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“Stephen Stills” (1970)
Love The One You’re With/Do For The Others/Church (Part Of Someone)/Old Times Good Times/Go Back Home//Sit Yourself Down/To A Flame/Black Queen/Cherokee/We Are Not Helpless
‘Stephen Stills’ the record comes right in the middle of arguably the greatest run of form of any AAA member. Released in November 1970 (eight months after CSNY’s ‘Deja Vu’, 17 months after ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’, and with three classic Buffalo Springfield records shortly before that and both ‘Stephen Stills II’ and the first Manassas record waiting in the wings in 18 months’ time, AAA gems all) Stills is at his peak, scoring his only solo hit with the catchy ‘Love The One You’re With’ and winning critics over with the best reviews of his career. In truth, we should have covered this fine album alongside Stills’ other greats on our original ‘core’ reviews list, but I had fears it was all getting a little Stills centred (we already covered ‘Stills II’ ‘Manassas’ and ‘Stills’) and ‘Stephen Stills’ is arguably the best known and best covered of all of these albums, hence the fact that I’ve delayed writing about it till now. But why is it so special and why is it this album out of all the fine CSN works together and apart that regular appear on ‘classic album’ lists?
Apart from the obvious (great songs and fine musicianship) here’s my theory. There’s a contradiction in Stephen Stills’ writing that I love. On stage he’s brash, arrogant, fiercely in control even when working with egos the size of Crosby Nash and Young’s and he’s the kind of person you imagine has skated through life without any inner doubts or sleepless nights whatsoever. Everyone has their own favourite Stephen Stills moment. Mine is the day he ‘dropped in’ on a Souther Hillman Furay recording session in 1975, totally re-arranging their song and adding piano guitar and harmony vocals and completely renovating the drum part before spending several hours behind the mixing desk working on the track as everybody else went home. It was only after the trio left that they found out Stills hadn’t even been invited to work on the song (though he’d worked with both Furay and Hillman in the past) and hadn’t even introduced himself to JD Souther who is reputed to have asked ‘who was that?’ on his way out the door. It turns out Stills had gate-crashed the session in his delight at finding his old friends at work and never even considered that they wouldn’t want his input or want to do the song ‘their’ way. And unlike, say, ‘Sting’ (who Pete Townshend famously called ‘the only writer I know who doesn’t have any self-doubt at all’) or Bono, it wasn’t a case of Stills trying to show off and thinking he’s God – he genuinely thought he was trying to help and that his ideas were better. After all, In Stills’ eyes he’s the guy who suggested adding the pedal steel to ‘Teach Your Children’ and turned ‘Long Time Gone’ from a rather ponderous David Crosby demo into one of the greatest songs of the late 60s, not to mention being lauded by so many critics of the day as the real talent in the trio. In his eyes it just seemed likew the friendly thing to do.
But you don’t have to look very far through Stills’ work to realise what a shivering bag of doubt and fear exists under that unruffled persona and how often those concerns rise to the surface. Stills is hardly alone in this – by their very nature songwriters have to sing about themselves and they’d soon have run out of material if everything in their life was one big party. Ray Davies, for instance, is a unique mix of on-stage extrovert and off-stage introvert, spending hours in concerts swilling beer over the front rows of his audience while unable to even look them in the eyes when meeting them outside ‘work’. Pete Townshend, too, is far from the aggressive wind-milling brash arrogant punk his stage persona projects (in fact it’s the sudden switches between his own fears and doubts and his acted-through-Daltrey swagger that’s the secret behind all The Who’s best songs). But Stills is a special case because you sense that sometimes even he doesn’t seem to have worked out the discrepancy within himself. There’s a point on this album, on the song ‘To A Flame’ where Stills waves goodbye to an old lover, wishes her well in her new life and whispers to the audience‘...lucky for me I’m not a jealous man’. This line comes after four minutes of the most achingly heart-wrenchingly soul-destroying lyrics in the AAA canon, related to a smothering smoky ballad that’s as musically claustrophobic as being stuck in a room with the Spice Girls, all about how great she is and how he can never, ever say goodbye (Stills still writes the odd song about the person behind this song even now). That line is not sung in jest either, a jokey self-reference to his own excesses - Stills means that line exactly the way it’s sung and this is just one example of the gap between the Stills on record and the Stills persona given to the world; there are oodles of other ones in Stills’ work, especially in his solo career and especially across this album.
