His career at 60 years and counting, an icon looks back—and forward

By Jeff Tamarkin

Even at 82 tracks packed onto four CDs, Carry On, the new Stephen Stills retrospective boxed set, barely scratches the surface of one of rock’s most iconic careers. After all, how can one afternoon’s listening encapsulate a half-century of creativity? We first heard Stills in 1966 with Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth” remains a definitive ’60s protest anthem), before he moved on to superstardom with Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) and finally a prolific solo career.

Stills performed at all three of the major ’60s rock festivals—Monterey, Woodstock and the ill-fated Altamont. Acknowledged as one of rock’s most innovative guitarists, he jammed with Hendrix and was featured, alongside keyboardist Al Kooper, on Super Session, a trailblazing 1968 album that virtually launched the jam-band era. Stills’ eponymous 1970 debut solo album burnished his reputation as one of our most formidable singer-songwriters, as did his stint with Manassas.

Unlike many of his peers, Stills has maintained a regular presence since those heady classic rock days when Southern California was the center of the world. But when it came time to finally tie together the threads of his career with a boxed set, Stills left what he calls “the heavy lifting” to his old pal Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein, a photographer and producer who goes back to the CSN days. “I move forward,” says Stills. “I’m glad this set is done and I can give it to my friends and they can listen to what I’ve been wasting my time on for 60 years. That’s how long ago it was when I got paid for the first time to play music, the start of this nice, comfortable life.”

While health issues have dogged Stills in recent years—hearing loss and surgery for prostate cancer—the setbacks haven’t slowed him one bit. He’s about to release a blues album, Can’t Get Enough, recorded with ace guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd and keyboardist Barry Goldberg, and he’s excited to hit the road to promote it.


How was recording Can’t Get Enough?

It was the most fun I’ve had in the studio in a long time—and it only took a week. It’s just Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Barry Goldberg—from the old Mike Bloomfield days in Chicago—and me. Barry’s a contemporary of Al Kooper and was on the original Super Session album. In fact, we started out calling it Super Session 2. Kenny Wayne plays a lot like Stevie Ray Vaughan, so it was like having the ghosts of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix in the studio. Pretty scary.


What did you learn while assembling the boxed set?

That I did a lot of stuff real fast—I recorded everything I could think of. Some was good, some was eh. I’d have a great melody and write really stupid words because I was in a hurry. I have songs that are fairly complex and then I have virtual jingles, like “Love the One You’re With.” That song is actually multilayered—the line about “the rose in the fisted glove” refers to an English icon, a chainmail glove with a rose in it. It comes from the [15th century] War of the Roses. Living in Britain in the early 1970s was my salvation. That’s when my creativity in songwriting exploded.


How were the demos different from the final mixes?

With David [Crosby]’s song “The Lee Shore,” for example, I was trying to get an arrangement. It was like, “Here’s how I picture the song, Dave, what do you think?” It was more like, “I borrowed your car and had it painted. Do you like turquoise?” Another one is “Forty-Nine Reasons,” which became “49 Bye-Byes.” I played everything including the drums. The backward guitar on that really moves. It jerks at you and has an incredibly graceful melody.


Did you record an entire album with Jimi Hendrix?

No. There is the “No-Name Jam” on the set. It’s a song that I had prepared, but we didn’t like the words. I was going to work on them and put a solo on it but never went further. We were recording everything, and you hear a lot of loitering on the tapes—people talking and hanging out. I don’t know who was recording what, so I’ll call BS on the idea there’s an album’s worth.


Did you sense Hendrix was heading for a fall?

No. But he would take everything that anybody threw at him—and a lot of good people didn’t make it through that time. Once I had broken my hand and could only use two fingers. I got this call: “Jimi Hendrix’s office is calling you. Don’t take the job.” I went, “What job?” I didn’t find out until [Experience drummer] Mitch Mitchell’s book that they were trying to reach me because there was a tremendous row between Jimi and Noel Redding, and they wanted me to finish up the tour with them, on bass.


Recall your first recording?

For reasons known only to my father, we went to Costa Rica. I happened to have a guitar, and there was absolutely nothing to do except play the guitar. We’d been there for a few months, and I played here and there at parties. One day a fellow said to me, “I’ve got a whole apartment full of electronic gear, all the good stuff. I’ll record you because nobody has yet.” I was 16, and he wasn’t kidding: It was wall-to-wall, two rooms of electronic equipment. He had good microphones and maybe a Uher or a Grundig reel-to-reel recorder. It came out beautifully, and I don’t know how it survived, but my sister saved it. The guitar style emerged whole—exactly the way I play now. Don’t know if I have the jackhammer thumb I used to—I’ve developed a little carpal tunnel—but that’s amazing. The song is silly. I’d written it about the only thing I knew, moving house, because we were always moving. I’m glad it starts the box because it is the first thing that I recorded.


Who were your early influences?

My heroes were Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. I liked pre-Nashville Appalachian country music, the real stuff. I also liked Motown, the Shirelles and the girl groups.


What’s your writing process?

You sit down and something goes through your head—a mood, a melody, maybe a lyric—and you’re off to the races.


How did you write “For What It’s Worth”?

I started writing the song with the bassline. I’d been working on something else, a

shout-out to the guys on the line in Vietnam. Then I came upon this stupid situation on Sunset Boulevard in L.A. I turned the car around and went back to my house and finished the song in the time it took me to write the lyrics.


How did you work out guitar parts with Neil Young?

We just started playing, and it fit together. He was actually trying to do the same thing I was, acoustic style parts—fingerpicking and folk music—on an electric guitar. It just meshed—we both have the same kind of mind. When we heard the mixes our first producers had done, we looked at each other with big eyes and said, “Oh, my God, we’re going to have to learn to do this ourselves.” A year later, we could both make a record, independently, without any help except an assistant engineer.


Why did last year’s Buffalo Springfield reunion tour fall apart before it began?

I’ll quote Neil: “Sometimes you get up in the morning and you say, ‘Well, that’s over.’” He got tired, went to Hawaii, and started writing a book.


Any plans to write your own memoir?

I find interviews and talking about myself the most loathsome activity in the world. So no, I’ll never write one of those stupid autobiographies. Except for Keith Richards’, I find them all equally boring.


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