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“Carry on, love is coming, love is coming to us alllllll”
STEPHEN STILLS “CARRY ON” (BOX SET, 2013)
Travelin’/High Flyin’ Bird/Sit Down I Think I Love You/Go And Say Goodbye/For What It’s Worth/Everydays/Pretty Girl Why/Bluebird/Rock and Roll Woman/Special Care/Questions/Una Mundo/Four Days Gone/Who Ran Away?/49 Reasons/Helplessly Hoping/You Don’t Have To Cry/Suite: Judy Blue Eyes/4+20/So Begins The Task/The Lee Shore/Carry On-Questions/Woodstock//Love The One You’re With/Old Times Good Times/Black Queen/Jam/Go Back Home/Marianne/My Love Is A Gentle Thing/Fishes and Scorpions/The Treasure/To A Flame/Cherokee/Song Of Love/Rock and Roll Crazies-Cuban Bluegrass/Jet Set (Sigh)/It Doesn’t Matter/Colorado/Johnny’s Garden/Change Partners/Do For The Others/Find The Cost Of Freedom/Little Miss Bright Eyes/Isn’t It About Time?//Turn Back The Pages/First Things First/My Angel/Love Story/As I Come Of Age/Know You Got To Run/Black Coral/I Give You Give Blind/Crossroads-You Can’t Catch Me/See The Changes/Thoroughfare Gap/Lowdown/Cuba Al Fin/Dear Mr Fantasy/Spanish Suite/Feel Your Love/Raise A Voice/Daylight Again//Southern Cross/Dark Star/Turn Your Back On Love/War Games/50-50/Welfare Blues/Church (Part Of Someone)/I Don’t Get It/Isn’t It So?/Haven’t We Lost Enough?/The Ballad Of Hollis Brown/Treetop Flyer/Heart’s Gate/Girl From The North Country/Feed The People/Panama/No Tears Left/Ole Man Trouble/Ain’t It Always?
We’ve been waiting a long time for this set. Not quite as long as the ‘Neil Young Archives’, perhaps (30 years in the making – part 2 has been delayed already, unsurprisngly), but still it’s been years since the David Crosby set ‘Voyage’ was released in 2006 and we heard that Graham Nash was working on sets for both his own career (released as ‘reflections’ in 2009) and Stills’. In the seven years since the project was mooted ‘Carry On’ has been through more line-up changes, vault-excavating and soul-searching than most Indian Jones films. In the end was it all worth it? Well...I’m still not quite sure. As a collector there’s less interesting snippets here for me than there was on the excellent Crosby and reasonably good Nash sets. If I was a newcomer there’s a nice grab-bag of Stills albums to immerse myself in but – speaking as a know it all once again – there isn’t actually as rounded a portrait of Stills here as most newcomers would wish. This set is an extraordinary mix of the cared-for and heartfelt (some lovely photographs that have never been seen before; ) and the slapdash (a half-hearted attempt at a sessionography that’s at least half a dozen sessions short and a label on the back cover that says ‘unreleased tracks’ and clearly hasn’t been given the asterisk it should have been).
The track listing too is a mixture of the rare, precious, beautiful and downright stupid: around 90% of what you’d expect to find is here but there’s still an awful lot missing (if I was to put together a Stills set the first three tracks I’d make space for would be the famous ‘Word Game’ (simply one of the greatest songs ever written), ‘Guardian Angel’ (perhaps the single best obscure song in the Stills canon from a Stills-Young record that everyone hated and nobody bought) and ‘Witching Hour’ (the most revealing outtake of all, written for the first Manassas album and covered by fellow Manassian and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman on one of his solo albums)). Frankly there’s no excuse for including songs like the execrable falsetto-sung single ‘Marianne’ and no less than seven songs from Stills’ last and worst LP ‘Man Alive’ – including an 11 minute epic that gets boring after one - when treasures like that are missing. Also, if I had to choose then I’d have the studio version of ‘Dark Star’ over the rather flimsy live version from ‘Allies’ (which strangely made it to the CSN box set in 1991 so someone high up must like it) and I’d question whether the rare ‘Raise A Voice’ is enough of a Stills song to be included on his box set as well as Nash’s (although, that said, in the blue corner the ‘Replay’ remix of ‘I Give You Give Blind’ without the strings is the better version of the song, the ‘Buffalo Springfield Box Set’ demo of ‘Four Days Gone’ – when Stills has been up for a straight 36 hours and sounds half asleep – may well be the bext thing on the whole set and we also have the alternate, rougher-edged ‘Woodstock’ first released on the CSN box that’s far more exciting than the one put out by CSNY in 1970, so at least somebody’s had some good ideas). There’s also a sort of half-hearted attempt to locate the really rare official stuff: full marks for including one song from the ultra-rare ‘Au Go Go Singers’ album from 1964 (which finds Stills in very husky voice)though all the Stills-vocal songs would have been nice and the mighty rare ‘Cuba Al Fin’ from the all-star ‘Havana Jam’ record of 1981 (which sold about as few copies as you’d expect from the title but is very interesting indeed for Stills fans). But similarly where is the unedited nine-minute epic version of ‘Bluebird’ (released – apparently by accident – on a compilation album in 1971)? Some of the rarer CSN soundtrack work from the 1980s and 90s? Stills’ excellent acoustic performance at the ‘Bread and Roses’ charity gig in 1978 (one of the best concerts of his career!)