For the moment, that’s a plus. Few writers have a heart big enough and a brain literate enough to translate these feelings into songs as good as the ones here and Stills’ lyrics are rarely better than this, even in his CSN/Y eras. ‘Do For The Others’ could easily be a traditional song passed down the centuries, full of winning little alliterative touches and a lyric that neatly suits its cyclical melody without trying as hard as other songwriters would. ‘Church’ is one of Stills’ deepest songs, combining the religious feel that he gets when with someone he loves and understands well and wondering why ‘God’ deserts the couple during the times he simply doesn’t understand his loved one at all. ‘To A Flame’ is a sizzling romance that sounds like it comes from some film noir French movie, but infinitely better, the closest in musical terms to the rhythmic ebb and flow of the Russian writers of the 19th century. ‘Cherokee’ admits to the discussion we’ve had above, that ‘nobody knows’ the real Stills apart from his ‘Raven’ while simultaneously telling the story of the misunderstood American Indian tribe. Even ‘Black Queen’, simple as it is, has fooled many of my friends over the years into thinking it’s a genuine 19th century traditional blues song, like the sort of thing the Stones covered once an album in the 70s or The Animals covered to fill out their records. ‘We Are Not Helpless’ is the one song here that possibly over-reaches itself in ambition, seeking to relate the sentiment of the 60s youth movement growing up into adulthood and asserting themselves, although even here lesser writers wouldn’t even begin to realise that there was such a movement to write about. The scope of these songs really are tremendous.
Throughout the lyrics crop up the usual Stills references which long-term fans probably know already, but they’re worth spelling out here as they turn up an awful lot even for Stills on this record. ‘Birds’ have long been a Stills symbol dating back to the Springfield’s ‘Bluebird’ and isn’t so much a cockney slang term (‘oo seen me bird, gove?’) as a metaphor for their beauty, their independence and their ‘flightiness’. In Stills slang a ‘sparrow’ is singer-songwriter Judy Collins (see ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and both versions of ‘Bluebird’), Stills’ big muse who plays hard to get for much of the second half of the 60s before disappearing for good come 1970 (‘To A Flame’ is, probably, her ‘goodbye’ song). ‘The Raven’, as featured so often on this album, is singer-songwriter Rita Coolidge, who ornithologist Stills will still be trying to capture with a net come his Manassas days. Coolidge, best known in Britain for her single ‘You’ve Lifted Me Higher and Higher’, also played hot and cold with Stills before breaking his heart and marrying Kris Kristoffersen in 1973. For this record the raven is an optimistic metaphor: she’s the ‘soulmate’ in ‘Cherokee’, the only one who really understands the narrator; she ‘burns her wings’ trying to fly away in ‘To A Flame’ before realising her mistake and the pair are sharing their lives together on ‘Sit Yourself Down’ (as well as ‘growing just a little each day’). By Manassas the raven has become dark and ominous, more akin to the Edgar Allan Poe metaphor of the raven as a harbinger of doom, inspiring a whole side long suite of love-sick farewells (although it’s fair to say that 90% of the Manassas album is about her) – but for the moment the raven means hope and happiness and for now its just nice to hear Stills so happy.
One other thing that’s so impressive about this album is the dynamic range. Stills is a master at building up steam across a song and letting them build gradually and he never did better than the 10 tracks here, all of which build to a certain intensity by the end of the recording, getting louder and louder past the point where you think they’ve already reached a maximum. Hearing 10 songs doing that across an album could be considered boring – but each of them manage to pull that trick off in different ways thanks to the different styles so that the ‘folky’ ‘Do For The Others’ loud booming chorus sounds entirely different to the frenetic electric guitar blues work out on ‘Goin’ Home’. ‘Sit Yourself Down’ even builds a whole song around this idea, the narrator crying out to be slowed down and take stock of life (a familiar Stills phrase later heard on tracks like ‘Singin’ Call’ and ‘Johnny’s Garden’) on the muted verses and then losing control in the chorus thanks to the joy of his discovery about rest and relaxation, inspiring a killer power chorus about, erm, being quiet. By the time we reach last track ‘We Are Not Helpless’ with its string and brass sections and its even bigger and booming power chorus the whole experience sounds epic. A handful of other AAA albums have handled similar sort of tricks down the years but few, if any, manage to achieve the same pitch as ‘Stephen Stills’.
