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Ain’t It Always Stephen Stills

VARA Broadcasting Association
Stephen Stills performing on the Dutch television program Toppop, 1972

Several years ago an academic colleague and I embarked on what we called a “Stills-off”: we would listen to our record collections and narrow the musician Stephen Stills’s oeuvre down to its top five songs. Then we’d see whose list was better. I assumed our choices would overlap, and that high among them would be “4 + 20,” whose piercing Appalachian melancholy seems to belong more to the ages than to the moody twenty-four-year-old who wrote it, as well as “Find the Cost of Freedom” with its sea shanty cry of grief and endurance. We would both surely include his Buffalo Springfield resistance anthem “For What It’s Worth,” with Stills’s calm, urgent baritone and rhythmic stops; originally released to protest a Los Angeles curfew—its composition probably began earlier when Stills was still nineteen—it has endured long past its original occasion. According to Tim Rice it is “one of the best songs ever written with just two chords.” (Rice is a lyricist: the song has more than two chords.)

But my colleague and I could not stay away from Stills’s rocking guitar solos—“Crossroads,” for instance, or “Ain’t It Always,” pieces that got Stills labeled “Guitar God” on YouTube. Then there is “The Love Gangster,” from his double album, Manassas, on which Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones plays bass. Wyman wanted at the time to leave the Stones and join Stills’s band; the instruments on Manassas are all in the hands of virtuosos. Stills has put out recordings in which, like Prince, he has played all the instruments and sung all the parts. (“Do for the Others,” a song from his first solo album, is aptly named.) But Manassas did not require that.

And so our lists began to burst at the seams and soon the Stills-off seemed an increasingly stupid exercise. Stills, now seventy-two, has often been named one of the top rock guitarists of all time and is the only musician to have recorded with both Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton on the same album—his first solo LP (1970). His work has sprung from every stripe of American music—blues, folk, rock, “songs with roots,” as he has put it; he was “Americana” and “singer-songwriter” before those terms were used. And although as a child he began as a drummer and tap dancer, the only percussion one is likely to hear from him now might be when he knocks rhythmically against an acoustic guitar. Once, on a 2006 tour that was being filmed, he tripped over some electrical cords and fell to the stage with a certain percussive flair. “We’ve got more lights than we’re used to,” he said. “We usually don’t care if they can see us because we’re old.”

A year after my misbegotten Stills-off I attended a sold-out concert in Nashville by the Long Players, a tribute band that performs one single album from start to finish at each of its concerts. This time they had chosen Déjà Vu (witty!), which is the first and best (and for a long while was the only) album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. (Ampersand and no Oxford comma for Young: when he needs to get out of a band he flees quickly.) No sooner had the Long Players begun with Stills’s “Carry On” than the capacity crowd was standing—this cannot always be counted on with members of the AARP—and singing along at the top of their lungs. Jubilant, revelatory, the evening was more than a geezer-pleaser: it was baby boomer church, late-middle-aged ecstasy, a generation stating that it had not just yet entirely surrendered to the next. I started to suspect that no American demographic had so thoroughly memorized an album—not even one by the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell—as this generation of baby boomers had Déjà Vu.

The summer after that concert, on a porch in New England, I found myself among several dinner guests sitting about postprandially in the July night. Suddenly a guitar appeared, and just as suddenly we were all singing Stills’s “Helplessly Hoping.” Though we did not know one another that well, working from brain muscle memory we knew the song so automatically that harmony was possible. There was no Beatles or Dylan song we could have sung as successfully. I began to marvel, yet again, at how much, for a particular generation, the songs of Stephen Stills were marinated into our minds, our spines, our bones.

