Friday, 4 July 2008
Stephen Stills "II" (1971) ('Core' Album #48, Revised Review 2014)
"Stephen Stills II" (1971)
Track Listing: Change Partners/ Nothing To Do But Today/ Fishes And Scorpions/ Sugar Babe/ Know You Got To Run/ Open Secret//
Relaxing Town/ Singin’ Call/ Ecology Song/ Word Game/ Marianne/ Bluebird Revisited ( UK and tracklisting) US
"Still my heart is an open secret - someone tell me have I been gifted or robbed?" or "Murmurs of the lowlands shut my jaw"
Well may Stephen Stills look backwards out the window on the front cover of this album (which, typically for CSNY in the 1970s, features one of them in transit - this time it's a ferry port-a-cabin rather than a train, Crosby's boat or Stills on the back of a horse) because his life will never be the same again. CSNY are gone, broken up, seemingly never to return (although as matters turn out it will only take about two years for their first get-together...) Stills is now taking the opposite journey to his compatriot Graham Nash, leaving the hustle and bustle of America for London and Ringo Starr's old house (only an American could possibly call London a 'relaxing town', but there you go...) With Judy Collins almost out of the picture and Rita Coolidge more off than on, Stills is in a funny place in the head - is he really the tortured genius the musical papers have made him out to be? He feels like a little kid overwhelmed by emotion and still can't get his adult relationships to run the way other people's do. Yet at the same time he's not the worry-free emotion-less hippie the papers paint him out to be either but a bag of nerves and frustrated opportunities, doomed to forever pour his heart out into his songs whether people listen or like what he does or not. 'Will I sing my last symphony to an empty room?' he sighs as one by one all his support mechanisms disappear, sighing that he can't help but make his 'heart an open secret'. This is very much a new chapter in Stills' life and although commercially he was at the top of his game (this record was the fourth CSNY solo album to go top ten and first record 'Stephen Stills' was the most talked about of all the quartet's solo albums at the time), emotionally he's a bit of a mess.
It's particularly neat too that Stills should be looking backwards, as if desperately reaching out to a past that got away, on this of all records. There's a sense among CSNY fans that Stills' best days are behind him, that from now on he'll be merely a shadow of his former self after bringing first the Buffalo Springfield, then CSN, then his first solo album to the bridge of greatness. The first CSNY studio album ever to get bad reviews (we'll cut 1968's 'Neil Young' some slack for now - it wasn't badly reviewed at the time because nobody seemed to notice it existed at all) the general consensus was that, for the first time, a CSNY album was under-par. The music press that was once so supportive sensed new prey in their headlights and set to with glee, calling this album 'self indulgent' and 'weak' and generally reviewing this album poorly compared to 'If Only I Could Remember My Name' 'Songs For Beginners' and 'Harvest'. To be honest even package-wise this album is a bit of a mess, original copies of this album coming with a hastily printed lyric sheet glued messily over the old one when Stills phoned up Atlantic and asked why it had so many mistakes (even the corrected one includes the songs in the wrong order!) 'Stephen Stills Two' seems doomed to be the runt of the CSNY litter, destined to live it's life in the shadow of 'Stephen Stills' 'Manassas' 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' and 'Déjà Vu', not properly loved by its creator, record label or fans.
