Stephen Stills Talks Neil Young, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Taylor Swift
Stephen Stills foreshadowed the entire Youthquake movement when he penned “For What It’s Worth” after running into a conflagration between cops and
teens protesting the closure of Pandora’s Box, one of the few all-ages hot spots on the infamous Sunset Strip. That singular event sums up Stills, who has had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, whether it was running into Neil Young and bassist Bruce Palmer in LA traffic and immediately forming Buffalo Springfield, or becoming a last minute stand-in on Super Session after Mike Bloomfield left the project in the middle of the night. He’s been an ongoing member of CSN&Y, rented a house to The Rolling Stones during their 1969 tour and counted Jimi Hendrix as one of his closest friends. Today, he is a member of yet another super group, The Rides, along with his former Super Session compatriot Barry Goldberg and guitar savant Kenny Wayne Shepherd. The trio released their debut record Can’t Get Enough this past August.
Despite your reputation for being a hard-ass, you seem to bring out the best in people who you come into contact with.
I can be cranky but a lot of it’s a put-on. A lot of it is force of habit because my father was a sarcastic son of a bitch. My sense of humor is all based
around that and needling. Going to military school, [being on] teams and being in the band, you’re needling each other all the time. Some people are put
off by that and some people think that’s good guys-manship.
Do you deserve any of your reputation?
I don’t think about it and I’d rather not be conscious of it because otherwise it’s unnatural and false and I’m just another poser, even though I can get called out as being demanding. Sometimes I get frustrated and say, “Will you please do what I ask?” I can get a little cross. But to quote [golfer] Arnold Palmer, “I refuse not to be nice.” The older I get, the more dedicated I am to that. If I do have a flash of temper, there’s something that set it off and I always feel horrible about it later.
Buffalo Springfield were my Beatles. What were they to you?
Well, not that of course. We never made any money. I had a Ferrari, a cabin in Topanga and I managed to get my little sister into Stanford.
You’re famously clean. Do you miss the drugs?
I’ve seen the pictures. They’re ugly. Giving up pot was easy for me. I would be driving and [David] Crosby would do shit like before we’d be going into a business meeting, he would light up this stultifying shit—“Here?” I’d say, “We’re going to a business meeting. Are you nuts?” Then, we’d do it anyway and I couldn’t get out of the room or far enough away from it. I would go in there and my mind is going so fast, but I can’t speak. So we just watched seven
million dollars fly out the window because we’re too stupid to micromanage something that’s actually important.
You’ve recently made a record with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Barry Goldberg, who was the keyboardist on the Super Session record that you made with Al Kooper in 1968. You’ve known Kenny for more than 10 years and instantly recognized that you’d work with him one day. Did you have the same connection with Neil Young when you first met him?
Kenny’s much friendlier and he doesn’t hold grudges. And he doesn’t think he’s smarter than everybody else. There’s a tribe thing between us.
So in essence, you’re recreating Super Session with Kenny Wayne?
Not exactly. That record had such meaning for me. I should get Al Kooper on the phone and say thank you. It was my first gold record. It was a complete accident. He called on the phone and my office said, “Al Kooper is trying to get you.” When I finally got to talk to him, he said, “I’m making this blues album and Mike Bloomfield is on half of it but he ran away.” I said, “How far am I down the list of people to call?” [He said], “Actually, you’re pretty close to the top.”
Do you ever have second thoughts about being so vulnerable in writing songs about what was going on in your love life?
No. I’m a little like Taylor Swift in that regard. Wear your heart on your sleeve, then just write about it. Fuck ‘em.