his songwriting ability and sensibility. And after that, there was no doubt that he should join us.

Next came Woodstock, “Woodstock,” Big Sur, Déjà vu and Nash’s sunny singalong “Teach Your Children.” They were rock royalty; fans and the music press hung on their every word (they had become, in effect, “America’s Answer to the Beatles”).

The “Teach Your Children/Carry On” single was climbing the charts in June, 1970, when CSNY rush–released “Ohio,” Young’s spontaneously written and recorded reaction to the murder of four Kent State students by National Guardsmen.

“It was on the street 12 days after it was recorded,” Nash says proudly. “We killed our own single. We didn’t give a fuck. We love upsetting apple carts.”

Just a Song Before I Go

Nash and Joni Mitchell had linked up in ’68, before the first CSN album was in the can. For more than a year, they lived an idyllic artists’ life, and wrote songs about how happy they were. Nash’s “Our House,” with its comfy–cozy, two–cats–in–the–yard scenario, was all about Joni.

Then, on her Ladies of the Canyon album, Mitchell described the relationship — and why it was doomed to failure — from her perspective. The song took Graham’s nickname — “Willy” — for its title.

Nash: Every word is true. It’s a heartbreaking song for me. To be in love with Joni Mitchell, and have that love come back at you, even to the point of marriage — to lose that was devastating for me. I’m old enough now to realize it was a long, long time ago and I can admit that I was heartbroken.

Joni’s grandmother had always wanted to be a creative person. But in those days, you had to be a wife and a mother, and you had to bake and take care of the kids. You had to stay home while your old man went to work. She had never been given the chance to express herself artistically.

And Joni recounted to me that she remembered the story of her grandmother kicking the door viciously, out of frustration. Joni, I believe, saw that as one of the downfalls of marriage.

I also believe that somewhere in Joni’s mind she thought that I would demand that of her. Which is completely false. How in the hell could anybody with a brain say to Joni Mitchell, ‘Why don’t you just cook?’

So even though we talked about marriage, I think the reality of it — from Joni’s point of view — was very scary.

To have had the love of that woman was such an incredible feeling for me. I was flying. I was on cloud nine — no, I was on cloud 10! I felt insanely lucky. Many people have said ‘You know, when you and Joni walked into a room, the whole room lit up.’

Nash’s first solo album, Songs For Beginners, arrived, unannounced, in May of 1971.

Nash: Those songs were written with CSN or CSNY in mind. I’ve always been more comfortable being a member of a band. It’s just the way I grew up.

By that time, Stephen and David were making their solo records. There were no plans to record, but I had these songs. So what the fuck do you do with them? I started out to make a very simple record; almost a record of demos. I just kept writing, and recording, and then I thought fuck, I guess I’m in the middle of my first solo record.

Perhaps because of his relationship with Mitchell — which had just skidded to a painful halt — Nash’s lyrics on Songs For Beginners were much more personal than ever before. “I’ve saved millions of dollars in psychiatry bills because I talk to myself constantly,” he says. “It’s my way of exorcising my demons.”

Oh — the world didn’t know it, but as a group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had already ceased to exist. It wasn’t pretty.

Crosby’s ’71 solo tune “Cowboy Movie” detailed the break, using violent Wild West imagery: Eli the Gunner (that’s Stills) comes to blows with the Duke (Nash) over the affections of an Indian maiden (this turns out to be session singer Rita Coolidge).

Fat Albert and Young Billy (Crosby and Young) can only watch and hold on tight; the outlaw gang will never be the same.

DeYoung: “Cowboy Movie.” How true is that?

Nash: It’s very true. The relationship between the four of us was a very strange one. We were a band, and yet we were four incredibly strong individuals with our own way of thinking about things. When you fuel that with cocaine, and you fuel that with fame and money, and people thinking that every decision you make is brilliant, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Stephen and I met Rita Coolidge on the very same night, when we recorded “Love the One You’re With.” I fell for Rita, and so did Stephen. I’ve always been a shy person, so I didn’t make the move that I wanted to on Rita. But Stephen did. And they were together for a few months.

