Sugar Babe (Live at Berkeley 1971)




Most people had no idea Stephen Stills could wail until “Super Session.” As for the Buffalo Springfield… Most people considered it a band with a hit single and not much more. The Springfield really didn’t experience a renaissance until after the initial Crosby, Stills & Nash record in ’69, people wanted more and they purchased the Springfield compilation “Retrospective” primarily to hear Stills’s “Rock & Roll Woman,” the closest thing to the new sound of CSN. Sure, you were exposed to Neil Young’s “Broken Arrow” and “Mr. Soul,” but at this point Young was a relative unknown, having released his initial, eponymous record to crickets. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” came out mere months later, but it only generated airplay, had an impact, after Young had joined the band and “Déjà Vu” had been released in March of 1970. And then Young put out “After the Gold Rush” in September of that same year and his great ascension really began. The others were just starting their solo careers, whereas Neil had hit his stride. But really, “After the Gold Rush” was a dorm room favorite, something you heard on FM rock stations, which were now nationwide, it wasn’t until “Heart of Gold” became a hit single on AM radio at the advent of 1972 that Neil Young was ubiquitous, when the masses adopted him as a seer. And not long thereafter Neil went on the road and played all new material in a hard rocking fashion and drove the mainstream away and delivered himself endless runway, the looky-loos had moved on, and in truth they never came back, now it was only the hard core who cared, but that was large enough when he dropped “Rust Never Sleeps” with its hard-edged statement “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” that endeared him to the Seattle grungers, who warmly embraced Neil, even on MTV.

But Stephen…

He was the star. Sans Stephen, Crosby, Stills & Nash, with or without Young, didn’t work. Sure, the trio’s debut was fantastic, playable throughout, but “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” eclipsed the rest of the tracks, as did the not quite as good but still magical opener on “Déjà Vu,” “Carry On.” You have no idea how good “Carry On” sounded on the stereos of the day. People were accumulating sound equipment, they needed to be closer to the music, and a ton of dough was spent on getting the track right and it was transcendent, with not only the exquisite harmonies but the stinging guitar underpinning the whole thing.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were the biggest band in the land. Whose popularity was goosed by their appearance in that spring’s “Woodstock” movie and soundtrack album. Sure, the live harmonies were imperfect, and we all knew it, but we also knew they were scared sh*tless at the breakthrough festival and we overlooked the recording’s flaws.

And then came the solo albums. The aforementioned “After the Gold Rush” and just before Thanksgiving of 1970, Stephen Stills’ self-titled debut. “Love the One You’re With” was everywhere. It was a victory lap today’s acts can only dream about, its constant exhibition ran through the Christmas holiday, if you hadn’t gotten “Stephen Stills” as a gift, you bought it, and continued to play it into the new year.

Along with the two American Elton John albums. And George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” and Bob Dylan’s “New Morning,” and if you were in the know, Rod Stewart’s “Gasoline Alley” and… In other words, Stephen Stills was not alone at the top, there was a plethora of meaningful, hit material. And James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” still had legs and “Mud Slide Slim” came along in April and then there was the great unknown, unseen “Tapestry” which came along like the little engine that could and confoundingly dominated. Stephen Stills was not quite the hero he once was, mere months later, when he released “Stephen Stills 2” at the end of June 1971. Suddenly the press turned. This was not the fawning writers of today, rock critics were exalted, and they had it out for you, they were the enemy, and they were not enamored of the album.


But back to “Super Session.”

It’s hard to fathom fifty plus years later, but the most played cut wasn’t on the Mike Bloomfield first side, but the Stephen Stills second side. It was the eleven minute version of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” It was when extended cuts were seen as a breakthrough. “Season of the Witch” was a reimagining of Donovan’s original, which was an album cut, not a hit single. And by this time Donovan had lost his cred. And it had nothing to do with Bob Dylan dissing the English bard in “Don’t Look Back,” but even though they show that film in college classes today, almost no one saw it back then, it had limited distribution in an era where documentaries were sideshows, and Dylan had retreated to Woodstock after his motorcycle accident and the focus was elsewhere.

Bloomfield was a star to those in the know, but they were limited in number. Paul Butterfield never had a hit, the Electric Flag never broke through and…Bloomfield was supposed to play on the complete album but left town and Stephen took his place and suddenly everybody knew his music, “Super Session” was huge. Al Kooper got the most credit, but it was hard to ignore Stills’s contributions, especially the phased guitar solo at the end of “Season of the Witch,” which built and built, jabbing you in the gut with a blunt, not sharp, end which meant it felt so good, and then Stills’s playing became ethereal and you drifted away…this was back when marijuana was starting to permeate the hinterlands, you’d drop the needle and… Funny today how drug addiction starts in the hinterlands, not the city, whereas everything used to happen in the city first. But that’s the legacy of OxyContin. And that same Stills guitar was on “You Don’t Love Me,” which had the driving energy of a Cream song. And then there was the complete reworking of Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” wherein Stills demonstrated range, the skills which would shine on “Crosby, Stills & Nash.”

