Sunday, October 14, 2007

On unexpectedly liking a Stephen Stills album

About two months ago, on our way back from a wedding in Rhode Island, we attended a reading at the Housing Works bookstore/café in the Village. Tom Breihan was reading from his contribution to the new book Marooned, an update to the Desert Island Discs idea. Tom is a friend of ours (his wife Bridget is Aimée’s best friend, and Aimée was maid of honor at their excellent wedding last week—congratulations Bridget and Tom!), and it was his first public reading, so we were happy to lend support. Tom’s essay is about Brand Nubian’s One For All. He was understandably nervous and began by disavowing his essay, explaining that he wasn’t happy with it, that he probably wouldn’t want One For All on a desert island, though he thinks the album is great, had been thinking about the album a lot when he was asked to contribute, etc. Possibly not the ideal gambit for your first public reading, I suggested later. But at least Tom read from his essay. What he read was enjoyable, and it made me want to hear the album. I remember Brand Nubian but have never, to my knowledge, heard their music, though I was just opening up to rap music when it came out in 1990, with A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy and De La Soul, among several other groups, all finding their way into my collection.

There were only a few other readers that night, and most of the rest didn’t even bother to read from their essays, instead either reading some bits of strained comedy or going on an extended rant. More famous contributors such as Greg Tate (Bitches Brew), Simon Reynolds (John Martyn’s Solid Air), or John Darnielle (a 3-cd compilation of Dionne Warwick’s music from the Eighties) were not in attendance. The extended rant was from a critic I had previously never heard of, Kandia Crazy Horse. According to Tom, she writes a lot about “jam bands” or the like. A cursory online search tells me that this is true enough.

Her reading: the album she'd chosen to write about for the book was Stephen Stills’ Manassas. I call her reading a rant because she didn’t read from her essay, but instead proceeded to talk at length about fashion and coolness. She was hypersensitive to how extremely uncool writing about Stephen Stills must be. She said some interesting things along the way about music trends and about being an African American female rock critic writing about unfashionable music, as well as a bunch of other stuff I can't remember. She seemed resentful, defensive, attempting to fend off future slights (perhaps in light of actual slights from the past of which I have no knowledge) and potential dismissals of her selection of the Stills record. I don’t know anything about her. I am sympathetic to her arguments against following pop trends. I can appreciate what she said about those times when the music you love, in relative obscurity (because no one’s listening to you), suddenly gets the spotlight, attracting new fans in droves and, worse, trend-hopping critics, only to be dropped again when the critical winds shift. But I admit I have a hard time wading through much of stuff like this, though it’s far from completely without interest. At the reading, I found her alternately interesting and boring, compelling and alienating. I wished she would talk more about the actual record and why it meant so much to her, instead of talking around the record, instead of anticipating the responses of others. But by the time she was done, I really wanted to hear it.

I confess that never expected to have the slightest interest in a Stephen Stills solo album. For one thing, the music he'd been associated with didn't thrill me: the ubiquity of "For What It's Worth" obscured its quality, and I didn't really like Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Another reason is that you have to draw the line somewhere. Recently at Pretty Goes with Pretty, I made the following comment (in the midst of a discussion about the Byrds): “I was perfectly happy not bothering with the Byrds. You can't listen to everything, so you have to make decisions, even unfair ones. The Byrds got dropped from serious consideration years ago. But now, dammit, I'm curious.” Early encounters consigned them to the effective dustbin in my mind (I hated "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and wasn't fond of their version of "Mr. Tambourine Man"), though later I suspected that if I took the time with them, I'd find a lot there to appreciate. With Stills, I found it easy to completely ignore not just his solo material, but anything related to Crosby, Stills, & Nash (other then Neil Young), as well as pretty much the entire wider array of early Seventies, LA-based, country-ish, folk-ish, singer-songwritery stuff--what I guess is called the "Laurel Canyon" sound, of which the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield were principal antecedents. There were always exceptions, of course (Joni Mitchell, for one, though I’m hardly familiar with most of her music).

Last year, Woebot had two posts about the Laurel Canyon sound . The first was about ten lesser known records of the sound (with a heavy emphasis on ex-Byrds member Gene Clark, but also with Judee Sill), the second was about records that might have constituted responses or reactions of various kinds to the insularity of the style (its "near-autistic ignorance of outside music"). I enjoyed the posts, but also remember a slight sinking feeling upon reading them. On the one hand, I wanted to hear these records, to have an idea what he was talking about. On the other, I'd basically ignored this music and doubted I was up for an investigation at this late date. But here’s the thing: I am curious, though that doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and buy some Bryds cds (though I might) or try to find all of the albums Woebot was talking about (though I already had one of the Judee Sill reissues) . I’m trying to unload music here, after all, not go down new, previously ignored pathways.