Of course this album is perhaps most famous today because of who else appears on it. I can’t remember which quiz it was now but years ago I came across the question ‘Which 1970s singer-songwriter album is the only one ever made featuring guitar gods Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton on the same record?’ The answer – in case you didn’t know, hadn’t guessed or haven’t actually worked out what album we’re reviewing yet– is ‘Stephen Stills’. Stills and Hendrix were friends dating way back, long before either man was famous, and wasn’t without its share of trouble for Stills (who risked his neck to play with a black musician in the deep South of America in the 1950s when segregation was still rife). Somewhere out there somewhere there’s meant to be a great tape of these two teenage wannabes duelling with each other – sadly the closest I’ve found is a poorly recorded jam session by the pair re-creating the CSNY Joni Mitchell cover ‘Woodstock’ (about the festival which brought both men to fame). Alas we don’t really get a chance to hear Stills and Hendrix together here either – Stills sticks to playing organ and letting Jimi steal the guitar hero limelight (though the pair had loose plans for an album of guitar duels in 1971). Which, alas, brings me to a second music quiz question – ‘Stephen Stills’ also features one of the very last (possibly the last) studio recordings Hendrix ever made, the guitarist dying six months after recording this song and barely weeks before the album release. A heartbroken Stills took the call that his friend was dead, phoned up Atlantic to get them to add a last minute dedication to the record (‘To James Marshall Hendrix’) and then spent the day in a haze of tears and booze climbing a mountain (well, it worked for Crosby that Spring when he climbed Mt Tampalpais on hearing the news his girlfriend Christine had died in a car crash; perhaps the pair climbed it together?) Notoriously the Springfield and CSNY might never have existed had another phone call made in 1965 got through (Hendrix really wanted Stills to join his Experience band on bass but couldn’t trace his old friend, who was actually in the a capella Au Go Go Singers and had temporarily given up rock and roll at the time).
As for Clapton, he does get to duel guitars with Stills on the fiery ‘Go Back Home’, a song possibly written by Stills to sound like the heavier riff-based songs of ‘Cream’ (who’d broken up in 1968). The pair didn’t know each other as well as Stills knew Hendrix, but this was Eric’s ‘personable’ period when anyone and everyone approached him to appear on record, before drink and drugs got in the way of his story too. Many ‘slowhand’ aficionados rate his mesmerising solo at the end of this song as among his best work, improvising his way past the song’s sluggish tempo and restrictive riff to find the real outpouring of passion and emotion the song calls out for after four minutes of carefully built tension. Frankly its a shame that the pair haven’t worked together again, as Stills clearly brings out the best in Clapton here – and Stills’ own solo in the song is one of his strongest, as if he’s been inspired to raise his game in response.
One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is the shadow of CSNY hanging over this record. Like Neil Young’s contemporary ‘After The Goldrush’ Stills is still friendly enough with his old colleagues to invite them along and Crosby and Nash crop up so many times in the backing vocals that at times this does sound like a CSN record. However, the biggest link for true CSN fans is yet another song about the group, specifically Stills’ comforting song of empathy with Crosby after the tragic loss of girlfriend Christine Hinton in a car crash(see our review of Crosby’s contemporary solo album ‘If Only I Could Remember My Name’ for more on this). ‘Do For The Others’ even sounds like it’s been written in one of Crosby’s eccentric jazz-style guitar tunings, as if Stills was trying to tune into the grief of his partner and makes for an interesting comparison to Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, a song written in this period for Graham Nash after his split with Joni Mitchell. CSNY really were a ‘family’ back in 1970, when even the ‘Deja Vu’ era split earlier in the year was deemed only temporary and caused by spending too much time together (the quartet weren’t to know they wouldn’t record a full album together till 1988).
A quick word too about the cover and packaging. For reasons best known to himself Stills appears on the cover in the snow outside his ‘cabin’ in the Colorado mountains (see various Manassas songs for more on this legion and the part it plays in Stills’ life) with a serious look on his face – and a toy giraffe at his side. The theme, of sorts, is that Stills is the kind of musician who’ll play a song anywhere at any time (even in a heavy ankle-deep fall of snow) – though the reason behind the giraffe is less clear. More serious is Stills’ use of an actual poem for his record, Charles John Quatro’s ‘A Child Grew Up On Strings’ which was probably added at the same time as the dedication to Hendrix. The tale of a character brought up on music as the alternative to a more restrictive, more uncomfortable way of life and clearly had a significance for Stills (this may well be where his obsession with ‘bluebird’ comes from, after the line ‘this child grew into a bluebird, because he grew into his music’. Indeed, this poem could well be about Stills, so close is it to his life, fighting his way out of the ‘Deep South’, ‘losing his rhythm’ but playing on regardless, ‘growing wild’ before music pulls him back in line. However the key line is ‘He sang his fears out of his mouth’, a line which more or less reflects what we wrote earlier and which takes place several times across Stills’ career and particularly this album. Interestingly it was Nash, not Stills, who ‘discovered’ Quatro and produced an album for him.
