When he was a kid, just a few years after learning to walk, he learned to tap dance. One of his clearest memories is being three years old, sitting on a chair with tap-shoes on and tapping rhythms onto a metal board. Rhythm is in his blood. The first instrument he mastered was not guitar, but the drums. “Rhythm is my thing,” he said.
Today, Stephen Stills is happy and relaxed as he sits in his location of choice, the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. One is more likely meet to Liza Minelli here than Stephen Stills, but I soon discover that he’s quite at home here. He’s got his own table under the sun-streamed windows, and the waiters all know him.
He wrote a profusion of classic songs, including “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Love the One You’re With” and “For What It’s Worth.” He was also the architect of the Crosby, Stills & Nash sound. His voice was one-third of their miraculous vocal blend, and his soul was thoroughly injected into all their records-in his passionate acoustic and electric guitar playing, and also in his arranging of their famous songs. He took Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children,” for example, originally a gentle and wispy ballad, and transformed it into a country-tinged masterpiece. He scrutinized David Crosby’s abstractly ingenious chords, figured them out (usually) and created a solid groove for Crosby’s asymmetrical musings. And when Neil Young joined the band, not only did Stills have a new sparring partner on guitar, he had more songs to infuse with fire.
With a Groucho-esque glint in his eyes, he expresses admiration for the many long-legged women who pass by, and peppers the conversations with a variety of funny non-sequiturs, such as “I don’t know about you, but I am so over tattoos.” Asked if he’s been writing any new songs lately, he says no and explains, “It’s busy stuff with little kids.” He has two kids at home right now, one three years old and another 11, which he refers to as “the last litter.” He then adds that his total number of offspring is seven. “So I’d better write some more songs,” he says, and laughs.
“This is all too complicated,” he says to the waiter about the elaborate lunch menu we are offered, featuring dishes like Osso Buco that seem especially heavy and convoluted at 11 a.m. “Can I get a breakfast menu, please?” he asks, and the waiter replies, “Sure, you can have anything you want, Mr. Stills. You know that.” “Yeah, I know that,” he says knowingly to me. He smiles because it’s true. He can have anything he wants, and not just in terms of this morning meal. He’s earned it. The man has been in the trenches and emerged triumphant, a real guitar hero whose chops only get better as time goes on, and a man who has succeeded in fusing expansive lyricism with visceral music better than just about anyone this side of Bob Dylan. “I’d like a bacon sandwich, or something like that.” Soon he orders Eggs Benedict, apologetically explaining, “It’s bad for me, but I’m gonna do it anyways. I love it.” It’s the same apologetic tone he adopts when, later, waiting for cars at the valet, his giant Mercedes is brought to him. “I’ll get a Prius one of these days, I promise.”
His genius is much in evidence these days, as he’s just released an amazing recording-Just Roll Tape-an album he made in a couple of hours in April of 1968 after his girlfriend Judy Collins wrapped up recording for the day, and he wanted to preserve some of his new songs. Successive masterpieces came spilling out-the expansive, amazing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” in which he expanded the song form into a suite in a way nobody-save those Liverpool lads on their Abbey Road medley-had ever done before. And the tunes “Helplessly Hoping,” “Change Partners” and “Wooden Ships,” can’t be forgotten. Hearing him play and sing these songs solo is a revelation-the confidence and power he exudes in the studio is stunning, and for the first time we discover which part was the actual melody. “We were very clever boys,” he says coyly about the intricate harmony arrangements he cooked up with CSN.
Over breakfast, no sign of the notorious Stills temperament surfaces, except for the occasional slightly irritated “obviously” offered as an answer to questions he doesn’t feel need to be posed. But mostly he seems quite happy in his life, in his world and kindly subjugates himself to a gentle interrogation.
“Wooden Ships” is one of the few songs you collaborated on-it’s credited to you, Crosby and Paul Kantner.
Yes. The two were on Crosby’s boat when I arrived. Crosby had the first part and Kantner had the second part. And then it kept drifting around. So I went down below deck and finished it off. Everyone else was up watching the stars, and I polished it off.
Did you three discuss what it was about?
Dude, there’s no telling what we discussed that evening. [Laughter] It was one of those overwrought hippie things. The boat was humming, if you will.
Back then, your peers were writing conventionally short songs and you wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
It started out as little bits and, all of a sudden, I realized that they fit together, and one thing led to another, but nothing was finished.
When you put it together, did you consider that it was too long?
No. I grew up on “Rhapsody In Blue.” This was the same thing with words. I never worried about it. And it wasn’t that long anyway, only seven minutes. But they still wouldn’t put it out as a single.
The vocal blend of CSN was miraculous, and-
That’s your word, miraculous.
When the three of you would sit down and sing, were people blown away?
I guess so. Crosby thought so. [Laughs] It ceased to be so miraculous after the first temper tantrum. [laughs].
Were all three of you having those?
I could be temperamental back then. But I got over it.
To capture that vocal blend in the studio, would you all sing your parts at the same time?
Yes. We always sang them gathered around a big beautiful Neumann 87 [mic]. Back when I started singing with ensemble singing groups, the mic would be at least three feet away. And you’d stand back from it, and the mic would capture the blend. I still sing at least six inches away from the mic. My voice sounds too heavy if it’s miked too close. Where you stand from the mic is everything. Miking is all…Often it would sound almost right and the engineer would say, “OK, Crosby-take one step backwards,” or “Graham, take one giant step backwards.”
