Friday 4 July 2008

"Stephen Stills/Manassas" (1972) (Revised Review 2014)

Available to buy in ebook format 'Change Partners - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To CSNY' by clicking here!

On which the band plough full steam ahead on their debut…

The Album:
All aboard! The train to Manassas is now boarding and it's one of the best journeys that you will ever take (well for now anyway, ahead of destinations down the road and - much later -  in pieces where the whole exercise comes off the rails). While Manassas are now best known by CSNY fans and those lucky enough to catch the band at various festivals around the world between 1972 and 1973 at the time they were big news: this album peaked at an impressive #4 in America and gained a couple of big-name fans. After a CSNY reunion seemed unimaginable in 1972 Rolling Stone Bill Wyman seriously tried to get out of his day job and join this band instead (alas the band will break up before he can, although he does co-write and plays bass on this album's 'Love Gangster' song which Stills had been kicking round since 1968), the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia always claimed that he played the pedal steel solo on 'Jesus Gave Love Away For Free' un-credited and I'm not about to argue (Garcia played on everything and it does sound more like his work than Al's, being somehow sadder and lonelier then the other Manassas recordings), while Ringo Starr rented out his Surrey-based house to the band so they could rehearse (Stills ended up buying it later – Peter Sellers had been an even earlier owner; 'Johnny's Garden' is about the staff gardener who worked until all three celebrity names). For now, though, this day trip is thrilling stuff, amongst the best CSN-themed albums out there and easily Stephen Stills' masterpiece. Let loose from CSNY, Stills' ever overworked brain was truly let loose across this album which is easily the most eclectic in the CSNY canon and covers more ground in one double album than most careers. Divided into four 'loose' structures (a Latin/bluegrass upbeat first side with a hint of blues, a second more worried country side, a pretty folky third side is more concerned with beauty and a fourth side is three slabs of triumphant rock and a melancholy blues finale), it continues the expansion of Stills' musical horizons that have been growing ever since 'Buffalo Springfield Again' in 1967 and proves once and for all the sheer amount of thinking that goes on in Stills' songs, with several philosophical lyrics about love, loss and life. For once there is no real 'theme' to an Alan's Album Archives record (although we'll be looking a bit more at the four smaller ones across the four sides) because there isn't much ground that Manassas doesn't already cover (indeed, I've often wondered if Stills late-70s-plus creative slump came because this album covered so much ground it left him nowhere to go- but that's another review for another time..)

Yet while Stills is very much in the (train) driver's seat, he's not the whole band - instead Manassas are a tight seven piece set made up of musicians who'd either worked with Stills or helped him out (for all his brash arrogance at times, Stills was always deeply loyal to his friends). For instance, he owed Chris Hillman big time, the Byrd who more than anyone outside the band helped to shape the Buffalo Springfield's career, spotting them playing a gig at the  Byrds' favourite haunt 'Whiskey-A-Go-Go' and praising them to the hilt for anyone who would listen (Hillman also introduced Stills to Crosby, although back in 1972 with the band a sore point he probably wasn't too thankful for that!) Chris, the bass player in the Byrds before founding The Flying Burrito Brothers was at a loose end after the band lost co-founder Gram Parsons in a blaze of missed dates, laziness and betrayals. Hillman plays guitar and a bit of mandolin here but is clearly so much to the group, co-writing two of the album's better songs with Stills and enjoying his 'number two role' across this record (compared to how Hillman talks about past experiences with the likes of Roger McGuinn, Crosby and Gram Parsons in later interviews, he very nearly makes Stills out to be a saint by comparison!) A fascinating mix of rebel and peacemaker, Hillman sounds really at home here and able to let his bluegrass background show for the first real time, whilst smoothing Stephen’s rougher edges down but still ready to follow him in his more ‘out-there’ moments (heck he'd played with Crosby - Stills' songs were straightforward by comparison, even the ones debating the meaning of life and exploring American history with an Eagle as a metaphor). They're joined by new Flying Burrito pedal steel player Al Perkins, who'll become a good friend of Hillman's and whose Christian earthiness is a strong 'root' for the band across the record.  CSN's drummer Dallas Taylor and  CSNY's live percussionist Joe Lala gives this album a crisp bite and sparkle that many releases of this era lack. Under-rated CSNY live bassist Calvin 'Fuzzy' Samuels' gives the songs a real groove and soul, adding his own Motown background to the eclectic mix. Finally, Paul Harris provides some truly inspired piano-playing across the album - the odd one out in the sense that nobody really knew him and he was hired in a hurry, he more than holds his own with the older, more experienced Manassas set.

