I am flying high over Tupelo, Mississippi, with America’s hottest band … and we are all about to die.
“We shouldn’t be here!” shouts Stillwater’s effusive lead singer, Jeff Bebe, his drink splashing across his purple shirt. Bebe, 24, was just last night in front of a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Now, with the band aboard a plane instead of its normal tour bus, his friendly face exudes nothing so much as pure panic. The airplane takes another dip. Hail pounds the wings.
The members of Stillwater look at one another, their words now taking on a truly black nature. Like the sky outside, everything threatens us in a menacing way. I have been on the road with the band for a week, seven days of fun and chaos and music. But now all of that is the furthest from this newly successful band’s thoughts.
Spurred on by the terror of impending death, accusations and admissions fly: Financial malfeasance. Band members sleeping with women they should not have slept with. Bebe dominating the band’s audience with Bob Dylan in New York and pitching the legend on a Dylan-Stillwater double bill at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. (Dylan was noncommittal.) But taking center stage, as it always does with this band, is the drama between the two most vocal members, the creative knot at the heart of Stillwater’s success.
“If I haven’t told you this before,” says the band’s visionary guitarist, Russell Hammond, “I love you all.”
Jeff is having none of it. “I don’t love you, man, I never did! None of us love you! You act above us. You always have.”
“Finally, the truth!” shouts bassist Larry Fellows.
“You just held it over us like you might leave!” Jeff continues. “I had to live with you, and now I might die with you, and it’s not fucking fair!”
The plane takes another mighty knock. But then, this is a band used to mighty knocks. For years, Stillwater have encountered every obstacle the road can throw at a midlevel band struggling with its limitations in the harsh face of stardom. Stillwater have survived electrocution, bad-acid trips, years of opening slots, from Quicksilver Messenger Service to the Amboy Dukes. They’re not going down in flames — not yet, at least.
As suddenly as it started shaking out of control, the plane rights itself. The clouds break, and the pilot announces we’re gonna be OK. We’re enveloped in sunny silence, back securely on the road again.
“Lock the gates!”
Two weeks before we give death the slip in the skies over Tupelo, we’re making an escape of a different kind. Stillwater are opening for Black Sabbath in Tempe, Arizona. Backstage before the show, Russell decides his new boots don’t look properly scuffed and knicks them gently with a razor blade. Larry, the bassist, eats four craft-service burgers, leaving the wrappers on the floor. Drummer “Silent” Ed Vallencourt reads an issue of Space and Time magazine, while Jeff is pitching manager Dick Roswell, a swashbuckling Brit in cowboy hat, on an idea for a Saturday-morning cartoon featuring Stillwater, in which the band fights crime using superpowers, with the help of a beaver sidekick named Fuddman — to be voiced by Elliott Gould. (Roswell is noncommittal.)
At quarter to nine, Stillwater take the stage and launch into the slow burn of “Love Thing,” easing into their set like a warm bath. Jeff stalks the stage and surveys the crowd as if targeting individual members to seduce with sound. Russell’s fingers fly like airplanes of music. But then, just as things grow to a slow boil, Russell steps up to his microphone and something goes very wrong. He stands motionless and stunned, like a boxer surprised by an uppercut, before collapsing to the ground. Later, I learn he’d been electrocuted.
Roswell peels him off the floor of the stage. Russell is carried out, and we board the ancient tour bus — affectionately dubbed Doris — as fast as we can. The promoter should be apologetic. Instead, he’s apoplectic. He runs up to Roswell.
“You didn’t finish your full set, man!”
“Listen, pal, your shoddy stage setup almost killed my guitarist!”
“Yeah, well, you trashed my fuckin’ dressing room, and you didn’t do your 25 minutes.”
“Don’t fuck with my band’s safety, ever!”
The promoter, his face now crimson with anger, screams a threat — “This is your last fuckin’ tour, man!” — but Roswell responds with some kung-fu moves, despite clearly not knowing how to practice the ancient art.
The promoter responds with the only move he has left: “Lock the gates on these fuckheads!”
The gates are duly locked, but by then Doris is speeding out of the complex at top speed, which is just fast enough. “Wanna buy a gate?” Roswell asks, as Doris plows through a thin metal fence.
Russell, it turns out, is fine, good as new after a couple belts of Jack Daniel’s. Drama like this can tend to obscure Stillwater’s music, which is a shame, because this is a band truly coming into its own. Stillwater’s new album, Farrington Road, is a turning point for the band — for the first time, they produced it themselves. “Farrington Road is a real end-of-an-era album for us,” Jeff says. “In many ways, this album could be called ‘The First Chapter of Stillwater.’ The Old Testament, you know? It’s only a map to how we got to where we are. But the future, that’s what we’re excited about. So every song feels like a goodbye to where we’ve been.”
