While many of Stephen Stills’ peers and bandmates have issued memoirs recalling their misspent youth and Sixties superstardom, the 68-year-old guitarist is content to let his work speak for itself. Stills, best known for writing anthems for his generation such as “For What It’s Worth” and “Love the One You’re With,” has issued a four-disc retrospective box set that showcases his nearly 50-year career. Spanning from his earliest song sketches to his still-ubiquitous hits with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to forgotten Manassas gems, the venerable guitarist says this collection is his autobiography. He spoke to Rolling Stone last week about the process as well as the real story of his lost sessions with Jimi Hendrix.
How much regard do you have for your legacy?
Well, it’s not for me to regard. Graham and everybody had their work cut out for them with this beautiful package. I had a roomful of tapes about the size of two garages, and someone had to go poring through them and find the best versions of [these songs]. Legacy is something you talk about when you are finished, and I’m not finished. To answer invites too much speculation about how much self-regard I have. Ask Crosby that, but not me [laughs].
What is it about Graham Nash that made him the perfect curator of this project?
He’s got the patience. It’s also an organizational skill. He’s got that kind of mind. He’s got filing skills, if you will. He’s got a great memory and he can listen to all this stuff – hours and hours and hours. He would find these chesnuts – I wouldn’t have had the patience.
Nash said in an interview with Rolling Stone while he was working on the box set that “Stephen is the wrong person to ask about Stephen.”
I detest talking about myself. There is a reason why people pick up an instrument and put it between themselves and the rest of the world. Language is an inadequate form of communication. If you’ve picked up an instrument, it’s because you don’t feel you are communicating sufficiently.
What do you think the box set elucidates about your career?
There is a good arc to it. I could’t listen this to entire thing myself – if I did, it would make me never want to play again. I much prefer the road. My thing is getting live in front of people. There is a sterile environment to a studio that does’t make me let go. You get too thoughtful and fretful.
Listening to some of your most famous songs, it’s striking how mindful they were of the times in which they were written. Despite that America has been at war for more than a decade, it’s hard to imagine anyone writing a hit song about it. It says a lot about how the role of the pop song has changed since “For What It’s Worth.”
The role of the troubadour been going on for thousands of years. We were sort of the first newsboys, because all history was oral, before Gutenberg. When you say “pop song,” it trivializes it a bit, but with a song like “Love the One You’re With,” which was actually, having as many layers as it does, about my life then – it’s not the greatest song in the world, it’s kind of a jingle. There are some other great ones that have some cohesiveness, but that one is just about love and things. I don’t set out to write a political song. I am not one of those that feels compelled to write about what’s going on. I mean, what do I do? “Oh, the pope got elected today? His name is Frank. He can’t be Francis the First – that was Sinatra!” The material is there, but I have to pick up an instrument, and then comes a sense of melody and a feeling and a snatch of a phrase and you are off to the races.
Whats your relationship to “For What It’s Worth?”
It’s been very good to me. There is an awful lot of people on the publishing – too many people! It used to be “Give us your publishing and we’ll let you record.”
So many of your contemporaries have done books, but you haven’t. Is this your equivalent? Is this your biography?
This is probably my book. I doubt I will write one of those – most of them are insufferably boring. You know, first about getting high and hanging out, then about chicks and learning an instrument, going to high school, then recovery and the great new life they have with their new wife. It’s the same story, and it’s not exactly mine – there is a lot more to it, but that seems to be the M.O. I liked Keith [Richards]’s book because it sounds like him. But the rest of them – I’m sorry, but they bore the shit out of me.
After these sessions with Hendrix were rediscovered, did you wonder if there was anything else that you’d forgotten about?
No. What was forgotten was that there was a lot of loitering. Of course we just said “Just record everything we do,” and so there are boxes and boxes of two-inch tape of barely decipherable conversation, laughing, and someone would occasionally pick up an instrument and clunkety-clunk. Boxes of loitering! There is one song that Jimi did that I gave to [Hendrix’s estate] because it’s just him. And then I had another one which I turned into an instrumental eventually, because I wasn’t happy with the title and the words never came, and it was kind of in the wrong key. The way the session had started, he came in to do overdubs on it. Then there was another one, when he came to New York, and I was showing him my arrangement of “Woodstock,” before I showed it to the boys. And then I played on something of his – but the discovery was that the “hidden Jimi Hendrix tapes” didn’t really have much on them. Just a lot banging and talking and “maybe let’s do this,” and then “Jim, let’s go to Tramps,” or something. It wasn’t the goldmine we thought it was going to be. Everyone made very much of a myth out of it. None of it really backed up. I have this one great song. There might be some other great stuff – who knew? It was 30 years ago, and we were hammered.