Monday, 20 October 2014
Stephen Stills/Manassas "Down The Road" (1973)
Stephen Stills/Manassas "Down The Road" (1973)
Isn't It About Time?/Lies/Pensamiento/So Many Times/Business On The Street//Do You Remember The Americans?/Down The Road/City Junkies/Guaganco De Vera/Rollin' My Stone
Hello again dear readers...Will you stop that 'The Who Sing My Generation!'...we're in a bit of disarray here today...Will you put that gong down the Roger Waters solo discography and stop beating David Gilmour's records over the head with it!...so you'll have to bear with us I'm afraid...not the custard pie, 'Beggar's Banquet', I've just had that wall cleaned!...I'm beginning to regret...put that tv down 'The Other Side Of Keith Moon!' I'm not retrieving it from the window again!...ever suggesting it....please keep the noise down 'Beach Boys Party!', you'll have the neighbours complaining...but we're busy holding a party...I'll Morning Glory you my Oasis CDs if you don't stop it AT ONCE!!!...for all the Alan's Album Archives records...come back my Ray Davies and Alan Hull CDs - don't you dare go down the pub again without asking me!... and it's all gone a bit haywire...what illegal substance have you just taken my Grateful Dead discography? Spit it out now!....and we're not quite as slick as usual...who laughed? Oh, it's you 'Smile' and your friend Nils Lofgren's 'Grin', I might have known...in fact it's all a bit chaotic!...oh no, now the Janis Joplin CDs have woken up and are doing a drunken conga round the living room...yes, that's right, out you go - just be back in my CD unit by tomorrow morning or I'll put Spice Girls CDs in all your boxes, you hear?! I hope that wasn't a rude gesture you were giving me 10cc!
Phew I'm not doing that again: that's the last time I ever wish my CD collection would come to life while falling asleep watching The Twilight Zone and accidentally brushing past a genie's lamp! Peace and quiet at last...but what's that CD I see hiding under the table and whimpering? Why I recognise her: it's my old friend 'Stephen Stills' Manassas Down The Road' crying her eyes out. That's odd - it wasn't two minutes ago she was the life and soul of the party, busy telling all the other records about all the drugs and booze she's taken and telling me to mind my own business and 'roll my own stone' - and now here she is, bedraggled, full of post-party five o'clock shadow, toxic breath and grim remorse. I've never seen a vinyl record with a hangover before dear readers (the Keith Moon and Janis Joplin albums haven't started their come-downs yet, although they seem to be playing at the wrong speed already, if you know what I mean) and let me tell you it's not a pretty sight. You see 'Down The Road' tried so hard to have a good time and forget the carefree joys of the world, but somehow that front crumbled and gave away what an insecure and shy little record it is. A confessional Cat Stevens style album full of hopes and fears and doubts who should have stayed up late navel-gazing into the night on my roof with my George Harrison and Moody Blues collection (vinyl records have a great navals to gaze at seeing as they're one empty big hole - I hope they come down from there soon, my Neil Young Arcjives box set is so fat she made a hole in it!), all she wanted was to party with the 'big boys', but it isn't really a record that way inclined. All Stephen Stills records have this tendency of course. That combination of a rather military you-do-it-this-way manner that's regimental and rigid and makes people uptight masks a soul that beats deeper and more sensitively than most other discographies I own. The CSN/Y records dilute it to some extent, but it's always there - and more so on the solo albums where Stills' tendency to feel hurt and regret and love and loss so deeply comes through so often you almost forget the poppy salsa you've just been jiving to in your arm-chair. 'Manassas Down The Road', a difficult record to make and often a difficult one to understand, is the most extreme rollercoaster ride in Stills' career.
The first Manassas record, of course, (already covered years ago on this site) is fabulous. A seven-man collective with the chops to play any style fluently at the drop of a hat (and the ability to segue country songs into blues, rock, folk, prog rock and whatever the hell 'Move Around' is all about at a telepathic nod) makes it one of my favourite LPs by anyone. A double LP set with hardly a duff song on it, it's a record that covers more ground than most careers. Manassas' one and only follow-up 'Down The Road' tries hard to be like that record. There are ten very different songs, including two Stills Latin-influenced songs balanced out by rock, country and whatever the hell 'Do You Remember The Americans?' is all about. At times its as whizz-bang-whirling esoteric and precocious as the first record, starting with the heavy political rhetoric of 'Isn't It About Time?' and ending with the fizz and fire of the bluesy 'Rollin' My Stone', a song born for stadium crowds, with the title track perhaps Stills' blandest look-at-me-I'm-a-rock-star boogie shuffle. But at other times this is Stills at his most naked, vulnerable and hurting - which is saying something for an artist who seemed to spend most of the 1970s in that state. The two Latin songs - one of them sung entirely in a foreign language - is a clue to the fact that Stills is pouring out a story that he doesn't want us to know so badly that he's 'hidden' it from our view, making it sound impersonal and unintelligible unless you have the 'key' to what he's saying (a trick used by Stills for the first time here but one he'll use again). Even other songs though have Stills lost and hurting, if only for a chorus or a line: this is the sound of somebody wondering just what road they're travelling down, enjoying it while it lasts but fully expecting to end up lying in a drunken soggy heap the next morning.