While never quite brothers or equals the same way that CSNY this is an impressively tightknit band and the performances they play across this album (recorded relatively quickly, even for Stills) and in live concert are a match for even the best of CSNY (yes, they were that good!) Caught in that interesting thin line between being a plain back-up band as used by Stills on his earlier solo records and a fully fledged band in their own right, the band members are clearly all subservient to Stills and yet they get plenty of solos, songwriting credits and even a vocal or three to themselves. Stills is always the leader of the band – all the songs are his barring one cover, although most group members do end up co-writing with him at one point or another - but he’s more than ably supported by his backing crew of six.  Curiously enough, none of the band actually came from the town of Manassas, Virginia, which American Civil War Buff Stills came up with when scouting dusty-looking railway stations for a front cover (most are from California with a handful from Nashville) but somehow the name still suits them with its sense of cohesion, history and glue and 'it doesn't matter' anyway: Manassas are a 'world' band with a scope much wider than one town.

For all their efforts, though, no one can touch Stills on this album. He’s on fire, even compared to his other great efforts of the early 70s, turning in some of his greatest guitar solos, grittiest vocals and some truly jaw-droppingly beautiful songs. His singing and his guitar playing are rarely better, coming at the point when an inspired Stills was still trying his absolute hardest to be the master of everything. We'd known about Stills the pop, rock and occasionally blues singer before but Stills' versatility is what makes this album, being equally at home in folk, country and Latin settings, all styles which will become key to his writing but are really being heard here for the first time. In fact, this album wasn’t meant to be a double album at all originally – after all, how many other unknown bands are allowed to release double-albums for their first record? - but so much good material was flowing from Stills’ writing veins that he just couldn’t stop and, rather than cut the magic in half, somebody at Atlantic saw sense and let the band release it in its current state. What's truly impressive, though, is that this isn't a sprawling bit-of-everything set a la 'The White Album' with as many genres as possible heard once across the course of the set, but a fairly cohesive sounding whole which takes the Stills/Coolidge love affair as it's cornerstone and where the genres overlap from song to song, to the point where - on the first side - the band pass through genres in the blink of an eye, as if there's ultimately no difference between them. Simply overflowing with talent, this set is astoundingly light on filler for a double LP and nearly every song is a winner. Manassas = Magic, nearly all the way through.

This double set is divided up into four quite distinctive styles (although sides three and four are pretty much interchangeable) and each given an ‘umbrella’ title to sum them up. The first side is The Raven, a common Stills metaphor for his troubled relationship with the singer Rita Cootlidge (his past girlfriends were ‘bluebirds’ and ‘sparrows’, especially those like Judy Collins who were songbirds in real life). Coolidge surely deserved a co-credit on this album: she might not play on it and she and Stills may have broken up before a note of it was recorded but she plays a huge role as Stills' muse and it's no coincidence that his songwriting slowed down once he knew he'd lost her for good. The tale is a sad one, which will cause ructions within CSNY for years to come: originally Stills' girlfriend and a desperately needed crutch for Stephen after Judy Collins made it clear their on-off relationship was off for good, Nash fell for her when he and Joni Mitchell split up (what is it with CSNY and singers? At least Neil sticks to actresses...) the two fell into a whirlwind romance. Stills, already butting heads with his CSNY colleagues, was furious - not just for the act but the way it was done (Nash's comment was that he thought she didn't really love Stills but did genuinely love him). Cue one of the single biggest rows CSNY ever had and a distrust that lingered for years. Stills was never one to do anything by halves, whether that be recording sessions, songs or girlfriends and most of this album sounds like one huge outpouring of grief, guilt and giving, as if proving to both his comrade and his ex that he really did love her very very much - and surely she loved him too? It is perhaps no coincidence that Stills nicknamed his latest muse 'The Raven', continuing his bird imagery for Judy Collins (the 'ruby throated sparrow' of 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes') - a reference not only to her Cherokee Indian ancestry and darker skin tone but the image of 'the raven' as a symbol of 'doom' and 'disaster'. This album even ends with what is effectively a strangled cry of 'never more' as Stills bids goodbye to three musician friends who died too young, as if taken straight from Edgar Allan Poe.

However, this title of 'The Raven' doesn’t seem to fit side one as well as the other monikers fit theirs; nearly all this album is about Rita, yet very little of this first side is. It is a side-long medley without a pause, it’s really just a chance to the band to showcase style after style after style, with the music and general theme for once subservient to the music. The real ‘theme’ of this segment lies in the disillusionment with fame and stardom and living up to your image, where the songs’ narrators ‘look in a mirror and sigh’, where ‘the song of love is empty now’ and where we’re warned that being a rock and roll star ‘makes you practice being shallow everyday’. Intriguingly the music to this whole side is pretty upbeat despite these occasionally weary, rather grumpy lyrics and a perfect Stills songwriting lesson in contrasts (never has he written a jollier tune than on Both Of Us (Bound To Lose) – never had he or co-writer Chris Hillman written more disgruntled, despairing lyrics). Most of these songs were recorded in pairs, by the way, rather than all the way through in one 20-minute burst as it sounds on record, but goodness knows some of the segues between two of these tracks were complicated enough. The highlight of these include the fiery 'Song Of Love', the album's one CSNY-style political rant about fire-arm control ('Pick up a book - you don't have to pick up a gun!'), Stills snarling gutbucket blues in which he takes out all his fury at himself and the increasingly ugly image he sees in the mirror ('You stand up! Look in a mirror! And sigh!') and the gorgeous 'Both Of Us (Bound To Lose)' which features the best harmonies of the album and one of the definitive Stills gonzo guitar solos, trying to physically shake up a relationship where both halves have turned into 'statues making sounds' (clearly a song about Coolidge, although only this and the pick-yourself-up 'Anyway' seem directly related to the theme).

