One of rock music’s most enduring figures, Stills reflects on his five decades in the business.
Musician Stephen Stills
Tavis: Stephen Stills’ 50-year career has taken him from the 60s band, to Buffalo Springfield to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, to a formidable solo career. He’s written what’s been called era-defining anthems such as, “For What It’s Worth” and “Love the One You’re With.”
50 years of music are now captured in a four-CD set called “Carry On” which was curated by his good friend and fellow musician, Graham Nash. Just to remind you how good Stephen Stills is, here he is with his friend singing the song he wrote for Judy Collins, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
Tavis: So when you take a look at this box set and see all that you have done, and this still isn’t all that you have done, you think what about these five decades?
Stephen Stills: Actually, I focus on what’s coming next. I’ve got a blues album that I did in December with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Barry Goldberg and we call ourselves the Rides because we have all got, you know, elderly rides that are – it’s like all about its name the band game, which I hadn’t played in many, many, many years. The Buffalo Springfield was hard enough [laugh].
Tavis: And how did we land on the Buffalo Springfield?
Stills: Well, we were living with this friend. We would go over to rehearse at this guy’s house and they were working on the street, Fountain Avenue. At a certain part of the procedure, an enormous steamroller came through to flatten the new asphalt and the name of the steamroller was The Buffalo Springfield, and we thought it was pretty apt. Because Neil Young is from Manitoba which is buffalo country.
Stills: And Richie Furay was from Springfield, Ohio and I’m the field [laugh].
Tavis: So the steamroller was the sign from God that that was the name of the…
Stills: Well, we were desperate.
Tavis: Was that like a Blues Brothers moment? You know, you just like…
Stills: No, the album was finished and we were due to get signed in any moment, so it was like we had a month or two to come up with something. We kept putting it off. But we were so big, we would get hung up playing and, you know, we need a name for this band. What are we gonna call it? What are we gonna call it? I don’t know, anything. What do you think? All the animals were taken; all the young sets were taken [laugh].
Tavis: So Buffalo Springfield, it became.
Stills: That’s in fact correct.
Tavis: So when you look back now, I know that you’re always on to the next project and we’ll talk about the blues project in a second. But when you look back on those Buffalo Springfield recordings and that work, what do you think of it all these years later?
Stills: Well, we had these producers that found us working in a club and we made this record. And we came back the next day to listen to what they had done to it. Neil and I looked at each other and said, “Oh, my God. We’re going to have to learn to do this ourselves.” And within a year, both of us knew how to work the recording studio. That’s why we used all the mono mixers from the Buffalo Springfield because those are the ones that Neil and I were there to supervise.
That was the most startling experiences, having been indifferent students and pretty hard to keep focused. We were able to concentrate and focus and learn how to work a half million dollar studio at the time, you know, which would be $5 million now, and I can still do it. Although now they do the digital stuff and it’s typing and watching little lines onscreen.
Tavis: Why was it so important for the two of you to learn how to operate that board?
Stills: Because it didn’t sound like we sounded when we played. It didn’t sound anything like it should, so we learned how to replicate it. We learned how to use (inaudible), use equalization. We learned how to tune the echo. We learned how to, you know, tune the echo chambers and we learned which microphones to place where and we were like sponges, you know. I mean, we were in our early 20s, so we were fearless basically. We just dove in.
Tavis: This isn’t rocket science, I guess, but I am moved by the fact that, at such a young age, you knew exactly what you wanted to sound like and you knew exactly what you should sound like. I say that only because so many people are produced and you all learned to work the board because you knew how you wanted to sound.
Stills: Man, this was urgent at the maximum express level because they didn’t want you in there very long.
Stills: So all we did was ask questions and follow chords, you know. Okay, that’s the buses. Okay, right. Day after day after day, there would be a half hour of Neil and Stephen training exercises, never going to mixing. By the second album, we would go in by ourselves so we could really concentrate and Neil went with Jack Nitzsche and he had a great engineer that taught him, and I had Bruce Botnick that taught me how to operate the control room at Sunset Sound.