As I've blogged about previously, my formative years were spent listening primarily to classic rock, relatively limited aspects of it, it's turned out. My tastes were shaped by filtering through what got played on classic rock radio, Rolling Stone magazine's 1987 issue on the "100 best albums of the last 20 years", and books like The Worst Rock n'Roll Records of All Time. (With respect to this last item: we like to think we simply like what we like, with no pretense, no influence from the opinions of others, but that's not always true. When you're young, it might not even be true all that often. This book, as narrow and problematic as I later found it, when I was young helped give me permission to dislike major bands I'd had trouble with, such as The Doors and The Grateful Dead, and even now I find it difficult to shake the influence of some of the authors' general attitudes and assessments when finding myself curious about some previously ignored corner of music.) When I've filled in the blanks in recent years, it's been with, for example, the German bands, like Faust and Can; Brits like Robert Wyatt and Roy Harper; lost classics by the likes of Alexander Spence; relative obscurities like Sill; complete obscurities like Gary Higgins (I have definitely been susceptible to the various rounds of catalog discoveries and reissues). In the main, music that was not so well known in the US at the time of original release. I liked the idea of expanding my collection so that I might have access to a more diverse array of music than classic rock radio ever made room for. I would amuse myself with mix cds! Playlists!

But Stephen Stills' Manassas? Something in Kandia Crazy Horse's spiel made it seem like a record I personally needed to hear. Yet I'd never heard of the album, and I'm sure I never heard anything from it on the radio, nor seen mention of it anywhere else. Then I was in the Soundgarden here in Baltimore the other week, unloading a huge bag of music, and I saw a copy and decided to take a chance on it. As of today, I've listened to it straight through about a half dozen times, and friends, this is a great album. I mean it: great, loose, expansive. It was originally released in 1972 and is a double album (71 minutes on one cd), just like Exile On Main Street. Also like Exile On Main Street, it features rock, blues, and country, while throwing in some bluegrass and Latin music, as if they all belonged in the same place, which they do. I refer to Manassas as a Stills solo album, but really it was a collaborative effort, with seven people constituting the main band, chief among them former Byrds member Chris Hillman, who co-produced. Early favorites: the slow churning "Jet Set (Sigh)" (some excellent electric guitar here); the bluegrass, fiddle-dominated "Fallen Eagle"; the chiming folk of "Bound to Fall"; and the eight-minute rocker, "The Treasure (Take One)".

I don't know why this album disappeared; that kind of thing is so often a mystery. But it's better than a lot of records that have been canonized. Stills was very popular--I'd be surprised if the album didn't sell well the year of its release--but he may have worn thin with critics. His allmusic bio doesn't shed much light on what might have happened, though it does remind me of the odious (and massively popular) "Love the One You're With", which couldn't have helped. The critical focus on punk probably had its effect. Anyway, to finally wrap up here, if you like this kind of thing, you should check out Manassas.


Scraps said...

I don't mean to be difficult -- it comes naturally -- but how long has it been since you listened -- not heard, listened -- to "Love the One You're With"? It's a great song, IMGDO, but if you've effectively never had a real chance to hear it for the first time -- because the things that are always there we never hear for the first time -- it would beeasy to never know. Melodically, anyway; if by "odious" you mean the lyrics, you may well be right (I confess I haven't thought about that).

Richard said...

I confess that I am thinking primarily of the lyrics--and probably a superficial, half-remembered from when I was younger and snottier sense of the lyrics at that. And, now that you ask, I confess that I have really never listened to it. It's probably been several years since I've even heard it.

It's funny, this is exactly what my problem has been with a lot of music it became easy for me to ignore: "because the things that are always there we never hear for the first time". It was the basic point I was making in passing about "For What It's Worth", and yet I didn't consider that the same might be true for "Love the One You're With"! Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Manassas is on my radar for sure, though I've got a few other albums on my list I want to get first (I've dipped my toe into the Laurel Canyon scene and I'm about to get about thigh-deep, I think--I'm still wary of going the whole way).

The thing that attracts me most, actually, is the presence of Chris Hillman. You know I've got the Byrds obsession going on. What's interesting about Hillman is that he didn't assert himself as a songwriter with the Byrds until their fourth album, though he was there from the beginning, and all his songs on that album are outstanding. And then he's also the other Flying Burrito Brother, and he appears on Manassas, too--which a friend of mine coincidentally urged me to pick up about a day before you mentioned it to me. So... Hillman. What's his deal? I've seen some of his solo albums and the heinous album covers have me running scared...

Anonymous said...

You're right; You know nothing about me. At least you overcame your boredom enough to actually listen to the album. Stills deserves reconsideration.

Anonymous said...

Here's a notable and accurate article -- at one time it was on the official CSN site -- on Stills:

Richard said...

Thanks for the link, anonymous.

And, KC, thanks for dropping by. I'm sorry if my comments were offensive (the perils of writing in public, I guess). I meant no disrespect. For what it's worth, I wasn't entirely, or even primarily, bored by your reading. I'd hoped to make that clear in the post. In any event, I figure if you get me to listen to a record I'd previously either not considered or not heard of, then you've done something worth remarking on. So thanks for introducing me to some great music.