The biggest clue to what's going on in this album comes not from any of the tracks on this album but the masterpiece that didn't make the album (and was later covered by Stills' Manassas partner Chris Hillman) rejected for being 'too honest', 'Witching Hour' (Manassas' version was later issued on 'Pieces' in 2009 - in fact in many ways the rarities set seems to have existed solely as a chance to release this song). Given that Stills had seen fit to release such personal songs as 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' '4+20' 'Church (Part Of Someone)' 'Sugar Babe' and 'So Begins The Task' before this (to name just a few) this song must have really spooked him. It's certainly a spooky song, sung with the bleary eyes third person narrator style of The Beatles' 'Nowhere Man', a person 'so confused that he thinks he's being used and it hurts him...so' and who, while he can wear a mask of confidence and even aggression during the day, melts every time the nightly 'witching hour' comes around and he's alone again. Many of the songs that did make this album refer to being 'used' too - so what exactly was going on for Stills in this period? Well, as anyone whose read any of our Stills-related reviews will know by now, Stills' love life is what facebook created the 'it's complicated' relationship symbol for. His soulmate Judy Collins has after years of playing hot and cold finally said an emphatic 'no', the other great love of his life Rita Coolidge has just been charmed out of his arms by Graham Nash and he's just got married to his first wife, French singer Veronique Sanson, during a whirlwind romance on the first Manassas tour. While the pair go on to work together lots as musicians (on next records 'Stills' and 'Illegal Stills') and had a largely wonderful time during their brief marriage, with Stills, loving the idea of finally becoming a family man at the relatively late rock-star age of 30, it's the blazing hot-tempered rows that everyone remembers. Thankfully next record 'Stills' will prove that, however briefly, Stills did the right thing and was really, genuinely 'happy'; writing his most contented batch of songs and adoring the idea that after years without roots he now had a family who needed and cared for him. The earlier 'Down The Road', however, sounds like Stills waking up from a long wedding/honeymoon binge, reflecting on the last turbulent four years (when Stills wanted to get married twice) and thinking 'what have I done?'
'Down The Road', should, perhaps, have been an acoustic confessional: the kind of thing he'll finally do on 'Stills Alone' in 1991 (but with better songs). But that would mean breaking up Manassas, one of the greatest bands that ever lived and one that record critics and a lot of the public took to so quickly that for a moment their fame even rivalled CSN's. Driven by the twin-piece percussion partnership of Dallas Taylor and Joe Lala, held together by Calvin 'Fuzzy' Samuel's strong fat bass lines, augmented by Byrd Chris Hillman's delightful guitar and harmony parts and augmented by Paul Harris' decorative piano and Al Perkins' evocative pedal steel guitar, Manassas are a band born to party. Part of Stills wants to give them something to party to: that's why we have songs like 'Down The Road' 'City Junkies' and 'Do You Remember The Americans?' that resemble perhaps the dumber side of Stills' writing style: simple hard-driving rock songs that don't have much to say except 'I'm having a good time!' The rest of the album, though, finds Manassas - that wonderful rolling runaway train who can navigate anything with aplomb - with the brakes on.
There are an awful lot of 'natural' ballads here for a Stephen Stills album (with one of Chris' two superb compositions adding to the slow and mournful flavour), but somebody somewhere (perhaps Stills himself?) seems to have baulked at the idea and the only ballad on the entire album comes from Hillman, perhaps in an effort to make everything sound upbeat and happy when it isn't (even the first 'Manassas' had its slow moments, career highlight 'So Begins The Task' being one of them). 'Guaguanco De Vera' is a song about a man whose 'lost', hiding behind a 'shell' with a chorus - it ought, on paper, to sound like 'Yesterday' or 'Let It Be'; instead it sounds like 'Get Back'. 'Pensamiento' is a wrist-slashing lyric whose title translates into English as simply 'My Thought' and lines like 'forgive me if I have been wrong' treated to a nice upbeat bossa nova samba. 'Isn't It About Time?' sounds like a threat, but it reads like a self-help manual, pleading with the self not to be taken in again in a way that's more 'Help!' than 'Won't Get Fooled Again' or 'Ohio'. 'Business In The Street' is a booze-fest strutting rocker where the entire band sound ready to drop after one great binge too many - but is really a cry for help, asking 'how did it get so big? Can I really live up to my persona as a booze-festing strutting rock star? ('The biggest fool of all is me, I play the music for the music you see'). Even 'Rollin' My Stone', long dismissed as a rather boring generic rock song, is a song about a 'twisted' world about a man whose life is out of control, running away without him like a stone 'rollin' on down the road' (was the glorious 'Myth Of Sisyphus' - released on 'Stills' in 1975 but performed in concert from 1974 - written now? Both songs are about being doomed to carry a great weight only to do it all again over and over). Most songs on this album also have lyrics about 'keys' fitting 'locks', a kind of desperate search for happiness that can't quite be found: the whole record at times reads like a puzzle where we have to ignore what Stills sounds like he's telling us and read between the lines. 'Down The Road' is a confused and lost album, trying to pretend he's alright really honest don't worry me, while crying buckets inwardly over lost opportunities and frustrated circumstances. What's always fascinated me about this record is that you'd expect these two Manassas albums to be the other way around: that this rather tentative single album came first and the all-cylinders-firing debut came after Stills heard the band's strengths and realised what they could and couldn't do. 'Down The Road' sounds like a man trying to fit his material to a band he doesn't know and having them re-shape it for him: 'Manassas' is the sound of a man with a vision spilling out in several directions at once.