Second side The Wilderness shows off the band’s country leanings and it may come as a bit of a surprise to Stills fans as you’d struggle to point to even one other all-out country song in his back catalogue before this (Stills' arrangement of 'Teach Your Children' is about it). Yet it may be that Stills was just looking for a band able to perform such songs as the ones here (the latter half of CSNY also recorded several country songs on their solo records but never really with the band, suggesting that as a foursome they felt the genre didn’t fit with their group sound) and Manassas do him proud, covering everything from all out honky-tonk ballads and fiddle-dominated rockers to songs that merely dip their toe in the genre. Hillman especially shines in these new surroundings, although this isn't exactly a 'pure' country-rock album the way that the Flying Burritos were, with slices of bluegrass and folk added to the mix. ‘California dreaming nearly put me down for good, Colorado mountains saved my senses’ sings Stills at one point, suggesting that he saw country music as some sort of honest, earthy tonic to the dangers of rock and roll excess visited on the first side of the album (Neil will say more or less the same thing about country music during his time with the International Harvesters band in 1985). This makes the side 'theme' of 'The Wilderness' all the stranger, although it fits the American history story 'Fallen Eagle' and Stills manages to equate hippiedom with Jesus just before the '40 days and 40 nights' adventures on 'Jesus Gave Love Away For Free'. However, Stills is not as natural a country writer as he is a pop, rock or even blues one and many of these songs fall between genuine emotion and gentle pastiche with one exception: the wistful So Begins The Task, a stray song that had been looking for a home for several years and is a career highlight, well suited to the country/folk hybrid sound the band give it here.

Consider is the third side but, even though the lyrics often fit the introspection suggested by the title, the melodies are another generally upbeat and snappy bunch. This may well be Stills’ greatest 20 minutes as a songwriter, taking in everything from pop and basic rock to wordy philosophical ballads about the history of mankind and ranging in production values from stomping basic riffs to hard-to-hear everything-drenched-with-synthesisers abandon. Many of the lyrics again suggest that Stills needs a break from music (delightfully, he tells us the garden and gardener he inherited from Ringo is his only sojourn from his work), but the last track on the side - Love Gangster – seems to refute all this, being a wild and reckless rocker that seems to celebrate everything about being a loveable rebel (the main part of the song dates back to 1968, which might explain why the theme is so changed!) Practically everything here is first class, from the almost-too-perfect pop song 'It Doesn't Matter' (where it plainly does) and the delightfully trippy poem 'Move Around' (Stills' answer to 'what do humans do given life?')

Manassas then rounds off with a fourth side fittingly titled Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay. In truth, though, that moniker might have served the first side better as what we get are actually another four slices of varying styles. Only the gritty Right Now is really a rock song – What To Do is a curious blues-gospel-pop hybrid, The Treasure a laidback prog rock seven-minute epic and Bluesman, naturally, a blues. All four tracks are sensational stuff, with Manassas really getting to the heart of each genre and being short and snappy and tight or loose and grooving depending on the compactness or improvisational room of each song. Three of them are clearly related to Stills' love life in some way too: 'I'm not the one to tell you what to do - I have no desire to run your life!' Manassas and about half of California scream by the end, as if Stills is trying to convince Rita Coolidge of his sincerity. 'Right Now' is the end of the relationship, a drunk and bitter sounding Stills struggling to keep up with a frenetic backing track and a lyric about how 'one of my best friends took her down with her games for sure' - Graham Nash isn't mentioned by name in the song, but we know it's him (this track is kinda Crosby's bemused 'Cowboy Movie' as written from a character directly involved in the 'war'). 'The Treasure' is a reminder of all he's lost: a song that had been kicking round for at least a year about searching for buried treasure which never gets the happy ending it searches for, stretched out to a seven minute magnum opus in which Stills' guitar strings and his heart both seem to break, ending not in the expected discovery but a stinging strangulated howl of rage. 'Blues Man' is similarly angry but for entirely different reasons, Stills alone and even drunker, wailing in tribute to 'three good men I knew well - never see again'(dedicated to 'Jimi The Fox' aka Jimi Hendrix, The Owl aka Canned Heat's Al Wilson and Skydog aka Duane Allman).