But Stephen was still relatively unknown until the trio’s first LP. And then the audience couldn’t get enough of him, and here he was on “Super Session” as well as “Retrospective” and Stills was a star. No, a superstar. A status cemented by his solo LP. Which was his peak.

Yes, Stills’ solo album eclipsed the subsequent solo debuts of David Crosby and Graham Nash, and then…

The audience turned against him.

We love to hate our stars. And this was in an era where there was so little news, but gossip was rampant, even your local punter believed they were in the know. Supposedly Stephen Stills was an authoritarian drunk, too big for his britches, not humble like Neil Young…ain’t that a joke. And as I referenced above, it’s not like the populace was starved for stars it could pledge devotion to. Rod Stewart broke through with “Maggie May” and at the end of the summer there was “Live: At Fillmore East” and “Who’s Next” and earlier in the spring Leon Russell’s “Shelter People” and…”Stephen Stills 2″ wasn’t as good as the debut and was trashed by critics and suddenly, Stephen Stills had been eclipsed.

So Stills stepped back and regrouped. Formed a band, Manassas, and released a double album evidencing all sides of his abilities and personality. Short CSN/country/solo-type stuff on the first two sides, and extended wailing on the second two. But as good as the eight plus minute “The Treasure” was, this was 1972, not 1968. FM radio now wanted shorter cuts, not longer ones. And as great as “Manassas’ was there were no hit singles, in an era where hit singles were starting to mean less and less but were still the way to cement popularity, to sell tonnage. So Stephen Stills put out the best album of his solo career, and few cared.

But it was worse than that. Out of nowhere came a track that digested what Stills, et al, had done before and trumped it. Talk about a summer tune… “Take It Easy” was everywhere, AM and FM. It was smooth and slick to the point where you wondered if this band called “Eagles” was a one hit wonder, but you were forced to buy the album, the debut, and found out they were not. The second cut, “Witchy Woman,” alone convinced you of this. This was a band for the seventies, self-contained, with no obvious history, other than that of Randy Meisner, who was seen as secondary anyway, he was just the bass player…as for his rich, high voice, the public was completely unfamiliar with it, to this day they can’t attribute it to him. It was a new era. Hippies, love-ins, they were history. FM was no longer free-form. And the record business was bigger than ever. WEA had been formed the year before, and now with branch distribution more albums could be sold than ever before, assuming the goods were delivered, and the Eagles did.

As did Elton John with “Rocket Man” and Jethro Tull with “Thick as a Brick” and Deep Purple with “Machine Head” and the Stones with “Exile” and the hits just kept on coming, and Stephen Stills was now just one of the pack, he was no longer above it. And there was more press, which not being new he got less of, and…it was essentially over for Stills’ solo career. He kept on putting out albums, but to fewer and fewer returns. He switched from Atlantic to Columbia, but it made little difference, and then there was only one thing to do, reunite with Crosby and Nash.

1977’s “CSN” blew people’s minds, they never expected the band to get back together, everything was there, the harmonies, the songs weren’t quite as good as what came before, but there were peaks and no valleys, but… Now, years later, Stills could no longer dominate, he needed Crosby and Nash just like they needed him. So, he had to sacrifice some of the songwriting. The album didn’t even open with a Stills cut, but one by David Crosby, with Craig Doerge,” “Shadow Captain.” And, in true CSN fashion, the Top Forty hit was written by Graham Nash, “Just a Song Before I Go.” But the songs played the most on FM were Stills’s, “Fair Game,” “Dark Star” and “I Give You Give Blind.” And then there was that one special number, track two, “See the Changes,” the flip side of “4 + 20” on “Déjà Vu.”

“Ten years singing right out loud

I never looked was anybody listening

Then I fell out of a cloud

I hit the ground and noticed something missing”

It was less about the past than the future. All the hits did not fill that hole in his heart.

“Now I have someone

She has seen me changing

And it gets harder as you get closer”

Ain’t that the truth. The baby boomer anthem. It was now the mid-seventies. The Vietnam war was over. What was life about? And I’m not saying that “See the Changes” is unknown, but it’s been forgotten and it rings so true, to this day, it still gets harder as you get closer, unless you give up, as so many boomers have now done.

And then the three went their separate ways, and found most didn’t care, and then reunited in 1982 for “Daylight Again,” which contained the band and Stephen’s last hit, the overplayed “Southern Cross.” And then there were decades of albums, even a short-lived Buffalo Springfield reunion and Neil Young is seen as being contemporary, but the other three? Has-beens.


Until you saw Stills’ performance in “Echo in the Canyon.” It isn’t on the soundtrack album, but Eric Clapton played and then the image shifted to Stephen Stills in the studio positively wailing, never having lost a step, he still had it, in spades, he eclipsed the now self-destructing Clapton, but…crickets.

So Stephen Stills is hiding in plain sight. Not completely ignored, he did do that album and tour with Judy Collins and he is going to be playing at Clapton’s Guitar Festival in September, but when it comes to the younger generation…he’s a cipher. Joni Mitchell got her victory lap, deservedly so, however unending it might be, so many of the heroes of yore have been lionized, but not Stephen Stills, who could not only play at a world class level, but write and sing. Sure, his voice has suffered. And it’s hard to write new songs when no one cares, despite stories absolutely everywhere Graham Nash’s new album doesn’t even have one track in six digits on Spotify, six cuts are still in four, you can’t even lead the audience to the water, never mind have them partake, but Stephen Stills can still play, he can still play.