Overall ‘Stephen Stills’ is a fine album and a likable record at that. It shows off Stills’ ability to be both loudmouthed and subtle, charismatic and powerful on the one hand yet sensitive to the feelings of those around him on the other. They say that the key to a good writer is his (or her) ability to turn characters around in the light, showing new sides to their character as they re-act to new situations but with these new developments being plausible and believable given what we know of them in the past. ‘Stephen Stills’ is a musical case in point, going somewhere new with every single track and developing our ideas of who Stills is. In short, this record is a true solo album, despite the many special guests spread across the album, developing what we know of Stills without any input from C-N-Y or Buffalo Springfield members to get in the way. Few albums manage to pack as much into a single album as this one does (and that goes ‘double’ for the later two disc set ‘Manassas’ by the way), taking in breezy pop (‘Love The One You’re With’), folk (‘Do For The Others’), gospel (‘Church’), traditional blues (‘Black Queen’), modern blues (‘Go Back Home’), smoky ballads (‘To A Flame’) and soul (‘Cherokee’). No other Stills record manages to reconcile so many characters on one record – and yet the album does manage to hang together awfully well. For my money I still prefer ‘Manassas’ for its sheer bravado and the amazing lack of filler compared to other double albums, ‘Stephen Stills II’ for the brilliance of its high points like ‘Word Game’ (even if its average strike rate is a tiny bit lower than this record) and ‘Stills’ for its optimistic, hopeful tone. But that shouldn’t get in the way of how great a record ‘Stephen Stills’ is and how impressive it is that Stills sustains his craft through so many styles across almost the whole LP.
Much has been written about why Stills’ work declined so rapidly after sustaining such a ridiculously high standard. Some people have said Stills burnt himself out, others that drink and drugs got in the way, other more sensitive souls have added that after Stills’ second muse (Miss Cootlidge) walked out of his life without the happy endings he wrote about that he lost his main incentive to write. The fact that Neil Young’s star rose despite no effort or plan whatsoever whilst Stills’ workaholic-induced mountains of efforts ended up counting for naught past about 1975 probably didn’t help matters much either. All these theories sound true as far as they go, but I would add another. There’s a marvellous song called ‘Witching Hour’ Stills recorded late on in the Manassas sessions which wasn’t released until as late as ‘Pieces’ in 2009 despite being one of Stills’ greatest ever songs. Reading between the lines the song probably got left off the album because it revealed a little too much about the psyche, even for a Stephen Stills song (although, typically, Stills didn’t stop fellow Manassas man Chris Hillman from releasing his own cover of the song on one of his solo albums in 1976). The burst of third solo album ‘Stills’ aside, it’s arguably the last truly great song Stills wrote (at least until co-writing ‘Haven’t We Lost Enough?’ in 1989) and suggests that Stills has finally come to terms with the contradiction in his nature and so has nothing left to write about. After all, few songwriters have ever matched the scope and range of Stills’ records in this 1967-72 period.
‘Love The One You’re With’ is Stills’ most famous solo moment and arguably the most ‘hippie’ song he ever wrote, advertising the joys of free love and the value of love whoever you’re with, however deep it goes (despite being in one of the world’s premier ‘hippie’ bands Stills’ military family background and Texan roots often stop him getting as ‘mystical’ as his compatriots). You sense, too, that despite this song’s verve and joy it was probably born of frustration. Stills has spent the past few years chasing Judy Collins to no avail and is now chasing Rita Coolidge to the same ends; hence the actually rather doom laden imagery of ‘If you can’t be with the one you love...’ The song doesn’t sound doom laden though; on the contrary its a rare release of joy and abandon for the usually serious Stills and its bouncy Spanish-ish guitar riff and its breezy, bright melody is as infectious as anything CSN ever wrote. The song actually started life when Stills, who loved to hang around with other musicians, overheard Billy Preston singing the line as part of one of his songs and asked if he could use it; tickled by the offer after years of working with the Beatles and Stones (the biggest rip off merchants in the business) Preston agreed (or at least that’s long been the story – I can’t actually find the lines in any Preston song and I do know most of them). Either way, the song builds up steam very slowly from an interesting organ lick to a guitar riff to Stills’ voice to a powerhouse chorus comprising Crosby, Nash. The Lovin Spoonful’s John Sebastian and – erm- Rita Coolidge (you wonder why Stills asked her to sing on ‘this’ song, about the only one on the LP not about their relationship? The lyrics are a bit of a slap in the face – or was that the idea after years of chasing from Stills’ point of view?) Infectious, joyous and full of clever snappy lyrics (the eagle flying with the dove is a particularly memorable image – and a refreshingly original rhyme for ‘love’ considering that song had been ‘used’ at the end of so many lines in so many songs by 1970!), its easy to see why ‘Love The One You’re With’ was such a hit. It stayed in the CSN/Y set lists for longer than any other song from the album too, along with this song’s moody polar opposite ‘Black Queen’.