Perhaps another reason the album turned out as 'schizophrenic' as it does is that it was 'unbalanced' at a late hour. While always planned as a single set (Stills had worn himself out on the double album), 'Down The Road' was intended initially as a much more collaborative affair. Chris had more songs written for the album (although sadly we don't know what they are - perhaps his pair from the Byrds reunion album later in the year, in which case we had a happy escape!) Al, Fuzzy, Joe and Dallas had come up with the funky 'Mama Told Me So' for the album. Stills also had an early, rather fast version of 'Thoroughfare Gap' (later the title of his 1978 solo LP) ready that he was never quite happy with. In the end Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun baulked at having so many 'other' members writing songs and pleaded Stills to come up with more, quickly. Usually Stills is great at deadlines ('Carry On' and 'Waiting For You', highlights of CSN albums in 1970 and 1994 respectively, were written in a hurry) but for whatever reason he turned in some rather bland songs to fill the gaps: we know 'City Junkies' was one and it seems likely the title track and 'Business On The Street' were the others. Certainly these three sound like the most 'rushed' recordings on the album - it's probably these Stills was thinking of when he declared 'some of the vocals and things should have been done over, but I was lazy', adding that the record was a 'turkey' for good measure. That quote has always bothered me about this record, both because it's not something the generally conscientious 'Captain Manyhands' would usually say about himself (on the contrary, it was getting Stills to stop work that was the problem for most of his colleagues) and because on a good half of the album that's clearly nonsense: recordings like 'Guaguanco De Vera' 'Pensamiento' 'Lies' and 'So Many Times' sparkle with clarity (even on my old battered vinyl copy, whose now gone to bed by the way) and are clearly made with heart and soul, not rushed bodge jobs. The rest of the album works less so, but this kind of haziness is surely meant to be there on tracks like the urgent 'Isn't It About Time?' and the drug-fuelled title track and 'City Junkies'. Was Stills simply down on this record because it didn't sound as 'happy' as he wanted it to? Either way, the loss of these songs - and 'Witching Hour' - is Manassas' loss. Replace these lesser three songs (and perhaps 'Rollin' My Stone) with 'Hour' 'Gap', a scintillating first version of future CSN classic 'Daylight Again' (improvised on stage one night!), a long bootlegged collaboration with Jimi Hendrix on 'White Nigger' (recorded in 1970 but remixed for possible including on the album), a couple of Stills songs included on 2009's 'Pieces' (the slow blues 'High and Dry' possibly about Rita Coolidge and Graham Nash which isn't great as it exists here but could have been with a bit more rehearsal and the electric but similarly unfinished sounding 'I Am My Brother'), a couple more songs from Chris (including the rather ordinary Souther-Hillman-Furay tune 'Love and Satisfy' also included on 'Pieces') and that 'band written blues' discussed earlier and 'Down The Road' might have been a cracking 14-track 45 minute value-for-money record only a fraction away from the first LP, instead of a poor-selling barely 30 minute follow-up that's often forgotten and presently rather hard to find.
Ah yes, Chris Hillman. The revelation of the first Manassas record, the break from having to keep first the Byrds and then The Flying Burrito Brothers together as more wayward and less committed band members had clearly done him good. Hillman's fingerprints are all over that album (usually while wearing country gloves, bringing out a side of Stills we rarely see on his own or with CSN but was occasionally there in Buffalo Springfield) despite the fact that, in total, he gets just two co-writes with Stills and no actual lead vocals (though there are lots of majestic soaring harmonies). On 'Down The Road' he gets two songs and two whole vocals (with Stills returning the favour with some delightful harmonies), yet feels 'less' a part of this record somehow (the lack of co-writes with Stills suggests the two weren't spending quite as much time together). The 'number two' role has always suited Chris best and he's at his best as Stills' foil, not withstanding all his marvellous Byrds and solo songs (I never did take to the Burritos much) and his songs very much do what they used to do for Roger McGuinn in his first band: they parrot the rough theme and style of Stills' songs whilst still having a distinct (and country-ish) personality. Unusually, Hillman's feeling rather bitter about something; dismissing someone whose got 'everything they need' yet still feel deeply empty fallen for the 'lies' of a rumour-monger of a girlfriend on 'Lies' and then adding his own song of regret and remorse on the very Stills-ish 'So Many Times' (on which Stephen might have played a bigger role than we fans have always thought) that merges the pair's favourite lyric 'themes' - Chris throws in two of his own song titles on the line 'It doesn't matter at all who rises and falls' while surely it's Stills adding his favourite theme 'when we live in the darkness and hide behind walls'.