However, while this record is less consistent than any of these fine records (except perhaps for 'Harvest', a record whose great success I've never really understood), I've always had a soft spot for 'Stills Two' which I only have sporadically for 'Stills One'. In fact, more than that - I love this album which is the most endearingly honest, glorious, pioneering and occasionally clumsy as Stills himself. Few writers put as much of their real soul and emotion into their work as Stills and this is him at his most honest and open, attacking himself as much as he attacks the others around him. The two side closers, 'Open Secret' and 'Bluebird Revisited' respectively, are particularly moving with Stills struggling with whether he's a genius or an idiot (clue: only a genius could write a song as deep as this) and pleading with every ounce of his soul for Judy Collins to 'fly back home' one last time as he vows to 'end the rages'. For now Stills also has the most exquisitely expressive voice, untouched by the years of misuse that will come later and yet already with the grit and gravel he needs to fully demonstrate just how deeply felt all of these songs are. It's not perfect - no album with the trite yet somehow 'Marianne' could be and there are too many songs like 'Relaxing Town' and 'Nothing To But Today' which sound like rocking filler added at the last minute to wake the album up a bit. But, blimey everything else is as real and heartfelt as you could wish for, a Stephen Stills autobiography to file on the shelf alongside Crosby, Nash and Young's 'real' autobiographies.
While I grant that Stephen Stills wasn’t too hot at inventing album titles, Stephen Stills Two is a magnificently inventive LP, covering as many styles as it possibly can and giving them all a distinctive power and finesse. It’s also at once Stills’ most basic album (more acoustic songs than normal I’m pleased to say, all of them terrific) and most epic (with two stunningly over-the-top numbers with The Memphis Horns, which still work brilliantly no matter how self-indulgent they are and oh have the critics pointed this out a few times, oh yes they have). Even Stills didn’t rate this album too highly at the time (well, in true Stephen Stills fashion he defended the record to the hilt the year after it came out and then, in separate interviews down the years, attacked pretty much all the songs here one by one) but its actually among his most balanced, varied and consistent solo LPs, flying from one genre to another almost as quickly as a CSNY reunion goes from love to war. The horns are a particularly interesting addition, turning this album into a sort of acoustic/soul hybrid, which at one stage ('Bluebird Revisited') threatens to turn Stills into some sort of hippie Otis Redding and, another ('Relaxing Town') into James Brown. However Stills has always been something of a bluesman and these horn parts are a nice subtle addition, much more interesting than simply more guitar overdubs would be, helping this often understated and timid little record to sound huge and powerful, even when the lyrics are suggesting anything but. The 'Latin' element that's been creeping into Stills' work is back too, with a bossa nova fadeout that really points the way to a sound that will dominate a lot of his later 70s work. However the greatest revelation is Stills' acoustic playing, with a full four of these songs played fully or predominantly solo by Stills - far more so than any other album until 1991's 'Stephen Stills Alone' (and even that record features a second pass at this record's 'Singing' Call').
There's a Stills saying famous among CSNY fans that 'the first tour was for music, the second for the chicks and third for the money' (referring to 1969, 1970 and 1974 respectively). In a sense the first three Stills records are for the public (the all singing all dancing 'Stephen Stills'), the music ('Manassas') and the 'self' ('Stephen Stills II'). While I love all three, it's 'Stills Two' that offers the greatest emotional outpouring of Stills' career, the depressed yin to 1975's 'Stills' optimistic yang, and almost all the songs here are deeply autobiographical and related in some way to Stills past or present (the only that isn't, 'Marianne', sounds positively ordinary by comparison). The first album had Stills going head to head with the 1970s' biggest names - and this record does feature several big ones once again including Eric Clapton (who brightens up 'Nothing To Do But Today' no end, although it's not quite up the the pair's duelling on 'Go Back Home'), Nils Lofgren, Billy Preston, even David Crosby (it's not listed what track he's on but 'Change Partners' is my guess) and lots of future Manassas men all add their own distinctive touches to the mix which, in its own way, makes this album one of those great long-lost American crossovers, like Blows Against The Empire or Crosby’s first solo album. Yet unlike these two albums the guests on Stephen Stills Two really are subservient to one person and – despite the famous extras – this album is also the last great overdubbing effort from ‘Captain Manyhands’ at his overdubbing best, full of characteristic Stills vocals, guitar, organ, production, arranging, even drumming in places. What's more this album isn't about outside events and people quite as ofen; this second is more about Stills as a character and his likes, loves, drives and above all his frustrations. Even two of the songs date back further than many fans realise: 'Know You've Got To Run' (better known as the first half of 'Everybody I Love You') dates back to Stills' folk club days of the mid 1960s (and it's anybody's guess why this strong song wasn't revived for the Buffalo Springfield). 'Bluebird Revisited' sadly updates Stills' once bouncy and joyous 'Bluebird' (the Springfield song written in the early days of Stills' life with Judy Collins) into a eulogy for her leaving him, first performed by CSNY in late 1969. Talking of muses, there's a whole muddle on this album: while 'Stephen Stills' was all about Judy Collins ('The Sparrow') and 'Manassas' all about Rita Coolidge ('The Raven'), both appear on this album.
