Stephen Stills was born in Dallas. He was raised in a military family and moved around as a child. (One of the towns he wound up in was what became a hotbed of rock which was Gainesville, Fl. See my series on Tom Petty for a little more on this.) Stills, another folkie, played in a variety of bands around the country. (And even famously once auditioned to be in the Monkees.)
Neil Young and Stills met in 1965 in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Young was there with the Squires, a Winnipeg group he had been leading since February 1963, and Stills was on tour with The Company. Stills – a good guitar player – worked for a while as a session musician but really wanted to be in a band.
Here’s a story I’d heard before, found amusing and figured it bore repeating: Young and bassist Bruce Palmer arrived in L.A. hoping to meet Stephen Stills, whom Young had previously learned was living in the city. However, after almost a week of searching clubs and coffeehouses, the pair had been unable to find him.
Consequently, on April 6, 1966, Young and Palmer decided to leave Los Angeles and drive north to San Francisco. While the two were stuck in traffic on Sunset Boulevard, they were spotted by Stills and Richie Furay, who were heading the other direction down Sunset. Stills and Furay managed to switch lanes and maneuver behind Young’s hearse, at which point the musicians pulled off the road and reunited. This led to the formation of Buffalo Springfield, another (sort of) folk-rock, psychedelic-rock unit.
The last piece of the CSN puzzle is provided by the British band The Hollies. They originated as a duo formed by Allan Clarke and Graham Nash, who began performing together during the skiffle craze of the late 1950s. They wound up becoming a duo like the Everly Brothers who were, of course, known for their harmony singing.
They later become the Hollies (in tribute to Buddy Holly) and were a key piece of the British Invasion with tunes like “Carrie Anne” and “Bus Stop.” You can hear Nash’s voice all over these tunes.
According to David Crosby’s documentary, in late 1967 he was visited by Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn who fired him, largely because he was a fucking pain in the ass. (To his credit he doesn’t deny he was one.) In early 1968, after the usual rock star drug bust bullshit, Buffalo Springfield split up.
Stills and Crosby – part of the infamous Laurel Canyon crowd -met at a July 1968 party at Mama Cass Elliott’s house and started jamming together. (Cass sings on “Pre-Road Downs.”) Graham Nash had met the two guys before on Hollies tours. He’d pretty much had it with that band and was looking for a new gig. Stories differ on whose house they first sang together in, but apparently everyone there was blown away by their impromptu rendition of Stills’ “You Don’t Have to Cry.” (General consensus is that it was Joni Mitchell’s house.)
Ultimate Classic Rock: “On that third time [the other guys sang], I’d learned the words, the melody — I knew what I was gonna do,” Nash recalled. “Whatever sound Crosby, Stills & Nash has was born in 30 seconds. That’s how long it took us to harmonize that way, so much so that we burst out laughing in the middle of the song. Because the Springfield and the Byrds and the Hollies were good harmony bands. We knew what we were doing. We’d been making records in harmony for years. But this was different.” “It was scary,” Crosby said in Zimmer’s book.
Stills was already signed to Atlantic Records and negotiations were done to free up Nash. (Crosby was unsigned because record company executives loved him as much as his fellow musicians did.)
And so in May 1969, their eponymous debut album was released. (Three months before their fateful “scared shitless” debut at Woodstock.) I can say that I was not the target demographic for this album. I didn’t really give a fuck about the Byrds, liked some of Springfield, found some of the Hollies stuff catchy.
So I was really blown away when a friend turned me onto this album. Loved it. Fresh sound, not “psychedelic,” no long jams. The Band gets a lot of credit for bringing a rootsier sound back to rock but you can’t overlook what these guys brought from the folk side of things.
The album kicks off with a song I never get tired of – “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” a tune about Stills’ ex-girlfriend Judy Collins. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – never get in a relationship with a songwriter.) I love Steven Stills’ guitar all throughout this album.
Judy Collins: “Stephen came to where I was singing one night on the West Coast and brought his guitar to the hotel and he sang me “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” the whole song. And of course, it has lines in it that referred to my therapy. And so he wove that all together in this magnificent creation. So the legacy of our relationship is certainly in that song.”
The album was a hit and you heard it everywhere. (“Marrakesh Express” with Jim Gordon on drums was a hit.) It had a timeless feel and fit well into the hippie-dippie attitude of the time.
One of my favorite songs from this album is the tune “Wooden Ships,” about the aftermath of a nuclear war. The song was co-written by Crosby, Stills and Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner.** (Both bands recorded the song, the lyrics differ slightly and both played it at Woodstock.). Both Stills and Crosby were sailing aficionados which influenced their song choices. A beautiful tune:
If you smile at me I will understand
‘Cause that is something everybody
Everywhere does in the same language
I can see by your coat my friend you’re from the other side
There’s just one thing I’ve got to
Know, can you tell me please, who won
Let’s finish up with the song where the guys found their magic, “You Don’t Have To Cry.” This is another Stills song about Judy Collins. (Interestingly the two of them toured together last year where – when asked about Stills -she repeatedly referred to him as a “genius.”)