Stephen Stills and David Crosby have been taking it on the chin lately, and the blows hurled against them have not been without justification: the live album of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young may have been an accurate reflection of that group’s performance, but it conveyed the feeling of a slipshod half-effort, while the two Stills solo LPs were marked by distressing egocentricity at all levels, and the Crosby solo effort by a stupefying vagueness.
It wasn’t evaluations of a cool, objective nature, however, that mattered most. What really mattered was the intense hero worship, often approaching adoration, that had been bestowed upon these musicians as charter members in America’s two most revered groups, the original Byrds and the beloved Buffalo Springfield. Stephen Stills and Neil Young were walking myths within weeks after the demise of the Springfield. Young took advantage of his mystification by doing his best work yet, but Stills reacted differently, using the opportunity to commit sometimes grievous excesses in the name of art. Both became enormously popular, as their late group had never been. But Stills began to encounter some resentment from the disenchanted legions after they’d spent their money on his two albums, which contained ample evidence of his loss of good taste and good sense. The biggest of heroes was rapidly becoming the biggest of goats. “Bluebird Revisited,” with its horns and Stills’ sad parody of his own singing style, was the sacrilege that completed the transformation.
What people didn’t realize, blinded by disillusionment as they were, was that even in his worst moments, Stills was writing some pretty good songs and cutting tracks that were not without appeal: “Sit Yourself Down,” “Love the One You’re With,” “Change Partners,” “Marianne,” and “Know You Got to Run,” while hardly monumental, were real treats when they came over the car radio. But the disastrous “Bluebird Revisited,” “To a a Flame,” and “Ecology Song” overshadowed them–a true talent wasn’t supposed to miss that badly.
What was Stills to do, knowing he was better than the disgusted press was giving him credit for, but wondering in the back of his mind whether he had lost it for good? He needed to retrench and get back to more friendly territory. It was time to call for help, for some trusted, steady, able support.
Help has arrived, and in the nick of time. Most of it has come appropriately enough, from an original Byrd, Chris Hillman (late of the personally lamented Flying Burrito Brothers). Hillman leads a cavalry charge known collectively as Manassas, and Manassas has indeed saved Stephen Stills’ skin. This new album suggests strongly that Stills should have been in a working band all along–it suits him. Backing up Stills and Hillman, who sing and play guitars (Chris also contributes mandolin), are drummer Dallas Taylor and bassist Fuzzy Samuels, who’ve been with Stephen all the time, session keyboard man Paul Harris, pedal steel player Al Perkins, who played with the Burritos for a while, and percussionist Jo Lala.
On the minus side, the band suffers from an overabundance of riches, which causes Manassas to over-arrange some of its material. It could be trimmed to a solid four-or-five-man rock band. But on the other hand, this album isn’t at all an elaborate production piece like the two Stills solo albums. On the contrary, most of it has a substantial, honest sound found on too few records these days. All the sounds you hear come from the seven group members. And there are no horns this time, thank god.
But the retrenchment proves to be the album’s big plus. This wasn’t the time for Stills to break new musical ground, it was time for solid execution of conventional material, within well defined limits, and with an eye constantly on the fundamentals. The band must have been aware of Stills’ needs, because it reached for some time-honored ingredients. Thus, the music has the familiar, inviting flavor of the bands that Manassas’ principal members have been involved with. Further, the music on the double album has been organized in terms of its basic ambience, with each side titled. There’s “Consider,” with the acoustic guitars and harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash; “The Wilderness,” as country-oriented as the Burrito Brothers; “The Raven” and “Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay,” drawing on the electric sides of the Byrds, CSN&Y, and, oh, yes, the Buffalo Springfield.