By and large there’s probably slightly less gems here than in the other two sets , despite being 4 CDs not 3. The remixes which made the Nash set so exciting are hardly noticeable here, barring a joyous, slightly less polished mix of the gorgeous ‘See The Changes’ ( a song close to my heart as the second track on the first CSN album I ever heard and one that changed my life and tastes forever). There are some outright masterpieces here though: ‘So Begins The Task’ is my favourite Stills song (along with ‘Word Game’) and whilst this version isn’t up to the finished Manassas recording it is equally beautiful and alluring, complete with a third verse cut from the final product. Talking of Manassas, there’s a pocket version of ‘The Treasure’ from 1970 that sounds like a more ‘normal’ song without the three minute guitar solo conclusion and Stills’ ragged, almost-off-mike vocal. It’s not up to the original either, but its a great insight into how this song was moulded and changed over the years and even features the riff CSNY used so often during their jams of ‘Carry On’ during live tours in 1970, 71 and 74 (as heard on ‘Four Way Street’). Talking of 'Four Way Street', the most unexpected song here is Stills' solo interpretation of David Crosby's 'Lee Shore'. Long regarded as the best of the 'lost' CSN songs this track has been released many times down the years (on box sets, live albums and the like)but it might be that after years of being unreleased Stills thought the song was up for grabs (the same way he debuted Neil Young's 'New Mama' to the world, little knowing that 'Tonight's The Night' really was coming out two years after being recorded). It's a nice version, though Stills is clearly less suited to the song than it's author. ‘Little Miss Bright Eyes’ is an early version of ‘Sugar Babe’ and is even more impressive, an early version of a highly personal song about Stills’ relationship with singer Rita Coolidge but, shorn of the horns and taken at a faster tempo, sounds more like a ‘proper’ song. There’s also a full four-part CSNY harmony version of ‘Black Coral’ from the ill-fated Stills-Young LP, abandoned when Stills and Nash had an argument about another song and Stills threw the duo out of the studio (legend has it he slashed the masters with a razor tape, so how this recording survived I’ll never know!) Actually this recording raises an interesting point: the Crosby-Nash harmonies actually dilutes this track, which needs the edgy off-key Stills-Young growl; perhaps the legend we’ve had all these years about a second abandoned CSNY album that year was actually down to taste after all?! Finally, there’s a delightful live 1980s interpretation of ‘Church (Part Of Someone)’ with the blues turned up and the gospel turned down that’s delightful – not up to the polished 1970 original perhaps but even closer to the spirit of one of Stills’ most tortured and self-questioning lyrics.
Other ‘new’ finds are more disappointing. The tape of a young 19-year-old Stills on the radio in 1962 singing ‘Traveling’ is a wonderful find and sounds surprisingly folky, giving us quite a different insight i nto Stil;ls' youth and background as arock and roll,blues singer, but doesn’t really have the shiver-down-the-spine feeling the discovery of Stills’ ‘Just Roll Tape’ from 1968 had when it was found the other year. What's worse is that the tape box reproduced as a photograph next to the song's listing in the booklet has another four Stills compositions listed: where are they? The much ballyhooed Stills-Hendrix jam is simply the much-bootlegged song ‘White Nigger’ with the words cut out, presumably because record labels aren’t brave enough to use the ‘n’ word anymore (far from being offensive, this is Stills’ song about being born in the wrong skin colour because he always felt more at home with his African-American friends like Hendrix than his white middle class family and school chums). The song ‘Who Ran Away?’ from in between the Springfield and CSN eras sounds like a classic on paper, but is easily the weakest of Stills’ songs in his amazing career between 1966 and 1972 heard thus far (and not up to Nash’s equivalent on his box ‘Reflections’). The demo of ’49 Reasons’ is a little interesting, with its backward guitar and lack of links to the next song (‘Bye Bye Baby’), but it's far from finished and is arguably not as interesting as that last sentence probably made it sound.