Stephen Stills has a new album. Well, not exactly new, it’s a live recording, from 1971. You  might be aware of this, but most people are not, it’s not even listed on Stills’s Wikipedia page, it’s got about the same number of streams as Nash’s new, original work. In other words, bupkes.

Now if it were still 1971, this live album would have been at the top of the chart, in everybody’s house, because it contains the old as well as the new and it’s got a sense of immediacy, but times change.

Not that I want to overrate this album, but today I got hooked on “Sugar Babe.”

“You can do what you want to do

You can be who you want to be”

No you can’t. That’s what we believed in the sixties, but that’s in the rearview mirror, today people are just trying to survive. Maybe not those who go to elite institutions, frequently on the coattails of their parents, but they can’t be who they want to be, not unless they want to be broke. Of course there are exceptions, but we all believed we could live a fulfilled life back when, on our own journey of exploration. So you can work at the bank, but if you want to be an artist…good luck. Funny, no one complained about being broke back in the day, no one thought they were entitled to attention and riches, then again you could survive on minimum wage.

And if you read this week’s “New Yorker” article about privates, you can see it’s no longer your father’s music business, there’s money, but…

“How to Hire a Pop Star for Your Private Party”:

If you’re a pro you know all of this, but the one thing that comes across is how these gigs are soul-crushing, as Dylan sang we all have to serve someone, or maybe everybody just can’t say no to the cash anymore.

But once they could.

“People need love

People need trust

People need one another

And that means us”

True. But, once again, it’s no longer the sixties. Today it seems that hate is rampant. We trust almost no one. And people think they can live without others, whether it be the checkout person at the grocery store, assuming you aren’t forced to check out yourself, or the red states that want to secede not knowing that it’s the blue states that are propping up their economies. Money trumps everything, just ask Fox News.

“So close, then again so far away

Where are the answers, I hear them every day”

Now that applies, is just as truthful today. The closer we get, the further off the destination seems to be, meanwhile people don’t stop telling us who to be, what to believe.

Now today music is everywhere, but it sounds worse than ever. And you can’t blame the streaming services, you’ve got to blame yourself. Those earbuds you’re using. The truth is you can listen to better than CD quality, pretty cheaply on Amazon Music and Apple charges no more and then there’s Qobuz, which for some reason sounds better than all the rest.

So I’m sitting on the couch earlier today and I got a hankering to hear “Sugar Babe,” don’t ask me where these inclinations come from, I don’t know, it’s one of the surprises of life, and I look for it on Qobuz and then I’m reminded of the live version from Berkeley. I’ve heard it before, but it was never foreground, I wasn’t giving it my undivided attention. But today it grabbed me.

This ain’t no machine. This is a human being. You can hear it in the recording. You can get close if you want to, most people don’t bother to. Today most music is background, or loved by the barely pubescent, who haven’t experienced the world. And the “stars” pander to them. But we looked up to the stars of yore, because they had preternatural wisdom. How did they know so much at such a young age?

“Everyone knows that it ain’t easy

But when you get it all together in your heart

It’s the easiest thing to do to be pleasin’

Folks ain’t made to live apart”

But they are. Stephen is in limbo. He’s feeling the distance. He’s not sure where he is.

“I got to get next to the girl or I got to get away”

And you’ve got to get next to the person too. Unfortunately, business success, money, doesn’t fill that hole in your heart. And in order to get the dividends, you’ve got to pay. You’ve got to put in the hard work. You can go from person to person for the high, but you’ll never get the rewards. You see it works best when you’re low, or they are, and you can be there for each other, no one wants to be alone, no matter what they say.

We used to love our acts. They weren’t evanescent, they were here to stay. They had to earn our trust, it was not easy to do, but if they did we were along for the ride. You might feel like a party of one, but in truth that was not the case. You went to the gig and found others who knew the songs as well as you did, who needed to be there just like you, who had to bow at the feet of these gods.

We don’t have gods today. Everybody’s sold out. Or angry that no one is paying attention. Being good enough to triumph on talent alone… No, you’d better bring in outside writers, sign up with the hit-making producers, polish the track again and again, you want to capture lightning in a bottle, but to do that you’ve got to let go, you’ve got to channel the essence, whereas most acts today don’t even know how to do that, even though they protesteth, too much.

But the funny thing is the truth is still out there, still contained in the records of yore. So old that they seem new. Their messages are timeless. As is the playing.

“Let yourself be open honey, learn to bend

Remember everyone gets scared

But I’m still your best friend”

I am not, your best friend. You don’t really know me, but you think you do. Just like I think I know Stephen Stills. I’ve been around him a couple of times, but he wouldn’t remember, even though I do. But I’ve imbued so much meaning into his work. He reached me, he’s continued to do so.

And that’s the goal of an artist.

Full stop.

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