That line in “Better Days” — ‘Though you say you’re where you want to be, you’re not where you belong’ — was about Rita. I always wanted to be with her.

One day I found out from Rita that she also wanted to be with me. And I said ‘We have a problem here, because you’re Stephen’s girlfriend right now, and there’s no way we can be together, with a good heart, unless we face Stephen and tell him ourselves.’

So we went to Stephen, and told him that we wanted to see each other. Stephen wasn’t very happy. Actually, he tried to spit on me.

That’s basically what “Cowboy Movie” was about.

Stills, meanwhile, had casually referred to Nash and Crosby as ‘My backup singers’ in a Rolling Stone article, keeping the wound open. This led, indirectly, to the album Graham Nash/David Crosby, and the launch of a creatively and commercially lucrative second career for the duo — Nash’s “Immigration Man” and “Southbound Train” became hit singles.

Nash: One profound reason why I love David is his sense of musicianship. He’s a completely unique individual, and I’ve always known that my simplicity and his strangeness would make an interesting combination. It remains true to this day.

DeYoung: Tell me about the single “War Song” you made in ’72 with Neil, the George McGovern election song.

Nash: I’m in my house in San Francisco, I’m getting’ high, phone rings. HEY WILLY. I GOT THIS SONG, MAN, I THINK I NEED YOU FOR THIS SONG. WOULD YOU DRIVE DOWN HERE?

So I drive the hour or so to his ranch, and there he is. He plays “War Song” for me and goes What d’you think, Willy? I said fuck, that’s a great song. ‘You think you can do it?’ I said fuck, get out the way!

It’s a really fine piece of music. I loved him for including me so equally in that. He could have said ‘Neil Young’ — but he didn’t, it was a ‘Neil Young & Graham Nash’ record.

Barrels of Pain

DeYoung: The four of you tried to re-convene in 1973. What happened?

Nash: Same old shit. I remember at one point, Stephen was so high — in my home studio, we were working on one of his songs called “My Angel” — and he asked me to sing a major melody through a minor set of chords. Instinctively, my body wouldn’t do it. I’m very good at what I do, but I couldn’t do it. I kept getting halfway through the phrase, and it just sounded so horrible to me that I had to stop. I did that two or three times, and I said ‘Stephen, I just can’t do this.’

Well, we ended up having a flaming row. He actually found the master of “Wind on the Water” and cut it in half with a razor blade.

I called a friend of mine, who lived next door, to throw Stephen out of my house.

By 1974, the quartet hadn’t been seen together in public for four years. The pressure was intense. That summer, they became the first rock act to play exclusively in stadiums, for big crowds, for big money.

Things had changed since the days of the Frozen Noses. After the massive success of his Harvest album, Young had become the superstar and the major draw — and his manager, Elliot Roberts, took control of the proceedings early on.

And Crosby, Stills and Nash didn’t have a lot of say in the matter.

Nash: Elliot had dollar signs in his eyes, and persuaded us to throw away our whole production team and go with Bill Graham. So everything kind of changed.

Then Neil didn’t want to travel with us, and drove himself across America in his own little tour thing. He was kind of isolated from us.

There was too much cocaine around.

Even in the blizzard of lies, as I call it, we were pretty good. I’m going through all the two–tracks right now, but I can hear the drugs screaming off the tape. There are some good things, and I’m sure I’ll be able to find a good record … but it makes me so uneasy to listen. It makes me crazy to listen to it. It’s part of why I wrote “Wasted on the Way.” We wasted a lot of time and a lot of music behind ego and drugs.

At tour’s end, another attempt at a studio reunion failed, and the four again went their separate ways. Stills recorded and toured with his new wife, French vocalist Veronique Sanson, while Young took off on an extended road trip with his trusty backup band, Crazy Horse.

Crosby and Nash made Wind on the Water, their second album together. “We thought, we have all these songs, and if Stephen and Neil aren’t into them, fuck ’em, we’ll do them ourselves.

