“I ain’t no Dylan you know…”
Steve Stills Interview
Stephen Stills is a man with a reputation. His pioneer efforts with the Buffalo Springfield served as a jumping off point for a multitude of projects: the Super Session album, various solo recordings and bands, and the off-on partnership of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. On the eve of this summer’s CSN&Y reunion, Stills agreed to one of the few interviews he’s granted in the last couple of years. It was taped at the Caribou Ranch in Colorado, where Stills is in the middle of cutting a new solo album with a new backup band, this one consisting of Russ Kunkel on drums, bassist Kenny Passarelli, Joe Lala on congas and guitarist Donnie Dacus.
What happened to the aborted CSN&Y reunion last year? Wasn’t the music jelling properly?
Actually, the music was jelling, it just didn’t sustain itself. The time wasn’t really right. We all had commitments that had boxed us in to getting together everything in short order. It wasn’t that easy. We played each other a lot of our new songs and gave each other our opinions. Basically, we set the groundwork for this summer when we’ll be recording a new CSN&Y album and doing a tour of ballparks and speedways. There’s no real gossip or hot info behind why it didn’t happen last year. We just got together and started talking about it again. David, Graham, Neil and I just figured it would be foolish not to do it. Everybody’s getting along. Even Neil and I are close again. We just found out that the four of us are still pretty much the same people. Just a little older and a little wiser. Hell, we’ve been together off and on for about eleven years now. We’ve all got babies and things now and that was really the key to it. As far as this tour, we did one for the art and the music, one for the chicks. This one’s for cash. [He laughed.]
For the cash, huh?
Well… you know me well enough, Cameron, to know that if it wasn’t looking pretty damn good I wouldn’t be there. The music is real good, like it’s never been before. And that’s probably because everybody’s matured as musicians. I got my chops worked way up on the solo tour I did last winter. All my dues are paying off, I guess. Everybody’s mellow and that’s about the size of it. I’m just feeling so damn healthy, it’s incredible. I feel real good, about everything. It’s gonna be fun, man.
Were you surprised that CSN&Y originally got to be Hollywood showcased? Or do you disagree that it ever reached that point?
Naw, I wasn’t surprised. I was just surprised that we let ourselves fall into that trap. I really thought that we’d all been at it long enough to avoid that. We obviously weren’t. We’re all very content right now. Especially me since I’ve gotten married. And with the formation of this band…
Do you think that contentment has made it harder for you to write?
Sure. Joni Mitchell and I really had an interesting conversation about that. You know, ‘Woke up this morning… and I felt pretty good.” ‘Cause I’ve always written the blues. I’m basically a blues-singer, but I’ve managed to get some happy music out. I’m trying harder than I have in years.
How do you look back on that first solo album you did?
My first album would have been a number one record if George Harrison hadn’t come out right behind me with All Things Must Pass. I thought it was really a good album. I thought a lot of Manassas was really good too, but not all of it. Not enough of it to carry.
How do you look back on yourself before marriage?
I’ve done all of it. I’ve been the most obnoxious superstar, arrogant… I’m still arrogant. I can be an absolute bastard. I have a bad habit of stating things pretty bluntly. I’m not known for my tact. I’ve done all of it. I’ve gotten all carried away with myself, being a rich man at twenty-five. Sometimes it’s difficult to deal with… and you make mistakes.
Michael John (One of Stills’ managers – Ed.) was saying today that he’d love to pull off the Buffalo Springfield reunion.
Yeah, well Michael John is into coups… as are most people who are in the music business that don’t play music. I mean, there’s where CSNY got hung up. Therein lies the trap. The musicians pulling of coups. Just play your axe, man. But play it good. Be able to cut it. All the time. Anytime. I get too tired and I can’t sing in tune, but I can always play. David Crosby is an incredible musician. He’s to the point now where he never makes mistakes. Sometimes he’ll play a little too much of something, but he doesn’t play out of tune…he can count to four… and that’s not true of a lot of people who are in this business on a professional level. For instance, you know whose band really impresses me? Rod Stewart’s. They’re hot. They play right. There’s a few bands around who really play, but I think all of this mascara-rock, creep-rock, whatever you want to call it… it just turns my stomach.
It’s been a good deal of success, though.
WELL FAR OUT. Audiences are really fickle. Particularly about things like that. I wouldn’t even stay in the same hotel as the New York Dolls. I don’t even know the dudes, so how can I say that? But I’ve been selling records for almost eight years now. And that’s gotta tell you something too.
The only ones who ever pulled it off were the Rolling Stones and that’s because Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts don’t care at all. And Keith Richard manages to play a pretty hot guitar. Rod Stewart doesn’t do that much of that and he’s a real good singer, but the Rolling Stones pulled it off. When they started, though, that’s not what made them popular. What made them popular is that they played hot rock ‘n roll. And people were ready to hear hot rock ‘n roll. I’ve been out there a lot. I draw pretty good and they really like it when it gets down and starts to boogie. They like it sweet for a little while, but they want to boogie.
And you want to too.
Oh yeah. I’d be bored to death if I didn’t get to boogie. I’d be bored to death.
Overall, have you been satisfied with the records you’ve made since Four Way Street?
I HATED Four Way Street. I was embarrassed to put my name on that record. I thought it was atrocious. I mean you’ve got to be GOOD to get a live album and not have to overdub and do some cheating. You’ve got to be so good that I think there’s five groups in the last ten years who were good enough to cut a live album. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were one. I ain’t heard a rock ‘n roll band yet that was good enough. Really. This band might make me good enough to cut a live album, who knows? I ate a $250,000 project at Madison Square Garden once because I stank. The joint was going nuts, I stank. So did most of that entire first tour I did. The one with the Memphis Horns. I was singing sharp and playing flat. You gotta be good, man. Real good. People, in the long run, won’t put up with a lot of shit. They’re not gonna take it. As far as the records that I’ve heard that have really done well, none of them are that bad.