Both songs sound like a pointed message to someone. As ever on this site until Stills and Hillman write their own books this is only speculation, but is Chris writing about Stills? Chris was furious with first Gene Clark, then David Crosby (well, he was pushed out but in the bassists' eyes his behaviour may have forced the band into it) and finally Gram Parsons left The Byrds, always at the worst possible moment. He then formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, a potentially great band, with Gram Parsons - who after the first few months simply stopped turning up (he was always at the Stones' place hanging out with buddy Keith Richards). Chris isn't really the 'quitting' type - yes he left The Byrds too but they were getting flack about playing in South Africa and at the time he left in 1968 were at their un-coolest and poorest-selling and was most likely amazed when McGuinn soldiered on - and losing two bands this way must have made him furious. His partnership with Stills should have been different: the Buffalo Springfield were if not quite 'discovered' by Hillman then certainly heavily helped by him (Crosby famously got involved too, of course, starting a friendship and career that will runs for decades but at first couldn't see what all the fuss was about) and at his essence Stills, too, is a conscientious hard-worker. 'Manassas' had seen both men thrive knowing they could rely on each other in a way that Chris never could rely on soulmate Gram and Stephen Could never rely on Neil Young. Here, though, it sounds by Stills' own lyrics as if he'd getting into 'bad ways' too - the shock of his three relationships ending up with his first child, the split of CSNY and the heavy Manassas touring adding yet more pressure to his ever-busy mind. Are Chris' songs (especially 'Lies') a warning that he's walked before and he'll do it again? The chorus of that song 'what you see is what you get' is normally what we'd associate with the straight-talking Stills, but on this album in his own lyrics he's 'hiding behind walls' and a 'shell' - perhaps Hillman's subtle way of telling his friend he's changing and not for the better. Incidentally there's an only slightly less cracking laidback alternate take of 'Lies' on 'Pieces' too, without any of the venom of the finished product: was Hillman softening the blow at first before fully getting into it?
In the end Chris didn't need to walk: Manassas kind of fell apart by mutual consent. With a record that everyone seemed to agree was a 'failure' after the first record, the seven-piece Manassas would have been too hard to sustain touring-wise for too long without substantial hits. As it happened Stills got invited to a CSNY reunion and Hillman got an invite from David Geffen who'd just formed his own label 'Asylum' to create yet another 'super-group' made out of Byrds and Buffalos (this time the Souther Hillman Furay band with Stills' old partner Richie Furay - I bet they swapped some stories! - which ended in an even more miserable and frustrating tale of missed chances and lost opportunities than Manassas, only making half a great record before the rot set in). Manassas were, technically, put on hold rather than disbanded, with Stills adamant that the band would get together again at intervals the way that CSN always did. Sadly, all these years later, we're still waiting for that elusive third album (and interesting as parts of it were, the unexpected outtakes set 'Pieces' doesn't count). That's a shame: we've raved and raved about the first record already on this site until we're blue in the face, but even this second lesser record has some fabulous moments. Stills' two latin songs are exceptional, perhaps not quite up there with Stills very best but even Stills' nearly-best is a pretty spectacularly high level. 'Isn't It About Time?' - the one single from this album and the only track included on Stills' 'Carry On' set suggesting he still likes it - is a great 'almost' song that's 90% of the way to being a classic protest song from a writer who, despite his reputation and early success with 'For What It's Worth', generally leaves political songs to his colleagues. Hillman's 'Lies' and 'So Many Times' are exquisitely constructed pop songs. 'Business In The Street' is a curious song-within-a-song: the heartfelt lyrics at the centre of a riddle are terrific, even if the song they've been randomly stuck inside (about blanket media coverage and drugs) isn't. Now that I hear it again for the first time in a wee while 'Rollin' My Stone' is more interesting the more you play it, an angry panther ready to attack in the skin of a sleepy cat. Even the remaining four songs in the middle of the album aren't that bad - we just know that Stills and co could have done better (reaching lower heights than even the worst songs on the first double album).