“We fell back on a situation that was much more controllable, and much more sane.”

Wind on the Water was a critical and commercial success in 1975. As Crosby and Nash were in San Francisco working on the followup, Whistling Down the Wire, Stills and Young were hunkered down together at Miami’s Criteria Studios, making a project of their own.

Young turned up unannounced at Nash’s door with a cassette of four songs — including “Midnight on the Bay” and “Long May You Run” — he and Stills had roughed out for their first-ever duo project. Why not fly down, he said, and make this a full–blown CSNY record?

Nash: David agreed that they were great songs, and we knew we had good songs, since we were in the middle of a record. So we went to Miami to sing with Stephen and Neil. We completed the record — it was done. We sang on every single track. And then we went back to finish Whistling Down the Wire.

Well, they decided to take me and David’s voices off, and put it out as a Stills/Young record. Because they needed a piece of product to promote on the Stills/Young tour, which they’d already booked.

And to this day I can’t get an answer out of Neil’s camp as to whether the tapes with our voices even exist. It was 16–track then, and I know they would’ve needed the tracks to complete a Stills/Young record. But they must have made safeties.

I was so pissed. Because the chances to makes a CSNY record are few and far between, the vocal blend between us all was fabulous. And there was no reason that it shouldn’t have been a CSNY record, except for greed.

It’s been such a sore point that we have never talked about it with Stephen and Neil. We have never brought it up.

DeYoung: A year later you were back in Miami with Stills, making the CSN album. How could you look him in the eye?

Nash: Because it’s music, and that’s what we live for. When you’re pissed at Stephen, and he plays you a song that breaks your fuckin’ heart, you’ve got to forget it. If you cling on to negative stuff, you won’t get anywhere. Especially not in this combination of people.

I remember very clearly working on the final mix of “Shadow Captain.” And it was a fabulous piece of music. One of the engineers comes in and says ‘Hey, there’s some old man pissin’ in the bushes outside!’ And it was Neil. Now what the fuck he was doing in Miami, and taking a piss in the bushes outside of Criteria, I have no idea.

But he came in and he listened, and he realized that CSN was still a force to be reckoned with.

The next Crosby, Stills & Nash album, 1982’s Daylight Again, arrived in the middle of Crosby’s notorious love affair with the crack pipe. “We did that whole record, with me and Stephen, and Michael Finnegan doing the third part,” Nash says. “We handed it in to Atlantic — they said ‘It’s really good, but for marketing purposes, we need Crosby. Where is he?'”

Although he was bloated and glassy–eyed, Crosby could still sing, when he worked at it. “But he didn’t want to work at it,” Nash says. “He was much more interested in smoking.”

And it wasn’t just Crosby and Nash’s professional relationship that suffered.

Nash: I had been calling David’s house. I called 37 times, to be told that he was at the beach. Now, I’m a patient man … but I began to realize there was no fuckin’ beach. Maybe he had a beach in his closet. I realized that the drugs had totally taken over his life.

But we were faced with a problem. So Stephen and I made the decision to undo the entire album and fit Crosby in where we could. David’s voice sucked at the time. It was fucked.

We did they best we could with it. Somehow we managed to disguise it as a Crosby, Stills and Nash record — but it really, really wasn’t.

DeYoung: I remember Crosby saying that music gave him something to live for.

Nash: Oh yeah, he’d be dead. To give him credit, even though he was forced to do it, when he walked barefoot into the FBI office in Miami, that was him saying ‘I thought I could control this thing, but it’s controlling me and I’d better do something about it.” With all due respect, I think jail saved his life. That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true.

Wasted on the Way

Ever since the early ’70s, when Young’s star ascended rapidly past those of Crosby, Stills and Nash, he’s called the shots. Whenever there’s been a “reunion” album, tour or one–off benefit performance, it’s been because Neil wanted it, and wanted it on his terms only. When he says jump, they ask how high.

