For more than 50 years, Stephen Stills has been a prominent feature on America’s rock landscape. His long and eventful career has included auditioning for The Monkees, emerging alongside Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield, gaining worldwide success with Crosby, Stills & Nash, playing at Woodstock and forming Manassas with The Byrds’ Chris Hillman.
Stills’s driving passion for music prompted one friend to comment: “If you put Stephen out in the middle of the desert at midnight, within an hour he’d have a guitar, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and someone to jam with.”
The illustrious list of names he has played with reads like a Who’s Who of rock’n’roll. Not only does he answer yes to “Ever meet Hendrix?’’, he and Jimi were also best friends and recorded together. Here, Stills talks about some of the people he’s met and made music with.
I saw him at Ahmet’s [Ertegün, Atlantic Records head] funeral. He was looking at Crosby with this English bulldog disgust. It’s hard to think of Eric Clapton as an English bulldog, but he is after all. He’s great. I gave him a guitar once for doing a session, a really nice Martin F series that had been turned into a round-hole. And he rather liked it.
He did his first solo acoustic song, and Bill Halverson recorded it, and I gave him the guitar. And then of course when they sold the collection, some roadie took credit for it. I was vexed. I’m sure it was so long ago he didn’t remember, and the miles in between were long and hard.
I’m not, like, agog. Most people get speechless. I just kid him to death. He’s got a great sense of humour and we’ve always got on. God knows what he’s done for everyone’s writing. I really like him. And I’m a fan.
He’s possessed. It’s like watching someone who’s two years older than me doing 40-yard sprints. It’s devastatingly annoying. I saw him at Ahmet’s thing and he was quite charming. Always has been. I played with them [The Rolling Stones] once [Amsterdam, 1970].
I wish they still had that tape because it was absolutely amazing, the noise that we made between us. We were just batting around. You know the old joke: blues musicians play three notes for 10,000 people, and jazz musicians play 1,000 notes for three people.
Well, what can I say? He’s my brother. Regardless of all the negative commentary that’s gone on over the years, I happen to absolutely love him to death. He knows what he wants. He’s got a good old case of OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder], but so does my wife. He insists on getting everything the way he hears it.
He’s got control issues, but that’s okay. That’s what drives people like that to enormous success, if they’ve got a modicum of talent. I’m the lazier of the two. Though there are a few engineers who would argue that that’s a lie, but lately I’m just an old lazy dog.
We were keen to start a band for a minute, but it was just a minute – before The Firm. A very sweet guy. Scatterbrain. He played on the record [Stephen Stills’s Right By You, 1984] and was just lovely, and we shot snooker all night and then got in a boat on the Thames and rowed up and down. I guess this is how they used to pick up girls, but we were middle-aged geezers by then so it just wasn’t going to work.
He and Ringo and I had a couple of nights out. Pretty dangerous, in that we went to see Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I thought Keith was a marvellous drummer, and it’s sad how he flamed out so quickly. I don’t think he had a sense he was going to burn out, but he had a sense he was the guy that was going to park the Rolls-Royce in the swimming pool.
I went to Europe with Ahmet, who took me to the finest hotels and introduced me to the concierges. I was very well-behaved, except for the late-night carousing. Then all those guys came over here and acted like soccer barbarians. I was never part of the Continental Riot House set.
As a matter of fact, with my band you get fined for trashing your room, $1,000 more than what it costs – and the second time you get thrown out of the band. Way back in the Manassas and solo band days I just wouldn’t put up with that. Not that we weren’t loud and obnoxious, mind. We basically closed the bar and said: “Shoo!” But Keith Moon was on a different level.
Jimi and I spent a lot of time together because I was the lone American in England that he could really speak to. He used to come and hang out with me and my friend Dan Campbell to, like, decompress. He and Neil [Young], they taught me to play lead guitar. I drove everyone crazy for the next two years learning it; I had to have the stack of Marshalls and stuff. He’d be like, “Jesus!”
Jimi and I were close. We got really close immediately. I didn’t meet him at Monterey Pop, but I met the rest of the band. I remember Noel Redding snarling. Buffalo Springfield was on a little earlier, and we had the same dressing room. I’d been on the road so I hadn’t seen any photos or anything. I knew Jimi, but I hadn’t seen the band and didn’t recognise them. He [Redding] wasn’t pleased with that.
Jimi and I would go to clubs, and if the rhythm section was good we would take it over; if it was bad we would pass. I went to a couple of black clubs where he would do the scouting. I played bass in the infamous guitar war between him and Johnny Winter. It was so loud and the ceiling was so low, you couldn’t tell, but he makes this face at me and I realise I’m playing a quarter-tone sharp. But after that it was fine.