They started out in the studio with Glyn Johns, who produced their last album. “We did a few sessions with Glyn, but it wasn’t magic,” Jeff says, thoughtfully. “Less than magic is no longer operative for Stillwater. We respect Glyn, but he was way behind the point we’ve progressed to. Glyn wanted to keep us in this shiny cage, and it was pretty in there, man. But we needed to step outside. It was dangerous outside that cage, but it was more real than the trip we saw him on.”
Jeff reveals they reached the breaking point with Glyn Johns while cutting the track “Ellen of Troy.” “Glyn wanted to turn it into a limp-wristed country-rock ballad,” Jeff says. “I said, ‘Glyn, this song’s about a chick from Michigan. The girls eat country-rock losers for breakfast out there.’ We’re a rock band. He wanted us rehearsing harmonies, like a barbershop quartet or something. I guess he wanted to turn me into Gram Parsons. I said, ‘Glyn, guess what? Gram was then, we’re now, and you’re fired.’”
That left Stillwater without a producer. “We talked to Bill Szymczyk about taking over — we really liked what he did with the James Gang and the J. Geils Band,” Jeff says. “Shot a few games of pool with that guy. Sank a few TNT’s. Cool dude. But we felt it was dishonest to have a producer this time. We wanted to show the world our vision, and nobody could produce that except us.”
Recording engineer Henry Lewy is thanked in the album credits for “sonic science, spiritual guidance, and always showing us where the one is,” but Jeff dismisses any suggestion that Lewy was in charge. “He knew how to hit the ‘On’ button. That’s all.”
Stillwater are a band in transition, and they certainly bring a contemplative tone to new songs like the acoustic love ballad “Something Mellow”: “There’s something mellow in her summer sun/It’s cool in her summer breeze/She prays for my Sunset Boulevard soul/On her Laurel Canyon knees.” The song ends with the poignant final lines, “It ain’t California without you here/See you, babe, when I’m back next year.”
Asked who the song is about, Jeff shakes his head and says, “It’s about her, man. Every song is a piece of her. The Eternal Feminine, as Goethe put it. Put all the songs together and they just add up to an incomplete mosaic of the muse.” He looks to make sure the tape recorder is catching his words. “And what is a ‘muse’-ician … if not the person who translates the magic of a muse into music, almost like a mathematician of the soul?” (Asked the same question, Russell shrugs distantly: “A girl Jeff knows. Ask him.”)
For their next album, Jeff is already talking excitedly about a double album with a concept, although he’s as yet undecided what the concept will be. “For years, we’ve been on this cycle of tour, album, tour, album, tour. Stillwater has outgrown that. There are so many stories that need to be told — the lost civilizations of the Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayans. Maybe each side of the album will be the language of a different ancient tribe. Dig it. I think we might use ancient symbols for the title.”
I mention that Led Zeppelin might have already done that. Bebe shakes off the comparison. “We actually were messing around with that idea before them. In the Jeff Bebe Band, our logo was four symbols in the shape of B-E-B-E. Sometimes good ideas just get in the wind, and blow you into another world. That wind is … my muse.”
Jeff calls Farrington Road’s epic finale, “For the Love of Jessica,” “an atlas to all the roads we’ve traveled and the rivers we’ve crossed. From Troy, Michigan, to the rings of Saturn. You know how The Iliad is the Greeks fighting the Battle of Troy, and then The Odyssey is the 10-year journey of Odysseus, leaving Troy and coming back home? This is our Odyssey.” The music builds from a 12-string folk overture to a raging electric-blues hurricane, as Jeff sings, “I lost all my faith in the holy myth/While the one I was lovin’ loved the one she was with.”
Jeff’s face clouds over when asked if “For the Love of Jessica” was influenced by the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica,” from their new album, Brothers and Sisters. It’s clearly a sore spot.
“Not fair! That’s a total coincidence, our album came out a full three weeks before theirs! Yet because they’re (Bebe flashes air quotes) ‘The Allman Brothers,’ we get slammed for copying them. It’s bullshit.…” Bebe Stares out his hotel room window, deep in thought. The criticism stings. “I mean I get it, but.… Not fair.”
It’s one of those moments every band dreams of — and in Stillwater’s cinder-block-walled dressing room in Topeka, Kansas, all hell is breaking loose over it.
