Archive for the ‘Stephen Stills’ Category

Despite the varied features, album reviews and artist overviews, the day-to-day draw of the old site – which I launched 23 years ago this month – can be summed up with a name: Neil Young.

To give you an idea of what I mean: I created two mirrored versions of the same basic content: The Unofficial CSN/Y Pages and The Unofficial Neil Young Pages. By the time of the Y2K tour in 2000, the Neil pages were attracting 300+ unique visitors a day, the CSN/Y-branded pages about 50, and the rest of the site – en masse – maybe 25. As a result, my Neil pages – along with a few other NY-centric sites – were spotlighted in the short-lived Mojo Collectibles, which spelled my name wrong, and Record Collector.

(After the Y2K tour ended, I feel compelled to mention, the boom in overall visitors slowly dwindled to about a hundred a day.)

Mind you, folks weren’t visiting for my thorough album discography, which included useful links to CDnow.  They were seeking information on bootlegs. Neil bootlegs, to be precise. And with the help of a handful of fellow (and metaphoric) longhairs, I delivered: The site was home to 100+ bootleg reviews. We dove deep into the music, sound quality and other esoteric stuff, and advised folks on what to look for and what to ignore.

This review focuses on a set that collects Buffalo Springfield’s Monterey Pop performance and various sundries. It’s a good example of what we aimed to do: educate, ruminate and pontificate.

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“I’d like you to welcome now–with a great big, fat round of applause–my favorite group, the Buffalo Springfield…”

With that introduction from The Monkees’ Peter Tork, the Buffalo Springfield took to the stage at the now-legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival missing an important ingredient: Neil Young. The enigmatic guitarist had quit the band a month earlier, on the eve of the Springfield’s Tonight Show appearance. In his stead at Monterey sat replacement lead guitarist Doug Hastings and, on rhythm, none other than Byrd David Crosby.

In John Einarson’s For What It’s Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield, bassist Bruce Palmer claimed that Crosby “stunk to high heaven.” Doug Hastings’ take was that, due to David’s deficiencies as a rhythm guitarist, “he would rush the tunes.” While agreeing that their performance was rather lacklustre, Richie Furay shifted the blame from the Byrd to the Springfield itself, and their lack of rehearsals sans the absent Neil Young. “We were struggling because we didn’t have the whole band, the family.”

Since the band’s performance was inexplicably left off of the mammoth Monterey Pop box set from a few years back, fans themselves haven’t been in a position to judge – oh, sure, there was a Monterey Pop bootleg series in the early ’90s, but finding it was just about impossible then. Besides, it only contained four of the songs from what was a six-song set. Do you really want to pay $50 for four songs? I thought not. Along comes Monterey, Mannix & Gold Star…a one-CD affair that comes close to collecting the entire Monterey performance, adds in the two songs the band performed on a truly weird appearance on Mannix, as well as recordings from the Gold Star Studios that date from early- to mid-1967.

Like most rock scholars, the Old Grey Cat has always considered the Springfield to be “Stephen’s band.” Stephen Stills was the glue that held the group together; and the Monterey set offers strong supporting evidence…forget what the band members themselves thought. Musicians – like most artists – are their own worst critics, after all. The band cooks, especially on “For What It’s Worth,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” and “Bluebird,” with the latter two joined at the hips in an unintentional – but fantastic – medley. Richie Furay also comes off very well with his two forays into the spotlight. To these trained ears, David Crosby more than holds his own.

Now for a few quibbles: “A Child’s Claim to Fame” and “Pretty Girl Why” are displaced in the lineup. In fact, they weren’t the concluding songs that night; they were the third and fourth numbers. But my main gripe? “Pretty Girl Why” cuts off midway through the first chorus!

The sound quality is good, if somewhat muffled.

The “studio out-take” of “Bluebird” is the nine-minute version found on the double-album best-of titled Buffalo Springfield released in the early ’70s, as well as on several bootlegs, most notably the cd version of CSNY’s Wooden Nickel. It’s Stills at his best, pure and simple.

