Here’s the second part of my Steve Stills interview from 1976.
The tracks on the Stills/Young album suggested they had been written while in Florida. “Yeah... Neil is a pretty immediate sort of a cat. My songs on that album were written somewhat before but Neil’s were mostly done there. My ‘water’ song, the one about diving (‘Black Coral’) was actually written after I’d gotten into some very deep diving. I have been down 288 feet.
“For Neil it was a departure from some of his darker moments, mainly because we had a great time and looked forward so much to going in the studio. I think it was very educational for me and him both because we picked up on what was right about the way we each recorded and also corrected some of the things we had been doing wrong.
“Neil had me going for the guitar parts at the same time as we recorded the backing track... the way we used to have to do it. We did that album live in the studio with very little overdubbing at all.”
When his throat healed, Young began rehearsing for another tour with Crazy Horse – scheduled to begin midway through November – and Stills found himself alone. It was the time, he decided, to try out a solo tour.
“I didn’t plan to do it this year. It was something that I kept saying I’d do later on, something I kept putting off because I thought I could always do at one stage. When Neil split – he’d been planning all along to do a tour with Crazy Horse later this year – I had to do something, so... well, it was right for my own acoustic thing.
“I did three shows, two in theatres and one at a college, and after the college show I thought... not quite. If they want to boogie I can’t stop them. So I’m getting a bass player and drummer for the bigger shows. They’ll only do five or six songs at the end so it’ll still be basically me.
“I’ve gotta walk out on the stage and get myself going all by myself. So long as I know what the first three songs are, I’m OK. After that... well, so long as I’ve made it that far the show will be all right. I don’t think I want a band, a big band any longer.”
Earlier this year Stills had agreed to do a European tour that would include a date at Cardiff Castle – a date that was advertised in the press but cancelled at relatively short notice. According to Stills, it was the opportunity to record with Young in Miami that caused the cancellation.
I told him he was advertised to play a big outdoor show in Cardiff. “That’s news to me,” he replied, seemingly ignorant of whatever was planned in England. “I know I have to go over there because that time, when I cancelled, it was really a little close to the recording date to cancel, but it wasn’t right at the last minute.
“But look... if Neil was ready to record, I had to go for it. Before we did that album he had a whole tour of the States planned with Crazy Horse and he ditched that. We just decided to go for it because we were excited about it... we all were excited about it... David and Graham, too.
“We’re all too sensible to give up thoughts of getting together again. We’re like brothers and we have tiffs. It’s always been like that with me and Graham and David and Neil. Sometimes we’ll get mad at one or the other and blah blah away, but six months later we’ll meet and... hey, you know, we’ll say ‘good to see you... what’s going on’... but that’s all ancient history.
“In any band, a lot of the internal bickering is directly proportional to the pressure. We never competed with each other as much as people thought. We used that energy in an entirely different way. What we wanted to do was please the others and many times when we failed, we’d fight. It wasn’t a rivalry so much as wanting to please each other, so everybody got super-critical of themselves.”
Stills admits that he is currently taking a look at his career and taking stock. “I’m not as good at being a star as I am at being a guitar player,” he said after some thought. “There are certain things about my career, my job if you like, that I don’t like at all. I recognise the other part of this job, the part that isn’t the music, and some of it is a little distasteful to me. Some people can pull that off perfectly, but I... well, I don’t look on myself as that sort of person.
“I just... I wanna play my axe for people and that’s it. That’s the bottom line, appearing in front of people, doing your job like that, which is what I’m doing on this tour.”
Last year Stills moved from Atlantic Records to CBS, a surprising move considering his long relationship with Ahmet Ertegun’s legendary record label and what he describes as a deep personal friendship with Ertegun.
“With Atlantic it was always... when are you going to do another CSN&Y album? Columbia has me as a solo act so there’s a little different attitude in the company. They let me record with Neil... they said ‘fine’.
“You can’t deny a great record,” he went on, raising criticism of his albums without being prompted. “If the public like a record they’ll buy it no matter what the critics say. A critic can cause trouble because if distributors read a review that’s bad they won’t pick it up. Maybe distributors will order one hundred thousand instead of two or whatever, but what happens is that those are sold in a week and they have to re-order. That happens to me every time.”
The interview concluded, I motioned towards a Martin guitar on the bed and asked Stephen to show me how he played ‘4 + 20’. He picked it up and retuned it – took him about ten seconds flat – and picked out the intro. He’d lowered all the strings bar the A and D, the bottom E to D but I wasn’t sure of the rest. Either way, the guitar was now in a D tuning and it sounded wonderful, ringing out as clear as day in his room. Steve didn’t sing for me, just finger-picked the accompaniment exactly as it is on Déjà Vu. It was at moments like this that I realised I really did have the best job in the world.