Talking of CSNY, ‘Do For The Others’ is – along with ‘Change Partners’ – the only song written by Stills about his curious relationship with his CSY brethren (the others have written lots – Neil Young in particular). A gorgeous muffled folky ballad, it’s as austere and cold as the last song was vibrant and alive. The song was written when Crosby’s girlfriend Christine died in a car accident, taking the family’s pets to the vets (the police later assumed that one of them got loose, causing her to crash) somewhere late on in the CSNY ‘Deja Vu’ sessions. Crosby was understandably distraught and in fact was never the same again (he was still writing about the incident on his CPR albums in the 1990s). This song was Stills’ attempt to feel his brother’s ‘pain’ and its unique in the Stills canon, showing his soft, tender side (Crosby will return the favour with ‘King Of The Mountain’ released on the Crosby box set ‘Voyage’, perhaps the best song about Stills that Stills didn’t write). Stills even sounds a bit like Crosby here, thanks to the gentle acoustic strumming and the unusual jazzy guitar tunings (most Stills acoustic songs are all about rhythm and often about anger; this one is all about atmosphere and tuning in true Crosby style). The words are painful to listen to at times when you know the story, so successfully do they conjure up Crosby’s lifestyle and personality and especially his inability to come to terms with his loss, pretending he’s alright when he clearly isn’t (‘He cries from the misery, he lies singing harmony’ ‘Loving people everywhere, but where is she? She is not there), but throughout there’s the sense that this is a ‘traditional’ song, as if Crosby is going through loss as written about since time immemorial and that this sort of cruel, evil event is a natural part of life. Legend has it Stills re-recorded this song to make it ‘fit’ with the rest of the album, adding electric instruments and lots of overdubs before settling for this really early ‘acoustic’ mix of the song and junking several days’ work. He’ll be pleased to know it was the right move, ‘Do For The Others’ being a song calling out for a low key delivery. Sweet, subtle and truly heart-warming (Stills offers Crosby the ‘strength of his brothers’ at one point, clearly meaning him and Nash), this is one of Stills’ best ever songs and one of the highlights of the albums. It’s just a shame that the song is so short and that, at barely two verses (there is no chorus or middle eight) it could have been even greater with a little something extra.
‘Church’ is the opposite extreme, a booming bombastic song with a church organ and a gospel chorus that clearly does sound like ‘church’ – and yet the lyrics are actually quite similar to ‘For The Others’, albeit from a personal, more autobiographical view (my guess is that ‘church’ is the name Stills gave the song when he wrote the melody, but that the words took him in quite a different direction). The only link between them is the idea that the individual needs a ‘congregation’ of people and needs ‘to be part of someone’ in order to understand themselves. This song is clearly one written for Rita Coolidge (despite the unusual lack of ‘raven’ imagery) and about how Stills has ‘opened up’ entirely for the first time with her – and is wondering whether she might do the same? Even here, though, love is not entirely easy: the chorus isn’t how great it is to be together or sharing a love, instead it runs ‘It’s hard...yes it is! It’s hard yes it is!’ and sounds like a ticked off parent telling off their offspring (and about as far from the casual acquaintance of ‘Love The One You’re With’ as you can get). Stills even turns, to some extent, on poor Rita, imploring ‘you’ve got to tell me baby – is it your ‘thing’ to be part of anyone?’ Fans have long admired this track which simply should not work – the gospel chorus is oversized compared to the rest of the song, the tempo slow and ponderous and the melody not that grand by Stills standards. But a combination of a terrific vocal and a clever deft arranging touch (the quiet, humble organ part, the only constant in the song, is a neat trick) pulls him through. Note, too, that Stills manages to sing a whole song about ‘church’ without mentioning religion or anything connected with it once.