What follows next is definitely not Stills at his best – though it’s not really his fault. In one of the most surreal moments in the history of the band, the Springfield guested on an episode of the TV series Mannix – yes, you read right. Mannix. In the episode (taped on August 14, 1967, but not aired until October), they provided the “atmospherics” in a bar … the only member of the band to be clearly seen on camera was Stephen, who was decked out in hippie regalia. The two songs they performed, “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth,” are featured complete with the dialogue from Mannix’s Mike Connors and the episode’s other actors. In other words: “Ugh!”

Perhaps the most startling factor of the appearance was that Neil had rejoined the band three days earlier. One assumes, then, that he also took part in this Mannix episode – Mannix but not The Tonight Show!? Go figure….

Now for the Gold Star material (much of which can also be found on the Stampede and Down to the Wire bootlegs): Forget what the accompanying liner notes claim; these songs were not the band’s “first attempt to make an album.” Rather, they’re demos and studio out-takes, primarily from early 1967 when the band was marking time. Sound quality is on par with Stampede (which is to say so-so), but the material itself is – for the most part – wonderful. Neil’s demo of “One More Sign,” for example, features a tender vocal. The two takes on “Down to the Wire” are great, too, with Stills’ lead vocal a delight to be heard. The only difference between this material and Stampede is that, here, “Come On” is replaced by an early run-through of “Mr. Soul.” (A-)

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(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Most fans know – or should know – the story behind Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Daylight Again album, which was released on June 21, 1982: It began life in 1980 as a collaboration between Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. The two had performed together at a political benefit in Hawaii and enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to try their luck as a duo.

At about the same time, erstwhile comrade David Crosby was recording his own album; but Capitol Records, his label home, was underwhelmed by what he turned in. According to Dave Zimmer’s Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography, the album included wordless jams and – in the label’s estimation – no marketable single. Crosby says that “[t]hey didn’t like it. They felt it wasn’t rock ’n’ roll enough, wasn’t like Devo or Elvis Costello.”

Stills and Nash’s project was rejected by Atlantic Records, too, though for different reasons. Although the songs were strong, and vocalists Timothy B. Schmidt (of Poco and the Eagles) and Art Garfunkel had helped round out the vocal sound, the label feared few fans would buy a Stills-Nash LP. In the Zimmer bio, Nash explains that Atlantic “wanted a Crosby, Stills & Nash album. They knew that as a combination, CSN would sell more than anything me and Stephen might have together.” And “sell” is something Stills and Nash needed the album to do: They had funded the project themselves and were some $400,000 in the hole. 

Nash also says that, as he thought it through, the more he agreed with Atlantic: “I started to miss [Crosby]. I missed his vocal quality. I missed his unique musical contributions. And I missed David as a person.”

Once Crosby came on board, the project turned into something of a jigsaw puzzle, with the threesome figuring out how to fit Crosby into a nearly complete picture. In some instances, such as “Southern Cross” and the title cut, the decision was made to leave him off. The songs were perfect as-is.

The genesis of “Southern Cross” is interesting. Stills’ manager played him a never-released song by the Curtis Brothers called “Seven League Boots”; he liked what he heard, but thought it could be better. He reached out, received permission to tinker with it, and before long a truly wondrous song was born. (For more on that, read this entry on the Disc Makers blog.)

In addition to figuring out where to fit Crosby’s harmonies, the re-formed trio had to decide which of Crosby’s solo tracks would work on “the album that wouldn’t die,” as some of those involved called it. The ethereal “Delta” was an obvious choice; Stills and Nash added some harmonies, but with or without their contributions the song was and is a stunning musical epiphany. 

Nash, too, has his moments, most notably on “Wasted on the Way,” in which he laments the time he and his pals had wasted through the years. The genius of the song, however, is that the lyrics apply to you and me, too. Everyone, at some point in their life’s journey, looks back with regret about missing out on something.

Anyway, although the album was released in 1982, I didn’t discover it until January 6th, 1984. (I can say so with certainty thanks to my desktop calendar.) In my Essentials piece on the Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl (which I bought 11 days later), I mentioned that much of the music entering my collection in late 1983 and early 1984, when I was an 18-year-old college freshman living the commuter-college life, stemmed from previous generations. The albums included a slew of Neil Young releases, including Times Fades Away, American Stars ’n’ Bars and Comes a Time, as well as Deja Vu, the album he released in 1970 with Crosby, Stills & Nash.

