Behind the Curtain: Stephen Stills

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STEPHEN STILLS: BEHIND THE CURTAIN

 I do my food shopping at a market called Ralphs. Located at the corner of Ventura Blvd. and Coldwater Canyon, the location makes it a favorite haunt for a lot of rock and roll cats who live in the area. On any given day you can see Eddie Van Halen strolling up and down the aisles [he used to shop there but not so much now]. Paul McCartney was seen checking out the perishables a couple times, though he doesn’t live around there. A while ago, I was cruising up the aisle when I saw a profile of this dude bending down for a package of tortillas. I saw a very, very long beard reaching to the floor and in a heartbeat I knew it was Billy Gibbons. I went over and said hello and we hugged it out.

Most recently, I saw Stephen Stills. He was walking across the parking lot and about to enter the store. I was pretty blown away to see him strolling across the blacktop, so I walked up behind him and was going to say hello. I wanted to tell him we’d met back in 1978 when I interviewed him, but as I approached and saw the scowl on his face, I backed off. The scowl wasn’t directed at me, but his expression that day suggested, “Don’t approach me, fucker. I am in no mood.” I flashed back to our meeting over 40 years ago and backed off. Stills continued walking and when he entered the store and made a right, I turned left.

That cat — Stephen Stills — was and still is one of the most gifted and unique musicians to ever pick up a guitar and one of my favorites ever. Some people thought his work with Buffalo Springfield was every bit as important as the Byrds and Love — I certainly did — two other bands pivotal in the development of West Coast music in the ‘60s. Though the Springfield only released three albumsBuffalo Springfield, Buffalo Springfield Again, and Last Time Around — the mid-‘60s band managed to bring together blues, folk, country and rock in such a way that  they still remain worth talking about over 40 years after their final recording.

If that wasn’t enough of a legacy to which he could lay claim, Stills would go on to form Crosby, Stills & Nash in the summer of 1968. Who can forget the life-changing debut album where the trio perfected the blending of country, folk and rock elements in angelic and achingly beautiful harmonies?

By the time we met in 1978, Stills had established his own solo career and had recorded eight albums, including the just-released Thoroughfare Gap record in October of that year. He was living in Los Angeles — Brentwood to be more specific, home of UCLA and O.J. Simpson — and I’d been offered the interview. Stephen’s house was about a 20-minute drive west along Sunset Boulevard, and as I got ready for the interview that day — checking batteries, making sure I had extra tapes and then double-checking everything again — I thought about all the astonishing music Stills had made over the years and how much I loved what he’d done.

I actually saw Buffalo Springfield perform, though perform wouldn’t be the right word to describe the gig. Running from 1967 to 1970, Groovy was a half-hour live dance program aired on weekday afternoons on KHJ-TV Channel 9. Literally shot on the beach at Santa Monica, California, the show was hosted by Michael Blodgett and co-hosted by a beautiful blonde teen model named Kam Nelson. Kids would come on the show and there would be games and dancing and yes, you guessed it — Buffalo Springfield.

I went to a taping and out there on the sand standing next to a huge steamroller with the name Buffalo-Springfield on it [the band took its name from the Buffalo-Springfield company, an outfit that built the first steamrollers in America dating back to the early 1900s]were the five members: Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer. As a blazing sun beat down on Stills’ cowboy hat and Young’s leather fringe jacket, the band mimed its way through one of their hits. This was in 1967, years before I’d ever start writing, but I was still mesmerized.

Eleven years later, I’d meet the cat in the hat. Though it was a wet and miserable day when I drove out to Stephen’s house, I was exuberant.

The sky was dark, gray, and angry. Little did I know it at the time but that would be a perfect reflection of the guitarist’s mood that afternoon.

The house was situated just north of Sunset Boulevard. The houses here were insanely beautiful sprawling estates custom-designed for only the richest of the rich. James Caan (The Godfather) had lived there and musician Ricky Nelson named his band after the street.