Better yet, 'Stephen Stills Two' is the most unified album of Stills' career, engaged with the dances and seasons of life in all its many shades - from the on-off pull of his muses, to his own brash arrogance and crippling shyness to politics that seem to take two steps forward and one step backwards all the time. Even the sequencing of the album, the downfall of many a promising release, is spot on, alternating acoustic and electric songs as well as juxtaposing peaceful meditations about life’s beauty with powerful overwhelming urgency about solving life’s problems. 'Change Partners' is like an overture to the album, Stills' past mixed with his present, his memories of teenage ballroom dances spent waiting for your turn with the girl you fancied also partly a nod of the head to the in and out relationships of Stills in 1971, both his girlfriends and his CSNY partners (Nash later referred to it as 'the CSN theme song', although that remark comes later, after various CSN/CSNY/CN/SN/SY combinations). Stills waits knowing that his chance with his loved one will come again but also knows that no dance lasts forever, enjoying the quick change of pace and speed of the 'dance'. 'Fishes and Scorpions' is Stills trying to tell Rita Coolidge that their destiny is in the stars and had to be, the 'Gemini Lady' Stills (a Capricorn) is so keen on chasing - and is doomed to be infatuated with and chase until his dying day (Gemini is his sign's 'magic' sign, being six horoscopes apart and traditionally mystify and hypnotise his star sign, the same being true of all signs that come six after your own horoscope; by the way most astrologers agree their relationship is fun at the flirting stage but doomed hereafter: the earthy practical Capricorn needs to know everything - while Gemini demands to be free in all things, including who they really are). 'Sugar Babe' is even less inhibited about the subject matter and even includes the words 'come on Rita!' at one stage, Stills sighing at this merry dance that leaves him 'so close - and then again so far away!' ('Little Miss Bright Eyes', the song's working title, was another nickname for her - the reason why can be seen from any of her album covers where her eyes are almost always twinkling away). 'Open Secret' effectively charts Stills' manic-depressive interludes, with Stills lamenting a life 'that has gone up and down'. 'Singin' Call' picks Stills up when he'd down, the 'nature' song of the album (and companion to the later better known 'Johnny's Garden') where Stills is in so much pain and 'my fingers hurt so bad - it's got me grinnin', pleading like 'Sit Yourself Down' that he'll be able to keep up with the fast pace of life if only he can slow down, just for a little while. 'Ecology Song' is another overlooked song that does exactly what the title says it does, pleading for people to remember how pretty the country used to be before it became yet another industrialised town and pleading that it's not too late to change the cycle back again.
The greatest song on the album however - and one of the biggest classics in this book - isn't about the rollercoaster ride of life at all but the thin nasty vein that's run right through it for as long as Stills has been alive, perhaps throughout all history, Inspired by a TV programme filmed by plantation workers under cover, Stills was so tortured by the casual racism and prejudice he wrote 'Word Game' almost on the spot and it shows. Stills' anger isn't in much evidence across this record (it's feeling sorry for itself so often is probably the main reason why critics didn't like it and fans didn't take to it), but this song is integral to the LP, proving not just that Stills is 'gifted' not 'robbed' with the art of insight but that some things aren't doomed to wax and wane and never go away, no matter how much society pretend they are. Stills' masterful lyrics make for his single best political song outside 'For What It's Worth' and reach an incredible peak of venom in the final verse where he proudly proclaims that America' children, the sixties generation 'are growing up and plainly tired of bigots and their silver cups, this original version - unlike most live versions - uncensored and wrathful, promising that one day 'they might throw up on you'. The brittle backbone to the other songs of misery and soul-searching, it singlehandedly turns this album from a very good record into a masterpiece (even if the effect is ruined by following it with the twee falsetto-sung 'Marianne' straight afterwards).
