In Paul Simon’s movie One Trick Pony, the musician/actors play a morbid game of naming dead rock stars. Rock critics have a different diversion. When we travel together for a far away show or wait a long time for a press conference to begin, the conversation usually turns to, “What musician do you think has betrayed his or her talents the most?” Implied is the fact that the artist must have been great at one point before dissipating into hackdom. This does not count those who have died an untimely death (re: Elvis Presley is not a contender), but living and breathing people who once reached great heights and now one would not bother to see or hear. Rod Stewart is usually the consensus winner (his sappy version of “The Way You Look Tonight” is typically contrasted with the rude “Stay With Me” that has lines such as “But with a face like that / You got nothing to laugh about” as contrary evidence). Stephen Stills is also a frequent candidate for this dubious prize.
That’s because at one time, the double Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee had it all. Stills began his career as a fabulous songwriter. Songs like “For What It’s Worth” and “Love the One You’re With” are still on constant rotation on oldies radio. They are classics that evoke the time period from which they emerged as one of protest and love. Stills had a wonderful voice. His leads and harmonies with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash (and sometimes Young) were deeply Southern and soulful in the best sense. And he was an excellent guitar player. His first solo album is the only lp to feature contributions by Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. That’s the kind of string company he kept. Rolling Stone ranked him at 47 on its 2003 list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
But that was then, this is now, as S.E. Hinton wrote in1971, a year after Stills’ debut disc. He hasn’t really released much music of worth since his 1972 collaboration with Chris Hillman, Manassas. Sure there were a few notable one-offs, such as a few of his contributions to the Stills-Young band Long May You Run and various Crosby, Stills, Nash (and sometimes Young) reunions. Nevertheless, one could make a strong case that for the most part, Stills had burnt out more than 40 years ago. The new retrospective, the four-disc box-set Carry On, tries to correct this impression by gleaning tracks from across the decades and showing the upward arc of Stills’ career. It partially succeeds.
The first two discs of the four-disc anthology come from 1972 and before and contain the best music. If Stills would have died at the proverbial peak of 27 years of age (he was born in 1945), no doubt he would be remembered as great artist along with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and others of his generation. That obviously did not happen, The strain of drugs and success clearly had its toll on Stills. As someone who had the (mis)fortune to see him at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in 1974 and later as part of the Stills Young Band at the Capital Centre, Landover, Maryland in 1976, I can attest that he could no longer sing on key. Stills would try. He would play a song from his past and try and hit the notes, but the results were painful.
We all have our bad days (and nights). As any scientist will tell you, anecdotal evidence is not real evidence, but the music on the second two discs holds only a few bits of counterfactual information. In fact, the bulk of the discs come from the later seventies and eighties, despite the fact that Stills continued to record and tour somewhat in the nineties and the twenty-first century. It tacitly accepts the truth that Stills’ best days were long ago. That’s a shame because some of the tracks, such as “Treetop Flyer” from his 1991 Stand Alone and “Heart’s Gate” from his 2005 Man Alive reveals Stills still continues to be an exemplary acoustic guitar picker, and while his voice shows his age, Stills understands how to use its deeper tones for full dramatic effect. He may not be the musician he used to be, but Stills has much to offer.
The problem is that the first two discs contain music so transcendent that the last two come off as “meh”. Even the first track on the first disc, the previously unreleased cut of a 17-year-old Stills called “Travelin’” reveals his talents as a singer and player that belie his youth. Stills’ contributions to Buffalo Springfield, such as “Bluebird” and “Sit Down I Think I Love You” illustrate the complex folk-pop-rock style of the era better than anyone else. He continued this brilliantly in his role with Crosby, Stills & Nash with songs such as “Helplessly Hoping” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and later with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with “Carry On/Questions” and their cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”. The inclusion of these tracks in this box is a no-brainer, and it should be noted how clear and bright the production of these cuts and others are on this anthology. The package also contains a 100-plus-page booklet of track by track information and essays by Michael O’Hara Garcia, David Bender, and others.
The Stills material from the early ‘70s also contains many exquisite tracks. He gets down with Jimi Hendrix on “No Name Jam” and with Eric Clapton on “Go Back Home” in ways that showcase his gospel roots. Stills’ solo performance on “My Love is a Gentle Thing” and teamwork with a full band on “It Doesn’t Matter” suggests he still knows how to add sophistication to simple pop hooks.
The question is, should a newbie purchase the box set or buy the classic Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young), and solo Stills’ discs (pre-1973). That’s a difficult query. About a quarter of the material from all eras here have previously been unreleased. While they offer no great revelations, there are some nice performances. It would be cheaper to pick up this anthology and enjoy the fine sonic reproductions. But if money is no object, go back and buy the original albums. Listening to the material in its original contexts, even on scratchy old vinyl, illustrates Stills’ talents in a deeper manner. He was always more than just a songwriter, singer, and guitarist. He was part of two of the most important groups of the ‘60s, and his early ‘70s solo discs illustrate what happened when the dream of the era dissipated into something individualistic.
Crosby, Nash, and Young boxes (not to mention the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ones) have all come out to various amounts of acclaim. This Stills one is the last and completes the set. At one time, these guys were at the top of the rock world. As Young later famously proclaimed, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” But as the example of one person who took Young too seriously, Kurt Cobain proved, despite its romantic appeal, it’s not really true (Does anyone think Cobain’s suicide was a good thing? I hope not!). Stills may have rusted, but even oxidation has its charms. The Stills box shows that a career in decline still has much to offer.