You were at a creative peak at the time of Just Roll Tape. What happened to allow so many great songs to come then?
I don’t know. There was a period there when I was writing lots and couldn’t keep up. But I could never be like Neil [Young] and basically write an album and record it in a week. There are people who can do that, but not many. Who can do that? I take them as they come. And right now, I’m waiting. Or gestating.
Some songwriters feel they are receivers, and songs come through them from beyond. Others feel it’s a conscious process.
It’s both. [Laughs] When you’re compelled to write, as I am sometimes, social commentary, it comes through you. It’s conscious and unconscious. Sometimes you feel I have to say something about this. But there are a lot of them that are the result of a lot of good craftsmanship. A lot of them come from just keeping yourself open. Where could “Eleanor Rigby” have come from other than taking a walk and seeing this little church? I mean, what a great story.
But these songs, I didn’t write them all at one time. This was just the first crack at a tape recorder I had. Judy wanted me to play guitar, and then I took the studio after she was finished. The last thing she said was, “Don’t stay all night, ‘cause I need you fresh tomorrow.” And I didn’t. I stayed just as long as it took to record all those songs one time. “Just roll tape” was my way of keeping my word to Judy.
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was written for her?
Yeah, of course. She called me up and said, “Gosh, it was like getting a love letter. After all these years.”
I love all the alliteration in “Helplessly Hoping.”
A lot of alliteration for a cautious cowboy. [Laughs] When I did the first few lines, I thought, “How long can I keep this going?” [Laughs] It’s basically a country song, and it sings like that. It wants brushes on the drums.
It’s fascinating to hear these songs solo because it was never obvious which part was the melody.
Yeah. In some cases, being the one with the highest falsetto, I was the one who ended up with the castrato part. I’m happy to be back on the melody.
I thought Graham had the highest parts…
Graham doesn’t have a falsetto. He just sings really high. When we sing “Suite,” for example, I’m way on top.
Is that how you would always do the vocals for CSN-with you on top?
Well, we were very clever boys. And we changed it all the time. For no reason at all. It’s kind of like “stump the band.” David was really good at finding the really cool, weird part.
Is he usually the middle part?
We really wanted you guys to be just as confused as you obviously are. So I’m not telling [laughs].
Those parts cross and overlap…
Exactly. One of the secrets of singing ensemble is imitating each other.
Would it take intense rehearsal to get the phrasing so perfect?
No, we were very lazy. But it was so much fun to hear ourselves that they were easy.
Graham told me CSN was born when you and David were singing your song “You Don’t Have To Cry,” and he heard it, listened a couple of times, and then added the third part.
Right. It was at Cass Elliot’s house in the dining room. Some people said it was at Joni’s house, but they’re wrong and I’m right.
You could have easily done a solo thing then instead of getting into another band-
Yeah, but I’m a band guy. Back in the day when I was in New York City doing the solo coffee-house circuit, I was miserable. I’m a band guy. I love the camaraderie.
You’re a great acoustic guitarist, but you’ve always been a burning electric player, too.
I want to keep flaming while I can.
And you’re playing better than ever-
The longer you do it, the better you get.
Is that true with songwriting as well?
No. Those first passionate ones are really special. And later in life you might get deeper and more resonant and more crafted, but they’re not as free as those first ones. You end up out-crafting yourself. You get too cute. Losing the point. Getting contrived.
Which is why I admire Bob Dylan so much. He’s managed not to do that.
How was “For What It’s Worth” born?
I had a house in Topanga. Me and a friend went over to Laurel Canyon to go clubbing. We were young and bored. We came to Sunset Boulevard. On one side was this whole battalion of cops. In full Macedonian battle array. I had been working on this song about guys in Vietnam. We considered turning around. But we got out of the car to see what was happening, and there was this funeral for [the club] Pandora’s Box that was spilling out onto the street. And the cops just went nuts. So I said to my friend, “Get me back to my guitar.” I wrote it in about fifteen minutes. Everyone heard the song and loved it, and Ahmet [Ertegun] said, “You have to record it.” We had a record in the pipeline, and he said “Stop the presses,” and we had it out in seven days…which is a trick that people have been trying to replicate ever since.
I understood you brought Neil Young into CSN because you wanted another guitarist with whom to spar.
I definitely wanted another musician. And first, we wanted John Sebastian. But he had his own plan. I was thinking a keyboard player. But Ahmet brought it up, getting Neil. But it was odd, because he [Neil] had already walked out on me once, in Buffalo Springfield…at a pretty critical time. It turned out to be a pretty good match. There was always a bond between us from the very beginning.
You’re a prolific songwriter-was it tough to have to share songwriting with the others?
Sometimes. But that turned into solo careers. Neil quickly discovered that’s where you get all the money. [Laughs] It got crowded. But that’s okay. Life gives you the curves it does.
Were you a kid when you wrote your first song?
I was 19, I think. I was already out of the house. Already been in and out of college.
A lot of your friends felt that you would stop playing music at 35 or so.
Not me. I always knew I’d keep doing it. Everything else seemed like a crushing bore. Sportswriter, maybe.
Are you optimistic about your future, where you’re going musically?
No one my age is optimistic about their future. [Laughs] Except politicians.