As the band winds down after a fairly blistering set, Roswell arrives with a long-awaited box of Stillwater T-shirts. Everyone jumps up as Roswell rips open the box and pulls out a shirt — and we all see that the band members are in shadow, except Russell. The band is instantly deflated as Roswell stuffs the shirt back in the box, vowing to make amends. But the problem doesn’t end there. “I’m just one of the out-of-focus guys!” Jeff shouts.
Russell grabs a shirt, drapes it over a metal chair, and confronts Jeff. “See, you love this T-shirt. It lets you say everything you want to say.”
“It speaks pretty loudly to me,” Jeff shoots back, and we can feel the tension in the room building.
“It’s a T-shirt,” Russell replies. He turns to Larry and Silent Ed. “Do you give a shit about a T-shirt?”
Larry sighs and says he just wants to go grab some barbecue, but Jeff won’t let it rest; as I sit and watch, all his frustrations with Russell are suddenly erupting.
“This is big stuff, man!” Jeff says, stalking around the room. “From the very beginning, we said I’m the frontman and you’re the guitarist with mystique. That’s the dynamic we agreed on.… But somehow, it’s all turning around. We have got to control what’s happening!”
Jeff stops, looks at me and snarls, “I can’t say anymore with the writer here!”
“No, no, you can trust him,” Russell says, calmly. “Say what you want. He won’t write it.”
“I work as hard or harder than anyone on that stage!” Jeff continues. “I connect. I get people off. I look for the one guy who isn’t getting off and I make him get off! I’d look for the girl who isn’t getting off, but there isn’t one. I don’t stop until everyone is getting off on everyone else getting off.” He points at me. “Actually, that you can print!”
Jeff then gets right in Russell’s face. “And yet why do I always end up feeling like I’m a joke to you?” he says. “You call yourself a leader of this band, but your direction allowed this T-shirt.… Don’t you see, man? The T-shirt is everything!”
Roswell kicks everyone out of the room for five minutes. I sneak one of the shirts into my bag before anyone can notice.
A half hour later, Russell, bristling with anger, ushers me out of the building and into the wild Topeka night. Fans excitedly point to him from afar, but he has more important things on his mind. “From here on out, I am only interested in what is real,” he tells me, picking up speed as he walks down the suburban street. “Real people, real feelings. That’s it, that’s all I’m interested in, from here on out.”
In perfect timing, a Volkswagen bus pulls up alongside us, and the teenage driver rolls down the window. Would Russell Hammond, the rock-star guitarist from Stillwater, like to attend his friend Aaron’s house party? Real Topeka people will be there. I try to persuade Russell otherwise, partly because it is my duty, but also because I’ve never attended a party myself. But the smile that spreads across Russell’s face is the happiest I’ve seen him since I joined the tour. We hop in the bus, and as it speeds off, I cling to my stolen T-shirt for dear life.
Aaron Amedori’s living room is overcrowded and joyous. Locals are sitting on the shag carpet in clusters, smoking and drinking beer to Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” They call and wave to Russell, who has never felt more at home. “I grew up with that lampshade!” he yells enthusiastically, detaching it from the ceramic base and cradling it under his arm, showing it to stoners blowing bubbles on the couch.
He rushes over to play a game of beer pong in the corner. His opponent is Ned, a bespectacled kid who’s spilled Budweiser all over his Who T-shirt. “If I miss this shot, I’m outta the band,” Russell announces, which receives simultaneous claps and boos. The ping-pong ball hits the rim of the plastic cup and just makes it in. He does this several more times, promising he’s done forever with Stillwater with each toss — but he always makes the shot. That’s the thing about being one of the most promising up-and-coming musicians in rock: Eventually you get tired of watching yourself succeed. “I’m too damn good at this game, but make sure you write this down,” he tells me. “It’s over, daddy.”
Ned says there’s acid in the red cups, but I don’t see cups that are any other color. Frantic, I run into the kitchen and call Roswell at the hotel. “This isn’t the first time this has happened,” he informs me, sighing heavily, “and I’m honestly surprised he hasn’t taken off sooner this tour. He just needed to lose some steam. Keep an eye on him, will you? You’ll know when the acid has kicked in.”
I catch up with Russell, who is now in Aaron’s bedroom. The host of the party is sitting on a pillow like it’s a makeshift throne, wearing Lennon-like glasses and stroking a boa constrictor. Another guy is positioned in front of the snake’s tank, taking long and strenuous hits from a bong while staring at the glass of the empty tank. Double-fisting a cup in each hand, Russell circles the room. He’s drawn a crowd now, and they sit silently in a cluster, waiting for him to talk.