I’d love to say Deja Vu , which I acquired in November, immediately won me over. It didn’t.

Mind you, I owned the Woodstock album and – if memory serves – had watched the concert documentary a time or two on Prism, a premium cable channel native to the Philadelphia area. I liked and loved a fair bit of ‘60s music, and often joked that I’d come of age in the wrong decade. Overall, however, rock critic Dave Marsh’s brutal assessment of CSN in the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide was enough for me: “Limpid ‘adult bubblegum’ rockers.” Or, as Neil himself called them in “Thrasher” on his classic Rust Never Sleeps, “dead weight.”

I should back up, just for a moment: Living the commuter-college life sans a car, which wouldn’t come for a few more months, wasn’t easy. One bus from Hatboro to the mall in Willow Grove. A second bus to Abington. And then a 10-minute hike to campus. Such was my life. I slipped the headphones of my Walkman clone over my ears, and lost myself in music. The return home, however, was much easier: Any of several friends usually gave me a lift.

It was during just such a journey home one December day – just a few weeks after buying Deja Vu – that the melody of “Southern Cross” slinked from the tinny car’s speakers like a purring Persian cat and wrapping its paws – claws kneading – around my heart. The song’s chorus, an unabashed cry of an unfulfilled romantic, appealed to me, too. That same week, I picked up the live Allies album – by mistake. And while the bulk of it was so-so, the two studio tracks, “War Games” and “Raise a Voice,” were quite good. A week later I came home with Daylight Again; and by the time I left the commuter-college life for the Penn State mothership in the fall of ’85, it had become one of my favorite albums.

In the decades since, I’ve come to hear it as a solid – but not spectacular – album that possesses glimmers of greatness, notably “Delta” and “Southern Cross.” Stills pretty much dominates the proceedings (six of the 11 tracks are his), with the bluesy opener “Turn Your Back on Love” and one-two punch of “Since I Met You” and “Too Much Love to Hide” being additional highlights.

I should add that the album didn’t receive stellar reviews at the time or at any time in the years since, really, aside from some fans. Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden, for example, wrote that “[t]heir voices, drifting on little watercolored islands toward a misty shore of meaninglessness, evoke a kind of perfection. For the blend is more powerful than any tune it attempts or any lyric it essays. The blend simply floats….”

From where I sit, the main drawback is this: It’s less a CSN album and more a Stills, Nash and Friends set.

The track listing:

As I write, Diane and I are at a foldable table in the dining area of our new, and still empty, apartment in North Carolina. She’s sitting in a $20 chair we picked up at Wal-Mart. I’m in an armless chair lent to us by the apartment complex’s overseers. Our belongings, meanwhile, are stuck on a trailer somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.

We wanted a delivery date of the 27th or 28th. Our plan was to spend Christmas with family, then drive down on the 26th or 27th, spend a night in a hotel, and unpack over the long holiday weekend. When we met with the moving company’s rep in early December, however, he said no. He insisted that delivery be on December 24th. “That way my people can be home for Christmas,” he explained.

We ultimately agreed to his timetable.

He reinforced the 24th when he checked in with Diane later in the month. She said to him, in the presence of a friend, that the most important thing was the Monday delivery; he agreed, and promised that our stuff would be here. The contract that he then sent over, and that Diane signed, gave a window of the 24th to 31st, but his insistence on the 24th…well, we take people at their word. If I’d seen that stretch of days on the contract, I would’ve assumed it was a CYA move to cover for a snowstorm.

And, in fact, his people were indeed home for Christmas. We, on the other hand, footed an over-priced bill for a buffet-style dinner at a restaurant, returned to an empty apartment, and raged against the rep, who avoided our calls and only apologized, via email, for what he dubbed “a miscommunication.” Diane even emailed the company president, who replied to say that he talked to the rep, and we should expect to hear from him soon. Two days later and…

Yeah, you guessed it. He’s a punk. Our stuff won’t be here until the 30th.

