Stephen Stills on the romance that drove a classic and the making of his first solo album

 Stephen Stills in 1971.
Stephen Stills in 1971.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

January 1970. Stephen Stills is about to become of the highest paid rock stars on the planet. Thanks to his contract with Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records, Stills and his superstar kings of harmony mates – David Crosby, Graham Nash and Neil Young – are on a $1 million per album guarantee. Each. Once the quartet’s Déjà Vu tops the charts two months later, they can renegotiate.

It all seems so easy. Stills bossed the critically acclaimed Buffalo Springfield and was architect of the CSN phenomenon. Next thing, he finds himself in London feted as a rock messiah. Bumping into Paul McCartney at Apple Records’ Savile Row HQ, he is told laughingly: “Leave some room for the rest of us! Don’t get too successful – this is only a small island.”

Even for a sophisticated southern man like Stills, born in Texas, raised and schooled in the finest private establishments that Florida, Louisiana, Panama and Costa Rica have to offer a military brat, this is surreal. “Going to Apple while The Beatles were breaking up was heavy for a kid from Tallahassee. Also life-affirming: ‘Huh? I’m in a studio with the fucking Beatles?’

“I wanted to escape all that American madness,” says Stills today. “The whole Californian/Troubadour scene was driving me nuts.”

An example: the Rolling Stones had stayed in Stills’s LA home on 3615 Shady Oak Road in Laurel Canyon during the autumn of 1969, base camp for the Let It Bleed tour, culminating in the Altamont Speedway fiasco where Stills and co. also played, though in the end they refused to allow their performance to be included in the film Gimme Shelter.

Taking a break from a CSNY road trip, Stills returned one afternoon to find Keith Richards zonked out in his favourite hammock, while Mick Jagger was lying by the pool with a slew of famous groupies, Miss Pamela and Angel included. The fact that they’re naked is par for the course, but their pharmaceutical activities make the guitarist nervous.

He’s used to strange visitors – Jim Morrison was a regular acquaintance; indeed, CSN drummer Dallas Taylor would give Jim Morrison his first-ever bag of cocaine at 3615 – but the patrol cars parked out front scare Stills. He tells the Stones to “take it easy, guys”. The last thing he needs is another high-profile bust.

Things are also tense in CSN&Y, and during some time off, Stills decided to stay in England with his new Fab mates, renting Ringo Starr’s Tudor mansion Brookfield House, a 350-year-old year sprawl in Elstead, Surrey.

“I wanted a break from the West Coast,” he says. “The Summer of Love can fuck right orf, know what I mean?”


In February, Stills met up with old friend Jimi Hendrix – “We were like two lonely Americans in England, no different to the English in Los Angeles who sit round all day talkin’ about bloody Arsenal” – and the pair started jamming at Brookfield. On other wild nights, when the guitarists used to jam together at the Scene club in New York, Stills was offered the role of bass player in a revamped Experience.

Now there was talk of another trio with Hendrix and drummer Buddy Miles. Why not? Stills was desperate to record away from the frustrating confines of Crosby, Nash and Young, where everything was filtered down a hippie four-way street. Despite all the love and peace, there was lots of misunderstanding, and the quartet would split up in dramatic fashion after a backstage row in Chicago.

Stills and Young had a rivalry based on friendship and friction. So while Neil went back to America to finish his After The Gold Rush sessions, Stephen stayed in his English pad, or slummed it in a suite at The Dorchester. He had just participated in the making of an album for soul/gospel singer Doris Troy, one of Apple Records’ many vanity projects (Doris will cover his Buffalo Springfield tune Special Care), as well as his collaborations with George Harrison and Ringo – Gonna Get My Baby Back and You Give Me Joy, Joy – and he was loving his life in good ole England.

“I’m relaxing at the Bag O’ Nails and Ronnie Scott’s in Soho. I’m a happy man finally. So I started on my first solo album. People said I was a taskmaster – well, I was. This was my gig. I locked the gates of Ringo’s old mansion, I had a cook come in, and I rehearsed my boys to death. I was an insomniac. I’d wake them in the middle of the night and make them play. Chances are they were, er, awake already.”