“You, Aaron, are what it’s all about,” he says. “You’re real. Your room is real. Your friends are real. Real, man, real. You know? REAL. You’re more important than all the SILLY MACHINERY. And you know it! In 11 years, it’s going to be 1984, man. Think about that!” Tank Kid gets up and whispers something to Aaron, who nods in agreement. “Wanna see me feed a mouse to my snake?” he asks.
It’s 4 a.m., and Russell is on the roof. “I AM A GOLDEN GOD,” he declares, confirming that the acid has indeed taken effect. Everyone is outside now, standing around the pool and cheering (except for Tank Kid, who is visible through the window of Aaron’s bedroom, still staring at the glass). “Make sure you put down that this was all my idea,” says Michael, a plump teen with shoulder-length black hair. He’s giddily snapping photos on his Pentax camera, only stopping to light a cigarette. “I’m the photo editor over at the Topeka Teen Beat. My boss isn’t going to believe this!”
“I AM A GOLDEN GOD!!!” Russell repeats, now screaming with his arms spread wide, his head thrown back against the early-morning sky. “And you can tell Rolling Stone magazine that my last words were … ‘I’m on drugs!’” As far as last words go, I’ve heard better. I urge Russell to rethink this statement, and to come down so we can head back to the hotel. “OK, I got it … I got it … this is better. My entire life has led up to this moment, and I’ve never felt so alive and so … REAL. My last words are: ‘I DIG MUSIC.’” This receives subtle applause as Michael rolls his eyes. “Come on, man, you can do better than that,” Michael says. Russell shrugs and smiles. “Fine. I’M ON DRUGS!!”
He jumps into the deep end of the pool, soaking a woman’s dress as she gasps in fear: “Oh, sweet Jesus! Is he OK?” Russell’s head bops up to the surface, laughing. Everyone in the backyard dives in, unlacing their Keds and tossing their socks onto the grass. “Come on, William!” Russell says, splashing my shoes with chlorine. “Put your little notebook away and join us. You’ll be taking notes with your eyes, anyway.” I sit on the patio as the sun rises, my stomach rumbling as Tank Kid pulls up a chair to join me. “Do you think they’ll have pools in 1984?”
A couple of hours later, I hear Doris’ engine chugging down the street. Russell is sleeping on the tile floor of Aaron’s kitchen, swaddled in a Topeka Trojans bath towel and wearing swim trunks I can’t recall him putting on. As Roswell enters, Aaron and his little brother, Lou, excitedly greet the manager. “He’s more than welcome to live in our basement,” Aaron says. “Really, my parents won’t mind. We always have leftover casserole.” Roswell shakes Russell awake and guides him out of the house, but before he exits, he slams me into the wall. “Look at him, he’s taking notes with his eyes. How do we know you’re not a cop, the enemy? STOP FUCKING LOOKING AT ME!!!” My patience has waned, gone by the hours I’ve spent making sure this guy doesn’t die.
I hang back a little, watching Russell stumble into a flower bed out front. He breaks down in tears. “I hurt the flower,” he sobs. Roswell turns his attention to the partygoers, now huddled in front of the house. “Ladies and gentlemen, the evening is over,” he tells them. “We hope you all enjoyed yourselves, and we’ll see you all again in 1974!”
Back on the bus, tensions are high. It’s Russell against the world, as 10 sets of eyes stare him down like he’s an alien. He takes a seat up front, Roswell lovingly squeezing his shoulders behind him as he attempts to sleep off the hangover. Jeff is a few rows back, staring out the window. “This is so like him,” he grumbles. “Selfishly holding us up in this city so he can party with some teenagers. Does he honestly think they’re better company than his own goddamn band?”
Everyone is silent now as relief and exhaustion set in. Flashes of greenery zoom past the windows as we head toward Tennessee. Howie, the driver, cranks up the radio, to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” the twinkling piano intro drifting through the vehicle. “You’d think this station would have better luck playing ‘Country Comfort’ in a place like Kansas,” Jeff mutters. “Madman Across the Water is such a weak record. Too many strings and no hits.”
Suddenly, Larry breaks out into song: “Jesus freaks/Out in the street/Handing tickets out for God.” Before long Jeff perks up. “Fuck it, this part is so good,” he says, belting “But, oh, how it feels so real lying here with no-one near.” He laughs. “Man, I wish I’d written that.” Everyone joins together on the chorus, counting the headlights on the highway. It’s a rare, beautiful moment that shows just how much this band cares for one another. Jeff gets out of his seat and runs up the aisle to Russell. “I was really worried about you, man,” he tells his bandmate. They hug, and the bus drives on.