A marvellous concoction all round, its pleasing to hear Stills finally return to this album’s eclectic mix in his music again (2005’s Man Alive might be woefully rough most of the way through, but it’s the most adventurous we’ve heard our favourite troubled troubadour be for many a long year). It’s this album, however, that remains for many fans remains the guitarist’s high-water point, with Stills surrounded by gifted players who allow his own talents to sound even brighter than usual. Even in a remarkable period (June 1972 saw three separate CSNY related albums in the top ten - this album, 'Graham Nash/David Crosby' and Neil Young's 'Harvest') this is a special LP. There are so many great CSNY related albums out there I'd hesitate to pick just one, but if you've collected all the group albums from the 1970s and 1980s (the later ones are rather less compulsory) and you have a soft spot for Stills' mixture of charming magnetism and earthy grit then this first Manassas record is a great place to start. Seventy minutes long without a single bad track on it (the anonymous 'Hide It So Deep' is probably the worst and even that's a good song simply lost in a crowd of great ones) this is a testament to the eclectic brilliance of Stills and the eclectic brilliance of Manassas. The only negative point is that, like the first CSN album, the production doesn't always match the songs and performances: the CD sounds as if its improved things a bit to my ears but still occasionally sounds flat and muddy, engineers and along with the band Producers Ron and Howard Albert struggling to get seven very different sounds onto one slab of vinyl (ironically they've fixed the problems by the time of the sequel, although the songs have stopped coming by then)... Even so, that's a small price to pay, a tiny cog missing from a stunning machine coughing smoke and fire throughout. Stills will write plenty more classic songs over the years including some true unsung masterpieces, but never again will any CSNY record try to pull off something quite this ambitious ever again, the high-water mark of Stills' brilliance and the bookend to a stunning run of form that dates back right to 1967 and has taken in a total of seven sensational studio albums in those years.

The Songs:

As discussed, side one is a 20-minute medley of completely unrelated songs played without a break the whole way through, rather as if Stills has got so much inspiration pouring through his veins that he hasn’t got time for ordinary things like two-second silences. [102] Song Of Love is the perfect opener, upbeat shimmering rock with Stills doing his best off-key hollering over the top of a song that leaves just enough room for each of the band members to shine in turn. The presence of two drummers criss-crossing percussion patterns between the speakers really suits this ever-shifting track about give and take and its desperate plea to come over from our dark past into a bright future. The words are, for once on this album, the weakest part of the track and seem to have been deliberately mixed low so that you can’t hear them, being uncharacteristically obscure for the usually forthright Stills. Strange, seeing as how they deal with a typical Stills theme – politicians letting down the people who put them in charge so that they can stay in power and whether there can ever be a valid reason for going to war – ideas which goes back to Stills’ earliest songs, such as For What It’s Worth. Stills’ vocal is pretty darn perfect however, hollering out each word with relish and having a great time swooping around the unusually wide vocal range he’s written for himself. vocal range with ease.

[103] Rock and Roll Crazies finds the band swinging sideways into a mid-tempo bluesy groove without a pause, as Stills enjoys himself telling us about how the draw of fame nearly caught him out and ‘how its easy to lose your way’ being ‘hung up playing a rock and roll star’. Getting back to basics like he does on this song is obviously a step in the right direction for Stills, as he turns in one of his best vocals again on this track, reaching down deep to drag out his words about finding new inspiration and warning himself about taking the rich lifestyle to excess. One of Stills’ favourite tricks going back to this Buffalo Springfield days is to mask his more nakedly honest songs with a Cuban segment – sung in an entirely new language and thus covering up his feelings when they get too strong (see Suite:Judy Blues for what seems like the hundredth time on this list, review no 29)– so its no surprise that the band are heading full throttle into one of these segments - Cuban Bluegrass - at the song’s end. With just two verses to tell us how he feels, Stills re-iterates how he was ‘mistaken’ and ‘piece by piece he was shaken’, before thanking someone – perhaps the rest of the band given how supportive they are on this track and how many opportunities they all get to shine – for pulling him out of his bad ways and giving him something to care about once more.

Determined to show off their skills, the whole band then turn things around 180 degrees by slowing down to a plod for [104] Jet Set (Sigh). Perhaps the closest Stills ever actually came to writing the traditional blues numbers he felt he did best (although this song is lyrically more of a parody its performed pretty straight). Stills has obviously been saving up his more complex material for Manassas in this period and he again relies heavily on his backing musicians here, to get the ‘holes’ or the off-beats in the song just right. Of course they do, all coming in together despite the complicated time signature and beat-splitting pauses. The song deals with a similar theme to the last track, with a fading rock and roll singer doing all his best to ‘get his feet wet with the jet set’ of A-list celebbies, only to find himself doubting his own image and reputation when he gets home, ‘looks in a mirror and sighs.’ Stills completes his great opening trilogy of vocal performances here by belting out the words with such power that the whole track seems to over-come the slowed-down tempo and his bluesy-rock hybrid guitar solo is also one of his best. The highlight of the song though is Sydney George’s brief harmonica playing at the end of the track, full of the grit and passion lurking just under the surface of this under-rated composition.

