Monday, 19 September 2016

Stephen Stills "Alone" (1991)




Stephen Stills "Alone" (1991)

Isn't It So?/Everybody's Talkin'/Just Isn't Like You/In My Life/The Ballad Of Hollis Brown/Singin' Call/The Right Girl/The Blind Fiddler Medley/Amazonia/Treetop Flyer

Fans had been calling for an acoustic Stills album since time immemorial (well since at least 1969, possibly since the mid-1960s, which feels like the same thing sometimes when you see terrorism and Trump and war on the news every few minutes). After thirty-five-ish years of rockstardom, Stills finally listened to fans who'd been pestering him about making an album of 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' and recorded what is - to date - the only fully acoustic album of his career. The idea promised much, especially given that Stills' most recent acoustic song ('Haven't We Lost Enough?' from the previous year's CSN album 'Live It Up') was his best in years. Bells should have rung, birds should have sung, Pink Floyd should probably have come out of retirement and got it on by banging a gong - instead 'Stills Alone' disappeared to become arguably the hardest and most expensive of all the CSNY albums to track down (sorry about that). To this day even the most committed fans admit they can't get hold of this album, shrug their shoulders and say if it was any good they'd have heard about it by now and the tracks on the 'Carry On' compilation weren't much cop anyway, in a way even the critics would dare say about any other Stills album (well, maybe 'Right By You' if they'd come to it after seeing the trying-too-hard music video for the 'Stranger' single). So why is Stills Alone, the acoustic album so many fans dreamt of, not only alone but very much out in the cold?

Part of that is surely the timing: no one was asking for CSN solo product hot on the heels of the trio's 'Live It Up' album (even if it's pretty good, curious cocktail sausage munching album cover aside) and the Stills of 1991 wasn't the draw of Stills in 1971 or even 1981. In fact Stephen - once rightly hailed as one of the musical geniuses of his generation - has fallen so far down the star ladder he can't even get a decent record deal anymore and instead of Atlantic or CBS released this album as a one-off deal with Gold Hill Music (no doubt recommended to him by fellow Manassas man Chris Hillman, who released his Desert Rose Band records through the same label and - in an even bigger sign of outsold this one about twenty to one). Part of it is the album cover: for the first time Stills' busy Captain Manyhands lifestyle was catching up with him and he looks far older than his 46 years here while simultaneously dressed up to cash in on the (thankfully short-lived) 'lumberjack country' movement of the day. He sounds just as old across this record too, which is arguably the first to feature his more recent 'lived in' voice, which is just as emotional and expressive as ever but struggles with enunciation and precision compares to the days of old. Just as with the pop star trappings of 'Right By You' Stills looks incredibly uncomfortable - he was born to be a bluesman with folk roots, not a pop star no matter how much the record companies (even this record company) tries to think otherwise.

The worst of it, though, is that Stills doesn't seem to have cared too much about this record, recycling old songs from previous records (with even the four new songs sounding 'familiar'), finally giving a home to songs that had only appeared in concert and performing a record four cover songs - almost half the entire record. Though Stills hasn't made much fuss about it, it seems likely too that his hearing problems began around the time of making this record after too many years of amplified rock music (curiously at the exact same time his old partner Neil Young was suffering from Tinnitus after the world's loudest rock tour with Crazy Horse across 1991) - in other words this is an acoustic album out of necessity rather than inspiration. Note, for instance, how many of the songs are played on an 'electric' nylon-stringed acoustic guitar rather than the more usual 'pure' acoustic sound Stills always used before this (as a side note, this also makes the choice of cover song 'Everybody's Talkin' At Me but I can't heard a word they say' something of an in-joke). Considering that we're - just - into the CD age at this point, it also seems odd to report that this is Stills' shortest album, barely making the half hour mark (even the next shortest, 'Manassas Down The Road', runs twenty precious seconds longer). Stills himself doesn't seem that fussed by the contents either and has all but disowned it himself in the years since, never playing any of these songs in concert (except 'Treetop Flyer', which has been in the setlist for years). Let's put that in context: this isn't some Spice Girls let's-make-some-moolah-in-a-hurry act we're talking about here but Stephen Stills, the perfectionist's perfectionist, who would gladly spend 200 hours in the studio getting a song right, only to feel so inspired he's start another one in his lunch break. We don't know how long it took to make 'Stills Alone' from beginning to end, but it probably took less time in total than getting the drum-sound for the 'Manassas' album. Stills, the overdubbing master, adds at most an electric drum click-track and a few rainforest sound effects and for the most part not even that. No wonder 'Stills Alone' has somewhat got the 'short straw' after all these years and when most collectors learn how pricey it is they genuinely put it back on the shelf and save their money for something easier to get hold of, in this day and age probably a live Neil Young live album with real life snorting pigs.

