“Yeh, it’s me.”
It was Stephen Stills on the other end of the line, nearly an hour late for our interview, but sounding friendly and eager to talk.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Norfolk,” he said. “I went out on a USO cruise and spent four days on a carrier. When I got back I was basically made the mascot of one of the squadrons and made friends with the base commander, Admiral Riendeau. We have stayed friends through all these years.
“They were just developing the F-14 Delta, which I kind of threw my weight in to keep alive—they were gonna kill it to just go with the Hornet.”
I was surprised to hear Stills, who comes to the Norva Sunday night for a rare solo concert, talking so knowledgeably about fighter planes. But it turns out that his connection with the Navy goes back to childhood.
“I’m a Navy dog,” he said. “I first put on a blue suit when I was ten years old and I went to a Navy military school. I was in ROTC, and then was headed for a college with an NROTC program when I was given a great piece of advice by a master gunnery sergeant who said, ‘Why don’t you go give that a shot first’ after hearing me play. So I did, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
And what a history it is. Stephen Stills first came to our attention in early 1967 when “For What It’s Worth,” his song about the Sunset Strip police riots of the previous year, took Buffalo Springfield into the Top Ten. Two years later, he burst back into our collective consciousness as one-third of Crosby, Stills & Nash, on whose first album he sang, played guitar, bass and keyboards, and wrote half of the material. His song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is one of the classic songs of the rock era, immortalized in celluloid by its inclusion in the film of the Woodstock festival.
Over the last three and a half decades, he’s had a number of solo albums and hits (“Love the One You’re With,” “Change Partners”) and continued to record and perform in various combinations with David Crosby, Graham Nash and fellow Springfield alumnus Neil Young. But it’s been fourteen years since his last solo release.
“One of the reasons there was that long delay between solo albums,” he said, “is that I would make the mistake of playing it for Graham and David, and/or Neil. And they would go, ‘I’ll have that one and that one and that one.’”
His new disc, Man Alive, contains some of the best stuff he’s done in a long time. Like his classic collections of yesteryear, it contains a mix of hard charging rockers, world music influences, and some of those trademark “wooden” acoustic tunes. The man known for his volatile angry streak both onstage and off sings that he’s a “Different Man,” that “fear and anger have no power over me.”
“I put a lot of that to my wife,” he said. “We’re coming up on our tenth anniversary. I have two small children, nine and one and a half—although the one and a half year old is more like daddy/granddad! It’s the height of vanity to have a child at this age, but when your wife is two inches taller and twenty years younger and says, ‘come on old boy,’ you just say, ‘yes ma’am.’
“It’s absolutely rejuvenated me. It just makes you feel younger; you’ve got to keep your act together. I have tired days, I must say, but not so many of them. I’m hitting the gym and trying to get rid of this layer. Too many things have gotten broken and screwed up bouncing around on the stage all those years—ankles and knees—which kind of precludes running. I’m good for a fear-crazed hundred yard sprint!”
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young just announced a summer tour together, reportedly in support of Neil Young’s new Living with War.
“Neil was giving a talk at the southwest festival in Austin,” Stills explained, “and somebody said, ‘Hey we need a new song. We need a new ‘Ohio;’ we need a new ‘For What It’s Worth.’ So he went home and said, ‘When you get back from vacation, come on out to the ranch and let’s play.’ By the time I got back he had written a new album and recorded it, and now it’s coming out.
“One of the reasons I’m late with my interview is because Neil called me. This guy had submitted a set design that was adding visuals to all these new songs—flags and peace symbols. I just said, ‘Spare me.’ We were talking about that and laughing.”
While he’s looking forward to this summer’s high visibility foray, he seems to be genuinely excited about playing smaller rooms with just a four piece that includes longtime collaborators Mike Finnegan and Joe Vitale.
“We are not going to make you deaf,” he said. “I can sing with a lot more expression when I’m not shouting over a really loud band. We’re not playing with six-foot amplifiers; everything is pretty small. And we can actually hear ourselves without monitors.
“We’re going to come out and play. Mike Finnegan might do an instrumental, and then we’ll do a put-on James Brown intro. We’ll sing ‘Helplessly Hoping’ with the band, real country style, then they’ll leave and I’m going to sing 45 minutes by myself. I’ve got a songbook that I’m gonna have on a music stand of about 60 songs, basically depending on how the crowd feels. Then the band is gonna come back out and we’ll do ‘Southern Cross’ and at least six or more songs from the new album, then a couple of standards.
“I’m looking forward to a little more intimate setting, sharing some old songs and some new songs and some songs I just wrote. And demo versions of classics—just acoustic guitar and me. You know what they sounded like with the other guys—God knows we’ve toured them to death!”
Sunday’s show at the Norva will feel a little like a homecoming for Stephen Stills, and it’s a dream-come-true for former flower children who’ll get to see him somewhere other than in a stadium or mega-amphitheatre.
“I’m really excited to be coming to Norfolk,” he told me. “I hope I can find a couple of old friends. I’m really happy that they would invite me. It’s a strange time, but I’m a loyal American. And I worry about my troopers.”
copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.