DeYoung: That’s got to suck.

Nash: Yeah, but you either walk away from it and never play that music again, or you just deal with it. Neil is, by far, the most selfish person — in certain aspects — that I’ve ever known. He is a complete slave to the muse of music, and I have great admiration for him for doing that.

However … He can be seen by some people as being so selfish that he doesn’t give a fuck about anybody else’s feelings. For example, he’ll say to Crazy Horse, ‘Yeah, we’re going to England in six weeks.’ Then the week before he’ll say ‘No man, I just don’t feel like it. The music’s not talking to me.’

When you’re a musician and you have finances and kids to send to school and bills to pay, and you make a certain amount of money because you’re in Neil Young’s band — and then it gets canceled the week before, with no compensation, that sucks. And that has happened a lot in Neil’s life.

And he only calls us when he needs us for something. He has very rarely called me as a friend.

It’s not a friendship. I have great, un-ending admiration and respect for Neil Young, and I think he respects the hell out of me too.

DeYoung: After Crosby got out of prison, clean and sober, the four of you made the album American Dream. As the saying goes, the world waited with baited breath. It’s just an awful record, Graham. Nobody I know likes it.

Nash: Neither do we. I think it didn’t work for a couple of reasons. We actually had a great time making it. They were some good songs on it. We may have over-harmonized some of them. We kind of over–compensated.

My feeling — and I think David agrees with me — is that Neil over-indulged Stephen on that record. He put a couple of Stephen tracks on there that should not have been on there at all. And left out a version of CSN doing “Climber,” that was written by David, that was just stunningly beautiful.

It was decided to take that off and put on “Driving Thunder,” which to me is a piece of shit. In an effort to please Stephen, I think Neil made some wrong choices.

There’s a small story you should know about this. The shot on the album cover was actually a shot of me, David and Stephen, with Neil photo–shopped in. There were two versions — in one, Neil’s wearing a white hat, and in the other he’s wearing a black hat.

And that is exactly why American Dream didn’t work.

Young did another “Come to Jesus” in 2006. He’d done his anti–Bush Living With War album, and, realizing that the songs would play to more people if Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were singing them, he organized another “reunion” tour, giving it the umbrella title “Freedom of Speech.” It’s chronicled in the 2008 film CSNY: Déjà vu, which Young himself directed.

Nash: It was a great idea. Neil did a brilliant job of staying on message. He realized that some of the songs we’d written in the past — “Military Madness” “Déjà vu,” “For What It’s Worth” — were hits, but were relevant to what he wanted to say right then.

We are slaves to our hits. We’ve tried to do the dance of balancing brand new songs with “Teach Your Children,” that we’ve been playing for 40 years. It’s always been a prison, and we try and escape our shackles as much as possible.

But here was an opportunity to only play a couple of those hits.

DeYoung: What about Stills? You two seem to have weathered a lot of storms, yet you’re still working together.

Nash: There’s always been a part of me that really loves Stephen. I recognize his genius, and I recognize his difficulties. And in my relationship with Stephen I’ve always tried to amplify and concentrate on the good parts rather than the fucked parts.

This last tour (summer/fall 2008) was one of the most fun tours I’ve had with Crosby, Stills & Nash in probably 20 years. A couple of things: He is clean, and he has a hearing aid. And it makes an incredible difference, because now he’s part of the conversation. He isn’t paranoid that me and David are talking about him. We’d be saying ‘Do you see that pretty girl in the front row?’ and Stephen would come over and say ‘You’re talking about me, aren’t you?’

He’s singing better in tune. He’s singing on his guitar instead of just playing the stock solo that Stills would normally play. He was much better this tour than in the last 20 years, and I think if you talked to David, David would agree.

I’ve always known that Stephen showed glimpses of genius. I think he’s always been in Neil’s shadow.

He suffered from an upbringing that from all accounts was fucking horrific — his father leaving home, Stephen being tormented by the women in his family — his mother and his sister — because their father left. Military upbringing. The poor kid never stood a chance. And I completely understand that once he got a sense of his musical power, he would run like fuck to escape all that.