“Those people out there — they just don’t know,” Jeff says, plopping down on a backstage bench in Sioux City, Iowa. Stillwater have just finished a set opening for Foghat, and Jeff, drops of sweat hanging in his long hair, is happy with the crowd response — to a point. “They don’t know how hard we’ve worked to get here,” he expounds. “Nobody handed this to us. Nobody.” Taking a seat next to him, sipping a beer, Russell smiles and nods, flashing an I’ve-heard-this-rant-before look.
Jeff has a point: Stillwater’s history is as tangled as a Yes track. Start with him, born Jeff Bebenkowski in Detroit, the son of a Ford assembly-line dad and a mom who took on the hard work of raising Jeff and his siblings. Like many of his friends, he saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, but it was the Stones doing “The Last Time” on that show in 1965 that made him pick up a guitar. “The Beatles were fun, but the Stones scared people, and I liked that,” he says with a grin. A year later, still in high school, he joined his first band, the Juddson Brothers, named after two siblings who both played the same drum kit. “We only lasted a few months,” says Jeff. “I was thinking, ‘The stars of this band shouldn’t be the drummers. It should be me.’”
Despite that false start, the singer did emerge with a new, shortened stage name. “I wanted to sound like a BB gun,” he says, grinning. “Like a rock & roll bullet.” Jeff then did time in Sampson’s Balls, a harder, more metallic band that made one album, Burst, on the local Rock City label in Detroit. (That’s Jeff’s scalding solo on their near-hit “Smokin’ After School.”) Despite scoring a gig opening for Bob Seger (“I don’t think his career is going anywhere,” Jeff confides. “It’s so painful when you see someone do one good song, ‘Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,’ and then it’s one big downhill slide after that”), Sampson’s Balls petered out after two years, and Jeff found himself directionless.
With him were two new musical accomplices. Growing up in Akron, Ohio, Larry Fellows and “Silent” Ed Vallencourt met in junior high and bonded over their mutual love of the Standells and Gilligan’s Island. Almost immediately after graduating from high school, they formed Saint Hex, which played hyped-up garage pop, as heard on their two locally released 45s, “You Got It (And I Want It)” and the Akron-inspired “Factory of Love.” But despite headlining clubs like the legendary Rock Inn Roll, Saint Hex were small fish in an even smaller pond. “Before Kent State,” says Larry, “nothing was really happening in Ohio.”
Hearing about the burgeoning Michigan rock community, Larry and Silent Ed relocated to Flint and changed it up in every way: In their new band, Fellows’ Fellows, they dressed as tweedy, upper-crust Brits, for reasons neither man can quite remember. The gimmick landed them a cult following, but the novelty wore off fast. By the time their album Under My Bowler was released late in 1969, the band had already broken up; keyboardist Phil Block, a central part of the sound, announced over a band dinner that he was joining a fringe-jacket-making commune in Lodi, Wisconsin. (He hasn’t been heard from since.)
At wit’s end, Larry went out for a beer in nearby Troy one night in late-1969, and happened upon a bar where Jeff Bebe and a fellow guitarist John Stenton were playing Simon and Garfunkel covers to pay the rent. Larry introduced himself; to his great surprise, Jeff had heard Fellows’ Fellows. “He said, ‘You guys aren’t as good as me, but you’re pretty good,’” Larry recalls with a laugh.
As it happened, Jeff had plans for a new band that would put his singing and songwriting up front. He’d already written embryonic versions of “Charlie’s Blues” and “Chance Upon You,” later on Stillwater’s debut album, To Begin With…, and was in search of a rhythm section. Larry sold his Strat for a Fender bass, and the Jeff Bebe Band was born. In a bonding moment, they got collectively drunk one night and stole a sign for Big Beaver Road, a thoroughfare in Troy. “After that,” says Larry, “we were like brothers. But one brother still has that sign.”
