Stephen Stills became a rock star when he was twenty-two and wrote “For What It’s Worth,” a political anthem of the era and a song graced with several exceptional lines such as “Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep,” and as a prodigy and friend of many stars he probably couldn’t relate to one of his mature fans still struggling to break through in another creative endeavor, writing, and opting not to “run with the jet set” – from another song – and sit closer than financially prudent. Instead, I was high on the furthest hill overlooking the amphitheater in Bakersfield and not positioned to correct him when he told the only-fair-sized audience, “The last time I was in Bakersfield in 1967 with the Buffalo Springfield, they said, ‘Get those damn hippies out of here.’ They’re much nicer here now.”
From a better seat I might have called, “Hey, Stephen, I saw you with Crosby, Stills, and Nash at the fairgrounds here in the 1990s.”
That’s a minor point and Stills remains a fine raconteur. This time he brought another companion, his musical contemporary and former girlfriend Judy Collins, who still offers an angelic voice.
“We’ve known each other for fifty years, first as lovers, then as friends,” she said. “Well, we had to start somewhere.”
Other than a limited number of classics from the musical firmament, I don’t know the titles of songs I hear. Instead I remember melodies and key phrases recalling joy or sadness and where I was when hearing the songs. Tonight the first phrases I jotted were later plugged into Google to reveal the title “Questions,” the “questions of a thousand dreams… come on lover, talk to me.” Talk to him, Judy, talk to him when he needs you, in the late 1960s.
“We’re still friends because we married other people,” Judy said. “Actually, Stephen married several other people.”
Someone like my wife, who began the concert by listening to phone messages, must’ve aggravated Stills, who had instructed the staff to warn concertgoers not to use any electronic devices.
“A few years ago I got together with an old friend,” Stills said. “We went to a diner and talked for a while and then I realized I didn’t have the guy’s full attention. His hands were under the table. So I bought a pint of ale and poured it into a glass. Then I reached under the table, grabbed his cell phone, and dropped it in the ale. ‘You can get a new phone, but you can never get your hour back,’ I told him.”
Even in his late twenties, Stills had some gravel in his voice, and he’s got more now but it doesn’t detract much from his soulful singing. He next sang “I won’t back down,” the title, I learned, of a Tom Petty song. “I stand my ground,” Stills promised, and he always has, on and off stage, lamenting the war in Vietnam and other conflicts this country has since elected to fight.
“Stephen and I agree that Leonard Cohen was the smartest person we knew because he died the morning of the (2016) election,” Judy Collins said.
Shortly thereafter her voice touched heaven in Joni Mitchell’s classic “Life’s Illusions” about “ice cream castles in the sky… up and down and still somehow… It’s love’s illusions I recall.”
Soon Stills delivered “For What It’s Worth,” forever moving, and “Blue Bird,” a title I remembered since this bird “sits in a lofty place.”
For an encore Stills crooned “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” his love song to Judy Collins, who adored the work but rejected his efforts at reconciliation, and he lamented, “It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun anymore.”
Great stuff. But half the seats were vacant, and Stills said, “Bring your friends. We won’t bite.”
There’s another point. He enjoys playing with friends like Judy Collins and David Crosby and Graham Nash, but to bring in larger crowds he’s got to be a solo star, the visionary of Buffalo Springfield, the dynamic leader of the two Stephen Stills albums and the double Manassas record that resounded on college campuses and stoked concert audiences. I know. I attended three shows from the early 1970s. He riveted folks in the Berkeley Community Theater when he played “Go Back Home.” One woman squealed so loud Stills quipped, “Sounds like she just had an orgasm.” He probably doesn’t play that classic, and many others, when he has to share the stage with Collins or Crosby and Nash. I admire them. But a dynamic star needs to lead his own band. Not Stephen Stills and the blanks. Just Stephen Stills, band included. At age seventy-three he may not want that load. Okay. But a show containing nothing but his best work, uninterrupted by costars, could still rock a full house.