Given the (relatively) famous front cover of this album (especially in the vinyl days, when as the front of a gatefold sleeve it was near enough un-missable in the 'CSN' file of your local record shop), fewer fans remember the middle. However there, in the middle of the mis-printed lyrics, comes another telling photograph. Stills atop a Colorado mountain, the land that he once called home (before leaving for England) and points a forefinger playfully out into the middle distance. Chances are he's just spotted his house, or the rain and fog closing in, or perhaps he's just spotted The Spice Girls when they were toddlers practicing their kung-fu kicking and already having it in for tramps. However there's very much a sense that Stills is pointing towards the future, a better and brighter future than this record offers and it's notable that his head is very much looking the other way to the front cover. This is an album of two halves, full of the pain and misery of heartbreak, rejection and inequality but which also comes with a flavour of that old CSN optimism and magic. Stills and the world are both in a bad place in 1971 - but it's only the 'down' part of the cycle which will be moving ever upwards any time soon, as soon as we 'change partners' and find the right one, in both a personal, professional and political sense (Nixon's days are already being numbered, although it will take another three years to get him out the White House). For far too long people have only heard this album's painful sad yin and missed it's bouncier happier yang and that's a tragedy for, when all is said and done, 'Stephen Stills Two' isn't a slab of self-indulgence but a refreshingly honest, revealingly personal, emotionally heavy and delightfully musical sequel with a heart that even the more consistent and straightforward 'Stephen Stills' can't hope to match. I'd be so bold as to place this album second in Stills' solo canon, just after the 'Manassas' follow-up that does indeed prove that good things come to those who wait - most fans seem to disagree, but that's for them to write about on their own review websites ('Ronnie's Record Room' and 'Vinnie's Vinyl Vault' - how about it?!) As for me I know the answer to the question Stills has been asking himself since time immemorial: someone tell him he was gifted, not robbed.
Stills kicks things off with Change Partners, an interesting swirling acoustic song set in a ballroom that appears at first glance to be about a bunch of nervous dancers wondering if the fate that chooses their dance-cards will be as kind when choosing their life partners. Like Stills, though, the ever-restless characters are never satisfied with who they get even though – just as in Love The One With You’re With – they genuinely love each partner in turn. No less an authority than Graham Nash likes to refer to this song as ‘the CSNY theme song’, given the many times the foursome have worked as separate duos and trios and many fans have naturally assumed that Stills was writing another wry comment on the band’s soap opera a la Crosby’s Cowboy Movie here (especially given the line about ‘four young men waiting in the colour and the noise’, a very CSNY image if ever there was one). However, Stills has always claimed that this pretty look-back at ballroom dance halls was simply nostalgia for his own youth and, like Ray Davies in the 1980s, this song of ballrooms where partners were chosen well in advance of the muddling who-asks-who 60s discotheques definitely has a sense of order and calm about it which makes for compelling storytelling and a much less messy way of plucking up the courage to ask your beloved out. Then again, the idea of a ‘list’ of suitable bachelors decided on in advance may also a dig at 50s culture written in the late blooming of the free love era (see Love The One You’re With. Again.) – you’re never quite sure with Stills.
