“I’m one of the laziest people I know,” declares Stephen Stills. “But when I catch on fire, I get obsessive.”
That obsessiveness shows up in his intense passion and restless curiosity about the creation of music, helping sustain a career that now stretches back more than four decades. The Texas native made his name in the mid-’60s playing alongside on-and-off collaborator Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield before proceeding to the enduring supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young), his fondly remembered 1970s outfit Manassas, the Stills-Young Band and an intermittent series of solo albums, including 2007’s Just Roll Tape: April 26, 1968, an archival release that captures a 23-year-old Stills summoning up starkly beautiful solo renditions of then-unreleased future classics like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Helplessly Hoping” and “Wooden Ships.”
Although Stills’ guitar-playing prowess is often overshadowed by his skills as a singer and songwriter, he is one of rock’s most accomplished players—whether assuredly strumming an acoustic beneath CSN’s lush harmonies or trading white-hot electric licks with Young. He credits the early encouragement and influence of both Young and his friend Jimi Hendrix for setting him on the path. “They turned me into a lead guitar player,” he says. “I didn’t get good good until I was about 50, and I’ve just gotten better from there.”
To celebrate Stills’ birthday today, below is an interview from a 2006 issue of Performing Songwriter. Happy birthday, Stephen!
How has your playing changed over the years?
I think I’ve gotten better. I’ve had lots of room to practice. With each tour, yet another Stephen shows up. I’ve gotten more facile—I’m not just stabbing at it anymore. I know where I’m going. I still have a weakness in my ring finger. It’s devastatingly annoying, the guys that can bend with just the ring finger—Dave Mason, for instance. It’s one of those things that, for my style, separates the men from the boys. But I keep working on it. As the tour goes on, all of a sudden that starts to kick in.
Do you play differently when there’s another lead player present?
Well, it’s really fun being the only guitar player. That’s my favorite. I must say that touring with my little [solo] quartet was very satisfying, because I could pretty much cover everything myself. Also, because Crosby wasn’t there I actually got to talk, and I found out I’m still funny (laughs). But I enjoy playing with another lead guitarist if they’re really good, sensitive and immune to hypersensitivity. There’s an art to playing with another guitar player. Actually, Eric Clapton gave me the first clue. He said, “It’s all about manners. Don’t be a head-cutter.” I always knew it wasn’t a competition. A lot of people have this misconception that Neil and I were always at war as lead guitarists. We would make it seem like we were trying to show each other up, but we actually never were.
How did you and Neil influence one another’s style?
We influenced each other a lot. I certainly picked up tricks from him. It’s so subtle, and it just happens naturally. Crosby’s influenced me as a guitarist, too.
How do you approach playing acoustic and electric differently?
Well, one’s louder (laughs).
Do you think of them as different instruments?
Absolutely. And there are electric-guitar songs and acoustic-guitar songs—although the test of an electric-guitar song is to sit down and play it on an acoustic guitar, which makes great outtakes for the box set.
Which you’re working on now.
It’s time, isn’t it? I don’t want to run out of gas and wind up saying to someone else, “Oh, screw it, you do it.” So while I’ve still got the energy I’m going, “Oh, screw it, you do it and then I’ll come and check” (laughs).
How did you decide to release Just Roll Tape?
We found that tape and it was like a no-brainer to put it out, save for the really not-fit-for-human-ears babbling and false starts. I cherry-picked about four things out that were just horrifying and released the rest. I liked the freshness of it. My voice is deeper, broader and richer now. Back then I sounded like a little kid.
Your voice is very high on Just Roll Tape.
Actually, I can still do “Hopelessly Hoping” in the same key, but not “Suite.” What was I thinking? We lowered it a while ago out of simple physical necessity. I got stuck with Tony Bennett, of all people, waiting for Bill Clinton at a fundraiser back in the ’90s. Clinton was late, late, late beyond rock ’n’ roll late. Anyway, we had 45 minutes alone, and he told me to never be afraid to lower the key, and never be afraid to use a TelePrompter (laughs). That was the secret to a long career. I’ve found both to be true.
You’re using a TelePrompter on stage now?
Last year it was kind of a necessity, because we had all these songs that Neil had just written and there wasn’t a prayer of remembering all the words [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young toured in 2006 and performed much of Young’s then-new Living With War album]. Usually I don’t read it, but I do glance down to make sure I know where I am, so I don’t have to walk over to Graham and ask, “Did we sing the second verse yet?” After you’ve done “Southern Cross” however many times it’s been, you don’t want to mail it in. But at the same time, you have these senior moments.
How do you keep from mailing it in?
I look at people in the audience. I’m terrible to the lighting people, because I absolutely will raise hell if they put me in that single spotlight that says, “Oh, the gloriousness of me, suspended in midair!” I get vertigo, and I can’t see anybody to relate to and I’m trying to flirt with a girl in the audience, OK? (Laughs)
Have you been writing lately?
Writing? What’s that?
You know, with a pen and paper and whatnot.
Actually, I’ve got some things gestating. This particular litter of children—this is my third and last—are pretty high-maintenance. And when I’m on the road, it’s exhausting, and after a show I want to get on the bus and read and not hear any loud noise for a while. So I haven’t done much, but I’ve got some things that have been sitting, awaiting my attention. Plus, occasionally something by another artist catches my ear that’s really cool. You know the old adage that good songwriters borrow, and great songwriters steal? I’ll hear something, then play with it, turn it upside down and make it mine. I wrote a song a couple of years ago that was so close to a Dylan song that I felt like I had to give him credit. He absolutely refused. He said, “No, you don’t have to give me a piece of that song. Who knows who I stole it from?” (Laughs) The real Bob Dylan is like that. So yes I am, and no I’m not. But now that my ear problem has cleared up, I’m going to make myself play every day.
How do you go about writing a song now?
If I just get up and start playing for a minute and shut everything off and lock the door, something might pop up. A lot of people say that’s how you write really bad songs, and it’s true. But I feel that you really write bad songs when you’re drunk (laughs). Because you want to finish it right away and record it, so you settle for the first lyric that pops into your head. That’s one good reason to quit drinking.
Do you remember the first time you ever had a guitar in your hands?
Hmm. Actually, it was a baritone ukelele which belonged to the kid across the street. I had drums and a piano at the time. My father bought me drums because somebody gave me some drumsticks, and then the furniture was being destroyed. He went to the pawnshop and found a really cool Slingerland kit.
Do you have to practice guitar to keep your chops up?
I freely admit to being very lazy. I actually just got the Strat out and I’ve been walking around lately with it, just bending. There’s nothing on the horizon for a while, but who knows? I want to keep my hand in.
—By Chris Neal
Photo by Henry Diltz
Category: In Case You Haven't Heard