[105] Anyway hoists the tempo up again, via another instrumental interlude where Stills’ rocky guitar phrases bounce off Fuzzy Samuels’ gulping bass lines. That’s Joe Lala you can hear swapping lines with Stills on this simple song about picking yourself up and starting again after being rejected in love. The highlight of the song is another instrumental fade, this time a rather more polished and orchestrated section which ends in a flurry of cymbals as the narrator seems to have found love at last – fittingly, this is (almost!) one of Stills’ many songs that seem to be about Rita Cootlidge and her departure into the arms of Graham Nash (‘Is that really the game you are playing? Do you really believe you can win?), although there is some doubt as to whether the next track is about her as well.

The Hillman/Stills song [106] Both Of Us (Bound To Lose) seems to fly in from a different planet; the orchestral opening and interesting, detailed lyrics are so different to the simple blues songs and rockers that have come before it, yet the piece segues into this more polished sound so brilliantly that it’s hard not to gasp at the effect. The lyrics seem to find the narrator even further down the road of Anyway, with the narrator complaining to his lover (or perhaps the rocker complaining to his critics) that they are now only ‘second best’ in the other’s affections and are being ignored. In the memorable closing line the narrator has become ‘just a statue making sounds’ in the eyes of everyone else  -  like many later songs on this album, this could be Stills telling us to stop erecting monuments to his past when he’s firing on all cylinders in the present. Chris Hillman, the song’s co-writer with Stills, is on particularly strong form here, trading verses with his colleague and the two provide harmonies that get close to CSN perfection at times. Most of this song is muted in comparison to its predecessors, stately accompaniment and all—but not Stills’ piercing guitar, which howls its way through the gaps in the song after every verse, as if breaking the narrator’s reserve with some very real emotion. Stills can’t let things lie there, however, and after the song seems to have gone about as far as it can he pushes it headlong into a rocking finale, one where Manassas finally let off the steam they have been building up for the last 20 or so minutes.

Side two – The Wilderness – is almost pure country, with fiddles and steel guitars galore, but its not full of the its-been-lonely-in-the-West-since-my-little-old-horse-died wrist-cutting type of songs that the title implies; this side actually features some of Stills’ most lyrical, upbeat songs. In short, it sounds like The Flying Burrito Brothers or mid-period Byrds – but better (I just know I’m going to get a rude email from somebody about that sentence…) To call side-opener [107] Fallen Eagle country-rock would be to do it an injustice; instead of both genres sapping the life-blood from each other like on most country-rock songs, the song manages to be both at once, without diluting either format. This is also another of Stills’ ecological tales, with the eagle of the song looking for a safe place from gunmen serving for a neat allegory for how American values (the American eagle) are being shot down by predators. Stills’ memorable tag to the song – ‘fly on up to Canada, this country isn’t safe anymore, that’s for sure!’ says a lot about the state of America at the time of the Watergate scandal and Stills is going to be penning quite a few more of these sorry American tales later on in the decade. The song is highlighted by guest Byron Berline’s busy violin-playing, although unusually Manassas sound a bit ropey here in their harmonies.

[108] Jesus Gave Love Away For Free and [109]  Colarado are respectively the down and up sides of a relationship, possibly the same one given their close proximity to each other in both style and running order terms. The first song is a lazy piano-based lament with the narrator wondering why his love has moved to the Rockies to find her own freedom. The second song is upbeat pop about the narrator moving up to the Rockies to escape a series of fallen relationship, realising that he’ll find true love when he’s ready. Stills handles these similar but different scenarios in different ways, with the first song terribly claustrophobic in its gloomy steel guitar and layered plodding harmonies and the second sounding free and easy and like the sun coming out. Jesus, a slow mournful song about a dark haired girl, isn’t quite interesting enough to make the listener forgive its slow, drab, dreary pace and its links with the title are confusing (the last line, coming after three minutes of wary trust rather than true love between the two characters, might be implying frustration at how love ought to be free and easy – but clearly isn’t). Colorado is a much better song, with a relationship gradually flowering before our ears and the narrator unwilling to push it, after realising that he’s got years left to pursue his dream (‘Me and the mountains – we’ll be right here’). This song sports a singalong chorus on which the band kick up an impressive multi-layered groove, with some of Al Perkins’ greatest steel-playing to the fore.

[2c] So Begins The Task is extra-special; its so superbly crafted, beautiful and serious with reflective, poetic lyrics and features a cracking chorus and a memorable hook courtesy of the bass runs going into the coda. A song about dreading being lonely again after another relationship falls flat, its full of memorable images. The best ones are the narrator ‘camping out on the edge of your city’, waiting for a response that will never come, the sun ‘reminding my body it needs resting’ after yet another sleepless night spent worrying about his love life to the shadows the narrator sees on the ceiling of his room where he lives alone, ‘like the bars that cage you within yourself’. The chorus is particularly revealing – the narrator reluctantly decides to ‘learn to live without you now’ not because he wants to but because he cannot change his obsessive nature that has scared his loved one away; he cannot give ‘only part somehow’ - his feelings are so intense he has to give way to them all. When a lyric this strong and memorable is taken together with one of Stills’ most haunting, memorable tunes and another of his glorious vocals, its clear that this is Stephen at his absolute peak and this track could have been a huge hit if it had come out as a single (it was played live on CSNY’s 1970-71 concert tours but – amazingly – never recorded by the group, despite its strong reliance on harmonies; Manassas’ are glorious here, agreed, but still not quite the same somehow). Perhaps its not too late? Get a modern-day singer to cover this song now! (Although having said that I won’t forget the mess Will Young made of Love The One You’re With in a hurry!)