Nothing To Do But Today changes the pace and finds Stills twice as loud and four times as growly as on the previous track. A gutbucket blues, with Stills trading tricky guitar licks with Eric Clapton, this song doesn’t catch fire in the same way that many of the guitarists’ other workouts together do, but Stills’ vocal alone makes up for any shortcomings in the song, being rough-edged without being raw. Like many a later Stills composition, Today is so dominated by the song’s angular riff hook that it’s only when a short one-line chorus suddenly bursts through a sudden crack that it drops its grip on the song at all before the song gets swallowed again, something that gets a bit irritating on Stills’ later solo records but somehow fits perfectly here. The lyrics, while not as special as others on the album, are still pretty interesting and begin the second of the album’s themes – the emptiness of the rock star world. Laying his self-destructive tendencies on the line, Stills tells us first that he is bored (and as a result ‘loses himself’ in some vice or other – probably work, actually, knowing Stills, rather than simply drink or drugs - although we are never told quite what this vice is) and later his artistic frustrations at not being understood (and the real reason for ‘losing himself’ in work in the first place you fancy). A close cousin of CSN’s (the 1977 version’s) Run From Tears, both songs use one hook throughout and have Stills gruffly telling us he’s a ‘bluesman’, offering that description as part cause, part explanation and part excuse.
Fishes and Scorpions is a second lovely acoustic song, almost oriental in its droning, hypnotic accompaniment and layers of sound. The words, a catch-all study of astrology and horoscopes, is a tightly weaved web of phrases that show Stills had some understanding of this hobby. However, before too long the peaceful and clear-sighted view of the song is dismissed with the muddled middle section, which suddenly pounces during a gap in the song (‘in the shadow of starshine everyone’s going blind’), suggesting that Stills is hedging his bets about his newfound hobby after all. The added kick at the end (yes, Rita Cootlidge really is a Gemini lady and she crops up an awful lot on this album) puts the song in the context of Stills’ personal quest, finding out whether his soul really was made to spend a lifetime with another (Interestingly, Stills’ own star-sign of Capricorn isn’t mentioned in the song and unsurprisingly given the song’s short length only half the 12 horoscopes are here - Is it just me or is Stills adding a few digs at his comrades here too? While Nash’s Aquarius starsign is notably absent, Crosby’s leo sign is met with the warning ‘lovers of lions stay away at feeding time’ – ever so maybe possibly a reference to Crosby’s growing drug addiction that drove pretty much all his friends away, although admittedly not for a few years yet – and the hilarious description of Neil’s scorpio sign ‘dancing to the changing seasons, get away with none’, which is coincidentally or not the perfect description of Young’s behaviour in both the Buffalo Springfield and CSNY eras, quitting both bands at the eve of success and preventing all of them from enjoying their good fortune. Err, sorry if I’ve dragged all that out into the open again guys, Stills probably can’t even remember the song at all now never mind if he really did mean all of that, but I’m surprised that no other CSN fan (that I know of) has put two and two together before. You heard it here first, folks… Interestingly, star signs might play a bigger part in CSNY’s lives than most bands. CSNY each represent one of the four ‘elements’ - Crosby’s August birthday means he is a fiery Leo, Stills in January is an earthy Capricorn, Nash in February is an airy Aquarius and Young in October is a watery Scorpion. To the best of my knowledge no other quartet fits this varied bill so well (which is not surprising, given the conflicts such very different elements entail, with effectively four opposites working to their own ends – which might explain CSNY’s tendency to explode every few months). Most bands tend to juggle two or three different signs at most - the Beatles, for instance, are made up of two air signs (John and Paul) with two water signs (George and Ringo), which seems to be an average mix for most bands).