There is, though, something to be said about having Stills let loose in your living room (or your car or wherever you happen to listen to your music) as openly vulnerable as this. 'Stills Alone' doesn't often get marks for bravery and it's probably not as courageous as running the whole first side of the debut Manassas LP into a genre-hoping exercise in eclecticism or breaking the rules of what you can do with a wah-wah pedal on the 'Super Session' LP, but it's brave for a 46-year-old former superstar nonetheless. Stills doesn't hide the fact he's got older - he's almost proud of it and the moments when he growls or misses the notes are arguably even more effective than the moments when he hits them spot on as usual. The lack of anything else here to hide behind also shows off Stills' acoustic playing - admittedly he made this in the wrong era when his hands and brain were slowing down so there's nothing even close to the league of a 'Suite:Judy' or a 'Helplessly Hoping' and indeed you spend some of the record helplessly hoping that Stills is actually going to make it to the end of the song. But he always does: even at less than his best and with one-take simple arrangements Stills is a player you can learn a great deal from and hearing his ideas stripped back to their basics brings out his inner bluesman, which is no bad thing. Especially on the stand-out covers 'Blind Fiddler Medley' and 'The Ballad Of Hollis Brown', in which we hear what a Stills born a century before and in an even deeper part of the blues belt than Texas might have sounded like. It could be, too, that the 'new' version of 'Singin' Call' and the suspiciously demo-like 'Amazonia' are both older songs, with the younger punchier Stills vocals rather than the deep growl of 1991. By and large though, fans sent through a time-warp here direct from 1969 would no doubt be upset at how things got so bad so fast (and wondered why Stills didn't make this sort of record sooner - a mid-1970s acoustic album around the time of the break-ups with Judy, Rita and Veronique in the manner of the 'Just Roll Tape' of 1968 would have been quite something to behold), but 'Stills Alone' isn't actually the wildcard it so often seems, being as brave and naked and intense as anything the Stills of old ever offered, if not quite as detailed or virtuoso. We like giving marks for bravery at the AAA, whatever the execution turns out like, and Stills Alone gathers a few extra points right here, whatever it loses in beauty or depth.

No, it's the songs where 'Stills Alone' falls down with nothing even in the same stratosphere as 'Haven't We Lost Emough?', not least because we've heard so many of them before - six of them if you're enough of a fan to have heard Stills in concert at any time since around 1976 with a fondness for early Dylan protest records. None of the songs here improve on the originals, with 'Singin' Call' (first released on 'Stephen Stills II' in 1971) swapping innocence and beauty for world-weariness and frustration, 'Do For The Others' (first released on 'Stephen Stills' in 1970) replacing a gorgeous folk-rock lilt for a simple note guitar pick and 'Know You Got To Run ('Stills II' again, via the opening half of CSNY's 'Carry On' from 1970) replacing either a haunting banjo lick or enthusiastic power-pop with a slow blues crawl. In addition, fans already knew Stills' cover of Freddy Neil's 'Everybody's Talkin' well from 'Stephen Stills Live' (1975) or bootlegs of the first CSN album and this slowed down sad lament isn't as cute as it once sounded when it was young and only a little bit fed-up, while concert favourite tale of Vietnam Vets turned bootleggers 'Treetop Flyer' seems to have had its wings clipped a little on re-entry compared to the original heights the song reached in the mid-1970s (still a mystery why this classic hadn't appeared on any of the albums from 'Illegal Stills' onwards though, where it would have been a highlight on any of them). Had we not been a fan enough to have heard any of these songs before then 'Stills Alone' might have impressed - but as it is this record was so obscure even on first release (with no tie-in tour and barely a mention of it since - and there's certainly been no re-issue since) that the few fans who bought it already knew Stills could do these songs better.