One time we were playing and he’d been playing for a while, and I just had my eyes closed again, thinking it sounds fine and great. All of a sudden he boots me in the butt and I look up and say: “Have I done it again?” And he said: “No. You play for a while.” So I played my little three notes per bar solo on a Gretsch.
He was a darling. Just sweet as you could be. He was kind of intimidated by it all, but at the same time not. To say that he was wispy is to describe the way he stood and the way he danced. He was really liquid, but he was a will-o’-the-wisp, the forces around him. He would take anything that anyone gave him, which, at that time in England, there were combinations that were really dangerous. That was what really got him.
He was quite modest, actually. He knew what he was doing, but the image and the lyrics and the whole persona was as much as the playing. He didn’t realise that just to hear him play was plenty. We were at Electric Lady Studios and he started layering everything. At first I thought it was cool, and then he covered up one track and really killed the song. I said: “Why does that need anything else?” and got glared at. Not by Jimi, but by… I forget which one. Probably Redding.
I’ve got a really nice track of ours. I’m trying to find enough for a whole album. Maybe between me and the Johnny Winter stuff there’s a whole album of unreleased stuff. Just jams. There’s so much rubbish – him fucking with the amp but the tape’s going, so people go: “But it’s Jimi Hendrix!” Yes, but it’s Jimi Hendrix bollocks. Quit! Stop! It’s the rhythm section playing, and someone tuning a guitar.
I know for some people that may be enough, but I’m not one of them – and neither was he. So out of respect for his memory I’d never do that. But something’s going to come out of all of this. There’s one song I have that’s great. I’m on my sixth set of lyrics for it. I can’t quite capture the right thing. I only had a vague idea when we started, so I don’t have to worry about how he would feel [laughs]. But, believe me, he’d be fine.
Ah, well. A little too close to home there, pal. I mean, there are too many stories both good and bad, so we’ll just say the guy’s a genius and we’ve had a long and fruitful career together.
George was friendly at first… and then we played together. I’ll never forget it. We had a session with Ringo, and George would start a solo as the playback was going by, and then make a mistake and start over again, even though the changes were different. Which drove me absolutely out of my mind. I finally had to put my guitar down and say: “When you’re done…”
I don’t know how he took it. Apparently it was like: “Oh, okay. Everyone has their own way.” I just had to let it go. I didn’t say: “You’re driving me mad” – it’s George fucking Harrison, already – but it was. So I just waited, and when he was done I went zoopzoop-zoop and did my bit. I played something neat. I didn’t work on it that long.
And then he came and heard me, David and Graham [Nash] sing the entire CSN album because we thought we’d go to Apple. It didn’t happen for some reason or another, But he’s a lovely guy. He’s what everybody said. He was much more opinionated than anyone knows. He could be tough.
What a love. I mean, everybody in England knows Richie and I’m just happy I know him. I haven’t seen him in a while. We owe each other a catch-up. He was always willing to come and play. He had me come and produce [You’ve Got A Nice Way, 1981]. He had one album where he had different producers [Stop And Smell The Roses, 1981]. No pressure at all. You’re a producer – produce. Aaaargh! But Maureen, his first wife, was always good at setting everyone at ease.
When I first went over to visit he was living in Hampstead, and Mo [Maurice] Gibb was down the street, and Klaus [Voormann]. We had kind of a hootenanny. It qualified as a hootenanny, just hacking away. It was mostly friends. The first time he had any impact on me was when I went over to visit him in Hampstead, then I ended up buying the house that he bought from Peter Sellers [Brookfield House in Elstead, Surrey].
I inherited his gardener, who’s the basis for [Sellers’s character] Chance in Being There. That’s what Johnny’s Garden’s about. It’s about John the gardener, who I am sure is long-departed, although he might still be around. He had grey hair then. He was absolutely that character, but without the clothes. Absolutely, completely unintelligible.
I like Keef. We’ve had a couple of snarleys, but nothing to speak of, and it’s so long ago it’s laughable. I can’t remember what it was about, just grumpy bollocks. He inspires me. He’s tough as nails and the soul of rock’n’roll of our generation. Of our lifetime, really. Keef is just Keef. He can yell at me and I’ll get over it. It’s okay. And it was so fucking long ago, who cares?
I’ve got a guitar that he should have had, but he would have cast it aside because it weighs 50 bloody pounds. It’s got pirates and snakes and things on it. But you can’t get past the retinue to show him the guitar. Going to a Stones concert is not pleasant. They have security on top of security, and they have security that doesn’t talk to each other. It’s mad.
I haven’t seen him outside the road in many, many years. I’m sure that’s changed too. I’m just glad to see him keep the train rolling. They’ll just keep going until they can’t do it any more. I got no problem with Keef. Thanks for the ride, mate.