'Down The Road' may be the ugly little sister of a real beauty, but look at her when her crooked smile lights up the room or when her tears make her soft and vulnerable. If this really was a party (and I think it was...my memory has gone a bit hazy now, what was in that packet of grass seeds handed out with free copies of The Kinks' 'Village Green Preservation Society'?!) then in truth I'd have got bored of the all-singing all-dancing turn-my-hand-to-everything 'Manassas' album pretty quickly - goodness knows she'd have got bored of me. While there are better albums, greater albums, happier albums, friendlier albums, more open albums than this, 'Down The Road' is a very lovable confused and human kind of an album. I may have spent more time with 'Stephen Stills' 'Stephen Stills II' and 'Stills' down the years (he never was one for titles was he?!), I still find myself returning like clockwork to 'Down The Road' every so often and it will always be there for me, slouched until the table with its raucous laugh and running mascara, long after the other albums have left home and moved on without me. While she isn't perfect and the warm contented glow of 'Stills' is more my style of life partner (I love 'Manassas' and 'Stills II' to pieces as well, but they'd wear me out in a week!), there are plenty of worse companions to have: 'Down The Road' is a friend on a much deeper level than those superficial party-goers and in truth isn't quite as boring as that lot upstairs making up songs about the moon. Geez that was a party and a half. Where am I? And why does 'Down The Road's even younger and more aggressive sister 'Man Alive' have me in a headlock?...Help!
'Isn't It About Time?' is a cracking start. We're deep into Nixon territory now (he was re-elected about the time this album came out, making it odd that there aren't more political digs on this record or on Nash's 'Wild Tales' from not long afterwards) and Stills isn't happy that all the warnings CSN gave us between 1969 and 1970 have turned true. Sarcasm isn't something the heart-on-his-sleeve Stills resorts to much but he does so brilliantly here, sending up his ignorant audience with the opening lines 'Don't look now, don't heed the warning, it's really of no concern...' with a spiky sinewy guitar riff purloined from his earlier classic 'Word Game' (though not quite as intense). Like a lot of this album's lyrics the tone is questioning asking 'isn't it about time we learned?' and started putting things right, with a particularly ringing middle eight ('Why does it have to take so long? Is it easy not to care?)' that comes out of left-field and adds a great deal of tension to the song. Stills turns in a great guitar part too, at the end of his love affair with the wah-wah pedal and the sound he's been mining since the 'Super Session' in 1968 sounds particularly apt here: it's a slow whine that turns frenetic by the end. By the standards of the first Manassas album, though, nobody is really on it here: the sudden switch into double-time near the end of the song should be amazing, with the wah-wah growing in majesty and the song building up to a froth of steam (the band pulled it off easily on their earlier 'It Doesn't Matter') but instead sounds muddled and unclear. The chorus too needs an extra...something 'Isn't it about time? Isn't it about time we learned?' works fine as a beginning but it needs an extra couple of punches the way 'Ohio' and 'Word Game' just kept coming and coming with so many arguments you couldn't help ut get 'on-message'. Still, even as a 'nearly' song there's much to admire about 'Isn't It About Time?' which has a great groove and some fine lyrics. Sadly this piece is still as relevant now as it was in 1973 (perhaps more so thanks to Bush Jnr and Cameron) but sadly it's the last time Stills will get political until 'Daylight Again' in 1982 - and that's about the American Revolution rather than a modern war (perhaps he was put off by this song's dismal performance as a single which deserved better than a limp #56 on Billboard. The anti-Nixon rallies lost a great voice right here.
Hillman's 'Lies' is a typical mix of country and rock, which again sounds less polished and tight here than the first Manassas LP or the similar recordings Hillman will make with the Souther-Hillman-Furay band the next year. Most fans tend to ignore it and it's not up to 'Both Of Us (Bound To Lose)' or 'It Doesn't Matter' - the two Chris 'n' Stephen collaborations from the album before - but I'm rather fond of this straightforward song. 'You live in a dream - you got everything you need!' cackles Hillman on a second straight sarcastic song, with a delicious vocal that captures the irony of the narrator in a dream world rather well. The song's melody tries hard to stick to a tight Chuck Berry-style groove (not that far removed from Crosby's 1975 song 'Low Down Payment', interestingly - chances are he'd have heard this album at least once to keep an eye on what his two ex-partners were up to!) but Manassas have such a wide expansive sound that they don't all play the riff at once, giving us the feeling of the ground moving underneath our feet. The sudden switch of keys in the chorus ('I know that it's hard to believe') shows that Hillman had learnt well from the 'tricks' Stills showed him in their earlier songs together, Hillman vocally trying to shake his friend out of his ignorant stupor and see the light. Manassas are at their tightest here (the earlier 'Pieces' version is a little sloppy like most of the other 'Down The Road' recordings but this is tight and powerful), neatly straddling the country and rock elements of the song and ending on a samba-ish percussive rhythm. Hillman has written better lyrics and once again this song needs a better and longer chorus than simply 'what you see is what you get', but I find 'Lies' one o the most powerful songs and recordings on the album: a turbulent chaotic song that somehow has one of Hillman's greatest vocal sitting over the top of it, on the outside looking in with disgust, an effect that works rather well. I've just consulted the excellent Johnny Rogan 'complete guide to CSN' for this track and he makes the point that this song is loosely based on my favourite Flying Burrito Brothers song (their opening song in fact) 'Christine's Tune': a tale of a woman who isn't all she seems to be with a quick-snapping rhythm, that makes perfect sense - I should have picked up on that before.