Now it was March 2017, and a friend and I were waiting for Stills to step onto the stage of Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium with the Allmanesque Kenny Wayne Shepherd and an old hipster keyboardist, Barry Goldberg. The three of them have been playing together, in a blues-rock ensemble called the Rides, since 2013. (Stills once said that Crosby, Stills, and Nash called themselves by their names not just so they could be free to come and go but because “all the animals were taken.”) The Rides, which Stills has called “the blues band of my dreams,” got its name from Shepherd’s and Stills’s shared love of cars. (“We’re not Prius people,” Stills has said.) That he continues to play gigs at his age is evidence of his stubborn professionalism; from the time he was a teenager—from the early Au Go-Go Singers to Buffalo Springfield to Manassas—he was the one to organize his bands.

The Ryman audience was again primarily made up of the generation that came of age during the 1960s—a sea of snowy hair. Stills himself was twenty-two during the summer of love. Because of prodigies like him, whose careers were enabled by the radio—especially ones in cars—almost every kind of music remains emotionally available to an audience this age, except perhaps hip-hop (though Stills has even done some crossover with Spike Lee and Public Enemy for the film He Got Game).

Stills may be hobbled by arthritis—backstage he bumps fists rather than shakes hands with fans; he has carpal tunnel and residual pain from a long-ago broken hand, which affects his playing—and he is nearly deaf, but his performance life has continued. Drugs and alcohol may have dented him somewhat, forming a kind of carapace over the youthful sensitivity and cockiness one often saw in the face of the young Stills. Some might infer by looking at the spry James Taylor or Mick Jagger that heroin is less hard on the body than cocaine and booze, which perhaps tear down the infrastructure. (“Stills doesn’t know how to do drugs properly,” Keith Richards once said.) But one has to hand it to a rock veteran who still wants to get on stage and make music even when his youthful beauty and once-tender, husky baritone have dimmed. It shows allegiance to the craft, to the life, to the music. It risks a derisive sort of criticism as well as an assault on nostalgia.

The Rides’ Nashville concert comes on the heels of a “definitive biography” of Stills by the British author David Roberts. Titled Change Partners, after one of Stills’s own songs, the book is an act of hurried, sloppy, aggregated love. Ignore the typos—mistakes such as “sewed” for “sowed”; “daubed” for “dubbed”—and don’t go looking for any psychological depth. Roberts has collected most of his data from widely available interviews. A speedy checklist of girlfriends—Judy Collins, Rita Coolidge, Joan Baez, Susan Saint James—plus wives and children will largely have to do for an account of Stills’s personal life. The lovely “Rock and Roll Woman” is declared in passing to be a valentine to Grace Slick.

Roberts is far more interested in constructing a chronicle—flow charts would have been helpful—of the constantly shifting permutations and reunions that formed Stills’s music-making through the decades, and that early on gave us the sublime Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young), cobbled from the Byrds, the Hollies, and Buffalo Springfield. The “beautiful Celtic keen of Graham’s and David’s cat’s purr, and my cement mixer” was how Stills characterized band members’ voices. Stills needed Young’s guitar-playing to help ignite his own, and sometimes there was electric sparring between them onstage. They all performed like jazz musicians—conversational, improvised—and no two live versions of their songs are the same.

To those looking on, it seemed Nash had the organizational skills; Crosby had the intuition; Stills had the musical chops and the brilliant songwriting; Neil Young—like a comet zooming in and out of orbit—had the poetry and mystique and artistic searching but seldom joined the choirboy harmonies at which the other three excelled. “Neil wants to be Tony Orlando and we’re Dawn,” joked Stills in the 2008 documentary CSNY Déjà Vu. Young had planned the 2006 concert tour as a war protest and decorated the stage with yellow ribbons. Stills seemed afraid it was political kitsch but he went along.

Though born in Texas of midwestern parents, Stills was primarily a Florida boy, having spent his adolescence in Tampa and St. Petersburg, as well as Louisiana and Costa Rica. He speaks Spanish; his father was a building contractor whose peripatetic business often followed the military. Home life mirrored that of many postwar families (“What do we do, given life? We move around,” wrote Stills in a 1972 song). Stills went to five different high schools. Skilled at several instruments, he played in high school ensembles, including marching bands, and he has since donated money to the University of Florida marching band. He spent a brief period in a military academy and clearly believes such bands are where many musicians get their start.