For more than a year, the Jeff Bebe Band played every dive in the area, but in 1971, Stenton left. Depending on who one asks, Stenton either thought Jeff was hogging the stage or that Jeff’s face was too pronounced on the band’s T-shirts. (Stenton, currently a history teacher in Duluth, Minnesota, declined to comment.) Enter Russell Hammond, who’d grown up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Dubbed “most likely to score a football scholarship” in his high school yearbook, Russell was a star quarterback — until the night in the summer of 1967 when he and some pals downed some acid and listened to Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. His older brother, Ethan, had already taught Russell a few chords on an old family guitar, and in no time, Russell was playing lead guitar in a power trio, Fizz Merchant. Bassist Steve St. John had a family friend who wanted to get into the music business, and that benefactor recorded and released a Fizz Merchant single, “Since You’ve Been Dead,” backed by “Blue Sunshine,” inspired by Russell’s acid trip.
But as with the other bands that predated Stillwater, Fizz Merchant fizzled out fast, and Russell hitchhiked to Detroit. There, he answered an ad in the Detroit News for a “guitarist for heavy blues band.” That audition landed him in Blues Reduction, known around the state as “Michigan’s answer to the Yardbirds.” Over the course of his tenure in the band, Russell perfected his sexy-surly image — much to the displeasure of lead singer and harp master Darryl Way. “I’m cool with letting someone else take the spotlight,” Russell says, “but Darryl wanted me to basically stand still onstage. I can’t do that, man. When the music moves through me, I move. It’s like breathing. I breathe rock.”
By the summer of 1971, the white-blues fad had burned out, and Blues Reduction had little to show for it — no record deal, not much cash. Russell had seen the Jeff Bebe Band when that group and Blues Reduction had shared a bill at Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig, so when Russell heard about Stenton’s departure, he immediately tracked down Jeff. “John was a good player, but Russell has that edge,” Jeff enthuses. “I knew if I grabbed the mic and Russell had his guitar, we’d be Page and Plant, or Mick and Keith. But better.”
The new lineup — Jeff, Russell, Larry, and Silent Ed — needed a new name to match. While rehearsing at a deserted farmhouse outside of Ann Arbor, the men got high one night and sat down near a stagnant pond. “We all looked at it, and one of us — I think it was Larry — said, ‘That water is so fuckin’ still,’” recalls Russell. “And we all looked at each other and knew we had the name. We may look like quiet guys, but we’re deep like water, and we move like water. It felt right.”
The newly christened Stillwater played its first gig at the short-lived Fillmore Midwest in Detroit. Promoter Bill Graham’s attempt to duplicate his success in San Francisco and New York lasted only a few months (the owner of the building tired of noise complaints and shut the theater down). But Jeff’s and Russell’s local reputations pulled in more than a thousand fans, who saw the quartet play early versions of songs that wound up on To Begin With…. The combination of Jeff’s vocal roar and Russell’s lethal riffs felt like a natural match, and that night, their 12-minute jam on “Something in Between” cemented their bond. “After that night,” says Jeff, “we were all in.”
Greeneville, Tennessee. It’s only 10 a.m., but we’ve arrived at a barbecue joint to get the ribs Larry has been groggily requesting for the past 12 hours. The band members stretch their legs in the parking lot, Russell muttering to himself as he recovers from the night before. He’s changed out of the Topeka teen’s bathing suit and back into his denim uniform, hands buried deep into his pockets. “Well, it’ll be hard to resist the temptation of eating meat in a place like this,” he observes. Larry approaches him and puts his arm around the guitarist. “Stop being such an animal lover, man,” he tells him. “There’s no meat in baked beans.”
Smoky Jim’s is dingy and empty, with just a blond waitress chewing gum and tapping her foot on the sawdust floor to Johnny Paycheck’s “Mr. Lovemaker.” Stillwater seat themselves at a long wood picnic table in the corner, as I anxiously search for a payphone to call my mother. When I join them, they’ve seemingly ordered every item on the menu, with Rebecca, our waitress, barely nodding along to Paycheck. If she knows who Stillwater are, she’s doing a good job pretending otherwise. “They should be playing ‘Love Thing’ instead of this country crap,” Jeff says as she walks off with the order. Russell looks away with a toothpick dangling from his lips, pretending not to hear.
Roswell takes a shot of whiskey and informs the band they’ll be staying at the General Morgan Inn. “It’s a tiny theater,” he says of tonight’s venue, “but I’m hoping we’ll still draw in a crowd,” Roswell says, ripping open a moist-towelette packet.
“I’m sure we’ll still be able to turn people on,” Russell replies confidently.
When the food arrives, Larry leaps up and asks the waitress for an additional plate. He dives headfirst into the spread; the man is a bottomless pit. The bassist may not be as talented as John Paul Jones or Chris Squire, but he can certainly top them in food consumption. I watch him inhale three chicken thighs, two slabs of brisket, buttered corn on the cob, a bowl of coleslaw, a few sausages, and a vat of baked beans with bacon bits. And the ribs. Oh, the ribs. He must have eaten 30 of them, licking each bone clean.
