Ain’t It Always Stephen Stills

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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…

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