Stills’ house did not disappoint. It was stunning and reeked of rock star riches. A housekeeper answered the door and ushered me in. I gasped at the hugeness of the place. I was taken into a sitting area that looked like it could have accommodated a small concert and instructed to sit on the couch. Waiting for a few minutes, I looked around the room and saw dozens of gold albums on the walls looking back at me like huge, unblinking eyeballs. There were also a bunch of different sports jerseys mounted behind expensive glass frames.

Walking in several minutes later, a young, petite and very beautiful brunette woman came up to me. She wore an oversized jersey and said, “Hi. I’m Susan.” I said hello and introduced myself. Susan somehow looked familiar to me, but what really struck me as though I’d heard it before was her voice. It was low, gravelly and unbelievably sultry and exactly the type of voice you’d hear coming from a female deejay on the radio.

She then said, “Don’t I know you? Haven’t we met before?” By this time, I was becoming a bit tongue-tied because she was that captivating. I muttered, “No, I’m sure we haven’t. I would remember meeting you.” She smiled at the compliment and after shaking my hand, walked away. I couldn’t stop thinking about this mysterious Susan and then seconds later I had it — Susan Saint James. Susan fucking Saint James. I loved her on the television series McMillan & Wife. I was dizzy.

Before she left the room, I called out, “Susan Saint James. I love your work.” She turned and smiled. I melted. Had I known what the rest of the morning was going to be like, I would have turned tail and ran. I had heard stories about Stills. He was sometimes difficult to work with and could be demanding. But I found it very strange that someone as sweet and charming as this actress would be with someone like that, so I just chalked up what I’d heard to innuendo and rumor.

Note: Stephen and Susan would be engaged in 1979, about a year after I met both of them, but she would ultimately break off the engagement and leave him.

Note II: I would subsequently run into the sensational Susan a week or so later at some party. I somehow worked up the balls to approach her and say hello. I told her we’d met at Stephen’s house and she said she remembered, which made me giddy all over again, and when I asked her if I could have a photo with her, she was more than obliging.

Just a few minutes after Susan left the room where I was waiting, I saw Stills approach me. He was a little shorter than I thought he’d be but he cut a pretty burly figure and wasn’t someone with whom you’d want to mess.

Wearing a short-sleeved dark shirt with a Kailua Kona logo on it adorned with a jumping dolphin, the first thing he said to me was, “I’m sick, man. I have a cold.” He did sound nasally and his voice had a raw consistency to it. It was raining and cold outside and he had picked up a bug somewhere.

We sat at a table and as I asked him my first question — “When did you first start playing?” — he stood up, walked over to the bar, and returned with a bottle. He poured a good, long shot of alcohol into a cup in front of him filled with ice. “The alcohol is good for my cold,” he explained. It made sense to me. Besides, it was his house and his booze and he could do anything he wanted.

He began telling me about his first guitars and early bands, sipping on his drink and just generally smiling and having what appeared to be a pretty good time. At one point I asked him, “Are there any special recording techniques you use to record acoustic guitars?” He took a moment and in a conspiratorial whisper said, “Yes, it’s called privileged information” and then burst out laughing. “I’m not at liberty to say. I don’t recall. I ain’t tellin’,” he said, continuing to joke with me. Later he’d go into minute detail about how he captured such beautiful acoustic guitar tones on tape but at that moment he wanted to mess around.

We continued talking and Stephen kept drinking. He told me about forming Buffalo Springfield — one of my absolutely favorite bands ever and one of the greatest unsung groups of all time — and playing with Jimi Hendrix. He never got drunk to the point of slurring words or forgetting what he was saying, but Stills did become increasingly agitated and touchy as he consumed more booze. I could sense the change in his demeanor and though it happened gradually, it was happening. At one point when I had to turn over a cassette — we’d been talking for 30 minutes — he pointed to some of the athletic jerseys he had mounted on the wall. Stills was a huge sports fan and delighted in showing me jerseys worn by Lance Alworth and Ron Jaworski — professional football players — and other uniforms worn by hockey and college players. “I have zillions of them,” he told me. They were extraordinary.