The album's reputation then rests on three covers and four new songs, to mixed results. On the plus side 'The Ballad Of Hollis Brown' reveals what Stills might have sounded like had we met him in his folk-club days before the Buffalo Springfield took off: exciting and mesmerising is the answer, with one of Dylan's better obscure tracks sounding as if it belongs in the Stills catalogue with its dark tale of depression and murder but also re-birth and renewal. Ditto 'Isn't It So?', a possible prequel to 'Panama' in which Stills tells us about his first love and coming of age - which is a nice song calling out for a full band arrangement. 'The Right Girl' too is a pretty song that deserves a makeover from the modern-day Stills and to sound young and vibrant again instead of slightly worn out as per here. 'Amazonia' nicks badly from Stills' own 'Fair Game' but its tale of tree-planting conservationism fills this album's 'latin' quotient well enough. The solo cover of The Beatles' 'In My Life' though isn't a patch on the version with added harmonies included on CSN's 'After The Storm' album in a few years time (never mind the fab four's fab original) and 'Just Isn't Like You' just isn't like Stills at all, being slow and clichéd and a little dull (though that might be the point, with Stills sounding as if he's telling his inner creativity to get a move on, thankyouverymuch). This album could and should have been so much more, with no end of blues or folk standards that would have perfect for this album and Stills' new growlier living room voice. However at the same time, 'Stills Alone' isn't quite the redundant money-making exercise so many people seem to think it is: Stills connects with the material on a good half of the album and even on the other half he tries his best and if he fails, well, at least he was brave enough to have a go.

It may be more than a coincidence that the general theme of the album seems to be lovable (sometimes unlovable) losers who don't seem to be connected to the rest of the world in some way. 'Isn't It So?' has the narrator desperately to learn about love, 'the secret that everyone knows' and wondering why it goes wrong for him so many times. 'Everybody's Talkin' finds the narrator unable to hear the many things everyone is trying to tell him, only the 'echoes in my mind'. 'Just Isn't Like You' might be addressed to a second person, but it sounds in places like a motivational prep-talk to someone who once had 'energy running through you' and is now fed-up and weary after one heartbreak too many. 'In My Life' is a song rightly recognised as celebrating moments from your past - but, especially in this slower version, sounds as much about the people wasted on the way as the ones who made it, with a sadness and grief that can only come from loss. 'The Ballad Of Hollis Brown' is a dark humoured tale of poverty where everyone loses the narrator-murderer finding salvation only when he turns on his family to take them away from the pain of life, only for them to be (possibly) re-incarnated scattered across the globe so they don't even have each other (well that's my interpretation; it's a Dylan song, so who knows what the author intended it to be about!) 'Singin' Call' cries out for a rest (even though that rest spells out doom on 'Just Isn't Like You') and recognises that the narrator is missing out on too much of life, damaging his relationships in the process and yet the narrator still can't bring himself to slow down, using what he feels in nature as inspiration for a song instead of living in the moment. 'The Right Girl' sounds like it's going to be a rare happy song, but it should come with the subtitle 'wrong timing' as the narrator regrets that he never gets to love the 'right girl' because she's too busy having a good time. The 'Blind Fiddler Medley' marries three songs about being poor and on the run with the warm-hearted reaching out of 'Do For The Others' the heart in the middle of this loneliness sandwich. 'Amazonia' is more about how the world is missing the point, with the world ignoring 'the forest for the trees' as poor people exploit the rainforest for a pittance and create global warming that will affect them worst of all. Finally, 'Treetop Flyer' tells the tale of a bunch of inventive Vietnam Veterans, ignored by their Government after coming home and unable to find jobs, seeking revenge by using their new-found skills of flying helicopters close to trees to carry out daring drug raids under the authority's noses. Though they're making the best of a tough situation, these too are 'outsiders' struggling to get by in a world that just isn't paying attention to them and which they don't quite understand - or is that the world doesn't them?

Apart from the last two songs, though, this is a notably inward-looking album for Stills and by far his most melancholy solo record. To understand why this album is quite so sad means digging into the debris of Stills marriage number two (or 'significant relationship number six' for those keeping count!) After the breakup of his marriage to Veronique Sanson in the late 1970s Stills had spent the better part of a decade alone, joking to CSN crowds about being the 'eligible bachelor of the group'. He surprised many by taking up a whirlwind romance with a Thai model named Pamela Ann Jordan in the mid-1980s, the two marrying in 1988 and having a daughter soon afterwards. Stills mentioned often in the publicity run-up to CSNY's 'American Dream' how in love he was and how things were going to be different this time, but sadly they weren't. The pair split 18 months afterwards, the despairing fallout from which can be heard on 'Haven't We Lost Enough?' and continuing on in this album's similarly structured new compositions. After so many years waiting for the 'one', finding out that she wasn't seems to have inspired a typical Stillisian binge of self-pity and neuroses, with a repeat of the run of songs heard after the splits from Judy Collins ('Bluebird Revisited'), Rita Coolidge ('Sugar Babe') and Veronique Sanson ('Myth Of Sisyphus', a song about being forever doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over). The trouble is that this Stills is older and more fragile and less able to bounce back than the charming charismatic genius of the mid-1970s and writing songs about pain and loss after secretly hoping he'd never have to again finds Stills in particularly downcast mood, while not being 'inspired' enough to write it out of his system. The saddest thing about 'Stills Alone' is that he's never sounded more alone and the title refers to more than just the solo performances; the narrator of this album feels like he's never going to be happy again. The good news is that this is - more or less - the last missive from the 'old' Stills and soon he's back to his even older, happier self writing songs about love and family for third wife Kristen and with a new bounce in his step we fans had missed for so long. Released ten years to the day before 9/11, it's amazing how big a difference a decade makes with the later Stills far happier.