Tavis: How did you and Neil hook up initially? Do you remember?
Stills: Well, I was in a little folk group that got sent across Canada in a station wagon, you know, with the big bass fiddle sitting down in the middle. We were doing a set in Ft. William, Ontario which is now known as Thunder Bay. The club owner comes up on a Saturday night and says, “There’s this visiting guy that we’ve had before that’s here with his band. We want him to do a set between your two sets.”
I said great and I listened to him for a minute and he’s doing exactly what I planned to do when I got back to New York City, which is pick up an electric guitar and start writing my own songs. Although we had some originals, but I think I’d written one or two songs that weren’t very good, you know, as yet.
Tavis: Yeah, I doubt that.
Stills: Yeah [laugh]. No, but the most amazing thing about this is the first song on it was recorded in 1961 at the Voice of America radio station in San Jose, Costa Rica. This fellow heard me playing guitar at a party and he says, “I gotta get you on tape. You’ve never been on tape, have you?” He said, “I got lots of stuff.” I went into his apartment and he wasn’t lying. It was wall to wall electronic equipment and two rooms of it and he had a really nice German microphone and like a Philips reel or something, a really good reel-to-reel.
We were in Costa Rica. There was nothing to do, so I played the guitar all my senior year in high school, so I would have been in a rock band back in Tampa. But I played a folk guitar ’cause that’s all I had, so by recording, my style emerged virtually whole. And it’s like I was startled when I heard it four years later.
Tavis: How appreciative are you all these years later that that style, to your phrase – I love it – that your style emerged whole?
Stills: Well, what I’m appreciative of is that somehow through the chaos of my family and all the moving house that we did, that tape managed to survive [laugh] and that’s the first thing I’m grateful for ’cause we were pretty chaotic. The second thing I’m grateful for is the records that I got to listen to.
I mean, I hadn’t developed a blues style yet. It was just finger-picking at first, but I played some R&B guitar and I’m grateful. You know, Sun House and Blind Willie McTell and Elmore James. I couldn’t wait to get an electrified guitar so I could get that thing where you incorporate the amplifier into the music that you’re making. Couldn’t wait.
So, I mean, we all come from the same tree, all of us, and the three English boys, you know, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Paige and Eric Clapton, the Surrey boys, I call them. We would all listen to the same records at the same point in life. So that’s where all this stuff comes from.
Tavis: You said earlier in this conversation there was a point in time when you’d written a couple of songs that you’re sure weren’t that good. I want to flip that question on you and ask you to set your humility aside and tell me when you knew for the first time that you had written a good song. And which song was it? Do you recall when you knew?
Stills: I think it was “For What It’s Worth.”
Tavis: “For What It’s Worth.”
Stills: Yeah, because I’d been working – I’d finally gotten the band coherent and we’re driving and come up over the Laurel Canyon and I’m driving down and they was having a funeral for a bar which was like called Pandora’s Box and it was where you would start walking the Sunset Strip if you weren’t cruising in a car. And it was gonna close ’cause this traffic island where it was built was gonna, you know, be turned into an enormous shopping center or something.
Tavis: So a funeral for the bar?
Stills: There was a funeral for a bar, which having spent time in New Orleans, I knew all about this.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah!
Stills: Since they were closing bars and opening new ones all the time through the French Quarter, so it was a funeral for a bar. This is not an extraordinary event. But somehow in his wisdom, the mayor of Los Angeles at the time, Mr. Sam Yorty, decided that it was a riot and he sent down about 200 policemen in full Macedonian battle array with the helmet and the shields and the night sticks.
This little place was like a bungalow and probably fit its maximum about 200 people and there were about 3,000. So where did they go? They went into the street. Now that is obstruction of a public thoroughfare and the po-po have got to come and say something to you.
Tavis: Right [laugh].