“You’d never believe it, but Tempe has the best mutton chops I’ve ever had in my damn life,” he says. Then he shifts his attention to me, lowering his aviators and looking me in the eye, deadpan. He belches loudly. “You know, I don’t ask for much in this group,” he says. “Just a little BBQ every now and again.” Silent Ed looks up from his plate, beaming with mesquite sauce smeared across his face. He nods along so enthusiastically that he knocks his potato salad onto my notepad. His apology in the form of a chuckle is the most I’ve heard from him all week.
Late at night, Russell sits silently in his dimly lit hotel room in Boston, deeply involved in the Japanese-flute music booming from his cassette machine. “That’s not a flute,” he corrects a visitor. “It’s the shakuhachi, which is made of bamboo — it’s the sound of Zen. This is Gorō Yamaguchi’s masterpiece, A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky. This music is what makes me cry. It’s all about the mysteries of the inner life of musical tones.”
“All those people out there tonight — they wouldn’t hear the influence of this in my playing. All they hear is ‘Fever Dog.’ But they can’t listen deep enough to hear where it comes from. There’s so much more to me than that.”
Russell lights a candle, as incense wafts through the room. “I’ve reached the limit of what I can do in this band,” he says. “I’m standing here, holding a leash, and my music is on the other end. And my music wants to charge off into the night. The woods, you know? Spanish moss hanging off the trees. There might be gators out there in the swamp. Owls and shit. The music might never get out of the woods alive. But it doesn’t know yet, because I’m still standing here holding the leash, and I keep saying, ‘We have to stay here because this is where the band is. And they need us.’ But, man, I see that haunted look in the music’s eyes. It’s disappointed in me. I’m holding it hostage, on a mowed lawn, at a hockey rink in fucking San Diego. Music did so much for me, and I owe it more than that.
“Maybe I’ve just wandered off the edge of the map, where it says ‘Here be dragons,’ and maybe I’ll always wish I could get back to that simplicity Stillwater had. It’s sad, man, because there’s nothing I love more than that brotherhood. If I could simplify myself to fit with them, I would. I’m an alchemist standing here holding my alembic in one hand and a magic wand in the other, and they’re looking for a mechanic to replace the oil filter. If I could just erase the music from my brain, the real music, and just play it safe, I’d be the mechanic they need. I’d be Mister Fix-It.”
At the Sheraton coffee shop the next day, Jeff shakes his head sadly. It’s clearly disturbing for him to hear about Russell’s comments. “I don’t think Russell gives himself enough credit for what he does in the context of this band,” Jeff says. “He doesn’t dig how far he’s progressed from the blues licks he used to play in the garage back in Troy. He thinks he needs to escape the limitations of this band, but he doesn’t realize that when he gets going, there are no limitations. Russell is the magic. I’m just the magician.
“The more the crowd gets off, the more I get off on how we all get off. But you know what breaks my heart? The one guy I want to get off most, the one I just can’t reach — that’s the guy standing next to me with the guitar. Some nights out there, I feel like the only person there I can’t make it with is Russell. He has no idea he’s the reason I do this. He’ll never know how it breaks my heart to sing ‘Fever Dog’ when I’m turning on everyone except the guy I wrote the song with.”
Jeff says this tension has always existed in the band: “Brother, you are staring straight into the alchemy of this band. Russell has to go deep into his soul, to find the secret place where his music is hiding. And everything has to wait until Russell finds what he’s looking for. Me, I’m different, man. I catch music in the air, and I bring it to people who need it. For me, the music is what happens between a pair of eyes on one side of the room, and a pair of eyes on the other side, when they see each other through that harmonic space in between. They feel that note vibrate in the air. I make that happen, whether it’s on the misty fields of Avalon or the Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Give me a room full of people hungry for that note, and I will give them that note. Give me that starving flock of 10,000 pilgrims, just a crust of bread, and I will feed them the feast of their lives.”
Jeff looks at the rainy street outside the window of the coffee shop and sighs heavily. “Yeah, sure, Russell and I fight sometimes. Brothers fight, you know? But he’s the magic in this band — you tell him I said that, OK? I can feed the starving flocks, but I can’t do it without Russell. He’s the crust of bread.”
A few hours later, at the soundcheck, the worst case of stage fright belongs to Roswell. “We’ve done everything we can do,” he says, staring out across the empty seats of the cavernous arena. For two weeks the local print and radio media have been permeated with ads. Still, advance sales have been slow. “Fishy [he means Russell, who is a Pisces] will be pissed.”