Overall, then, 'Stephen Stills Alone' might not be the very best album ev-uh for a whole host of reasons - most of them outside Stills' control, but that doesn't make it an easier ride for fans who had to pay to hear it (especially the modern fans who have to pay a lot to hear it!) Though it's not the worst solo album in Stills' canon ('Man Alive' is weaker still), it is perhaps his flattest, suffering from a similar simple repetitive sound throughout and a lack of the energy and discipline and breadth that the man they once called Captain Manyhands used to be famous for. Given the billing - an acoustic album from a man whose just written one of his best songs in decades in a similar style - it's a bitter disappointment. However, even alone - perhaps especially alone - you can still hear the essence of Stills' talent across his singing calls and this album is still awfully good in a lot of places, far more than most people ever acknowledge, even if it's close to awful in a few, as close perhaps as Stills has ever been.

Usually Stills starts his solo albums with a barn-storming ear-catcher, but in common with the rest of this CD 'Isn't It So?' is understated and mellow, a grower that gets better with every listen rather than an immediate favourite. Stills seems to have spent much of the early 1990s pondering feeling nostalgic, with several songs dating back to the time of his first romance with an un-named older girl who taught the guitarist everything about love - and loss. This is the first time we meet her in song and love is a tough lesson hard learnt, with Stills setting off to earn fame and fortune on his own despite the major bond he feels. 'I wanted to wander' he sighs, 'she knew I would go' but she still loved him enough to let him leave. Only now, decades on, does Stills realise how selfish it must have seemed to her to 'chase rainbows' rather than her, but he credits her with being a 'prophet' who knew he'd only be happy making music for a living. She may even be the person who loved him the most, by letting him go to get what he wanted - she even pays for his food and 'gas for my car' on their last brief meeting. The unspoken feeling across this song is that maybe for all his success Stills should have stayed put and been happy, instead of chasing greater rewards that also came with greater risks and a work ethic that broke up all his relationships up to that point. It's hard not to feel sorry for Stills as he sings about the sheer pain of feeling 'love turned cold' and he's rarely sounded more fragile than here, with a crack in his voice as well as his heart. However he also recognises that this story is one that's pretty much universal and turns to us with a knowing nod as he ends every chorus with the line 'isn't it so?' Few people feel love as deeply as Stills though or at least have the means to turn it into music and 'Isn't It So?' may well be the best song on the album, full of his usual big emotional heart. You do miss the intensity of old though, with this simple arrangement of three guitars and one vocal with overdubbed harmonies not quite enough to bring out the true beauty at the heart of this song.

Everybody had been talkin' to Stills down the years about recording a definitive version of his favourite cover song 'Everybody's Talkin', a sweet ballad by his old coffee-house pre-fame mate Freddy Neil first released in 1966 just as both men were on the brink of fame. The story goes that the songwriter only wrote it at the last minute so he could quit sessions for his debut album early and go home - something he wasn't allowed to do unless he came up with a final song to make the album to a half-hour length! Stills played it on pretty much every solo tour and even coerced Crosby and Nash into singing it on a couple of occasions, although only the slightly rushed version on 'Stills Live' version from 1975 had ever made it onto an official release. By contrast this re-recording is too languid and laidback, less panicked than earlier versions as the narrator realises he's been living in his own little world of sunshine while everyone around him walks in the pouring rain. Sadly, though Stills' affection for the material is obvious, his delivery isn't up to speed and his vocal is quite alarming in places - cracking, croaking, reaching upwards for a flat falsetto his old self would have nailed without blinking; this is one of the harder Stills recordings to listen to out there and there for once there's no 1980s synthesiser to blame it on. Even the guitar playing is perfunctory rather than stunning.