‘Old Times, Good Times’ is the Hendrix collaboration and finds the two guitarists in nostalgic mood. Despite the pair being just 27, this sounds like a real ‘middle aged’ song, Stills remembering ‘old times’ learning to play the guitar and playing for people in public for the first time. It’s unclear whether Stills wrote the song to give Hendrix something to play or whether he only asked his old friend to play when he realised how apt the words were for both – either way, it’s a curiously eerie way for Hendrix to bid ‘farewell’, summing up his own life quite neatly, getting out of new York ‘before I got old’. Sadly the story runs out partway through – we don’t get to hear about Stills and Hendrix’s adventures in England for instance (both men becoming anglophiles in the late 60s) or both men being ‘discovered’ in the mid 60s. The song, for all it’s worth, also sounds like a bit of a throwaway, short even for this album and without the pristine arranging touches we know Stills is famous for. Worst of all, Stills sticks to organ throughout so that we never get a chance to hear these two old friends ‘bouncing off’ each other (that said, Stills’ organ part is terrific, caught somewhere between heavy rock and soul, smothering the vocals with a blanket of frustration and determination). For me personally, I’ve never much enjoyed Hendrix that much as a guitar player – sacrilege I know – and his playing was falling part long before his untimely end, as shown by the rather scattershot quality of this performance (perhaps if he’d set his guitar alight during the recording?...). However I’ve always loved his soulful voice (which, curiously, Hendrix hated and did his best never to use where he could use his guitar); sadly he keeps quite on this recording too although I can imagine his and Stills’ vocals going together quite well. Overall, then, its a sad place for Hendrix to say goodbye and for this long-lasting partnership to end – but then, well, neither man knew this would be their last work together, they thought they had all the time in the world back then, for all their ‘talk’ in the song of ‘old times’ (from barely 10 years before!)
At least Eric Clapton has plenty of space to show off his playing on ‘Go Back Home’, a bluesy song that really brings out the best in Stills’ vocal (this is the first time he really sings deep rather than tunefully – and it’s still nowhere near the vocal on ‘Black Queen’!) This isn’t so much a song as a list, the first four verses repeating their lines over and over in the blues tradition before Stills finally reverts to his more common writing style on the fifth and final one. There’s an intriguing line in the fourth verse about ‘people trapped in fear – and you can’t get near’, summing up the mood of the last song, but otherwise the song is ust another generic blues workout. In the last, more ordinary verse Stills wakes up alone, rings his girlfriend’s house and gets no answer before being told ‘there’s no one home’. Confused, Stills pleads with his girl ‘baby, what does this mean?’ before his rhythm playing hits the song’s angular riff and Clapton takes off to goodness knows where just past the 3:30 mark, improvising for a majestic 2:30 more at full flight, clearly finding more worth in this blues-based song than even Stills has (1970 was, more or less, the period he met Patti Boyd at George Harrison’s house – is this song an early hint at unrequited anguish before Clapton gets the courage to sweep her off her feet in the late 70s?) Or at least, that’s the way the ending seems on the album – there’s an outrageous edit at 5:20 that suggests this section is actually taken from a longer jamming session which rather mars the end of the song. Again, by Stills’ standards this song is considerably weaker and certainly less original than his normal style, but the head-scratching down-plunging riff is a good one and the performance of it exemplary, with Clapton showing why he has such a high reputation and Stills making magic with his voice. The painful sound of a break-up, the playful opening is walloped over the head by the end, with the listener left in no doubt as to what ‘game’ the girl in the song is playing.
‘Sit Yourself Down’ was the last song recorded for the album and may well be the best – I was always surprised this song didn’t do better as a single in the wake of ‘Love The One You’re With’. As a chronic fatigue sufferer I can certainly identify with this song – Stills sings about how he’s a changed man, how he’s going to take slower and relax more and not work himself into the ground so much before he burns himself out. Unfortunately he gets so carried away with the delight of not having to work so hard that by the chorus he’s already in true blues-hollering mood, shouting his new found discovery from the rooftops. Unable to slow himself, even when another power chorus intones ‘How many times? Sit yourself down, take a look around’, Stills has great fun with the vocal, improvising shouts and yells and putting his all into this song about, er, not doing much. Not for the first or last time Stills promises us that he’s done with the busy city life and is going to settle in the country, ‘growing a little each day’ with his loved one by his side (and we all know who that is when Stills adds ‘me and the raven make our way’ – this is another song Rita Coolidge sings on, incidentally). However, you don’t have to be clever to work out from the sound of the song that this is never going to happen – for all his talk Stills clearly thrives on the pace and speed of life in the fast lane and would vegetate in a second without it. A very clever song, ‘Sit Yourself Down’ is perfectly poised between the melancholic minor key verses and the optimistic major key chorus, switching between the two with sudden acceleration and decelerations of speed that are perfectly handled by Stills’ cast of regulars. Crosby, Nash, Sebastian and Mama Cass Elliott (on one of her last recordings before her death, sadly – is this album cursed?!) join Rita on the power chorus. It’s interesting to note that this ‘looped’ song ends not on the power chorus but on yet another switch-down to the verse, ending with an unresolved question mark – has Stills changed his ways at last? Has his body let him down? Or is this yet another false dawn?