Rita crops up again on Sugar Babe which also uses Stills’ other playful name for his one time lover, ‘Little Miss Bright Eyes’ (no, you can’t find her in the Mr Men and Little Miss book series, I’ve looked). This song is a classic church-organ dominated pop song, like many on Stills’ first solo album but a style rarely used by the singer after this point, full of Stills at his philosophical best in the verses and a singalong chorus tying the whole thing together. This song sounds like Stills’ peace gesture to his beloved, urging her to be honest with him and to trust him, but letting her know that she can ‘do what you want to do and be what you want to be’, because he’ll love her just the same. Like this song’s similar (but ever so slightly more impressive) cousin Suite Judy Blue Eyes, this is another serious questioning song with Stills trying to weight up whether to try this doomed relationship one last time, despite the pain and grief (and good songs) it has already caused him or whether to give the whole partnership up because of its obvious incompatibility. The two songs are similarly structured and sound more like poems set to music than songs from the first, without any first thought to how they would fit the regular metre of music. Stills again touches on the idea of ‘fate’ in this song, sighingly concluding that the relationship will happen if it’s meant to happen and that there’s little he can do about it. The only problem for Stills is that each day he can’t decide if their relationship really is meant to be - ‘so close, then again so far away’ is the singer’s fitting and admirably honest summing up of the relationship as the two seem kept apart by something out of his control, wearingly telling us that he still can’t decide whether to try once more or leave well alone (‘I’ve got to get next to the girl or I got to get away’).
While the last two songs were definitely current given their subject matter, Know You Got To Run is a much older track, last heard as part of the De Ja Vu closer Everybody We Love You. Much slower, quieter and understated than the powerhouse first attempt and minus Neil Young’s contribution (un-characteristically, it seems that Neil provided the peace and love chorus to that song because that’s the bit that’s missing here), it’s another Stills acoustic special - this time on banjo - which seems to offer kindly words of wisdom to a friend in trouble and like many an acoustic Stills song its impressive stuff. Like Do For The Others on the first Stills album, it might be about Crosby who was certainly suffering heavily in his personal life during this period (see If Only I Could… review no 45) and, if so, then it’s quite a fond farewell to an old friend, with the CSNY split leaving Stills to sadly conclude ‘I may see you tomorrow never more again’. The description ‘your brain is a heavy load’ and ‘heard your mournful song’ meanwhile could refer to anyone in CSNY – Stills especially – but perhaps suit
Crosby best (perhaps Stills had heard a tape of I’d Swear There Was Somebody There while he was writing this song?) Hear King Of The Mountain on the David Crosby set Voyage (‘He sits in a grand stand-alone’) - or for that matter Neil Young’s song Stringman from his Unplugged album (with the line ‘There is no dearer friend of mine that I know in this life’, no less) – to hear his comrades’ equally inspired, concerned and yet compassionate replies to Stills.
Open Secret, though, is Stills unambiguously talking about himself, having a conversation with himself in fact, over a plodding orchestral backing. As Stills tells us in the song, he’s always put his heart and soul into his music, pouring more of himself into his lyrics than most singer-songwriters would ever dare to do, but here he’s worried about the consequences and whether he’s holding himself and his close friends up to too much scrutiny (well, truth is, they probably weren’t until this website came along. Whoops…) ‘Someone tell me, have I been gifted or robbed?’ is the song’s classic pay off, with the cracks finally beginning to show after around 5 years of a ridiculously heavy work load and leaving Stills wondering if all the effort was worth it after the dissolution of both Buffalo Springfield and CSNY (‘Each new opening has a different time for closing’). The song is plodding for the most part, with The Memphis Horns troupe adding the only real touches of colour to this bleak song, but somehow this funeral paced tempo suits the track, with its early-morning-hours self-questioning and lethargic lyrics. Stills even touches on the argument that’s often brought out while discussing CSNY (by people who don’t ‘get’ the band anyway), their hypocrisy of talking about equality and breaking down social classes whilst stuffing themselves full of material wealth and the huge argumentative egos that often put themselves first before their songs of peace, love and understanding. The whole ‘point’ of CSNY, if you like, is their vulnerability, their honest admissions that they can’t live up to what they preach in their songs, but here in 1971 Stills is facing down the wrath of the media and knee-jerkily remarks about their ‘crying out for justice’ while waiting ‘to be cleansed by confessions’ the next morning. Like many of Stills’ long epics, the singer doesn’t quite have the confidence to let the song stand on its own feet despite its merits and – nervous of losing his audience’s attention – Stills throws in an up-tempo bouncy singalong coda for free (see Suite: Judy Blue Eyes again). The craftsmen that he is, though, Stills turns this little salsa extra into a thing of beauty, with a seemingly improvised and rather rough piano lick and more bongos than anyone should reasonably have in a recording studio at once lightening and brightening the mood, complementing all that angst by letting it chill down gradually from its screaming peak of agony and showing us just why Stills was right to involve himself in music after all.