There are a few instances in which Stills lapses into his heroictragic posturing: “Bluesman,” which ends the album, a tribute to Hendrix, Wilson, and Allman, has Stills overdoing the sentiment so that attention is drawn to him rather than those he mourns. And Stills’ lyrics (he wrote or co-wrote 21 of the 22 songs) show the strain of putting together a double album more than any other single aspect of the effort. They never should’ve been written out; they’re unobtrusive in their musical settings, but on paper, just awful. Stephen does manage, however, to write a really strong lyric occasionally, even if his percentage isn’t very high. Such is the case with “Fallen Eagle,” which describes the shooting of the surviving great birds by helicopter-borne sportsmen, and at the same time suggests the inevitable metaphor. The song’s cheery country arrangement and matter-of-fact description of the cruelty provide its cutting edge. Stills exposes the special dilemma of the popstar in “Johnny’s Garden”: “There’s a place I can get to/Where I’m safe from the city blues/And it’s green and it’s quiet/Only trouble was I had to buy it….” Otherwise, the lyrics are less distinguished than the performances.
The album begins with “The Raven,” which is a lively, uncomplicated rock & roll suite through most of its length. The flash turns to substance in the last song, a Hillman-Stills collaboration called “Both of Us (Bound to Lose).” It opens quietly, with Hillman singing in his most yearning voice–soft but intense. Chris sings the first verse, and a brand new Steve Stills sings the second. He understates his vocal just as Hillman has, keeping the emotion naked and sounding vulnerable and honest for the first time in recent memory. It took Stills a couple albums to lose his credibility, but surprisingly, it only takes him a three-line verse to get it back.
Hillman’s importance in the success of Manassas and in the comeback of Stills can’t be over-stressed. He’s not at all flashy; he prefers most often to play a supportive role, moving into the foreground only when that is necessary. When the Byrds needed another singer, Hillman did the job, and when they needed a songwriter, during the construction of Younger Than Yesterday, Chris came up with four of the prettiest songs the Byrds had ever done. Similarly, when Gram Parsons left the Burritos, Hillman fronted the group, keeping just as strong as it had been during Parsons’ stay. Now he’s done it again by joining his old friends. He’s a masterful musician whether he’s playing bass, guitar, or mandolin, and his boyishly pure, uncolored voice can carry a lot of emotional weight. Above all, Hillman is a winner: he’s never been part of a bad album.
The country side in particular bears Hillman’s stamp. Perkins’ steel, Byron Berline’s fiddle and Hillman’s own mandolin, all prominent in recent Burritos performances, are used extensively throughout “The Wilderness.” The harmonies, with Stills’ and Hillman’s voices equally prominent, are more finished than anything the Burritos ever managed to put together, but they don’t sound manufactured, like those on Deja Vu do. Hillman’s milky voice blends nicely with Stills’ coarse one; they sound even better together than they do separately. There are practically as many multiple-voiced leads as single lead vocals on Manassas, which gives the album much of its Byrds-Buffalo aura, as well as increasing its long-term listen-ability–nobody’s voice sounds good all by itself through the course of four straight sides. Right now, the Stills-Hillman combine sounds much more viable, vocally and generally, than the Crosby-Stills-Nash merger did back then.
Which brings us to two other members of the old supergroup. Neither David Crosby, another original Byrd, nor Graham Nash has ever gotten anywhere near as offensive as Stills at his worst. But then, neither Crosby nor Nash has the capacity to catch fire, as Stills is always threatening to do. These two guys are expert harmony singers, but they swing toward the sweet, light side, and a little sugar generally goes a long way. Separately, they’ve been important but not primary parts of two good groups, and they’ve been responsible for a lot of fine music. Together, they tend to cloy, having almost identical weaknesses. Those CS&N and CSN&Y harmonies were too rich, too compulsively constructed. Crosby and Nash offered tons of technique, but not much character.
Without Stills or Young along, the problem should be even more obvious, but it’s just not. The Nash-Crosby LP is no milestone, but it is something more than merely pleasant in several places. There’s less harmonizing than you’d expect from these two, and what’s here sounds pretty clean and unaugmented. Crosby’s songs since “Guinevere” have tended to have an icily smooth, still quality. So it is here, through the first four of his tunes. Then comes “The Wall Song,” a form-breaker, which has the toughest, most emotional feel of anything he’s done since “A Long Time Gone.” He and Nash attack the song rather than caressing it, a refreshing change of pace. Likewise for Nash’s “Southbound Train,” which begins with a harmonica sound as primitive and affecting as Dylan’s–it’s great to hear these guys do something primitive on