Stills took to stockbroker belt Surrey like a duck to water. “I loved all of it,” he says. “The fresh-mown grass, the spring air. I even played cricket; I learnt the rules. I was driving my Bentley and my Rolls and your roads were empty.”

With near neighbours including Ron Wood and Eric Clapton, Stills embraced the life of an English gent. He dug into his pocket and gave Ringo £100,000 in old money. Brookfield was his. England was his. He was on a roll. By late February he’d written more than 20 new songs.

Stephen Stills onstage in 1971
Stephen Stills onstage in 1971

In early March Stills decided he was ready to record his magnum opus. Dallas Traylor, drummer for CSNY, was flown in to join a core band including bassist Calvin ‘Fuzzy’ Samuels and percussionist Conrad Isidore, already living in London. Island Records’ tiny Basing Street studio was chosen for the sessions. The old church won out over Trident Studios, where Stills recalls a bad night of tape mangling with Crosby, Nash and Neil “and brown shit all over the place. They couldn’t handle the crappy Scotch tape we’d recorded on.”

Besides, he knew the area: Notting Hill’s Basing Street was close to the old Moscow Road W10 flat in Bayswater that Steve used to share with Dave and Graham in 1968. The flat, adorned like a psychedelic knocking shop, was next to a butcher’s, where a sign on the counter read: “All joints must be re-weighed before purchase.” Ho ho, they think. A fiver changed hands, and the sign was nailed to the boys’ front door.

Stills’s affection for England grew apace. Months before Neil Young stepped up, he’d tracked down Steve Winwood to the Traffic house in Berkshire and implored him to join forces with the Byrd, the Buffalo and the Holly. Winwood wasn’t convinced. “He was too shy,” claims Stills.

Slightly put out, he began to write for his solo album. First things in the bag were 4 + 20, which Crosby insisted had to go on Déjà Vu, and a rough version of Find The Cost Of Freedom that Stills punted to Dennis Hopper for the soundtrack to Easy Rider. “I wrote it for the final scene, where the dude gets blown away as his motorcycle burns. I played it for Dennis but he was in a fog and just didn’t get it. I was depressed about that for years.”

Again Crosby intervened, and the song was saved for the B-side of CSN&Y’s Ohio single. As tit-for-tat, Stills withdrew his song Do For The Others, written on the rebound from his dalliance with lover Judy Collins, and kept it for his own album as an acoustic number without the original assistance of legendary fellow swordsman Graham Nash.

Trouble was, at this rate, Stills was never going to win the foot race with Neil Young to get his record out. Young was working on his third project and Stills only had the worthy but unexciting Super Session (’68) collaboration with Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield and various Electric Flag alumni to add to his post-Buffalo Springfield CV. Even then, he only played on Side Two, and got third billing. Tsch.

Itching to make his mark, Stills enlisted trusted CSN engineer Bill Halverson. Before Halverson’s arrival, Stills and Hendrix tried a demo called Old Times, Good Times, a nostalgic piece about lost youth, though Stills had only just turned 25 and Jimi was 26. This song would be used; another Jimi jam, known as White Ni****, won’t be. Oddly, Old Times shuffles neatly along but Hendrix’s contribution is straightforward, no pyrotechnics at all, just a tasty bluesy rhythm captured by engineer Andy Johns. Blink and you miss it.

Next in the can is the basic version of Love The One You’re With, minus the backing vocals that, when added later at Wally Heider Studio 111 in LA, give the song its irresistible commercial quality. Stills’s Anglophile immersion is heard in the opening line of the chorus: ‘And there’s a rose in a fisted glove, and the eagle flies with the dove.’

“That’s an allusion to something iconically English,” he says. “The Battle of Hastings and all that. The fisted glove is chainmail. That had struck me deeply as a kid, and it’s one of the reasons I moved to England, because Britain meant so much.”

He’d end up commuting from LA to England for seven years, and in conversation he actually sounds more English than American now.

Stills loved “the English studio method. You stuffed the union rules we had in America, and the way you recorded was very inventive. Andrew Loog Oldham started all that. Plus it’s not just a joke from Spinal Tap, because you guys really did want to know what happens when you turn it up to eleven – and then use an acoustic guitar with a Fairchild Limiter and really fucking smash it so it sounds electric. Plus, all the equipment in England was ex-government or from the BBC, and everyone was adventurous – y’know, all the tricks that mother hen George Martin used on The Beatles? ‘As long as you don’t set the studio on fire!’”