Side two takes us right back into that ‘open secret’ however – the electric growl of Relaxing Town is Stills at his noisiest, with yet more frustrated lyrics about its composer’s desperation at being stuck on the road for yet another tour. The lines about ‘the price I pay is too much’ neatly follow on from the last song, with Stills deciding that from this point on he’s better not investing so much time and energy into musical partners that leave him, projects that dissolve at the slightest pressure and pleasing critics that don’t care anymore however good he is. The desperate plea for a home and stability is another favourite Stills theme, one that will be fully explored in Johnny’s Garden on the
album the following year. A third, tacked on verse tries to open the song up to a discussion about world politics, sounding briefly like a pumped up version of For What It’s Worth, but its Stills’ talk about leaving the rock star life behind ‘after one last careful look around’ that sticks in the memory. Thankfully, Stills is still looking round, recording right up to the present day with or without his three fellow members. Manassas
Singin’ Call offers the sort of acoustic, peaceful tonic Stills sounds like he needs. It’s a pretty song, bare and simplistic yet complex in the way that only Stills can write and returning to the album’s theme of taking a break with imagery such as ‘wonder can I do it all?’ However, it’s Stills’ killer blues wail going into the last verse that makes this song of singing night birds become more than just a second-rate Blackbird - one of his best vocal performances in his career, Stills expresses so much that isn’t in the words. There might even be another rallying cry or apologetic nod to CSNY after a long night of self-doubt over Stills’ recent controlling behaviour in the last CSNY sessions and a wish to get back together (‘I’m weary from the journey - I need to tell my brothers what I saw’). With its images of beautiful wide landscapes and birds singing into the night -like Stills they sing on even if they are gradually becoming aware that no one is listening to them – this song also sounds like an early environmental plea, something that will reach its zenith on the next track, Ecology Song.
‘What’s the point of being a musician if you can’t change the world for the better?’, sings Stills, with a full blown chorus and the Memphis Horns back again to drive home his message. A simple chorus inverting old partner Graham Nash’s Hollies’ song Look Through Any Window (but here instead of enjoying the bustling present day from his double-glazing, he sings from sudden solitude, remembering ‘how it used to be’ in the exciting, busy days) highlights this simple song. The twist at the end we’ve come to expect from many a Stills song is either a dig at himself (‘it’s a shock they don’t stop because of my…word’) or capitalists (‘because of my…money’), depending on whether you believe your ears or the lyric sheet. Although not one of the better numbers on the album, this outward-looking song is perfectly placed on the record, coming after a whole side of introspection (another thumbs-up to whoever decided this albums’ running order) and again leads into a similar track.