'Just Isn't Like You' is tired and croaky too, but this time it only enhances a song about growing older and further apart. Though Stills appears on the surface to be talking to a long-term partner, in keeping with traditions he may well be singing to himself here. He senses a 'stranger' where 'I once knew you' and a 'dangerous energy' he's not used to feeling and even admits at one stage 'I wouldn't mind - except for the voices' like a wounded schizophrenic. Stills may well be singing about the return of demons he thought were long thought extinguished in his love life, with his drinking and constant touring making another key romantic relationship in his life a struggle and this song is at one with the 'what just happened?' shock of recent songs like 'Haven't We Lost Enough?' and 'Stranger' or - going back a bit - this song ids a sequel of sorts to 'As I Come Of Age'. By contrast 'this' Stills couldn't be nicer - he's considerate and caring for the 'other person' in the song and is calm and thoughtful, a million miles away from the possible temper tantrums and adrenalin rush hinted at taking place moments before. At the same time, though, the end of the song is spiced up by one of this album's few electric guitar passages as a half-snarl begins to build the tension all over again in the background as if Stills' narrator is already gearing up for another round. Then again, maybe Stills is singing for his recent ex Pamela too as he re-acts in horror as his intensity and seriousness is mistaken for 'joking' by someone who clearly doesn't understand the depth of his soul. Sadly the melody on this track is more forgettable than most and the lyric deserved to be explored more fully than three short verses can afford it. This is still another under-rated Stills song though!

'In My Life' is a much-covered Beatles song written by Lennon in a sudden rush of inspiration after hours of getting nowhere with a literal transcription of his childhood years for one of his books (the idea that later became 'Strawberry Fields Forever'). Cheered up by a letter out the blue from old school pal Pete Shotton full of memories Lennon had long forgotten, you can hear the joy in the Beatles' version, tinged with the sadness of the people 'gone' (with fifth Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, John's next close friend, very much on his mind). Stills' version is by contrast almost joyless: this isn't a twenty-five-year-old suddenly reminded of an occasionally happy past but a man who sounds on his death-bed and full of bitter regrets. Stills almost certainly chose this song to cover after his recent trials and tribulations in his marriage, suddenly going from laidback troubadour to howling with pain on the line 'There is no one to compare with you and these memories lose their meaning...' Chances are he had his own past loves like Judy Collins, Rita Coolidge and Veronique Sanson in mind too when he sang this song. Impressively raw and brave, this version is perhaps a bit too raw and brave for most tastes and again Stills' vocal is all over the place. It did however inspire a rather tighter, more expressive version that CSN recorded for their next reunion in 1994 and in which Stills sounds far sharper and more powerful compared to here.

The album's best cover is surely 'The Ballad Of Hollis Brown', a rare example of Bob Dylan writing a protest song that didn't require the listener to take a masters degree in English literature and old folk songs. Across eleven stark verses we hear a crushing tale of American poverty, with the title farmer walking miles for odd jobs while 'your children are so hungry they don't know how to smile'. The mare is poorly with 'bad blood', there are rats in the flour, the baby is crying and the wife is screaming - poor Hollis Brown can't bear it any more so he prays for better times day after day and all he gets for his troubles are pockets that get ever emptier. Unable to bear their suffering anymore, he takes a shotgun off the wall and - after a verse of getting the shakes - shoots his entire family dead (and possibly himself too). However Dylan's cruel humour has all seven re-born in an instant in different families and they're all doomed to go through the suffering all over again (there ain't no way out of here, said the farmer to the thief). This is clearly a song after Stills' own heart recalling the poverty and prejudice of 'Word Game' and 'Black Queen' and it really suits the bluesier side of his personality. He's also in good voice compared to the rest of this album, with less notes to navigate and a very real indignant howl in his voice by the end. Unfortunately though this is one of those Dylan songs that sounds better in cover versions with a full band even if the original (on 'The Times They're A Changin' from 1963) is just as bare. With only Stills' guitar to back eleven very similar sounding verses it had better be good and sadly, by Stills' standards, it's only adequate with his fingers sounding heavy and inept. Still, twenty-eight years after it was written, 'Hollis Brown' still has the power to shock and though I haven't heard all 23 cover versions of this song listed on the Dylan website, it seems safe to say that Stills is certainly one of the more sympathetic interpreters, maintaining the same sense of menace and bitterness of the original.

'Singin' Call' is an interesting choice, a song of Stills' own that dates back twenty years this time. This version sounds more like a demo for the original version on 'Stephen Stills II', lacking the bass, drums and echo-laden chorus. Which is a shame because it was the bass, drums and echo-laden chorus that went a long way to making that track one of Stills' most under-rated 1970s recordings. Not that this version is bad - Stills' guitar picking on a 'real' acoustic guitar for a change and a much more melodic vocal make this one of the best performances on the album (indeed so much does this performance stand out in the middle of this album that I'm not the first person to wonder if this is in fact the unheard 1971 demo masquerading as a 'new' track to make up the numbers and pad this album out?) The song is at least a fitting choice for an album that reflects on lost love and the hard work that seems to keep getting in the way of it. Stills 'wonders if I can do it all' while 'looking for the peace that the ancients bring me', admiring nature 's capacity to simply get on with living without asking too many questions about it. There's a twist ending: refreshed, Stills returns to the real world, so determined to 'tell my brothers what I saw' that he writes a song about it, even though that sort of work was exactly what he promised himself he wouldn't do!