At the end of the day, always, there’s Crosby; with the exception of that ugly crack pipe period, he and Nash have been virtually joined at the hip for more than four decades.

DeYoung: Why has this relationship succeeded so consistently?

Nash: The combination of our voices and our songwriting is insane to me. I love it dearly.

You must understand something. I know everywhere David’s going to go, musically. When I stand next to him onstage, the entire side of my body that’s facing him is open. Every pore is open.

I know him so well that many times I know that he’s going to make a mistake on the next line, and I make the same mistake with him so the audience doesn’t think there was a mistake made. That’s how intimate I am with David.

Working with Crosby, what a thrill. I’m a musician, for God’s sake, and I get to make music with him? This is fantastic.

The story of Stephen Stills and Manassas

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!”




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.

Viva Manassas.


  1. 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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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.
  6. “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.”
  7. “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.
  8. “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.”
  9. “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.
  10. “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.
  11. “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.
  12. “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.
  13. “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.
  14. “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.
  15. “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.

Bill DeYoung

The Boy Who Would Be Stills

Two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Stephen Stills went to a dozen different schools in his youth. The ones he remembers most fondly, however, were in Gainesville.

Stills spent two years at Sidney Lanier Elementary School in the mid 1950s, moved away and returned for a year at Gainesville High during the 1962-63 school year. He came back again to briefly attend the University of Florida.

“I remember the humidity,” says Stills, 56. “The Spanish moss. Paynes Prairie. I remember Frances Murphree diving at the Gainesville Country Club, where the college now has its golf course. She was the star of the pool.

“I remember the KA’s blew up the SAE lions. They had some guy from the ROTC get about a dime’s worth of C-4, and they blew them to smithereens. Nobody told forever. It was much too big of a charge, and it blew out all the windows across the street.”

Stills was just 18 when he left school forever to pursue a career in music. As a founding member of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash, he made some of the most significant and lasting music of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Stills was born in Texas, and his parents, Otie and Talitha, moved the family to Illinois and Louisiana before settling – for the first time – in Florida.

“My father was basically one of those entrepreneur types that would just start up stuff, make a bunch of money and then get bored,” Stills recalls. “It would fall apart, then we’d be broke and he would start again.

“We didn’t get to the beach, but we stopped in Gainesville. He thought that was the prettiest place he saw.”

The family’s first home was at Northwest 6th Place and 22nd Street, in a new subdivision called University Court. Otie Stills built the house himself.

“The Dean of Men from the University of Florida lived next door, and he hated us. He almost kept me out of school, I had formative years there. Sold Coca-Cola at the stadium, and I fell in love with the Gators then.”

The dean, Lester Hale, had a daughter young Stevie’s age, Cindy. Today, Cynthia Hale Gross says her father actually liked Steve and his two sisters. Everybody did. “The Stills family built a brick wall around their house with the bricks from the old First Presbyterian Church,” Gross remembers. “And everyone was intrigued by that.”

Gross, who lives in Jacksonville, never forgot her tow-headed neighbor. The families often carpooled to Sunday School. “I always thought he  had one of the most infectious laughs I ever heard,” she says. “You couldn’t hear him laugh without laughing too.”

Stills: “I remember being able to ride your bicycle to school and not worrying about anything. I remember the black people being incredibly friendly. And Mama Lo’s, Jesus, to this day I still have not tasted its like.”

After a stint in the Tampa area, where Stephen attended public schools and a military academy, the family landed in San Juan, Costa Rica. He was enrolled at Colegio Lincoln, a tony prep school.

They weren’t done with Gainesville, however.

“When my father was in one of his flopping around, figuring out what to do periods, I moved back to Gainesville and went to GHS,” he remembers. “I’d gone to Costa Rica, and I came back to Gainesville High School to see about getting out early, and also to see what it was going to take to get into college.”