Word Game is simply Stills at the top of his game, one of the most accomplished and most important songs he ever wrote (make that anybody ever wrote). Continuing the political themes of the last track but dispensing with its fussy orchestration, Stills sings the song with only his acoustic guitar as backing. An anti-racist song made to sound downright personal rather than just another intellectual argument, it was inspired by a then-contemporary TV documentary but its anger dates right back to Stills’ South American youth, when he got into trouble for playing with black musicians (such as a teenage Jimi Hendrix) and had to watch as the friends he admired so much were prevented from having the small ‘freedom’ that he had. Scratching its lyrical head about how people could possibly act the way they do, the song is full of witty rhymes and spot-on observations that come to the conclusion that man will always be afraid of anything they see that looks different to themselves, whether of a different class, race or species. Stills’ anger, something largely missing from this most introspective of albums, is magnificent here, with his vocal so brittle it really does sound as if its about to snap, but with enough depth and emotion underneath all the blustering to make it clear just how important this song is to him and how unbelievably frustrated with his fellow human beings Stills is. His anger truly boils over in the last verse, with a verse full of words that just keep coming and coming and coming until finally closing with a message of future retaliation on behalf of his African-American cousins, when the hippie generation finally get into power and do things their way (‘His children they are growing up and plainly tired of putting up with bigots and their silver cups, they’re fed up, they might throw up on you!’) One of Stills’ greatest ever songs, CSNY-related or otherwise, this is the song that should have answered all of Stills’ self-doubt about the worth of his songs: brave, strong and angry yet still dignified, it’s the perfect response to a subject that Stills had been trying to write about for much of his career and naturally went down a storm in concert, where the song’s Dylanesque irregular metre meant Stills gave very different performances of the song from night to night.
What a great shame that the album’s till-now perfect running order gives way to Marianne. Pop this song may be, but it’s not very popular with fans in general or me in particular. The fault is not so much with the song, which is undistinguished pop fodder but at least has a strong hook and an intriguing middle eight (‘wake up wake up wake up’…the song has no real chorus), but in the performance. Unusually, faithful drummer and Stills interpreter bar none Dallas Taylor sounds terribly sluggish here and off the beat (his drumming may not be suited to Crosby’s weird ideas, Nash’s commerciality or especially Neil Young’s ‘make me sound huge’ songs, but Dallas is usually the perfect foil for Stills’ mix of eccentricity and straight-forwardness) and Stills’ normally pitch-perfect voice gives way to a shaky falsetto that doesn’t suit him one bit. The song never quite knows where to go, either, fading out on a limp organ break.
Best to skip to album closer Bluebird Revisited. What used to be a straightforward rocking song for the Buffalo Springfield (see review no 17) is changed beyond recognition here to become another passionate Memphis-Horn backed epic about a lost love. Bookended by new verses that show Stills at his most vulnerable and Roy Orbison-like, the song is mournful and broody in the extreme until the song kicks back into the familiar Bluebird chorus, calling the listener back to happier days when Stills’ fortunes seemed assured. As evidence of how Stills has moved on as a person since 1967, older, wiser and seemingly twice as emotional, its tough to beat, but this song’s highly wrought drama may not be to everyone’s taste (the line ‘we can turn the next page together’ is particularly cringe-worthy, especially when the horns mournfully cry out ‘just so’ on that last word). Still, though, after going on this long journey with Stills, trying to measure up his self-worth and agreeing to remedy his faults, its great to hear him pouring his heart out one last time and its more than possible that this is another Stills song for Judy Collins, the singer who dominated Stills’ life to such an extent that a good deal of his early CSNY material was written for her (the ‘blue-eyed sparrow’ is a typical Stills metaphor for her, probably the ‘bluebird’ of the title refers to her as well - we never found out who if anybody the original 1967 version of this track was for). Tottering on broken wings that nevertheless take off for full flight intermittently, this song never quite managers to ‘fly’ in the way that Stills urges his muse to do in the song, but it’s a pretty special recording all the same with its sing-along chorus and reflective Stills vocal and makes for the perfect epic to close this most epic of albums with.
CSNY fans get behind this album, it’s been lying around unloved for far too long and is more proof that Stills’ ridiculously fertile period in the early 70s was something special. Whether you love it for the bombastic
horns tracks, the electric guitar duels with Eric Clapton or the rare chance to hear Stills acoustic and solo, this album has something for everybody. And the very few genres that Stephen Stills can’t play aren’t worth listening to, frankly - well by and large, not until Stephen Stills learns to play them! Don’t listen to the critics, be like me and learn to love Stephen Stills Two too. Memphis