But the band members seem far more preoccupied with tuning up. “They wouldn’t even let me into the Rickenbacker factory,” Larry gripes as he plugs in his bass. “They said they never let anyone in there. Not even Pete Townshend.” He and Ed riff on the groove from Stillwater’s first hit, “Love Comes and Goes,” a 1971 song that somehow already seems like an oldie. They look around to see if Russell might join in, but there’s no sign of him at the moment. Larry and Ed go down and join various roadies on the floor for a spirited game of soccer.
Backstage, Russell sits by himself, with a weary expression on his face, slipping into a few silent minutes of near-meditation. “If it was just a matter of playing, it would be perfect,” he says. “But it’s not. It’s airports, hotel rooms, promoters. Maybe instead of touring next time, we’ll just drive a van around the country and do surprise gigs, just playing for people, just our instruments and nothing else. No bullshit, just the music.” He opens a fresh bottle of Jack Daniel’s. “The business, I hate it. I grew up with these guys, OK? I can’t play all that I can play when I’m with them. I’m past these musicians, do you understand? And the more popular we get, the more I can’t walk on them. I used to be able to hear the sounds of the world. Everything to me used to sound like music. Everything. Now I don’t hear it.”
I’ve seen Russell commanding crowds of thousands. I’ve seen him cold and shivering in Topeka. I’ve seen him on a T-shirt. Today, somehow, I see him in my bedroom.
The long and twisted road that led him here, to my house in San Diego, involves love, betrayal, and recompense, a tale worthy of Rimbaud, Dickens, or Page and Plant. Despite all the backstage boredom and brewing thoughts, Russell never sat for an interview during all of our time together on the road. Even worse, Stillwater denied an early version of this story to the editors of this magazine, for fear it made them look like amateurs. I retreated here, tail between my legs, to write about Mott the Hoople and commune with my records. What changed, what brought this scruffy and handsome guitarist to my door? A mutual friend, a wondrous soul whose acquaintance Russell and I have both been lucky enough to make, bamboozled him into coming here, to apologize.
So here, amid the clutter, the plaid curtains, stands Russell. He smells of semi-expensive cologne, clove cigarettes, and confidence. He apologizes for lying to my editors. He says he later confirmed this story to my editors — though now, I realize, it needs a new ending.
I grab my recorder and point the microphone at him. “So Russell, what do you love about music?”
“To begin with…” he starts, quoting the title of Stillwater’s debut, “everything.”
We talk, deeply and honestly, about the music he loves. He loves Elvis. He loves Van Morrison. He loves the Faces but not Rod Stewart — something about a girl. “I want to make music on that level,” he says with unblinking earnestness. “That’s why I get worked up sometimes and why you saw some of the shit you did. This isn’t just a job. It’s my life. Without music…” he trails off, leaving an awkward silence between us. It’s only broken when he sees a stack of LPs near my turntable — Tommy, Pet Sounds, Led Zeppelin II, Axis: Bold as Love.
“Look at that, man,” he says, grinning. “I knew you weren’t the enemy.” He scans my collection. “We have all the same records. Though I would get myself some Coltrane as soon as possible.”
He rests his face on his forearms and gets deeper than I’d ever imagined. “I’m in a place where I’m still figuring it out, you know?” he says. “What I really think is next, if I’m being honest, is to try and keep growing with Stillwater. It’s just — my dad, you know, he left when I was a kid. He actually visited me in Cleveland, did you know that? It had been six years, man. Six years! And he just showed up, with a paisley shirt and this new young chick on his arm. I think she just wanted to meet me. I felt sorry for the bastard. Anyway, he wasn’t around growing up. My mom did her best. Point is, I’ve never really had a normal family, you know? Stillwater’s my family. I’ve got to lead them — and be led.”
He again apologizes for sacrificing me, and my story, at the altar of rock & roll. There’s a lot of pressure on Stillwater, he says. “It’s like hiking up a beautiful mountain, and we’ve got our boots on, and we’re exhausted and hungry and thirsty, but we know we can get there,” he says. “We just don’t want to trip and stumble and fall all the way back down that mountain. That would suck. You know?”
After an hour, he gets up to leave — he says he’s due in the studio in L.A. for a session, adding guitar licks to a new song by Daniel Boone. As he’s walking out the door, he turns back with a smile.
“Oh, and that shit I said in Boston?” he says. “I only meant half of it.”