'Pensamiento' started life as the Latin-style instrumental 'Tan Sola Y Triste' (as heard on 'Pieces') - indeed that cut may well be the same backing track used for the full song (or near enough to make no difference to my ears anyway). Even this early on Stills seems to be into hiding his true feelings under the guise of another language (that working title translates roughly as 'I'm Lonely And I'm Sad', while the final version comes out roughly as 'My Thought'. Sung entirely in Spanish (a language Stills would have known well growing up) as far as I know the full translation hasn't been given anywhere else on the internet so thanks to the wonders of 'Google Translator' (with a few additions from a Spanish-speaking colleague) here it is in full: 'Tell me you love me and forgive me if I have been wrong, Thinking about it and my heart from that day I just mourn, thinking if she Llegara (?!) forget, leaving my soul incredibly sad and lonely, I think I'll never live without it, because my dear it's my life. Dearest girlfriend, if you knew my pain you'd write to me my love and ease my suffering'. As you can see, this is a very sad song for all of Manassas' subtle Latin groove and driving forcefullness. My guess is that it's yet another sad song written in Judy Collins' direction, like 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' thought too personal to send as a letter so it got turned into a 'song' instead. Stills really doesn't want her to know, though, so he got his collaborator Nelson Escoto to roughly translate a few phrases and throw in a few things he probably remembered from his own childhood (surrounded by Latin-American school friends). This song is even phrased like a letter - and remember 'Suite: Judy' ended with a Latin American 'doo doo doo' finale - it may have been a running joke between the pair that he could only express himself succinctly in another language. Sadly it's almost a goodbye for an on-off partnership that's been inspiring some of Stills' greatest songs down the years as after this both sides stop seeing each other (Stills' lightning marriage to Sanson probably put paid to that as much as anything, although Collins' moving autobiography 'Judy Blue Eyes' admits it was she who re-buffed him and since regretted it). Even at their lowest point the pair admitted that they'd told each other things they'd never told anyone else: a lot of this 'Down The Road' album seems to Stills thinking 'well, if I can't pour all of this out to Judy I'll just to have to write it to her in songs instead - and then disguise it somehow'). Even without the lyrics or the translation, this would be a great song: of all the genres Manassas cover the Latin grooves are their most convincing and Al Perkins (their most 'country' member) is particularly great her, nailing the groove (which unusually isn't played by Stills who may not even play on this song). The solo of 'Pensamiento' is played, for the first time, not on guitar but on flute by Sydney George, a lovely little part that ties this song back into the dim and distant folk past and makes it universal (George will be back for the Stills-Young Band album 'Long May You Run' in 1976 and is about the only person to come out of that album with his reputation intact!) Mysterious yet fun, 'Pensamiento' may well be the highlight of the album alongside Stills' other Latin track 'Guaguanco De Vera'.
'So Many Times' is a Stills/Hillman collaboration that would have slotted in well on the second 'country' side of the Manassas debut album. I'd never realised how well the pair's voices go well together, with Stills putting his CSN education to good practice with a gorgeous falsetto harmony that wraps around Hillman's harsher lead like a glove. A neat mixture of Stills' heartfelt and wordy style and Hillman's straightforward pop and country mournfulness, it's another of the greatest things Manassas did, with Al Perkins turning in a second note-perfect solo (this time back on the pedal steel). 'Why do I even bother?' is the theme of the song, with a series of rhetorical questions about a relationship gone wrong that's deeply moving (Hillman's first marriage hadn't broken up much before this either). A gorgeous sad slow melody tries to sound sad and pathetic but like the narrator it's made of stronger stuff than that and by the end has revealed its teeth. You know that somehow the narrator will pick himself up when all this is over and the last note of the song flies into the sky, the closest Stills came to re-capturing that astonishing last moment on 'Everybody We Love You' from 'Deja Vu' in 1970. A song that's not only pretty but pretty deep, 'So Many Times' is a lovely song that shows just how compatible these two great writers were and how sad it is that, ironically for a track titled 'So Many Times' this is only their third and their final song together. Another album highlight.