'The Right Girl' is another album highlight, although as per most of this album the songs falls slightly flat in this version and desperately needs a re-recording some day. Having seen yet another romance fall apart, Stills starts wondering about just what it is that he is looking for - although his resulting picture of a feisty intense romantic ends up sounding exactly like the Judys, Ritas, Veroniques and Pamelas of his past all over again. The image Stills has in his head is of a 'honky tonk angel' who can make him feel loved whose tough enough to ride a bike but fragile enough to confess her emotions and fears to him so he can make them go away. Stills is adamant that he wants someone who knows her own mind whose 'tough enough to fight' recalling 'Tomboy', his slightly dodgy track from CSN's last album 'Live It Up' but this time he's less concerned about them making the 'wrong' choices by picking some thick-headed hard-nut man and more worried that he'll be put off his dream choice by seeing someone fighting when all he wants is calmness in his life. Stills sums up by deciding that his dream girl would also be too sensible and mature to stick around and get hurt a second time and absolutely has to leave when 'another man seems nice', perhaps summing up why he feels he's never got any of his relationships (up to this point in time at least) to last the course. More signs that this song is autobiography rather than purist pop comes in the last verse which repeats the refrain of 'Singin' Call' and 'Isn't It So?' both - 'If your head is all messed up and full of big plans you're going to miss her completely and never give her the chance'. In the end this song is much more about Stills being the wrong man for his dream right girl than it ever is about her, but that's what makes it all the more powerful. It's just a shame that this song wasn't performed by the younger Stills rather than the older, struggling one as of all the songs on 'Stills Alone' this is the track that demands the softest, lightest touch and it's rather hammered to death here. There's a nice balalaika solo in the middle though, proof that Stills was still interested in adding colour to his arrangements even on a project where he's clearly pushed for time and ideas.

'The Blind Fiddler Medley' is a moment of pure Stills that's one of the few here that suits the new rawer, lived-in voice. Sounding a little like 'Black Queen' and '4+20' combined, 'Blind Fiddler' is another 'Hollis Brown' tale of poverty and hardship from an old man who can't see and struggles to eke out a living for himself and his three daughters in an uncaring world. Legend has it the song is an American folk song that dates back to the country's earliest oral traditions - it was first written down during the great Folk Song Collection phase of the 19th century after the historians wrote it down from an old lady in return for the price of a cow! The song usually comes with an extra verse Stills doesn't sing here: 'Now my wife and three babes depend on me and they go through all my trials wherever they may be, I hope that they'll be happy while I'm forced to roam, I'm a blind fiddler that's so far from my home'. Instead of that resolution, though, Stills jumps to his 1970 classic 'Do For The Others'. What was once a song of solidarity written for Crosby after the death of his girlfriend Christine Hanton in a car crash has become a second song about poverty and having nothing. 'See, hear, sinking low, doesn't see the love there is to know' is the fitting opening verse, followed by the chorus, as instead of a heartbroken Crosby we follow the blind fiddler into dreaming of friendship and charity as he helplessly waits for others to help him. Hearing the two songs in such close proximity reveals just how close Stills' own writing style is to these old blues standards and just how well the lonely starkness suits his voice (though it's still not even close to being as good as the 'warmer' version from the 'Stephen Stills' record). Finally we land on a faster, angrier version of 'Know You've Got To Run' played on a wild acoustic guitar rather than a steady banjo this time. Stills reaches a howling climax as he again sings about being a lonely outcast chasing a 'great light deep within your eyes'.  The lesson here is that the blind fiddler needs to 'love himself' before others can do the same and needs to escape the 'lonely hole' without his friends before anyone can give him the love he needs. After sounding worryingly like a self-help manual, Stills flips the song back round again with a repeat of 'Blind Fiddler's open verse and rounding off with a short reprise from 'Do For The Others' again. Given the context in this album, it's hard not to see it as Stills commenting on the vicious cycle of recent years, making the point all the more profound by using two earlier songs that emphasis the same points made elsewhere on this album. No sooner does Stills learn the lessons then he forgets it all again with the next love of his life, turning into a self-destructive musician who isolates himself when things get tough and wonders why he ends up alone again time after time. Stills clearly identifies with the bruised and bloodied musician narrator stranded 'far from home' (the young Stills travelled endlessly across his childhood so this early favourite would surely have appealed to him) and delivers one of his best performance on the album on this tour de force which at five and a half minutes sounds like easily the most substantial moment on the record, cover songs and repeats as it may be.