Talking about extraordinary, at that moment I saw Susan St. James gliding down the corridor. I saw her jersey float by and desperately wanted to tell her again I knew who she was and how much I loved her acting.

The conversation with Stills became increasingly awkward and uncomfortable. He started going into minute details about the recording process and though I had a fair knowledge of studios and how they worked and had done some recording myself, it was pretty impossible trying to follow the conversation. His speech had grown a bit slurred by this point. Stephen would engage in a rambling discourse about the minutiae of making records and tried as I might, I could not understand what he was saying. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

Of course, at this point, at the height of my confusion about what he’s saying, he decides to ask me a question. Now I know I’m fucked.

Stills: You use just a minuscule amount of gain when you make safeties and do them backwards. What happens and what’s the obvious thing that occurs to you if you recorded a safety backwards?

I am silent. I pray that someone else has entered the room and the question is being posed to him but I know I’m the only one there. I start shuddering. I don’t have the first clue what he’s talking about. I know what a safety is and I know what gain is but why in the world you’d record a safety backwards is beyond my pay grade. Prior to asking me this question, he’d been talking about striping tape, alloys in cables, and diaphragm versus ribbon microphones. I played guitar and I’d been in studios and had a decent understanding of basic recording techniques and how things worked but I wasn’t an engineer and anything technical confused the shit out of me. So when he made this query, I knew I was going to get it wrong. I knew I was going to blow it. My heart beating out of my chest, I took a shot in the dark and answered, “A slight distortion?”

Maybe I closed my eyes. I don’t know. Time stood still or maybe it raced ahead and I was safely back in my Hollywood Hills guesthouse just thinking back on this nightmarish episode. All I knew was that Stills hadn’t uttered a word. Silence embedded with a sense of impending disaster. Stephen didn’t say a single word for several seconds, though it felt like I had been sitting there for about a million years waiting for his response. I finally mustered the courage to actually look him in the eyes. What I saw was him sitting across the table and staring daggers at me like I was some alien life form he had never seen before.

With a sharp intake of breath meant to signify his total disgust with my answer, he finally muttered, “No.” The word was uttered in a static monotone, which was meant to imply, “If you are not the stupidest dickhead to ever walk this planet, I don’t know who is.” I couldn’t have been more embarrassed had he reached across the table and slapped me across the cheek. I was humiliated and degraded and I hated him for that.

He proceeded to tell me why I was wrong and launched into some technical diatribe that left me even more befuddled. To be honest, I wish he had reached out and slapped me.

By then, I had had enough of his drunken philosophizing. I kind of shut down and simply went through the motions for the remainder of the interview. After I put my recorder away, he took me downstairs to see his collection of guitars. By anyone’s standards, they were beyond remarkable. By this time, Stills had assembled what was arguably the finest collection of pre-war Martin D-45 and D-28 Herringbone acoustics in the world. He had paid huge amounts of money for the guitars — back in the ‘70s he was spending $15,000 to $20,000 per instrument — in order to increase their value and he had succeeded in doing that.

Martins became incredibly valuable and very expensive, and in large part this was due to Stills’ diligence. Each guitar in his collection was housed in a beautifully-constructed and temperature-controlled museum-quality display case. At one point, he picked up an instrument, tuned it to one of his famous open tunings and began playing licks from “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” He re-tuned it to open D and played a few riffs and sang a couple lines from “Black Queen.” These were the best moments in the interview.

We spoke for over an hour-and-a-half, and though Stills did get drunk over the course of the conversation and did make me feel like some unwanted parasite from time to time, it was a remarkably information-filled interview and one which I cherish to this day. Maybe I had been too sensitive back then or maybe I held Stephen in such high esteem that anything he said would have had a profound effect on me.

As I was writing this, I listened back to the interview and realized Stills was just being Stills and that maybe the problem was mine.

Was that possible?

I’ve had 40+ years to figure it out and I still haven’t come up with an answer.

Anyway, that’s how I see it.

For what it’s worth…

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1 Comment

  1. Melinda Lopez Robbins on

    Great article, Steven! Happy to know you are still rock journalist extraordinaire. Don’t ever stop.