‘To A Flame’ is a gorgeous, aching love song and shows Stills at his all time best in the melody stakes, with a slow aching weary climb upwards only to fall on an awkward single line that knocks the narrator’s legs from underneath him. Another song of confused love, presumably about Rita Coolidge again, the girl in the song is ‘drawn to the flame’ of love like a moth, unable to avoid its bright enticing light. However it isn’t true love – she’s simply drawn to anyone who loves her. The narrator knows what is going on but he’s powerless to do anything about it and can ‘only watch, out of touch, out of my mind’ (note that last phrase, which Neil Young turned into a song in the pair’s Buffalo Springfield days and is an unusual phrase for Stills to use). He even adds that ‘when this party’s over I will lose her to another’, acknowledging her flighty nature, but that doesn’t stop him caring about her and falling deeply in love. There’s a clever last verse, amongst Stills’ most quoted that sums up the dual feelings of the partnership, him wanting her to come back to him but not get hurt in doing so because he genuinely cares for her (‘Go ahead, break your heart, but don’t fall apart – it’s like saying goodbye to Paris for the first time’. Ironically Stills’ next love is Veronique Sanson, a French singer-songwriter from that very city and Paris will crop up on quite a few more Stills albums before the decade’s out). The orchestration on this song by Arif Marden is superb, full of mystery and suspense and clearly trying to sound like some smoky smouldering romantic film score (had Dr Zhivago sounded like this I might not have hated that film as much as I do, the biggest atrocity of the cinema after ‘Braveheart’). However Stills is superb here too, adding some perfectly judges piano, some nicely strummed guitarwork and a double tracked vocal of such longing and heartbreak that it ranks alongside his best, even if the smoky atmosphere means you don’t always understand the lyrics. Even Ringo, guesting on drums, almost plays well, with some uncharacteristic rattles across his set in stark contrast with most of his Beatles work. A real success story and one of the best songs about Stills and Rita’s on-off relationship, sung with a little bit of hope that things will work out right – but not all that much.
‘Black Queen’ is the album’s second most famous song and is known to most CSNY songs as a noisy electric guitar freakout that Stills poured his heart and soul into onstage several times across the 70s. Heard here its a simple acoustic blues, recorded one night when Stills was ‘drunk as a skunk’ at the end of the session for ‘Go Back Home’ with Clapton passed out in a taxi on his way home (the album’s frequently hilarious credits note that this song is ‘courtesy of Jose Cuervo Gold Label Tequila’ in the same way that other songs note that certain artists appear by courtesy of some record company or other). Stills’ vocal is deep and growly, sadly a familiar sound now after 40 more years of toil but outrageous back then. Both song and performance sound like an old blues game, a ‘song about a card game’ where a ‘black queen’ beats any hand the hapless narrator tries to play (no prizes for guessing who she’s based on...) Stills ‘ lyrics are in full keeping with the spirit of the old blues singers (Robert Johnson, for instance, would have made a great version of this song) but the best parts aren’t the words but Stills’ scat singing, humming along with his playing and suddenly leaping forth into yelps and screams. A completely one-off performance, that could never have been repeated, ‘Black Queen’ is an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary song, perhaps too raw for everyone’s taste but a clear reminder of how deep Stills’ well of passion and emotion really was and it goes without saying that, even whilst hideously drunk and with the odd mistake as a result (listen out for the wrong note at 5:09), Stills’ guitar playing is fantastic. Eric Clapton, by now fast asleep in his taxi, must have kicked himself for missing out on this song by a matter of hours as it’s perfectly up his street!