'Amazonia' is a rare Stills ecological protest song performed in such basic and primitive terms that this too surely must be an older demo from the 1970s? Stills sounds younger and more powerful again, while the guitar riff is so close to 'Fair Game' from 1977's 'CSN' ('the one with the boat!') that it seems unlikely Stills would have written a second song so close to the first without assuming that the first would never be released. Certainly 'Amazonia' isn't in the first league of Stills songs: it's a little too 'charity single' in its depiction of a rainforest disappearing 'by an acre in the time it takes to sing this song'. However Stills makes some valid points in his idea that the people cutting down the forests for low pay aren't the criminals - if you're faced with the choice between starvation and unemployment and worrying about the impact of a tree on the planet's population then that isn't really a choice at all. Instead he sighs 'There's always someone getting hurt - sometimes you just have to do what's best', while still condemning the deforestation by greedy companies. Stills turns in some fun acoustic playing here (again, much sharper than on most of the album), but the unchanging drum track he sings along to (again, another sign that this is a demo) is quite irritating by the end of the song. Stills would probably be tickled to know that 'Amazonia' and its parent album 'Stills Alone' is currently the only Stills album not readily available from 'Amazon' (well, not as a vinyl record or CD anyway). He's probably less ticked that 'Amazonia' remains, more than ever in this day and age, a poignant and only too painfully truthful song.

We fans tend to think that nobody really got to hear 'Stills Alone' and that the album disappeared without trace. However it inspired at least one future star in Ray La Montagne who caught this recording of 'Treetop Flyer' on the radio and thought it a song of such genius that it inspired him to write the whole of his first album and beyond. It's certainly one of Stills' brighter ideas, the tale of Vietnam helicopter pilots who use their new skills for ill-gotten gains once they get back home. Stills is clearly on their side - after all they risked their lies for nothing but a phony war and have been given no help whatsoever at integrating back into society on their return - so why begrudge them a bit of money on the side? Full of clever couplets delivered with a grin ('I don't do business that don't make me smile, I don't pay taxes 'cause I never file!'), it's an inventive song that's subversive enough to win a wry chuckle and believable enough to work. 'I'm not trying to break the law' Stills sometimes giggled in concert, 'I'm just trying to tell a story' - but this is more than just a 'story' as his audience well know, it's another great tale of us versus them and the rich versus the poor. Unfortunately this version of a song that many fans had had on their wishlists for a decade and a half isn't really worth waiting for. The 1991 Stills doesn't have the lightness of touch to deliver the right amount of humour and the performance here is heavy-handed and bordering on boring. Far more entertaining are the official versions from earlier years that have been released in the years since - an entertaining demo (probably from the mid-1970s) released as a 'bonus' track on the 'Just Roll Tape' (otherwise recorded 1968, released 2007) and even better performance during Stills' solo spot on the 1982 gig at the La Forum (released on DVD as 'Daylight Again' (released 2004).


Overall, then, there are many bright ideas in 'Stephen Stills Alone' and a few of them even end up becoming excellent songs and great performances. Yet given the brilliance we used to have every time Stills picked up his acoustic guitar (the highlight of many a live set down the years) and the promise shown by the better half of Stills' contributions to CSN's 'Live It Up' album fans expected a lot more from this record. You get the sense that this was a record Stills made as quickly and cheaply as possible to stay afloat after a costly divorce rather than because he was burning with the urge to make music - and for a songwriter like Stills, who thrives on the need to communicate his life-story with his audience, this album never had a hope of working. In truth it's an idea he should have done years before, for the kudos - not in middle age for the money and with a fading voice and guitar skills. Hear this without knowing the great work that came before it however and you'd still take some flashes of genius from it. The highlights of this album however ('isn't It So' The Right Girl' and 'The Blind Fiddler Medley') most definitely belong in every Stills collection and 'Stills Alone' remains a most under-rated album in the CSN collection, if only because so few of us have ever heard it. Don't keep 'Stills Alone' so lonely - demand a CD re-issue along with me (hopefully with a few other acoustic odds and ends to bulk the running time up) and re-acquaint the fanbase with, if not exactly a lost classic, than a better work than it ever gets credit for. 