So far 'Down The Road' has been more or less up to the level of the first Manassas record. Alas 'Business On The Street' is the start of a run of songs that for a variety of reasons don't quite come off. 'Business In The Street' is a real curio from Stills that perhaps betrays its rushed circumstances (this is the one track we know for sure was written at the last minute at Ertegun's request). The song starts out as a 'warning' to Stills' 'brothers' not to put their 'business in the street' and reveal too much. Few writers revealed as much of their lives in song as Stills (which is exactly what he'll do again in this tracks' second half): is this a 'don't do as I do but do as I say? kind of song? If so is it directed to the band in general (who would on the whole have been new to the sudden spotlight Manassas' success cast on them), Hillman in particular (his songwriting protégé, oblivious of the fact that the first Byrds album came out before the first Springfield one), his CSN buddies (whose split in 1970 wasn't helped by angry tirades about each other in the press - someone like Stills was always going to feel hurt by the fall-out) or the 1970s rock star generation at large? 'When you get a little bit older you're carrying too much weight on your shoulders' papa Stills wearily warns us all before recounting how he'd learnt the hard way to keep his mouth shut. The best lines are of his own guilt over what he's done in the past and his witty lines that 'The biggest fool of all is me, I play the music for the music for me - for money I do publicity!' A superstar for perhaps the third time in his life, at the age of 30, Stills is determined not to waste his money this time the way he sees his (generally younger) colleagues doing, admitting that he only splashes out for 'some guitars, a studio in the backyard. The line 'do you know what it cost me to find another key?' might be a typical Stills pun - on the one hand he means having to buy another house to store all this stuff; on the other he's referring to the fallout from the CSNY and Springfield years when he's had to find yet another band to work with and start from scratch. An intermittently clever lyric can't make up for the fact that, by Stills standards, there's not an awful lot going on here though: this isn't much of melody, more of a riff and not a very exciting one at that. AS a recording this is the song that suffers worst from the kind of blurriness shared by so much of 'Down The Road' - Stills ressurrects the high-pitched harmony part from 'Marianne' that's uncomfortable (the rest of Manassas should have sung along) and harmony parts come and go in the mix without a by your leave. The song deserved better.
'Do You Remember The Americans?' opens side two with a musical re-write of 'Fallen Eagle' but with distinctly lesser lyrics. Stills has fun getting his banjo out of the loft, with Al Perkins on pedal steel and Hillman on ukulele right at home, but this is a weak slab of social protest that must have sounded very out of time in 1973. This is the kind of song that would have slotted right in on the soundtrack of 'Easy Rider' in 1968: the narrator is a passing hitch-hiker be-moaning the fact that people just aren't as nice as they used to be and feeling rather paranoid when a trucker stops to let him in ('Hope he don't mind long hurr!') I the olden days everyone would have stopped, nowadays everyone just rolls on past 'lookin' kind of mean'. Stills may be wondering what happened to the community spirit of 'Woodstock', but if so then he should have written another verse saying exactly that: instead this short four-verse song ends on a deeply unusual slab verse that from anyone else might have been accused of racism ('Who are all these strangers in my home? Where are the Americans - where did they go?') You'd hope that the writer of the classic racism-challenging 'Word Game' simply came up with an unfortunate choice of words there and what Stills really meant was that the kind helpful co-operative America he knew in his teens has now turned into snarling uncaring slobs, but by his standards it's not that well worded. The melody, while strong, still isn't quite up to the delightful 'Fallen Eagle' either.
The title track of 'Down The Road' sounds better: P P Arnold makes yet another fine guest appearance on an AAA album (following stints with The Small Faces, Cat Stevens and Roger Waters) and Stills always suits these kind of slow blues-rock hybrids. However, there's something distinctly one-note about this song too, which is one of those novelty songs about drugs that could only be written in the 1970s. In fact, given that this period is the start of Crosby's addiction getting out of control it's all rather uncomfortable as lyrics like 'hookah makes me crazy, believe I'm gonna have to pass' and 'then your cocaine starts to move fast' passing by in a blur. The whole song sounds a blur, actually, with Manassas not their usual tight selves and Stills a little too convincing in his stoned persona. One wonders what the famously anti-drugs Hillman thought of it all: he's notable by his absence in the harmonies and most likely isn't here at all. The song reaches a ridiculous peak in the last verse when Stills speculates about how 'some people into Jesus, some people into zen' before adding that 'I'm just into every day, don't hide where I've been' (blatantly untrue as the foreign languages to 'Pensamiento' make clear!) Either way, it's all a tad ordinary by Stills standards: the Manassas album had him singing great songs about life, evolution, prejudice, love and every great subject there is; finding him reducing his vision to his next high from drugs is a bit of a come-down in all meanings of the word. Note too the sloppy running order for the album which means we go directly from this song with it's opening line 'When I was a young man...' into...
'City Junkies', which begins with the exact same words. A 'warning' drug song that sounds faintly ridiculous coming so hard on the heels of the last track, it makes me wonder - were these two songs originally a pair or perhaps part of the same song? The melodies and tempos aren't really similar, but then this song has such a generic tune it could have been sung along to any tune - including the above one. The lowest of 'Down The Road's lowest moments, it's a rather over-written song with every rhyme for 'New York City' going ('pretty' 'pity') and a sad tale of a girlfriend turning into a junkie and leaving the narrator behind. I stress that neither Judy Collins or Rita Coolidge were that big on drugs and that bit is surely fictional, but once again you can hear the very real autobiographical hurt as Stills laments how 'New York City took my love away' and how 'I fell in love so hard you know' but that now 'we're better off you now'. Then again, perhaps this is another pre-fame relationship we don't know about - Stills stresses that it was 'long ago' and neither Rita nor Judy had much of a connection with New York. Either way it seems 'real' and Stills' lines about turning into a 'dancing guitar man' are sung with the wry smile of similar lines across this album. However Stills' unusually blurred vocal makes the best feature of this song - the lyrics - hard to hear, there's little or no melody and this kind of all out-rock attack was the one thing the multi-headed Manassas beast could never quite pull off (not with all the band playing anyway). This could have been another great Stills song about loss and heartbreak, but it sounds like a revved-up knees-up and that's all wrong. No wonder Hillman saved most of his wrath for the album on this song in particular - it's probably the weakest song Manassas released in their short time together.