Stills: But saying something and showing up like that is two different – this can’t be good. Turning the car around, I went back to Topanga and wrote that song in about 10 minutes [laugh]. ‘Cause I was sitting in this whole sequence of events about how mad everybody was getting, about people being mad about the war, and, you know, the civil rights movement was still ongoing. You gotta remember that.
You know, these are my people from back home, people that taught me how to play music, so I been playing guitar since I was little. You know, it was all there in that one picture in my mind, so I’d been working on this riff and an old shout-out to the boys over on the line in Nam, you know, who’s just trying to stay alive for the day. So it took as long to write as it took to actually took to write it out.
Tavis: This won’t surprise you, obviously, but I’m always fascinated by – whenever I meet an iconic artist, an iconic writer like yourself, I’m always amazed so often at how the time in which they were writing, the times that they were living through, is such a central character and figure in their work.
Stills: Of course.
Tavis: Can you imagine being, again, the artist that you have become if you were living in a different era? So much of your writing is connected to the era that you were in.
Stills: Well, that’s true of art.
Stills: I mean, it’s reflected. When you go to the museum and you look at Grecian statues and then you look at Roman statues, Grecian statues all have movement and the Roman statues are all static. It’s just the era that they’re in. I mean, you know, there’s a great collection of Vermeers down at the Skirball Center and at the Getty. The color in the paintings is northern Europe.
It’s a time, you know, before pre-industrial, so it’s a little clearer as to the gray that northern Europe became during the – I mean, art is always reflective of the times. If you’re not paying attention to your surroundings, you know, what’s gonna inform you?
Tavis: Yeah. Let me advance this conversation to talk about one of the next iterations of your brilliance, your artistic genius, obviously, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. When you look back on those years and that work, you think what?
Stills: Well, David and I had been fiddling and hanging out together and driving around town and going to clubs. Just, you know, he was a pal. So was Cass Elliot. Cass Elliot was one of the funniest people I ever knew. I met her in New York and we used to, you know, sit back in the Pizza House and watch the tourists go by. People watch, you know.
But she was very well-read and an entertaining conversationalist and she came up to me outside The Troubadour one night. We had seen The Hollies a few days before and she said – I didn’t really put it together until what happened. That’s how dense I am. She said, “Do you think that you and David might like a third voice?” “Well, if it was the right guy and if it felt right, you know.”
Never in a thousand years did I realize that there was a war going on within The Hollies and he had fallen head over heels for Joni Mitchell. She says, “When David Crosby calls you and tells you to come to my house, do it immediately.” And that’s all. She said, “I’m not telling you any more.” [Laugh]
Tavis: When the call comes, show up [laugh]!
Stills: That’s right! She’s a clever person, so I walk in and there’s her and there’s David behind her. And there’s David behind her back in his, you know, teddy boy Edwardian velvet vest is Graham Nash with all his hair. “Sing that one that only has one verse.” So I went “Wait a minute. Let me look around.”
I looked around the house and I found an alcove by a dining table that had good acoustics. So I sat down and said, “David, you sit there” on my good side. We played this little song and Graham said, “Do that again” and we did it and like the fourth time he chimed in. We knew immediately our lives had changed.
Tavis: You knew immediately?
Stills: Because the blend was spectacular, yeah. That high English Celtic voice with David, you know, so real smooth, sort of Glenn Yarbrough kind of voice and my whatever you wanna call it. I don’t know, a gravelly little kind of style, but can carry a tune.
Tavis: Yeah, you can do more than that. You’re being modest. [Laugh]
Stills: Well, I don’t know how – people that brought me up told me that’s how you’re supposed to be. That’s why I find these very, very difficult. But it just took off. And the next thing, we went into a record and made a record fairly quickly and pretty much they left it up to me what else the instruments was gonna go on. And David’s probably responsible for my career, really, ’cause he was the social gadfly that could get out there and hang out and I was pretty much of a shy guy, you know, and bashful.
He made this all possible and then he just said, “Yeah, go try that, go try that.” Graham had all these skills that he had honed making, I don’t know, a dozen hits with The Hollies. You know, they were pretty big and he was on the radio all the time and we could sing their songs out loud.