Florida has always been an interesting hub of musical styles—a farrago of Appalachian, country, gospel, blues, Latino (Caribbean and Cuban émigré), and Seminole traditions. In jazz the great bass player Jaco Pastorius is often thought to be an embodiment of the region’s unique sound, guitar notes bending in a tropical otherworldly fusion. (Hip-hop too has its own South Florida subgenre.) In rock there was Jim Morrison, the Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, who named themselves after their Jacksonville high school gym teacher. Ray Charles made his early reputation in Florida, as did Tom Petty.

Stills brought a distinctive combination of country, folk, Latin, blues, and rock to every band he was in. One can already hear these influences converging in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (1969), a folk-rock love song written about Judy Collins, whose rousing coda has a strong Latin flavor, due to Stills’s overlaid vocal track. CSN performed it at Woodstock. Stills wrote songs of great variety of style and mood and composed quickly but unconventionally, often pulling together tracks he had recorded earlier in his studio before he knew where they might land—the equivalent of a writer’s notebook or a chef’s pantry. Stills liked to cook, both literally and figuratively, for his bands. “Carry On” was written in eight hours.

Again, one may circle back to wonder—skeptically, impertinently—what causes Stills to keep playing into his advanced years? One reason may simply be that he is bringing an entire generation along with him. Neil Young allegedly once played a new and unpopular album in its entirety before a British audience, to much grumbling from the ticket holders who wanted to hear something familiar. When he announced toward the close, “Now we’re going to play something you’ve heard before,” the crowd cheered in relief. And then Young played again the first song he had played that evening. Young has worked at some price, and eccentrically, not to become a human jukebox.

Of course, it is a paying job to tour, and Stills has incurred the expenses of a celebrity who grew up without much. Jimi Hendrix, when asked about the problem of singing the blues once one has made so much money from doing so, noted the hardship of musicians’ making money (they are then harnessed by recording companies to make more). Hendrix was overworked and deeply ambivalent: “Actually, the more money you make the more blues you can sing,” he told Dick Cavett. Stills himself wandered into fame’s trappings: cars, drugs, horses, country houses (one in England purchased from Ringo Starr), seven children both in and out of wedlock, fine wines, ex-wives. (His first wife, the singer Véronique Sanson, was the daughter of celebrated French Resistance fighters; “My French never got over the hump, you know?” he said of that divorce, and one imagines that “Marianne” was written about her.) David Crosby, on the other hand, who drifted toward addiction and eventually solitary confinement in a Texas penitentiary, was Hollywood royalty, the privileged son of Floyd Crosby, the renowned cinematographer of High Noon.

Sometimes the desire to make music fuses nicely with the need to make a living. Stills was always focused and driven, although these qualities are usually attributed to his intermittent and more sober partner, Graham Nash (we could drink a case of Nash and still be on our feet). Change Partners chronicles Stills’s doggedness, his durability, his formation and re-formation of bands, beginning (after some pavement-pounding in Greenwich Village) in Los Angeles in 1966 when he assembled Buffalo Springfield (named after a steamroller that was repaving streets), which included Richie Furay, Bruce Palmer, and Neil Young, who had just driven down from Canada in his legendary hearse, ostensibly to locate the actual “77 Sunset Strip.” Tom Petty described Stills’s guitar-playing at that time as “fluid and bluesy” and Young’s as “fuzzy and angry.” For decades after, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young kept reemerging in various configurations, though each member was determined to do his own solo records. Hence producer Ahmet Ertegun’s title for their first live album, 4 Way Street.

Backstage at the Ryman this spring, before the show, Stills sits at a table and signs merchandise. When it’s my turn in line, I hand him a fan letter and he sticks it respectfully and unopened in the inner pocket of his black sport jacket. (That women’s jackets don’t have these intimate pockets is a sorrow to me, though a boon to the handbag industry.) He is wearing thick, clear-framed glasses, has a silvering goatee, and his hair shines with a light caramel hue, a reminder of his blond youthful beauty. In the Roberts book women speak repeatedly of Stills’s handsomeness and his shyness. People were drawn to him. Black musicians on the road and elsewhere often found Stills the member of CSNY with whom they could most connect, and Roberts seems to attribute this to Stills’s southern, country-boy roots. Hendrix wanted Stills to join his band and was seeking him out to do so shortly before he died.