Thankfully the catchy Latin singalong 'Guaguanco De Vero' puts us right back on track. I'm less sturdy on this translation but it seems to be possibly 'Late Summer' or something on those lines. A mixture of English, Spanish and French (the language of his new wife) it might be Stills' most autobiographical song of them all, reflecting on how he 'doesn't know' his older self who was 'lost' and 'hid in a shell' with 'every song a cry'. However now he's met his true soulmate, Veronique, in France and is now a contented family man, 'somebody else' who appreciates him for who he is - he no longer has to 'open and close' his feelings when he's around her. The much repeated Spanish chorus translates as 'Now I go back to not wanting' and like the bulk of this record's true much-delayed follow-up 'Stills' (1975), it's wonderful to hear Stills so happy and contented with his life. For all that, though, and this song's conga singalong over the hypnotic chorus Stills sounds lost and lonely here, wide-eyed and scared throughout, even on the verses where he's found contentment at last. A gorgeous song that ends with the upbeat line 'know I know who we are, who is we and we're together', it's another classic Stills song turned into a great recording by a particularly Latin-style Manassas backing.
Perhaps the album should have ended there instead of the rather disappointing 'Rollin' My Stone', a song that some critics find boring, others a little smug. Me, I like what Stills is trying to do: another 'warning' song from the recent convert to family life and abstinence ('Looking back it all seems ridiculously insane!') it finds Stills also coming to terms with the fact that he'll never be fully rid of this darker side of his personality either. We've already mentioned that the idea of 'rollin' a stone' reflects the later song 'Myth Of Sisyphus' about the man of legend cursed to do just that; the difference here is that 'rolling a stone' should be a good thing: it's an oft-used image in blues and rock, from Muddy Waters to 'rolled' marijuana cigarettes to the name of the Rolling Stones. The usual image is of an unstoppable force getting bigger with each 'rocking' and 'rolling' and is typical rock star slang for a good time. Stills cleverly inverts this idea though with a chorus that includes the scathing line 'you're lying!' and the feeling that he's looking down on all this with heavy disapproval (no one, surely, believes the rather timid line at the end of this tirade that 'No one's trying to tell you what to do!') The problem with this song comes not from the song itself, which is a clever pastiche of the kind of blues/rock thing every other boozed up rock and roller writes (including Stills on the album's title track) but with the performance: Manassas seem to think 'blues' means 'playing slowly and sadly' - this song should be an electric gut-wrencher, not a rather bland song only occasionally spitting out sparks. The Stills band revived this song - the only track from this record played much in concert - during Stills' 'breakdown' years of 1979 but rather than Stephen singing it was given over to soulful keyboardist Mike Finnigan and turned into a rather OTT cat-and-mouse Stax style recording (sadly only available currently on bootleg). While Finnigan's voice is an acquired taste, had Stills done this arrangement with his voice for Manassas then this track might have been better remembered. Sadly, left as it is, it's rather a limp ending to the album.
Overall, then, 'Down The Road' isn't the great classic that 'Manassas' was and puts an end to an unbroken run of staggering releases for Stills between 1966 and 1972 that are all terrific and remarkably consistent. Many critics picked up on this and at last had an opportunity to get out the knives and dismiss this record as bland fodder. But that's unfair: there's a lot more going on in this album than later, blander LPs like 'Right By You' 'Stills Alone' and 'Man Alive' and to tar a promising and generally deep album that simply needed two more good songs and a couple of extra takes with the same brush is unfair. No wonder 'Down The Road' is under the table, in a drunken stupor, looking a mess: I would be too with a reputation like that album has. But I know talent when I see it and far from being the low-point of Stills' career this might be his record that keeps on giving the most: every time I hear this album and wade past the lesser tracks in the middle I'm always surprised how good it is. In fact I must confess that back in the days before I owned either album on CD I added the five best songs from this record onto the end of my 'Manassas' LP when putting them both on cassette - and low and behold if it wasn't 'Isn't It About Time?' 'Lies' 'Pensamiento' 'Guaguanco De Vero' and 'So Many Times' that turned into my favourites from the entire set. 'Down The Road' ended up being a bit of a cul-de-sac and Stills and Hillman will both be back, sans Manassas, with better albums still in their careers. But 'Down The Road' is still an important destination on Stephen Stills' journey and is a much more interesting place to visit than you might remember.