After such perfection, the rest of side two becomes a bit of an anti-climax, with [110] Hide It So Deep running headlong into the maudlin country territory the rest of the side has done so well to avoid. Stills still manages to bark the hell out of his vocal, though, giving it plenty of power as well as passion and there’s no doubting he had a feel for the genre, though thankfully he still didn’t waste much time on it in his career. The lyrics – for what it’s worth – are about the narrator finding one of his casual friends has been deeply in love with him for years, but kept her emotions ‘so deep’ that he has only just found out. Why is this theme so popular with country-rock artists? (Ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith’s possibly career-best solo song Propinquity/ I’ve Just begun To Care from his Nevada Fighter album is another particularly fine example and sadly rather better than this maudlin mess).

Stills’ last full-blown country number is the hoedown [111] Don’t Look At My Shadow – an interesting plea from Stills that his audience should not hold him back by expecting him to stick to a successful style but should embrace the fact he is trying new ideas. A very Neil Young-like sentiment, you can see what Stills means when he’s trying all these many different things so successfully on this album, but in context it’s a little bit sad because Stills’ well of inspiration seems to have dried up almost completely after these sessions and the terrible waste of vinyl that is Manassas’ follow-up to this album. And with a shadow as great as this one, surely its expecting too much of an audience not to look back in awe?….

Side three is more eclecticism let loose. [112] It Doesn’t Matter is another superbly crafted song, this time uptempo but it’s more of a pop song than a rocker. Chris Hillman’s superb harmony - his voice actually goes as well with Stills’ vocals as Crosby’s and that’s saying something – really adds to this song about a narrator trying to decide whether he’s spotting signs of romantic interest from a passing stranger on his ‘wearisome vigils’ for love, or whether he is making the whole thing up in his excitement and desperation. The comparatively simple chords of this song and its repetitive structure make it one of the more musically basic songs on the album, but the poetic and haiku-like lyrics are among Stills’ more pleasing complex works. Most songwriters would have been content to let the song go with its fine verse and chorus structure, but not the perfectionist Stills. The unexpected electric boost in the last verse, as the singers lock onto their prey both lyrically and musically, holding on to the same rumbling riff over and over, refusing to change until the last possible minute, adds a whole new layer of class to the song.

[113] Johnny’s Garden is more crowd-pleasing commercial stuff, but it also cuts nice and deep; an acoustic Stills singing about how much his garden means to him as his sanctuary after a hard month’s touring is really touching and quite witty in places (‘Its green and its quiet, only trouble was I had to buy it!’ he quips at one point, acknowledging the pros of his rock and roll lifestyle along with the cons). I can also see what Stills means about his beautiful garden, having seen pictures of it as owned by its previous two inhabitants (Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers no less!) Johnny, by the way, really was the name of Stills’ gardener who also worked for the other celebrities passing through the house’s ranks and its clear from the lyrics that Stills considers the garden still to be his, indeed he almost thinks he is trespassing in the place where Johnny has spent so much time and effort ‘beauty sharing’. Like Paul McCartney on this album list’s near-neighbour Ram, the simplicity and beauty of the countryside holds obvious attraction for Stills, used to playing smoky cities and staring at the same old hotel rooms for weeks on end. A delightful return to the acoustic format, this is another example of Stills at his very best.

[114] Bound To Fall is the only cover on the album, an old standard about how things always go wrong just when they seem to be coming right. It was brought to the table by Chris Hillman (a version of him attempting it with The Byrds recently came to light on the Notorious Byrd Brothers CD re-issue - but trust me, it sounds a lot better here). A frenetically paced arrangement, it’s Stills’ deep harmonies to Hillman’s gutsy lead that make the song and the sudden fading choral madrigal-like ending is an intriguing idea, catching the listener by surprise.

[115] How Far is Stills getting melancholy again, with only an acoustic guitar and two drummers for support. Another unusually simple and catchy song musically, the gently bouncy music seem at first to be at odds with singing lines like ‘most of this life is such a hard road to go down’, but Stills does sound quietly hopeful when his ex-love tells him she still wants to be friends, leaving Stills to promise that he’ll always be there for her, no matter ‘how far’ apart they are geographically or emotionally. Stills follows on this side’s themes of moving on, telling us both how he is ‘falling again’ and that ‘most of this past year I’ve been searching for my home’, with Stills’ move to England to escape his CSN and Cootlidge/Collins relationship past meaning it was more than his house that changed in 1972, it was his lifestyle too. Stills has often admitted that Suite: Judy Blue Eyes was a love-letter he never got round to sending and turned into a song instead, ‘mailing it through the rock and roll business’ – here he updates this theme, addressing his latest love personally and telling her ‘if you’re listening, I hope you’ll understand my song’.  

