Lor­rie Moore

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Lor­rie Moore

Stephen Stills:

Change Part­ners by David Roberts.

Red Planet, 326 pp., $26.95

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-yearold 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 Still­soff 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-mid­dleaged 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 lon­gago 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 mu­sic­mak­ing 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, exwives. (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 sat at a ta­ble and signed mer­chan­dise. When it was my turn in line, I handed him a fan let­ter and he stuck 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 was wear­ing thick, clear-framed glasses, had a sil­ver­ing goa­tee, and his hair shone 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, coun­try­boy 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.

Stills 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 didn’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 signed our CDs, and we thanked him and moved on. There was 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 did not get in it. My head was 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-’ngreet/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 for both his work in a group and as a solo artist. “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-yearold 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.

Stephen Stills per­form­ing on the Dutch tele­vi­sion pro­gram Top­pop, 1972

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