Let’s get one thing clear right away: it’s misleading to call this a “definitive biography”. Such a description implies cooperation from the biography’s subject. Author David Roberts even makes it perfectly clear in his introduction that Stephen Stills was not involved (“There was a polite but firm ‘no’ when he was approached about this book via his manager”).
That’s a shame for a number of reasons. While Stills’ lack of cooperation is perhaps not surprising — “The prospect of interviews doesn’t excite him,” Roberts elaborates — and previous interviews from all manner of sources are cited throughout the book, it would’ve been refreshing to read Stills’ current thoughts on such a rich, varied career that spans more than 50 years.
Even without Still’s cooperations, however, Roberts’ book is an engrossing read and a valiant effort at stringing together all the facets of this eclectic musician’s life and music. While the lack of cooperation from Stills may imply that the book is a juicy, embarrassing tell-all, nothing could be further from the truth. Roberts is obviously a hardcore Stills fan and does an admirable job of chronicling the ups and downs in Stills’ career.
Roberts has his work cut out for him; Stills is one of those artists who seemingly came out of nowhere and managed to leave his fingerprints on so much of what rock fans presumably take for granted. While briefly chronicling Stills’ upbringing throughout the American South and his subsequent high school years in Costa Rica, Roberts lovingly details Stills’ forays into New York City, where his teenage love of rock music began to blossom into character-building professional gigs. An early friendship with future Monkee Peter Tork helped get Stills’ foot in the door once he moved to California. (The book dispels the popular myth that Stills auditioned for a spot in the Monkees — he arrived at the auditions, but only with the intention of offering his songwriting services, which were turned down.)
In addition to the healthy success of Buffalo Springfield — the band that helped shape Stills’ bromance with Neil Young — the formation, success, and on-and-off collaborations with David Crosby and Graham Nash (and, occasionally, Young) are well detailed, as they make up such an enormous part of Stills’ career. Casual fans may not be terribly familiar with Stills’ close friendship with Jimi Hendrix, forged during their mutual British residencies. These personal and professional relationships — as well as ones with Judy Collins, the Rolling Stones, John Sebastian, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, among many others — demonstrate an artist who collaborates well with others but also learns from them, and therefore is able to develop a highly intricate skill set.
Throughout, Roberts paints Stills as a musical jack-of-all-trades (“Captain Manyhands”, as he’s dubbed during the early Crosby, Stills & Nash days) who’s not only able to write and perform a variety of musical styles, soaking up influences like a sponge, but also knows his way around a studio better than most of his contemporaries.
As is the case with many artists of his generation, Stills spent a good part of the mid-to-late ‘70s in a somewhat rudderless lack of musical direction, partly due to drug and alcohol abuse and also due to his amped-up desire to dip into any and all musical genres, sometimes with less-than-stellar results. (It’s hard to believe that the guy who wrote “For What It’s Worth” and “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” played congas on a Bee Gees session and recorded a somewhat dated number called “Can’t Get No Booty”.)
But the peaks and valleys of Stills’ career are really never exploited in this biography. Roberts seems bent on giving Stills his due while simultaneously acknowledging that things haven’t always been rosy. It’s an honest account, warts and all, of Stills’ first 70-odd years, and the author does a fine job of being an energetic cheerleader to a career that has been both derided by a musical press that was often more interested in punk rock than aging hippies, as well as lauded by both journalists and the establishment. (Stills was, as Roberts enthusiastically points out, the first artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in the same night for his work in Buffalo Springfield as well as Crosby, Stills & Nash.)
Roberts is quick to acknowledge Stills’ influence among not only his peers but subsequent generations, as well. When Public Enemy sampled “For What It’s Worth” for their song “He Got Game”, they asked Stills to re-record vocals and guitar for the track. Still was happy to comply. He also appeared in the song’s Spike Lee-directed video. Additionally, singer/songwriter Ray Lamontagne talks about how Stills literally awoke his own musical ambitions when his alarm clock sounded at 4AM to the tune of Stills’ “Treetop Flyer” and that day, he quit his job and pursued what would prove to be a highly successful musical career.
Again, it would be nice to get more direct, in-depth views from Stills himself. Perhaps with that kind of insight, this biography would be a more fitting tribute to such a towering figure. But if you’re a fan of Stills or any other artist who happened to fly into his orbit, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensive biography. Maybe it really is “definitive” after all.