“Stephen Stills”

Is it too late to rewrite history?

The two most anticipated albums of Christmas 1970 were George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” and Stephen Stills’ solo debut. Harrison’s triple album made the bigger splash, and means even less than Stills’ debut today. As for Stephen’s record… You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Love The One You’re With,” his album was the dorm room soundtrack for months.

But now no one ever mentions it.

Neil Young is lionized and Stephen Stills is criticized. But once upon a time, Stills was the bigger act. And when you go back and listen to this debut, you scratch your head, why isn’t it in the same canon as the unforgotten classics of that era, albums from Zeppelin to the aforementioned Mr. Young?

It’s not like Stills was hiding in a hole. He wrote and sang Buffalo Springfield’s biggest hit, “For What It’s Worth,” and he was truly the glue that held Crosby, Stills & Nash’s debut together. Sure, “Marrakesh Express” was the radio hit, but the act built its reputation on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” And it was Stills’ composition, “Carry On,” that both opened and carried the follow-up, “Deja Vu.” Today people only want to talk about Neil Young’s “Helpless” and the cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” but when you dropped the needle on “Carry On” you had an auditory experience that truly blew your mind, akin to listening to “Gimmie Shelter” the previous fall. If you haven’t heard “Carry On” emerge from the speakers of a first class stereo, you haven’t lived. It was like an orchestra was playing inside your speakers, with angels singing along, you had to listen to it again and again and again.

And then the band broke up. And everybody went solo.

And Neil Young emerged first, with the sleeper hit, “After The Gold Rush.” And Graham Nash came last, with the exquisite “Songs For Beginners,” after David Crosby put out the almost unintelligible but gorgeous “If I Could Only Remember My Name.” But the record everybody anticipated, the album everybody bought, was Stephen Stills’ debut.

And it wasn’t like today. With a tsunami of hype. There was no TV. At this point we’d switched loyalty from AM to FM, where repetition was out of the question until Lee Abrams concocted the “Superstars” format years later. The groundswell came from the people. Which is kind of where we’re going today, with record labels faking YouTube plays and authors faking Amazon reviews, the only people we trust are…each other.

Still, there were rumors. That Stephen Stills was arrogant, a control freak. And with no Internet, rumors appeared to be fact, and Stills’ career took a hit. Despite Neil Young abandoning him on the “Long May You Run” tour a few years later.

But that was after Manassas. Whose double album debut satisfied throughout.

But the record we’re talking about today is the solo debut.

And the reason I’m writing about it is it’s that time of year. Yup, cold snowy winter. The album cover pictured Stills in the snow. Stephen Stills' solo debut This album was made for long dark nights alone with a joint or a drink, holding on until the days got longer and the depression lifted.

I was in my freshman year of college. This album and “Gasoline Alley” got me through. I’d come home from the Middlebury College Snow Bowl and drop the needle and feel warm and comforted, back when music was personal, when records were made just for you. When you went to the show and felt directly connected with the act, as opposed to your fellow concertgoers. There was no texting. There was no parading. We all wore the same bell bottoms, what identified us were our minds as opposed to our looks. In an era when personal development meant expanding one’s brain as opposed to one’s bank account.

Start with “Sit Yourself Down”…

When I get restless, what I can do

In your twenties you’re looking for connection. We and our favorite acts were all the same age, going through the same experiences, we listened for insight, we were in it together. There’s nothing worse than being alone and agitated, wanting to be together, but at loose ends.

When I get older, mellow down
Get myself settled on a patch of ground

We were burned out from the sixties, Vietnam took it out of us, Nixon’s reelection put a stake in our hearts. We were returning to the land, our values were changing, but we were still in transition…it was years before Olivia Newton-John got mellow.

Then there’s “Do For The Others.”

We all bought guitars to try and replicate this sound, which we were unable to do. Not only could these people play, they could write and sing too. They’d been doing it for years, they didn’t have parents who pushed them to be famous before puberty. There was no way to achieve this. Instead, becoming a musician required venturing into the wilderness, learning lessons along the way. It wasn’t like college, there was no path, which made it that much more scary…and satisfying if you succeeded.

Round, round, up and down
All along the lonely town
See him sinkin’ low
Doesn’t see the joy there is to know

This was the culture of the era. An exploration of alienation, of loneliness, the human condition. You can’t relate to today’s stars or movies. They’re all about winning, but you’re riddled with self-doubt, you don’t know if you’ll ever get there, you’re not even sure where there is.

And for that same acoustic wonderfulness, check out the closing cut “We Are Not Helpless.”

And don’t miss out on the bluesy “Go Back Home”…

The playing on this album is exquisite, and despite contributions by players as diverse as Ringo, Clapton and Hendrix, it all hangs together.

If you’ve never heard Stephen Stills’ debut your jaw will drop. You won’t believe there was an era when people with this amount of skill walked the earth and created masterpieces like this. That’s how bountiful the classic rock era was, the secondary stuff has been forgotten and it’s better than just about all the new stuff today.

“Stephen Stills” – Spotify

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  2. […] need to read The Lefstez Letter more regularly.   A recent post talked about a great 1970 album simply titled Stephen Stills.  The point of the post was to remind […]

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    1. […] need to read The Lefstez Letter more regularly.   A recent post talked about a great 1970 album simply titled Stephen Stills.  The point of the post was to remind […]

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