Another reason for Stills’s creative burst related to his love life – or lack thereof. Having split from former blue-eyed muse and lover Judy Collins during the making of the CSN album (Collins falling for Stacy Keach while she was acting with him in a production of Peer Gynt), that troubled relationship would be replaced by a long-distance liaison with Rita Coolidge, who Stills had had his eye on ever since he’d seen the young singer doing back-ups on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen tour.

A naïve Native American Cherokee squaw, fresh out of Florida State University, Coolidge suddenly became the most wanted woman in Hollywood. Leon Russell courted and wrote Delta Lady for her. Joe Cocker dragged her to bed for some Yorkshire pudding. Nothing was sweeter than Rita. Yet she had no idea why she drove these blue-balled rock stars nuts.

“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what was in front of me,” Coolidge recalled. “From Joe Cocker I got a degree from Rock And Roll University, in two months.”

Stills was “obsessed”, and doesn’t deny that now, the rogue. “Was Rita my muse?” he says today. “How shall I put this… If I was young now, I’d probably be stalking Taylor Swift. It’s the same thing, innit? We have these affairs of the heart, and when it’s over we make it as dramatic as possible and write hit songs about it. Me and Rita were an item. We remained friends, and there’s always a little twinkle when we see each other and remember ‘back in the day’. I’m looking at a picture of her right now and she’s gorgeous, just gorgeous. And her voice was like honey.”

Rita has been heard to say of her old flame: “Oh, Stephen! He is such a stinker!” Even so, she was delighted to catch up with Stills when the tongue-tied lothario happened to meet her in London, recording backing vocals for Doris Troy’s album with his pals Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett.

Careening round town with new friends and without a girlfriend, the sentiment of Love The One You’re With rang true for the writer, though he’d copped the title from hanging round with Doris and Billy Preston, who used to jive each other Afro-American style: love the one you’re with, sugar.

“It isn’t the paean to promiscuity that snotty ones would have you believe – it’s very straightforward,” Stills insists. “Feminists have criticised it but that’s bollocks. It works both ways. Girls today have figured it out. Men aren’t in charge any more. Don’t care what you think. They go to the bathroom and say [does commendably accurate chavette impression, suggesting he watches TOWIE on cable]: ‘I’m ’avin’ ’im.’”

Stills reckons Love The One You’re With was “always good to me but it was a bit of a jingle. Musically it has layers of meaning. There’s a second line New Orleans thing and a fuzzy Caribbean feel. Of course, everyone I knew had to be on it.”

Taking the basic cut back to LA, Stills had Halverson multi-track the chorus. “Half of ’em couldn’t sing it properly, not surprising since I had Nash, Crosby, Mama Cass, John Sebastian, Rita and Peter Tork on it [the uncredited Monkee was renting Stills’s Shady Oak home and would later buy it], and they immediately cocked up the phrasing. Eventually it came out like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir so it had some crack. My original was crisper.”

Halverson recalls, “They warmed up eventually, Stills made sure they did. We added extra percussion to the steel drums Stephen learned in London. He amazed me how he’d pick up a new instrument and teach himself as he went along.” He wasn’t called Captain Manyhands for nothing.

The debut’s second most famous track is Go Back Home, featuring Eric Clapton. The Englishman had been working on his own solo debut in LA with Halverson when he got the call from Stills: come to Basing Street!

“Eric finished his record there,” says Halverson. “He used the one and only studio when Stephen was off. Clapton turned up and on one degenerate evening the two guys jammed on an endless version of The Champs’ Tequila [the drink of choice at this time].

Halverson adds: “I played Eric the Go Back Home track and he said, ‘Oh, that’s great, it’s so easy,’ plugged into a tiny Fender Champ amp, ran through it once and ripped his solo out. Stephen wasn’t even there! Immediately afterwards Clapton recorded the Let It Rain solo for his own record – maybe the two best solos he’s ever played were done within an hour of each other.”

Halverson would later cut the 14-minute version into something practical.