For a stretch Stills was also the only one in the band who could vote—Crosby had felonies, Nash was English, Young Canadian. He has long been engaged by politics, especially midterm elections, and while active in presidential campaigns from JFK onward (in the fall of 2016 he wrote a protest song against Trump), he has also made appearances on behalf of local congressmen across the country, urging Americans to think about our government’s legislative branch. He began doing this with some success during the Nixon administration, helping to create Tip O’Neill’s House of Representatives, and we should expect similar efforts in 2018. In 2000 Stills was part of the Democratic Credentials Committee from Florida during the Democratic National Convention and in previous years served as a delegate.

Perhaps because I work at a university, after taking my letter, Stills mentions to me that he recently received an honorary doctorate from McGill. Because he has been a working musician since he was a teenager and never went to college, he is visibly proud and amused by this. He says he is going to do a project with the neurologist Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain on Music. I don’t mention the Roberts book, which makes no reference to this and is probably not a book Stills has even read, though there is a handy index for skimming. Stills signs our CDs, and we thank him and moved on. There is a line forming of fans hoping to have their photos taken with him, and out of a fear of carnivals and cameras my friend and I do not get in it. My head is full of Stills’s songs, one of which from decades ago includes these words: “Help me…/My life is a miserable comedy/Of strangers posing as friends” (“Love Story”).

Stills tolerates the backstage meet-’n-greet/merch-perch rather well, although there is little revel in his demeanor—how could there be? He’s a trouper, a player, a generous musician with his audience and his bandmates. But he is not an award-winning actor. In interviews he tends toward quiet diplomacy, restraint, a dry quip. His signature costumes on stage and album covers have been football jerseys, military jackets, and ponchos.

Resilience then is the theme. Stills is one of the last remaining rock-and-roll geniuses from a time when rock music was the soundtrack to an antiwar movement—“For What It’s Worth,” “Woodstock,” “Ohio” (about the 1970 Kent State shootings)—back when the global counterculture was on the left rather than the right. Roberts’s book makes this inexactly clear. Stills has been on the scene from the start, forming Buffalo Springfield when Jimi Hendrix was being booked as the opening act for the Monkees on tour. He has seemingly played with everyone—from Bill Withers to George Harrison. He was the first person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in one night, for his work in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash. “What a wonderfully strange and beautiful cast of characters life has handed to me,” he said in his acceptance speech.

On the Ryman stage Stills cuts loose with the young, strapping Kenny Shepherd. Stills often steps back, in a paternal fashion, to let the Shreveport-born Shepherd do his Delta blues thing, long blond hair flying. Spotlights move around the stage searchingly. Stills lets Barry Goldberg, the seventy-four-year-old keyboardist, play his best-known song, “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” (a 1974 hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips). Congenitally deaf in one ear and now partially deaf in the other, Stills is brave to attempt his own “Bluebird,” with its difficult singing, and on its high notes his voice becomes a bit of a bray. “I’ve always sung flat,” he has said smilingly into cameras, and this embrace of time’s wear and tear feels spiritually strong and unself-pitying. Soon he unbegrudgingly performs what has become something of an albatross for him, his hit single “Love the One You’re With.” The human jukebox aspect of a concert is difficult to avoid.

He shakes out his hands to rid them of pain. Colorful, freshly tuned guitars are brought in at regular intervals. At one point he takes off his jacket and flings it across the stage. “Oh, well,” I say to my friend. “There goes my letter.” The band closes with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” (It is a custom of Stills’s concerts to include one song by Young.) Shepherd remains a gifted, impeccable, shiny part of it all. But Stills is the one we love. He’s the one we’re with.