Of course many casual fans won’t have much of the solo Stills stuff anyway in which case – yet again – this set is a mixed bag. The first, glorious Manassas album (the double one) is fittingly well represented and the rarest and last Buffalo Springfield album ‘Last Time Around’ is also a boon for casual collectors who keep reading about how great the first two albums are and can’t get hold of it. In fact Buffalo Springfield are very well represented all round, with 11 songs (compared to 3 Byrds and 3 Hollies on the other two sets) and almost all the Stills songs from that period I’d want to see here (a shame there’s no place for ‘Pay The Price’ though). Every other album, though, are pretty poorly represented: there’s nothing from the ultra-rare 1968 instrumental ‘Super Session’ with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (still a semi-regular in ‘classic album’ polls despite its limited availability down the years), nothing from the fascinating ‘Just Roll Tape’ taped in 1968 but re-discovered in 2006 during early sifting for this box set; arguably the wrong songs from ‘Stephen Stills’ and ‘Stephen Stills II’ are here (‘Go Back Home’ and ‘Marianne’ over ‘Sit Yourself Down’ and ‘Word Game’. That’s terrible!) , the admittedly pretty awful second Manassas album is represented by just one song (but again ‘Isn’t It About Time?’ is the wrong choice - give me ‘Guecango De Vera’ or ‘Pansiemento’ any day, all impossible to track down on CD!) and the next trilogy (of ‘Stills’ ‘Illegal Stills’ and ‘Thoroughfare Gap’) are poorly experienced too (I love the first one of the three - its no 65 on our list of ‘core’ albums folks! -and think the other two are better than people say; unfortunately every time I try to buy the 2CD set of these three albums together they have the wrong CD inside – honestly am I never destined to own a decent copy of ‘Stills’ on CD?!) Surely 'Myth Of Sisyphus' 'Buying Time' and 'You can't Dance Alone' are generally regarded as the essential songs from these albums, not 'My Angel' or 'Lowdown' (poor Illegal Stills, a much misunderstood album, doesn't get a single song on here). And what choices to make from the ultimate Stills album rarities, 1984’s ‘Right By You’ and 1991’s ‘Stills Alone’? Err ’50-50’ (which is already the only song from ‘You’ available on CD thanks to the CSN box set) and the Dylan cover ‘Ballad Of Hollis Brown’, which admittedly is lovely but not as interesting as the half a dozen Stills originals from that record almost nobody owns (even I don’t own this album complete!) Hmm. As for CSN/Y themselves, I can’t complain at the 70s and 80s choices (although it’s a bit of a shame ‘Everybody I Love You’ isn’t here) and ‘Haven’t We Lost Enough?’ is clearly the right choice from ‘Live It Up’ (in fact it’s amongst the greatest moments on the whole 4 CDs despite coming from a pretty bleak period for CSN). But is ‘Panama’ really the one song anyone would save from 1994’s ‘After The Storm’? (instead of career highs ‘It Won’t Go Away’ and ‘Only Waiting For You’) Also ‘No Tears Left’ (in a new and rather dull live version) from ‘Looking Forward’ instead of hilarious OAP RAP song ‘Seen Enough’?!? Nothing at all from ‘American Dream’?!? (personally I’m quite fond of Stills’ ‘Got It Made’ and ‘Night Song’; it’s just a shame about most of the rest of the LP!) As you can probably tell, I’m split over whether Nash and archivist Joel Bernstein painstakingly went through the selections carefully chose the very best from some 1,500 tapes (or so they say in the introduction) or hired some monkeys to sit in front of typewriters to come up with the final selection (please don’t tell me it was just a lack of time – you had seven years to get this right guys!)