Stills is pictured four times in the 1963 GHS yearbook. Along with his senior picture, he’s seen playing a bass drum in the band, be-robed in the front row of the chorus, and as part of a folksinging group called the Accidental Trio.

“We were going to be the next Peter, Paul, and Mary,” says Nancy Ruth, the “Mary” of the trio (she was Nancy Willingham in those days). “I always had a feeling Steve would go far with his talent. My mom actually bought him the Goya guitar he played in the trio—I don’t think he could afford a good one—and boy, could he make that thing sing.”

On the back cover of the landmark 1967 album Buffalo Springfield Again, one of the many names listed in the “thank you” section is Peanuts Willingham, Nancy’s mother.

Ruth, who now works as an accountant in Gainesville, remembers that her mom actually knew someone in the music business, for whom the Accidental Trio auditioned. The man was most impressed with Stephen’s guitar playing.

He’d fallen in love with the guitar during that first tenure in Costa Rica. “When I started getting good enough to play, there was nothing to do but play acoustic guitar in the bathroom at night, until my sister came and yelled at me,” he says.

Otie Stills was a land developer, among other things, and he called his teenaged son back to Costa Rica to help him with a project. Stephen finally graduated from Collegio Lincoln in 1963, and that fall he enrolled at UF.

Stills describes his family life as “chaos” and he was determined to get away.

Stills’ first rock ‘n’ roll outfit included his Accidental Trio buddy Jeff Williams, and Gainesville native Don Felder, the resident “hotshot guitarist” in town.

“Me and Jeff got this band called the Continentals, and we got Felder to come in,” Still explains. “He would only show up for gigs. He didn’t rehearse—we never saw him except for gigs. He was too cool to rehearse, and we were just kids. It was a real hoot. Jeff’s big brother was an SAE, so we played fraternity parties.”

Stills had to borrow an electric guitar to play with the band. “I was the drummer first, but Jeff couldn’t play anything. But he could keep time. And he was the one with the car and the mom that was really understanding.” He bunked at the Williams house and taught Jeff how to play the drums.

Felder would achieve superstardom, just a few years after Stills, as a member of the Eagles.

It was during his Joe College days that Stills began to appreciate rhythm ‘n’ blues music; professional soul bands were all the rage on Fraternity Row. There was somebody cool to see every weekend.

Although he attended classes religiously, Stills was not destined to graduate from UF.

“The University of Florida was not the Harvard of the South that it is today,” he says. “It was a step back from that rough-ass prep school in Costa Rica that I went to. That thing was the best school in the area. Presidents would send their sons and daughters to the school because it was so good.

“I came back because I liked it. I wanted out of the house, away from the family. I moved in with friends, and then the college told me that despite my good grades they basically couldn’t accept me because all the records were fucked up. I was there—I know I went to class!

“So I just split and went to New Orleans, then to New York—and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Along with Ohioan Richie Furay, Stills joined a harmony-singing folk group, the Au Go Go Singers. Eventually they found their way to California, where they put Buffalo Springfield together with Canadian singer/guitarist Neil Young.

Buffalo Springfield lasted just 18 months, but the band’s folk, rock and country blend laid the groundwork for so much that was to follow, including Crosby, Stills & Nash (and, sometimes, Young).

Today, Stills has homes in Beverly Hills, California, and in Florida, where he’s registered to vote. He is a lifetime member of the University of Florida Alumni Association.

Stills was the first musician inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice on the same night, for his work in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

In 1968, just five years after he’d left Gainesville for good, Stephen Stills performed in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.  Buffalo Springfield was opening for the Beach Boys.

“I remember what I wore,” he says. “I wore a green Pierre Cardin suit, and a paisley scarf as a tie. I was very much the ‘British pop star.’ Most people didn’t know that I was there, and nobody paid any attention, and there was no review. Nobody cared. It was a Beach Boys show.

“I think some of my running buds were in Vietnam, and a couple more were off in other colleges, or had moved away. But I was a townie.”


@2001 The Gainesville Sun