I love him. He’s dear, and we play really well together. He sat in with us at a concert not too long ago, maybe three years. We always play Love The One You’re With. And we toured together once. I was doing my version of Keith Moon at the time, so I don’t know how much fun anybody had being around me. He came back, so it couldn’t have been that bad.
I’ve had several of those periods, where I was obstreperous. Neither of my parents were good with drink, so why should I expect me to be any different? He’s very nice and still plays his butt off and is still out there working – and brave enough to cut his hair. It actually inspired me to do this [teases his thinning, shorn hair].
The only time I met him was when his children really wanted to see his old house. So his office calls up and says: “Mr Sellers would like to come and visit you.’’ And I said: “Of course.” We were rehearsing when they came round. They had a little walk around, and then the children went off to play and Peter comes in and starts playing drums with his hands. We didn’t really say very much. I never really sat down and had a conversation with him.
He’s the only one of us lot [CSN] that didn’t develop serious attention deficit disorder. He’s really focused and he remembers everything. God bless him. If between the three of us we have one brain, then he’s most of it.
You know, 20 years ago I wouldn’t have played this game – “We want your gossip about everyone…” Frank was always really friendly, which was odd because he didn’t like anybody. I remember the first time I met him was before the Buffalo Springfield, before we were anybody. We were planning bands, and we all lived in this little neighbourhood off Sunset Boulevard, Orange Grove Avenue. He heard me play at some coffee house or something, and he came up to me in the middle of the street and starts reading me the lyrics to Who Are The Brain Police?, but he was so intense and overwhelming about it.
I was like, woah, that’s cool. He was pretty out there at the time. Now, of course, he’d be considered middle of the road. I thought it was great. I went to a few sessions, just because we used to just pop in on each other’s sessions back then; you didn’t have some 300-pounder at the door saying: “Who the fuck are you?” He was directing a full orchestra, and I heard these tracks before he got on to yelling over the top of them and they were just marvellous. I thought he was a genius. He was the first person I know who didn’t allow smoking in his studio. Which I thought was great.
I don’t know him well, but he did come in and sing on something when David was in hospital. And it was really rather nice. I’m sure if we’d worked more he would have become as difficult as his reputation. I know him to speak to, but I don’t know him that well. He sings like an angel.
That’s almost as bad as Pat Boone and Metallica. You mean the For What It’s Worth thing, right? [Public Enemy sampled Buffalo Springfield’s For What’s It Worth on He Got Game, and Stills guested on guitar and vocals. The track was included in Spike Lee’s 1998 movie He Got Game.] They phoned in their parts, and it was Spike who put it together.
He couldn’t have been nicer, and neither could the guy I did the session with. They were complete gentlemen. But they all had these lurid stories about these guys walking in, dropping the .45 on the console. We were doing the video shoot. They had me down in the neighbourhood with my cowboy boots, and I’m standing there with a ’57 Strat which, even then, was worth quite a pile of money. And they want a shot from across the street of me just playing.
So I’m sitting there, I’m all alone, and this tricked-out Honda pulls up and these guys with gold teeth come pouring out and they come and surround me. I said: “Should I be afraid?” And Spike Lee said: “I am.” [laughs] One of them said: “Spike Lee? Spike Lee. Okay, cool,” and they got back in their car. That was right in the middle of all the drive-bys down here.
So it’s like, “They want to film while I get assassinated? Is this a career move, to get killed?” I thought it was fun. They treated me like a king. And the other thing about those guys, when they sample, them guys pay! I mean, you don’t have to ask once, and you get the cheque the next day and they will not tolerate any Hollywood accounting. I wish they could come and teach the rest of the business.
I loved it [the He Got Game track]. Everybody thinks about the song [For What It’s Worth], it’s some special thing: “Oh so meaningful and grand and special.” Bollocks! It was just its time. It was a thought. I threw it out there and it’s lasted all these years. They couldn’t quite get the beat to fit together, so they needed me to come in and basically redo the part and not make the changes.
I started singing it like I’d been currently singing it, and the guy went: “Mmm… can you sing it more like you did back then?” “Oh, so you want me to sing like a scared 20-year-old?” So I did a perfect imitation of myself. Which is hard to do.
I thought Steve Marriott was a dear, and it was tragic, the circumstance of his passing. My children told me that they ran across one of his children and said: “My dad used to work with your dad.” I was like: “Wow, that was working together? We were just careening about Olympic Studios!”
I just remember him being really fun, a good soul. A great guy. Yeah, we did some things, and it’s all a blur. That time is a bit of a blur, for various reasons. Hey, I made it this far. You’re not getting rid of me that cheap.
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 113, in October 2007.