Other CSN-related moments of madness from this site you might be interested in reading:


‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/graham-nash-david-crosby-1972.html

'Stephen Stills-Manassas'  (1972)http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-51-stephen-stillsmanassas-1972.html

'Wild Tales' (Nash) (1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/news-views-and-music-issue-75-graham.html

'Down The Road' (Stephen Stills/Manassas) (1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/stephen-stillsmanassas-down-by-road-1973.html

'Stills' (1975) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/review-65-stephen-stills-stills-1975.html

'Wind On The Water' (Crosby-Nash) (1975) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-67-crosby-nash-wind-on-water.html

'Illegal Stills' (Stills) (1976) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/stephen-stills-illegal-stills-1976.html

'Whistling Down The Wire' (Crosby-Nash) (1976) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/david-crosby-graham-nash-whistling-down.html

'Long May You Run' (Stills-Young) (1976) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/news-views-and-music-issue-33-stills.html

'CSN' (1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-70-crosby-stills-and-nash-csn.html
'Thoroughfare Gap' (Stills) (1978) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/stephen-stills-thoroughfare-gap-1978.html

'Earth and Sky' (Nash) (1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/graham-nash-earth-and-sky-1980.html

'Daylight Again' (CSN) (1982) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/news-views-and-music-issue-131-crosby.html

'Right By You' (Stills) (1984) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/stephen-stills-right-by-you-1984.html

'American Dream' (CSNY) (1988) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/crosby-stills-nash-and-young-american.html

'Oh Yes I Can!' (Crosby) (1989) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/07/david-crosby-oh-yes-i-can-1989.html

'Live It Up!' (CSN)  (1989) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/news-viedws-and-music-issue-104-crosby.html

'CPR' (Crosby Band) (1998) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/cpr-david-crosby-band-1998.html

'Looking Forward' (1999) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/crosby-stills-nash-and-young-looking.html

'Crosby*Nash' (2005) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/news-views-and-music-issue-21-crosby.html

'Deja Vu Live' (CD) (2008) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/08/news-views-and-music-issue-1-crosby.html

'Deja Vu Live' (DVD) (2008) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008_09_21_archive.html

'Reflections' (Graham Nash Box Set) (2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/news-views-and-music-issue-22-graham.html

'Demos' (CSN) (2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/news-views-and-music-issue-41-crosby.html

'Manassas: Pieces' (2010) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/news-views-and-music-issue-52-manassas.html

‘Carry On’ (Stephen Stills Box Set) (2013) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/stephen-stills-carry-on-box-set-2013.html

'Croz' (Crosby) (2014) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/david-crosby-croz-2014album-review.html

'CSNY 74' (Recorded 1974 Released 2014) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/crosby-stills-nash-and-young-csny-74.html

'This Path Tonight' (Nash) (2016) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/graham-nash-this-path-tonight-2016.html

The Best Unreleased CSNY Recordings http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/csny-best-unreleased-tracks-news-views.html

Surviving TV Appearances (1969-2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/csny-surviving-tv-appearances-1969-09.html

Non-Album Recordings (1962-2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/crosby-stills-nash-and-sometimes-young_6.html

Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One (1964-1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/crosby-stills-nash-and-sometimes-young.html

Live/Compilations/Rarities Albums Part Two (1982-2012) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/crosby-stills-nash-and-sometimes-young_20.html

3 comments:

  1. I enjoy all of your reviews! However, I don't agree that it is not that good. I adore this album. True, his voice is not the same. He was very sad and distressed when he made this album. Every song reflects exactly where he was at this time. Just isn't Like You is about his second wife. His marriage had imploded and he was devastated. The woman described in The Right Girl was someone he actually was involved with and ended up having his fifth child . He knows she is not right for him. This album is real and he lets his emotions pour out. I am in a S.Stills group. Most people in this quite large group adore this album. Listen again!

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    1. Thanks for posting Anonymous. Fair enough, no two people ever have the same view of the same record - I don't pretend my views have any more weight than anyone else's. I stress I do like this record though and I've heard it a lot down the years - just not by Stills' exceptionally high standards. I don't think I'm alone either, Johnny Rogan destroyed this album in his book on CSNY, I've been quite kind by comparison! Do you know, I started off every Stills/CSN review for months with the same paragraph 'but of course Stills was in a bad place with his love life...' It's the same for quite a few of his records (most of his records?!) and I'd already covered his split with his second wife on the 'Live It Up' reviews (and 'Haven't We Lost Enough?' specifically) so didn't fancy going round old ground again. To my ears though it would have been a lot better if he had let his emotions pour out a lot more instead of reviving old songs. Thanks for reading! 8>)

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  2. Gold Hill Music is his publishing company. He self published this album, in addition to publishing albums for other artists. He did not make this album to make money. This was about expressing himself.

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