Stills says they also attempted an electric version of the album song Black Queen, a poker player’s allegory to a dark female card that appears in your hand and fucks it up. “We tried to emulate Robert Johnson’s off-kilter Crossroads, but my own version worked better for some reason.”

Black Queen dated back to ’69. Stills had played it with the Grateful Dead in December at the Thelma Theatre, LA, growling it à la Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan. “Can’t remember that, but if you were round the Grateful Dead you don’t remember anything,” he says now. He also made it an acoustic staple on the CSN&Y tour.

In London, Stills got Halverson to turn all the lights off while he walked round the darkened studio searching for Black Queen’s mood. He’d sunk two pints of tequila (hence the eventual credit for Jose Cuervo Gold) but he nailed it. Pissed as the proverbial. “I was really drunk when I did that, as you can hear,” he laughs.

Halverson adds: “It’s recorded live, with Stephen working the mics as if he’s giving a performance. My task was to be ready for him. We never slated a take. It’s like when he did Suite: Judy Blue Eyes [on Déjà Vu], he played acoustic in the dark, and that’s another piece of pure magic. My job was simple: know when to press ‘Play’.”

Halverson says the sessions were a doddle. His only problem came when recording Church (Part Of Someone) with London backing singers – the heavily pregnant Judith Powell, Larry Steele and fiancée Lisa Strike, and Tony Wilson from Hot Chocolate. “I couldn’t understand this cockney choir,” Bill says. “Sounded like a foreign language when they were talking to Stephen. But once they opened their mouths and sang, it was fine. They spoke perfect American English.”

The end result was perfect: Harlesden meets Hollywood.

Ahmet Ertegun turned up in London to check on his artist and found Stills having trouble with a complex song called To A Flame. He suggested that his Turkish-American colleague Arif Mardin guide him through an orchestral arrangement. This was duly accomplished using the London Symphony Orchestra’s string section and members of Canadian ex-pat Maynard Ferguson’s orchestra (again, all uncredited on the album).

“He sat me down at the Dorchester Hotel and forced me to approach it as if I’d gone back to music school and learnt composition,” Stills says. “When we were ready to record I played the vibraphone and assumed Arif would take the baton but he gave it to me and I ended up conducting – celli, bassoons, violins, French horn, oboes, trombones – and I was in a full body sweat. Arif [who arranged Church too] dragged that out of me note by note. It was an extraordinary journey and I was as thrilled with that as anything I ever did. Oh yeah, and Ringo played the tom-toms.”

Gawd bless ’im. The arrival of Stills’s landlord, accompanied by Beatles road manager Mal Evans, coincided with a remarkable week in which Ringo had been told to “fuck off out of my house” by McCartney, and received the test pressing of his own solo venture, the standards LP, Sentimental Journey. All things considered, Ringo was in fine fettle. He knew the Beatles were on the verge of announcing their split and he felt like a free man.

Halverson: “I’d met Mal while recording Badge for Cream but meeting Ringo was a thrill. He added so much presence to To A Flame, and I was glad he was so incredible; I’d read all those stories about how he didn’t play on Beatles tracks, that Hal Blaine or Bernard Purdie did his parts. His contributions to that song, and to We Are Not Helpless, were so orchestral, his timing was impeccable and his feel exemplary. I don’t know if he ever played any better.”

Meanwhile, if Stills’s unrequited infatuation with Coolidge inspired To A Flame – it was his favourite song – Cherokee was a love letter to the raven-haired lovely Rita, personified here as his ‘Southern girl’ with ‘The secret she keeps, like her soul so deep.’

The most blatantly biographical song he’d written, Stills played the chivalrous suitor. He’d loved, he’d shone, he had a fortune and he had fame – or so he said – but he only wanted to ‘get next to the lady from Tennessee’. He almost did, when she sang choir on Go Back Home and We Are Not Helpless. And her name was always first on all the credits. Shucks.

Once the album was finished, Graham Nash finally got the long-distance lovebirds together – by mistake – when he invited Coolidge to a CSN&Y concert in June 1970. Nash gave Rita Stills’s house number, where he was staying, but when Stephen answered, he told Coolidge, “Graham’s not available but I’ll be happy to have you as my guest.”

