Listening to these Stephen Stills demo tapes is a lot like seeing a really beautiful human being for the first time. One initially notices the flaws: one eye may appear slightly larger than the other, the nose seems a little off, the cheeks are a bit puffy, etc. But then it hits you. That person is truly gorgeous. The Stills recordings have the same effect: one hears the static fuzz of the acoustic guitar recorded too close to the microphone, some of the songs seem to be snippets rather than complete entities, sometimes the hiss of the tapes bleed through, etc. But then it hits you. These are truly stunning songs. Not only that, Stills passionately performed them with an ardor and honesty that makes the material radiant. The fact that the tracks were recorded almost 40 years ago, never intended for release, and almost thrown out only deepens one’s appreciation of their artfulness.
The back story goes something like this. Stills was deeply in love with Judy Collins, but the feelings were largely unrequited. He was playing back up on her recording sessions for the album Who Knows Where the Time Goes. After the session ended, Stills paid the engineer a couple of hundred dollars and told him “Just Roll Tape” (hence the album’s title). Professionally, Stills’ career was also insecure. Buffalo Springfield was breaking up (they performed their last show together less than a month later) and Crosby, Stills and Nash were not yet a reality. Stills has said that he wrote some of the material with the trio’s harmonies in his head. He must have known there was some magic here and wanted to capture it, lest it get lost. Some of the songs here went on to be recorded by CS&N, others ended up on his solo records from the period, and some went unheard until now. The uncertainty in Stills’ personal and professional life finds its way on this material as the lyrics reflect on the ephemeral nature of love and commitment.
Also, consider the times. It was April 1968, the month that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Rioting took place in more than 100 American cities. President Lyndon Baines Johnson recently announced he was not running for re-election, largely based on the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. Not only was Stills’ private and musical lives in flux, so was that of the larger world. Stills’ talent was the one secure thing he had going for him, and he seems to put everything he had into his songs. He fervently plays his acoustic guitar and sings, always staying in tune even when hitting the high notes. Stills has never been known as a great singer, Crosby and Nash’s harmonies just made him sound that way, but here he proves his vocal mettle.
The demos of CS&N material, such as “Wooden Ships”, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, and “Helplessly Hoping” will probably garner the most attention as they are some of Stills’ best-known compositions. Stills does a wonderful job on these tracks, and there is something unpretentiously lovely about hearing lyrics like “They are one person/ They are two alone/ They are three together/ They are for each other” without all of the vocal layering and sweetness. The simple pleasure of having just Stills and his acoustic guitar on heartfelt tunes like “So Begins the Task” and “Change Partners” is immense. And considering Stills’ meager output over the years, one cannot understand why he never recorded such gems as “All I Know is What You Tell Me”, “Dreaming of Snakes” and “The Doctor Will See You Now”, that opens with a guitar riff later borrowed by Neil Young for “Heart of Gold” and lines that simultaneously capture both the ennui and apocalyptic times: “What will you say when you’ve said everything/ What tune to play when you’ve played all of them.” The turn from the hopeful ’60s to its disillusioned aftermath has never been more presciently presented.
Stills also includes a bonus cut with the dozen demo tracks here, a previously unreleased version of “Treetop Flyer” with him on dobro from around the same period. While it doesn’t quite fit with the other material, it is a cracking version of the song. The 12-song demo is well worth it for itself. Stills’ great gifts as a songwriter, guitar player and singer have never been better revealed.