Tavis: You got Crosby, Stills, Nash. You got Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Stills: And then I’m looking around for somebody to play, now that I’ve done this record, this guy on me playing the instruments. I gotta find a band [laugh]. So (inaudible) says, “Man, why don’t you get Neil….” He walked out on me once [laugh]! Are you sure?
But he was just restless, that’s all. You know, I’ve never held a grudge about it. He came aboard and then, of course, it got really chaotic. Then we made that second album. The first album, we was really the best new artist or something, and the second album went through the ceiling.
And all of a sudden, we’re at Woodstock and I know what 400 acres of people looks like from a helicopter [laugh]. You know, Woodstock (inaudible) overnight, but it was a complete accident that the organizer handled rather adroitly.
Tavis: Right, yeah. And then there’s your solo work.
Stills: Well, that was like, okay, now I’m on the good side, so I can pick and choose. I needed a break from this here, so I wanted to play some more blues. You know, I wanted to get back to where I was at in the first place, which is more Rolling Stonesy, you know. I wanted to get after that. Of course, I hook up with Chris Hillman and started to do a country style band. I finally got my blues band, you know, in the 70s, in the late 70s.
You know how when you look back on your life and certain part of your life get compressed in periods of months, you know? By the other side of 40 is a decade [laugh]? Like the four years of college becomes three weeks! Well, in my case, in fact that’s literally true [laugh].
Tavis: But you don’t regret that?
Stills: No, I don’t. I lived there and I been to high school in that town, but I kind of already knew what I was gonna do.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier that you’re working on a new project, another blues project. Tell me more about this again.
Stills: Yeah. What we did was we wrote like five new songs, me and Barry Goldberg who comes from the Chicago Mike Bloomfield, you know, Al Cooper school and he plays. But he’s great to write just blues songs, bluesy kinds of songs. And we popped out about five, you know.
Then I ran across Kenny Wayne Shepherd about 10 years ago going to the Colts games ’cause he was a friend of Mr. Irsay. You know, I really wanted to do a guitar-slinging blues album and we did it in a week and it’s the baddest thing I have done in a number of years. It just doesn’t let up.
Tavis: Did you choose this title for this box set, “Carry On.”
Stills: I chose the title for the song and it seemed to me to be apropos what this is, which is that’s the first two chapters.
Tavis: Right, ’cause you…
Stills: I reckon there’s a couple more [laugh].
Tavis: I reckon there’s a couple more too [laugh]. You got the gift and you got to use it.
Stills: I got it.
Tavis: You got to use it, man.
Stills: Yeah, really. You know, suddenly you’re struggling with everything except reading. But just getting it on and, you know, overcoming being shy. But then you start playing this stuff and you pick up a pair of sticks. I think Don Henley tells the same kind of story about beating pencils on the book in class. “Would you stop that?”
Then you find your set of drumsticks and then your mother, to save the furniture, orders – your father goes down to the pawn shop and comes home with a set of pearl gray Slingerland Radio Kings.
Tavis: And the rest of that is history.
Stills: And the rest is history, man. I was off – nine years old, I was eight years old, I had my drums and I was off to the races.
Tavis: And he’s still off to the races. I reckon there’s a couple more chapters left, but you can get this one now. Stephen Stills has a four-CD set out and it covers the best of all of his stuff, the group stuff, the solo stuff. It’s appropriately called “Carry On.” I love that. That’s a great admonition for all of us, no matter what we do, to carry on.
Stills: That’s right.
Tavis: Carry on.
Stills: Carry on and keep on at it because it’s kind of what we’re doing right now as a country.
Tavis: Trying to carry on.
Stills: Yes, sir.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you on this program. I been waiting a long time for this. I’m glad you came.
Stills: Well, thank you. It’s an honor, sir.
Tavis: When the blues project, come back. Any excuse for you to come hang out with us.
Stills: All right. You got a deal.
Tavis: All right. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Until next time, keep the faith.
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