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Q&A: Stephen Stills

He may be best known these days as the 'S' in CSN&Y, but back in the days of Buffalo Springfield he was a guitar innovator. He also hobnobbed with Brit-rock royalty...

Stephen Stills is enjoying a timely renaissance at 64. Old Captain Manyhands has recently released a Manassas out-takes compilation and a live album recorded at Shepherd's Bush in 2008. He also features on the acclaimed Crosby, Stills & Nash set Demos, archived by Graham Nash. who is working on a box set for Stills that will range from the Au Go-Go's and Buffalo Springfield to the present day. After a spell of bad health, Stills is also involved in a new 'covers' album with his compadres (overseen by Rick Rubin) and is waiting for clearance on a jam set he recorded with Jimi Hendrix in the late 60s. Stills sounded renewed when he spoke to Classic Rock about some old times, good times. Like he says: “I don’t want to be complacent and rest on my laurels any more, because they’ll turn out to be cacti.”

Your new Manassas album Pieces, gems from the archive, is going down a storm in these parts. You must be delighted.                  

Chuffed to bits, squire. I spent enough time with you bunch to beware of flattery. It could get me in a peck of trouble. It could be a load of old bollocks. It was great to go back and remix some old tunes from the vaults; to remove the unnecessary echo, tidy up the duff lyrics. Also to listen again to those players like Chris ‘Curly’ Hillman, Joe Lala and Al Perkins. We were the first country-rock-bluegrass-steel-Latin band. And we were darned good.

When Manassas played the Rainbow in London in 1972 you were living in England.              

Part-time. I’d bought Ringo Starr’s Brookfields mansion for £100,000 – he bought it from Peter Sellers – and I had the most rock’n’roll fun ever living in Britain, in stockbroker Elstead, Surrey. I loved it all, the fresh mown grass and the spring air. I played cricket; I even know the rules. In fact I still watch the big matches on Sky.

I loved Britain. I could drive round in my Bentley or my Roller when your roads were empty. So now you think I’m a fucking Tory! I relaxed at [London hangouts] the Bag O’ Nails and Ronnie Scott’s. I was a happy man, and my work showed that. People say I’m a taskmaster and I was on my gig. I locked the gates of the mansion, had a cook come in and I rehearsed those guys to death. I used to be an insomniac, so I’d wake them in the middle of the night and make them play. But then chances are they were awake already.

You’ve said you put Manassas together because you were tired of the whole CSN&Y experience. That didn’t take long!                

The Crosby, Stills & Nash thing became iconic. That was crushing to me as an individual. I wanted to try other things. David [Crosby] was enjoying being famous, he worked hard at that. When that band came to England and played at the Royal Albert Hall I soon realised everyone is infinitely more famous than me. Being less celebrated gave me breathing space.

You became a regular Surrey-based superstar.

I’d worked on a Doris Troy album for Apple. And I was hanging out with George Harrison, Ringo and Eric Clapton, among others when I made my first solo album, Stephen Stills. Eric was coming by the house for a tickle, and a lot of work got done in between a two-year party at Ronnie Wood's place. Not that Ronnie ever invited me.                                                 

Going to Apple while The Beatles were breaking up was heavy for a kid from Florida. I'm in a studio with the fucking Beatles? Huh? It was very affirming when they told me: "Go ahead and do your thing." But then they'd say: "But don't get too successful. This is a small island, there's not enough room at the top for everyone."                                                

On your first solo album (1970) you pulled off a coup getting Clapton and Jim Hendrix to play on Go Back Home and Old Times, Good Times respectively. 

In California we had that jazz theme where everyone could be on anyone else’s record. Not exactly piggybacking by me, because my other groups had already sold apace. I bumped into Eric one evening, and he came by and the night degenerated into an endless jam of The Champs’ Tequila. Then we did the album track in the studio. His solo was one take and he got a fabulous sound. His greatest solo? It inspired me. Forty years later I might just have the chops to emulate him. Hendrix was a god. I saw him play close up, and I saw him with a band many times. It was always a startling experience. Oddly, I don’t think he ever quite got that magic I saw down on his records.

After the golden streak of Buffalo Springfield, CSN&Y, your early solo albums and Manassas, things went awry for you. 

Ah, the ‘Jurassic Age’. I had too much fun doing what everybody else was doing. People told me I was one of the great rock stars, and then I became a little inept. Things got a little crackers in Manassas. We overdid everything. We’d be fine with the music but we’d forget about the words, making up ridiculous lyrics. And they weren’t exactly Monty Python. Afterwards in America I got drawn back to the darker forces and the years thereafter became a blur. We didn’t care about the consequences. Money was flowing, goodies were available. So when management stole money we didn’t care because we didn’t even miss it. I made some very bad decisions. And, as the British are always reminding me, Neil Young came along and stole my thunder. But who wants to talk about him?

Well...

I guessed you would. Obviously I love Neil. I saw him recently in the finest car builder's shop in the world in South San Francisco. He’s been working on an electric/hybrid engine which he’s put into this 19-foot-long 1959 Lincoln Continental. He’s got it running on practically nothing. It’s funny seeing it next to all these gorgeous, gas-guzzling hot rods. You know Neil, once he gets his teeth into something... As a guitarist I loved his weirdness. Ironically, in Buffalo Springfield he’d be the one who stood still and played while I was the madman. Now he’s got all the goddamn energy and I got too many cuts and bruises from life. I was a lot more athletic back then and I’m paying the price. But I still love it when he and I get unleashed occasionally. We’ve always been a good team.

IT DOESN'T MATTER

DID YOU KNOW...

  • Stephen Stills auditioned to join The Monkees, and was turned down. He recommended his pal Peter Tork instead.

  • There's a character in the graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim called Stephen Stills, and he's based on the real mccoy.

  • Stills' first six solo albums all had the word 'Stills' somewhere in the title. These include one live album and a compilation.

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