Packaging next and – well – if I hadn’t been spoilt by the Crosby and Nash sets I’d probably be in awe. 120 glossy pages full of some truly wonderful pictures, mainly of Stills alone with his guitars but highlighted by a fabulous new one of CSNY in 1974 (where Nash has him protectively round Crosby’s middle as Stills and Young hit a guitar groove) and a groovy shot of a young Stills in his high school year book, already surrounded by instruments! The inside pictures (both on the discs and behind them on the CD-trays) are wonderful and the use of a ‘moon’ aging from young to old is a wonderful touch, even if it’s actually more apt to Nash’s work (he likes his moon metaphors does Nash; perhaps Stills should have built up ‘walls’ instead?!) There's also a single lone Stills painting titled 'The Many Coloured Beast' from 1969 (and used here to illustrate '4+20', which bused that very quote in song the same year) that's fascinatingly revealing, a scrawl of modern art with what looks like a horse's head, painting at the tortured and turbulent creator with too much creative fire and impatience for one body to hold. Given how valuable Stills finds control of his own outpourings, I'm amazed the picture made it to the finished product but I'm mighty glad that it has - it might well be the most revealing here even with all this fabulous music. The track details (recording dates and musicians playing) are superb too and enough to make any set except the Crosby and Nash ones jealous. The problem is that unlike his partners Stills doesn’t offer his thoughts on each and every song. Most of the tracks aren’t accompanied by stunning full-page photos as per those boxes (Nash does love his photography I suppose, so its no surprise his set used so many!) And replacing the missing pages with three fairly pretentious essays about what a great guy Stephen is and cutting the page numbers down by 30 compared to the Crosby and Nash sets seems a pity. The sessionography is particularly wretched: where for instance is Stills’ work on ‘Nice Way’ (a song donated by the guitarist to his old friend Ringo, who sold him his English house in 1971); why is Neil Young’s ‘Till The Morning Comes’ included but not Neil’s ‘Words’ or ‘Alabama’?!; why isn’t there a proper discography instead, listing the complicated journey through S/CSN/CSNY/S-Y and Manassas albums?! However even this has its plus points: for example I learnt for the first time today that my all-time favourite Humble Pie song 30 Days In The Hole’ (the one where the band stop trying to be a heavier Small Faces and start backing Steve Marriott properly) features Stills on organ and harmonies. Who knew?! I also didn't know that Stills plays guitar on Bill Withers' greatest song (Ain't No Sunshine'), Mama Cass' 'Dream A Little dream Of Me' percussion on The Bee Gees' original (and inferior) 'You Should Be Dancing (he was great friends with Andy Gibb, remember) and - conversely - that it's Nils Lofgren not Stills playing on 'Change Partners'.Even the excellent CSNY book ‘The Visual Documentary’ with its fairly comprehensive diary of CS and N appearing on ‘outside’ albums doesn’t mention these! The detailed track listings, with their recording dates and session info also include some fascinating new discoveries: that February 22nd 1969 might well be one of the greatest days for recorded music (both 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' and the album version of 'You Don't Have To Cry' were made on this day) and I hadn't realised before how much of 1975's'Stills' was actually created in 1973 (arguably the end of Stills' amazing six year purple patch since 1967, which now makes this last work of genius less of an anomoly).
In all, then, Stills is frankly a much better musician, singer, writer, guitarist and all-round Renaissance genius than this set lets on – but I guess that’s the trouble with box sets. The Crosby and Nash sets couldn’t quite get it right either (although they both came closer to success than this one – Crosby’s ‘Voyage’ via sensible if limited choice of his truly best work and a full CD of unreleased stuff, about half of which is fascinatingly essential and Nash’s ‘reflections’ via some revealing song comments, a handful of spiffing unreleased songs and some rarer music dug out the archives for the first time in years). Ah well, I suppose these three sets when put together only really feel a shame because a) CSN had already released the world’s greatest music box set together in 1991 and b) I know what great stuff there is by all three men sitting on obscure LPs and sometimes in the vaults and I’m afraid that music might well disappear from our shelves now these sets are out. I know that all three CSN-ers are hard up to some extent (especially Crosby with the millions of back taxes he was forced to pay in the 1990s) and the row over the ‘covers’ album of a couple years ago combined with Crosby’s long-term ill health and Stills’ deaf and blindness and a lack of interest from any record labels means that there aren’t likely to be any more CSN albums (or so they keep telling us nowadays). Frankly it’s still great to have the three of them around at all and if forking out £40 for a box set every three years pays some bills then that’s fine with me after all they’ve done, however mixed the contents. This isn’t a bad set after all and it features some truly wonderful stuff if you don’t already know it (although there are better places to start if that someone includes you). But if this really is goodbye – and a couple of live CDs and DVDs from CSN apart it looks like it – then all three box sets are a sad and rather lacklustre way to say goodbye to a trio who have shaped popular music more than anyone else out there seems to realise. The world without CSN would be an awfully lesser place and the best of all three of these box sets is a reminder of what talent, charisma, bravery, musicality and above all harmony music can provide at its very best. Just do me a favour and dig out the ‘proper’ records by all three men together and apart if these sets in any way excite your interest. So close – and yet so far away...