That’s all to say: It’s been a bad week. A bad month. A bad year.  Yet, as always, hope is to be had. The development we’ve landed in seems great, thus far. Good restaurants are nearby, as are a nice (if overpriced) market, and even a coffee shop, which I stopped in this morning. We’ve had to purchase a few things we shipped to ourselves, obviously, but we’ve also bought items we would’ve needed to get, anyway. Tyler the Cat is doing exceptionally well; the wide open spaces within the apartment are, to him, reasons to frolic. And, after a test run, my commute to work seems less onerous – if more convoluted – than my old one. (I’ll know for sure next week, when I head into the office for real.) 

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Hope, Luck & Perseverance…

1) Wings – “With a Little Luck.” 

2) Rumer – “Here Comes the Sun.” 

3) Stephen Stills – “Thoroughfare Gap.”

4) Linda Ronstadt with James Taylor – “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.”

5) Stone Foundation with Paul Weller – “Your Balloon Is Rising.”

And two bonus tracks…

6) Harriet – “You Get What You Give.”

7) Bruce Springsteen – “The Promised Land.”

Who doesn’t want to review records?

Growing up, I certainly did. I devoured Rolling Stone, Record, Creem, Musician and other music periodicals less for the articles and more for the reviews, which I usually read first. Due to the lag between a record’s release and the review, on occasion I already owned an LP (or cassette) before I read the critic’s take. One thing that fascinated me: Why I sometimes liked something the reviewer didn’t. Another thing that fascinated me: the reverse. 

The former irked me, the latter made me feel smug. But neither changed my opinion on the necessity of reviews. I was always on the lookout for something new (or new-to-me), and the magazines covered things that never made the playlists of my local radio stations, MTV or VH1. As a result, I often bought things based on a review, with new releases discovered via the magazines and catalog items from the Dave Marsh-edited Rolling Stone Record Guide. Few were four- or five-star reviews.

Over time, I came to recognize the names of said reviewers. Some found folk sanctimonious and others thought prog-rock priggish, and even more treated pop like a dirty word. (I generally subscribe to the second myself.) But the only bad reviews were those that didn’t delve beyond the rudimentary yea or nay to explain or defend the assessment, and also didn’t detail the artist’s journey. Everyone has their own criteria for what is and isn’t good music, after all, and it’s easy to be dismissive of what one dislikes. (I’ve been that in the past, though not often in these pages.) Some fans want technical precision. Others seek emotional resonance, a melody they can hum along to, and/or lyrics that shed light on the human condition. And yet others are happy with just about anything that has a good beat that they can dance to…

As I’ve matured, I’ve come to the realization that there is no right or wrong. Not really. There’s preference and personal peccadilloes – aka so-called “guilty pleasures.” That’s about it.

Anyway, I still lean on reviews – both online and in print. Whenever my wife and I visit a B&N, I pick up the British music magazines Uncut and Mojo, buy a high-octane coffee drink in the cafe, and read the reviews of the new releases and archival reissues. What I look for is tailor-made to my tastes: Is it dreamy, upbeat, reflective, melody-centric, reminiscent of the Beatles, Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers or the Velvet Underground? Joni, Linda or Neil?

Unlike yesteryear, of course, it doesn’t cost me more than my Apple Music subscription to check out whatever I’ve just read about. (Though, since I rarely use headphones, I have to wait ’til we’re in the car going home.) That happened last week with Melody’s Echo Chamber’s latest release, Bon Voyage. It’s the brainchild of Melody Prochet, who’s akin to a French Hope Sandoval with an airier vibe.

(Sometimes, of course, I stumble upon cool artists through other means – Erin O’Dowd, who I discovered on Kickstarter, springs to mind. Nichole Wagner, who I found via a Nanci Griffith fan group on Facebook, is another. Both are worth checking out.)

All of which leads to this, one of my first reviews to make it to print – on September 18, 1984, in the Ogontz Campus News, the newspaper for what’s now known as Penn State Abington. I doubt if anyone beyond the newspaper staff and contributors read it. (And I was just a contributor; I’d pop into the office, find the editor of the entertainment section, and turn something in. On spec. Sometimes it made it into the paper; sometimes not.) Reading it now makes me laugh and cringe at the same time – but it was the first step in the journey to me launching the original Old Grey Cat website and, then, this blog. (I post-corrected a few glaring errors that slipped through the newspaper’s crack proofreading squad…)