‘Cherokee’ is one of Stills’ favourite songs of his - despite being about as close to ‘filler’ as this album comes – and was re-worked by him in 1979 to have the distinction of being the world’s first ever digitally recorded song (the LA Record Plant – Stills’ usual hangout in this period – had just bought a 32 track digital recorded, the world’s first, and as the plant’s biggest name regular user with a love of technology Stills was an obvious choice for testing it). Heard in 1979 ‘Cherokee’ is a clunky, curious rocker that never quite takes off; here in 1970 ‘Cherokee’ is a breezy, infectious little rocker that’s still curious, combining the intriguing double stories of persecuted Cherokee American Indians and Stills’ hopeless quest for Rita Coolidge. Everything is packed into this tiny song. Booker T Jones, formerly Otis Redding’s keyboardist, gives the song a soulful edge and Stax horns dominate the sound (more on them on next record ‘Stephen Stills II’...), but there’s also a cute flute part courtesy of Sidney George and a sweet almost folky interlude in between all the power and noise. The lyrics are few and far between, Stills realising that ‘all this time I’ve been loving blind’ but refusing to give up his dreams, crossly arguing with fate ‘but, like, the Raven, she knows me!’ ‘We’ve got to move on!’ Stills sings at the song’s end, urging the pair to move on, but the song’s hypnotic riff still has us in it’s spell and it’s musically rolling off a cliff, getting more and more fraught before finally collapsing on it’s root note and gradually running out of steam. Listen out for Stills’ psychedelic guitar part, by the way, which is a neat mimic for Tony Hicks’ flower power banjo parts on several Hollies records circa 1967-70 and quite unlike anything Stills has played before or since.
The album ends on ‘We Are Not Helpless’, a song many people took to be a reply to Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’, one of the most loved songs from CSNY’s ‘Deja Vu’ album. Despite the close timing (‘Deja Vu’ came out in May 1970, this album in November the same year) apparently that isn’t true: Stills- a prolific reader- was inspired to write the song after reading the novel ‘Failsafe’ by Euegene Burdick and Harvye Wheeler. The story from 1962 concerns the cold war and the idea that the destruction of mankind could be caused by some kind of unfortunate accident or ‘failsafe’ in machinery in either power’s hands that causes nuclear missiles to launch (think a low budget version of the film ‘War Games’ but with a caretaker, not an army, desperately trying to shut the computers off). In actual fact if it’s a ‘sequel’ to anything this song is a sequel to ‘Carry On’, Stills rousing song of determination from ‘Deja Vu’ about how love is ‘coming to us all’ if only we can hold out long enough to welcome it; in ‘We Are Not Helpless’ Stills urges us not to end our civilisation because, in true hippie style, ‘everyday we’re learning how to live’ and our differences with different pockets of humanity ‘can still be set aside and ended’. The song then ends with a brief resurrection of ‘America’s Children’, the political manifesto that used to change every night in concert and was most commonly heard in a medley with ‘For What It’s Worth’, urging the youth movement of the 1960s to make a difference. Telling us that we can all make a difference, Stills warns ‘the new order is upon us now – and only blind men cannot see’, ending the album on a rousing, optimistic note as the strings sail on past the vocal and seemingly up to heaven, the same way they did on ‘Carry On’ a few months earlier. Unfortunately Stills can’t quite marry the 60s spirit section (guitars, bass and drums) with this new grand, orchestral sound and – unusually for this album – the song is stronger than the performance which is often hard to hear and often succumbs to cliché (‘Right on!’ intone the latest power chorus of familiar voices, much more obtrusively than they did elsewhere). Incidentally, listen out for Stills’ name for the 60s movement, the ‘children of the Everlys’, equating the 60s movement as a genesis from the Everly Brothers, not Chuck Berry Buddy Holly or Elvis as others might. Ringo again appears on the song, with a typically Beatles-ish rattle near the end of the track, as does Rita, John Sebastian, Crosby and Nash, Booker T Jones and Mama Cass, a sound that neatly represents a great deal of the ‘Everlys Generation’ and sounds like a gospel choir.
Overall, then, ‘Stephen Stills’ reaches for the stars by covering so much ground and by luck, judgement, emotion and guest artists by and large achieves its lofty ambitions. There are mistakes, naturally, for a project this bold: a sort of lifelessness about ‘We Are Not Helpless’, a lack of fire on ‘Old Times, Good Times’ and three or four songs that might have sounded even better with an extra verse or two. There’s also no absolute 100 carat gold gems on this album like ‘Word Game’ on ‘Stills II’ or ‘So Begins The Task’ on ‘Manassas’ that knock your socks off in every department. And yet there are fewer mistakes here than on any other Stephen Stills record, with an energy intelligence and commitment throughout that few other sing-songwriters can match. Stills should be proud of this record and even prouder of the fact that it’s just one of several highlights in his impressively strong run of form between the first Buffalo Springfield album in 1966 and his ‘Stills’ album in 1975. The guest artists on this album almost all give their best work (even Ringo’s more palatable here than normal), but no one shines brighter on this record than Stills himself, pouring his heart and soul into songs that feature some of the greatest melodies, empathetic lyrics and passionate vocals he ever made. There are many greats in the CSN canon between 1969 and 1977; you’ll know that its a great compliment when I end this review by saying that this album is one of the greatest.