As if the range of genres so far wasn’t enough, Stills then sets a science essay to music with the song [116] Move Around. Moody and philosophical, with acoustic guitars and all sorts of weird synthesiser bleeps going on, it sounds more like the Moody Blues than a Stills song. The lyrics deal with nothing less than man’s evolution and progress to date (given life, what could be more natural but move around and explore it? – there really is no great forward evolutionary plan for mankind after all except perhaps curiosity enticing him on) and they are extraordinarily complex - just check out the last lyric printed in the ‘key lyrics’ column above. The lines about mankind moving further and further towards some unspecified goal seem at odds with Stills’ more sarcastic songs about how modern man has never been civilised, buts it’s a sweet and moving song all the same, with mankind finding a ‘key’ every generation or so and ‘standing on the brink of revelation’ only to find that there is another puzzle still to be solved, sounding much like David Crosby in the process. The sudden electric blues guitar bursting through the speakers in the last elongated verse could only have been thought of by one man, however: this is Stills at his understated best, even if the odd production means these fine lyrics are irritatingly hard to hear.

A guesting Bill Wyman crops up on the next track [7b] Love Gangster, a song where he is listed as co-writer with Stills, despite the fact that Stephen already had much of this song worked out in 1968 (you can hear it under its original name Bumble Bee  and in its first acoustic form on the 2007-issued Just Roll Tape). Perhaps Wyman provided the slow-rolling bass groove that the guitarists copy throughout this track - although maybe it was just inspiration, as fittingly Stills provides his best swampy Mick Jagger impersonation to go with his playing on this track. Interestingly, this spoof western seems to celebrate the kind of reckless unthinking outsider that Stills has been chastising for much of the album (however, even this character needs a ‘place to hide’ by the song’s end, so maybe it fits the albums themes of ‘coming home’ after all). I wonder too if it's loosely based on Nash again, with the 1968 version of 'Love Gangster' much more playful - having heard Crosby's 'Cowboy Movie' effectively portray Nash as exactly that perhaps Stills was reminded of this song? ('You look like you're running away...why?') More delightful harmonies courtesy of Stills and Hillman turn this simple boogie-woogie song into a musical tour de force. 

Side four features several more genre-hybrids. [117] What To Do for instance, doesn’t quite know what to do with itself and switches through several genres before committing itself, becoming pure music-hall by the last verse thanks to some tack-piano, but with a classic anthemic chorus sung by just everybody in the band kicking in at key moments too. Lyrically though it's Stills at his most naked and vulnerable, which might be perhaps why he smothered his hard-to-hear vocal with so much else going on, desperately trying to get Rita alone for a few minutes in a 'neutral corner' so they can have time to talk (she was literally so swept up by Nash that she didn't even return to Stills' house to fetch her belongings, or so the story goes). 'Blind stubborn pride drove us apart' Stills sighs, although typically - in song at least - he's ready to hold his hand up as being at least partly to blame, promising her her freedom for good if that's what she wants but adding a slight dig at Nash with the line 'just don't let nobody tell you no lies!' A rather odd instrumental section of bleeping synthesisers off-setting a squawking violin that seems to have wandered in from the country segment was described by Stills in his typically hilarious sleeve-notes: ‘I think its dumb but Ronnie [Albert, engineer] and Dallas [Taylor, drummer] got hung up. You see there’s this little box and Dallas twisted that knob and Ronnie twisted the other one on a different box and I left the room because I didn’t like what I played anyway and waited for the next verse with the tack piano on it which I do like…’ As these notes show, the recording sounds like it was a lot of fun, but to be honest this song is ultimately comes out sounding like one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments. 
[118] Right Now is Stills’ last burst of full throttle rock on the album, a charging song proving that Manassas can boogie with the best of them, with Hillman's unusually gritty counter vocal grooving nicely along with him. You can really hear the attack of the two drummers on this album and although all seven members of Manassas play the sound is nicely airy and uncluttered. The lyrics are yet another instalment in the CSNY soap-opera story. An open letter to Nash for stealing Rita Cootlidge off him (‘one of my best friends took her down with his games for sure!’ along with a sarcastic sounding 'I hope he understands...I hope he feels secure!'), these lyrics are personal even for Stills, picturing the scene where the guitarist found out what was going on ('The script was very strange...') and his growing anger and denial at the whole scenario before coming to the conclusion that the relationship wasn’t meant to be. Stills sounds lost and confused in the production melee going on around him, with only his characteristically biting guitar solo cutting through the molasses of Manassas (sorry, I just had to use that phrase somewhere!)