A stormy two months later, Nash persuaded Rita to try him for size, which she did, breaking the bad news to Stephen as they sat by the Sherman Oaks pool. Stills was not amused, but since Coolidge would shortly elope with Kris Kristofferson, they were both dumped. A ‘wearisome vigil… was I misled?’ was how the singer saw it a year later on It Doesn’t Matter.

In September, the album cover was shot at Stills’s cabin spread in Colorado.

“I had this place in Gold Hill because I couldn’t breathe in the smoggy San Fernando Valley,” Stills recalls. “Judy Collins introduced me to Colorado. I loved it ’cos it’s air-conditioned outside, innit? Photographer Henry Diltz came to see me. We hiked off to the creek and did the shots as the first snow fell in the mountains. The front cover was apropos of nothing. I sat on a chair and strummed guitar and I had a papier-mâché pink giraffe, a present from Rita, perched next to me.”

On the back cover, Stills can be seen riding a horse called Reno. “A Hollywood wrangler loaned him to me. He was a movie star horse, just my type. The football shirt I’m wearing is a Number 41 from Gainesville High School, my alma mater, where I pretended to play football, linebacker. But I was too wee. I only weighed eight stone.”

Diltz came bearing bad news with his Nikon. Jimi Hendrix had just been found dead at the Samarkand Hotel, Notting Hill. “We sat up the whole night talking, telling stories and remembering Jimi. When dawn came up, everything was blanketed in white. I grabbed my camera and Stephen grabbed his guitar. The cover was shot within hours of Jimi’s death.” [Actually photographer Diltz dates it as four days later.] Fittingly, Stills dedicated the album to Hendrix, a man whose death shook him cold. “Assholes would keep on giving him things, and he’d forget what he’d taken,” he says. “I loved that guy. He was a god.”

In the end, Stills lost his race with Neil Young, their love-hate relationship exemplified by the fact that while Stephen sang on the After The Gold Rush LP, he didn’t ask Neil to reciprocate. The reviews for After The Gold Rush were uniformly celebratory – quite right too – but those for Stills’s November debut were utterly scathing, almost as if “the 1960s are over. And it’s your fault.”

In America, initial DJ copies of the record credited it to Stephen Stills, Graham Nash & David Crosby, and were heavily stickered by Atlantic with a list of the star guests, implying the artist wasn’t big enough to carry the project unaided.

Having been busted in August 1970 for cocaine and barbiturate possession in La Jolla, California (cops crawling along a motel hallway found him incoherent and “combative”), Stills found himself ostracised. Rolling Stone slammed his solo effort, saying all the songs sounded the same, the reviewer admitting: “I didn’t even bother listening for Eric Clapton’s lead on Go Back Home.

Robert Christgau, ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’, gave it an academic C+ and would soon describe Stills as “the ultimate rich hippie – arrogant, self-pitying, sexist, shallow”.

Never one to bear a grudge, Stills now says, “That guy’s a cunt. A fucking right cunt. Fuck him. Am I supposed to stop my fucking career because some asshole that doesn’t know what the fuck to listen to because it isn’t popular enough is off down the hall and his mate is buggering him in the shower? Fuck him! I don’t even care that Lester Bangs and all that bunch of cunts can’t find their way to their bathroom. They can’t play the guitar to save their fucking lives. So FUCK THEM! Is that vicious enough?” He laughs. “I particularly hate Rolling Stone.”

Small wonder, really, since they’d call his second solo effort “a fifth-rate album by a solid second-rate artist who so many lower-middlebrows insist on believing is actually first-rate.”

One burst of Anglo Saxon later, the admirable Stills concludes: “If you let reviews stop you, mate, you’d never have had the Sex Pistols or The Clash.”

By way of a softener to our breed, he adds: “I’m glad you like the record and that you’re talking to the man who made it. And also the producer. Who else could have produced it but me? How could anyone else have achieved that divergence with that much of an arc? That’s my favourite album. I love the whole thing.”

God bless Stephen Stills and his fisted glove. Still feisty as fuck. Long may he carry on, and not lose his head.

Stephen Stills Live At Berkeley 1971 is out now. This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 187, published in August 2013.