What about Jimi Hendrix?
I could never get him to sit down with a good rhythm section, but one time we did out at my beach house in Malibu. We played fifteen hours straight, we didn’t stop, and I think we must have made up twenty rock ‘n roll songs. Bruce Palmer was there and Buddy Miles and me. Bruce got tired and I played bass and we had another jam too. Another one at the Speakeasy when I just sat there and played rhythm guitar. I played bass for the infamous guitar war between Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix. It was at Steve Paul’s place. The Scene, in New York. Aw, it was really funny. Dallas Taylor and I were just so drunk we couldn’t see. Dallas was just horrible and Jimi came over and hit me in the back with his guitar. I woke up and I was playing a half-note sharp. It fell back together after that. Johnny Winter wasn’t paying any attention at all. And he had on his mind that he was better than Jimi Hendrix. And all that shit. Hey, I made a list just messing around of all the musicians that I’d played with. It’s astounding. It blew my mind when I really started to think about it.
You remember that whole jamming trip that was going down in ’68 and ’69? Buddy Miles and I started that… and Duane Allman and I used to do that even before then. When The Hourglass was at Winterland, me and Duane would show up and ask anybody who looked like they could play guitar if they wanted to jam. Buddy and I flipped out over Jimi Hendrix so bad that we followed him like a couple of groupies, you know. I was just trying to learn how to play the guitar like he did, man. But boy we had some good times. I’ve gotten some incredible groups together, you know. Jimi… I could never get him in the studio ‘cept for once with a good rhythm section. And the one time I did, he really wasn’t comfortable and flowing.
Are you talking about the track that was on your album?
Yeah, but I got another one.
A lot of people seem to think that was one of his better pieces of studio work.
Yeah. I also like to think I’ve got one of Eric Clapton’s better ones too. And that was his rehearsal take. It’s the sound and stuff. Everybody says I’m such a competitive musician. And I just don’t see how that can be. I haven’t looked at Billboard in so long. I don’t even remember what it looks like.
What about your songwriting?
I ain’t no Dylan, you know. I haven’t got the gift of the language, I don’t think. In my opinion, I think I’ve written some really nice phrases, but it’s inconsistent. What happens to me is that I want to hear the music so bad that I’ll write bullshit lyrics… cruddy lyrics. And I’ve gotta get out of that somehow, but I’m not happy with my lyrics lately. And also, I don’t want to write… I don’t even want to talk politics. I don’t want to write any of that. And I find it hard writing happy songs and I’m a little too happy to write so much blues. I’ve written some funny songs this time. I wrote a song where the changes are… I’ve used them twice before in two different songs and it’s called “This Is My Favorite Set of Changes”. I’ve already used them in a couple of songs before and thought I’d play them one more time. I’m just trying to tell some stories is all. Not trying to be some great lyricist. Now Neil Young is a great lyricist. If you really wanted to hear some great songs, Neil Young would write words and I’d write the music. It would just be out-a-site. ‘Cause he’s an incredible lyricist, he really is.
Neil and I used to have guitar wars on stage that were really stupid. It was really funny. I wouldn’t play the game except every once in a while when I’d get in a mood. It was just pathetic. I started playing lead guitar in the Buffalo Springfield and it was okay. I never played anything that was really bad, other than that I played too loud. The fights started getting really good and I guess that fights started becoming a little too much to take or something. ‘Cause it got weird.
What kind of image do you think you project now?
Image. What a strange word. What a strange conception. Those British blues players are so fucking competitive, I had a hard time getting them to sit down and play. They’re great blues guitar players, what difference does it make. Eric Clapton. I don’t know about the image, man. I’ve done it. I have played the game. I’m guilty. I have gone completely overboard. I have done the whole riff… of being the rock ‘n roll star. And it’s just… I’m pushing thirty and it’s really funny. I’m getting good at this shit. I hate getting in the position where I can say something and you can write it in the L.A. Times, which will turn people off. That much of it is a reality of the business. And it is a business, it’s the way I make my money. And it can negate how good I am at what I do. I know when I’m being stroked and I know when I’m being paid an actual compliment. Sly Stone came into the studio the other night and gave me the best piece of advice on some of my music that I’ve received in years. It just came right out, and he apologized for fifteen minutes. And I said, “Sly, if you’d asked me, I’d do just what you did. I’d say exactly what I think. And you’re absolutely right, I think. But even if I didn’t, I really appreciate the fact that you are honest enough to tell me exactly what you think of a piece of music… with nothing else involved.”
And that’s the tug-of-war that i get into, because I don’t want to be a faceless thing, but at the same time trying to establish some kind of identity – if my personality is so obnoxious that it negates what I do, then I really lose two-fold. And I think that’s a bit frightening, but not so much anymore. Those records aren’t gonna go away, they’re there. And I dig ‘em. I know that I played that or I arranged that.
That’s why Alice Cooper is so hip, man. He did his number. He’s just a fine old Italian boy who’s fun to get drunk with. He knew exactly what to do and how long to do it. And he’ll never do it again. Whereas David Bowie on the other hand takes it so seriously and it’s so ludicrous it makes me laugh. And then there’s good musicians who put on the high-heeled shoes that they can’t stand in. When you put those big fuckers on, you can’t dance. You can’t get a groove, man… and they’re actually good musicians. To me, that’s really sad. But then I’m an opinionated motherfucker, so…
Courtesy of Creem – Cameron Crowe – September, 1974