[84b] The Treasure is a seven-minute epic, like Suite Judy Blues an outpouring of inspiration, changing rhythms and tempos to fit the uneven run of lyrics without ever breaking the song’s theme of searching for the hidden meaning in life, behind every stone in the narrator’s journey if needs be. The ‘treasure’ is obviously the mysterious lady from the Colorado rockies, as Stills tries to fight his way back to her on a perilous journey full of obstacles, trying to work out which is the ‘devil’s key’ that he should turn down along the way. Stills’ falsetto blues wailing is another of his best vocals on the album(s), while the song’s gradual switch from walking pace harmony-drenched pop to bluesy-rock wailing showcases Manassas at their best. Guitar lines criss-cross and weave around each other, bouncing off the rhythm section and driving on to a spectacular finish that comes about five minutes after the band have stopped singing. All seven Manassas players work wonders here, with Stills’ restless wah-wah guitar work bobbing and weaving its way around Perkins’ stately guitar lines and Hillman’s chunky rhythm guitar. No wonder Stills proudly scrawled ‘take #1!’ after the song’s name on his handwritten sleeve-notes – I can’t believe the band got such a complicated song together so well and so quickly either!

All that bluesing and rocking just leaves time for a quick encore: [119] Bluesman is actually more of an acoustic wail than a straightforward electric blues, with more unusual haiku-like lyrics lamenting the loss of Stills’ musician friends and rock and roll casualties (Canned Heat’s Al Wilson, Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix in particular, with the Manassas album as a whole dedicated to the three men). The excesses of the rock lifestyle has been playing on Stills’ mind for much of the last 70 minutes and seems to be Stills’ inspiration to curb these tendencies in himself. Shaking his head sadly, Stills merely murmurs ‘such a waste’, missing the three men that ‘I knew well, never see again’ and wondering which of his buddies will be next to go. Stills plays the song alone, in stark contrast to the seven musicians playing at their loudest on the last track, and pulls off a last-minute coup with Bluesman’s simple honesty and moving sentiment, ending the album on a last triumphant ringing chord.

To the last, then, Manassas is a staggeringly eclectic album which – unusually for a double album – has inspiration simply leaking from every note, phrase and lyric. Stills could have started a religion in 1972 and we’d have all followed; Manassas remains Stills’ biggest in a long line of achievements and is at once his most characteristic and commercial and also his most ground-breaking work. To go back to our train analogy (well, the band did name themselves after a train station) Manassas may not have been the high speed train that was CSNY, connecting wider crowds and - with a bit of shunting - uniting four of the major world continents in one gloriously blissful musical moment, but many people prefer the quieter, smaller-lined steam trains anyway. While like the steam train itself this band and album are the creation of necessity - Stills needed to do something with all the songs of heartbreak that were pouring out of him - they both share a certain poetic beauty that belies their status as merely functional machines, ending up a work of art even if that wasn't why they were built. High flying CSNY speed trains or not, the lesser travelled Manassas track is still very much a delightful one with as lovely and as changing a set of scenery as you'll find anywhere. In short, it's the perfect answer to sudden grief, Stills channelling his heartbreak into a series of exquisite songs and Manassas channelling those songs into an almost perfect debut album.  Bring on the accolades now; Stills we salute you. Now hurry up and re-form Manassas for a 45th anniversary album!… 

A Now Complete List Of CSN/Y and Solo Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Crosby, Stills and Nash' (1969)

'Deja Vu' (CSNY) (1970)

‘Stephen Stills’ (1970)

'If Only I Could Remember My Name' (Crosby) (1971)

'Songs For Beginners' (Nash) (1971)

'Stephen Stills II' (1971)
‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (1972)

'Stephen Stills-Manassas'  (1972)

'Wild Tales' (Nash) (1973)
'Down The Road' (Stephen Stills/Manassas) (1973)

'Stills' (1975)

'Wind On The Water' (Crosby-Nash) (1975)
'Illegal Stills' (Stills) (1976)
'Whistling Down The Wire' (Crosby-Nash) (1976)

'Long May You Run' (Stills-Young) (1976)

'CSN' (1977)
'Thoroughfare Gap' (Stills) (1978)
'Earth and Sky' (Nash) (1980)

'Daylight Again' (CSN) (1982)
'Right By You' (Stills) (1984)
'Innocent Eyes' (Nash) (1986)
'American Dream' (CSNY) (1988)

'Oh Yes I Can!' (Crosby) (1989)

'Live It Up!' (CSN)  (1989)

'Stephen Stills Alone' (1991)

'CPR' (Crosby Band) (1998)

‘So Like Gravity (CPR, 2001)

‘Songs For Survivors’ (2002)

'Deja Vu Live' (CD) (2008)

'Deja Vu Live' (DVD) (2008)

'Reflections' (Graham Nash Box Set) (2009)

'Demos' (CSN) (2009)

'Manassas: Pieces' (2010)

‘Carry On’ (Stephen Stills Box Set) (2013)

'Croz' (Crosby) (2014)
'CSNY 74' (Recorded 1974 Released 2014)

'This Path Tonight' (Nash) (2016)

‘Here If You Listen’ (Crosby)

The Best Unreleased CSNY Recordings
Surviving TV Appearances (1969-2009)
Non-Album Recordings (1962-2009)
Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One (1964-1980)
Live/Compilations/Rarities Albums Part Two (1982-2012)
Essay: The Superest Of Super Groups?
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

No comments:

Post a Comment