For All It’s Worth
Stephen Stills thought he had joined dream bands twice in the late ‘60s, first in 1966 with the Buffalo Springfield and then two years later with Crosby, Stills & Nash.
And history has proven him right. Tonight in Cleveland, the Texas native becomes the first person ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice on the same evening as both bands will be honored--along with the Jackson 5, Joni Mitchell, the Bee Gees, Parliament-Funkadelic and the Rascals.
“I wouldn’t have believed it could have happened in a million years,” Stills, 52, says of the dual induction. “When I saw both groups were on the [induction] ballot, I thought they would have canceled each other out. . . . I’m just thrilled.”
In the short-lived Springfield, Stills (along with Neil Young, Richie Furay, Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer) helped bring a harder rock edge to the country and folk rock leanings of the Byrds. Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” a song about a clash between police and young people on the Sunset Strip, remains a defining moment of ‘60s rock.
With David Crosby and Graham Nash in CSN, which continues to record and tour, Stills contributed to vocal harmonies that may be rivaled only in rock history by the Everly Brothers for their distinctive and embracing approach.
On the eve of tonight’s induction ceremony, Stills--who has homes in Los Angeles and Florida--spoke about the highs and lows of his quarter-century in American pop.
Question: When was the first time that you started thinking of your music in Hall of Fame terms?
Answer: I think I was aware by the time we all started doing solo albums that there was a pretty amazing family tree there. After the Springfield, Richie got Poco together, Neil went back to his solo stuff and really took off. Graham and David and I all had really good success as solo artists. I guess that was the first indication that you might have been part of something seminal.
Q: What do you feel is the legacy of Buffalo Springfield?
A: I was involved in the folk scene in Greenwich Village for a while, but then “A Hard Day’s Night” came out and I wanted to go out to Los Angeles and be in a rock ‘n’ roll band. With the Springfield, we took a brand of folk music and put electric guitars on top of it. Bruce Palmer was a Motown-styled bass player and we just burned with it. The truth is we never got on record what we sounded like live. Man, we were the Stones onstage . . . that intensity.
Q: What inspired you to write “For What It’s Worth?”
A: I was driving down the Sunset Strip on the way to Topanga one night when they were having a funeral for this little club near Crescent Heights and Sunset, and there must have been about 5,000 people spilling over into the streets. I had lived in New Orleans for a while and there is a tradition there of paying farewell to a favorite watering hole when it closes, so I knew what was happening.
But there was a whole attitude against hippies and kids at that time and the cops went into [action] with tear gas and all that stuff. It was like a precursor of what happened in Chicago. We went on out to Topanga and I sat down with the guitar and the song wrote itself really.
Q: How devastated were you when Neil left the group?
A: It was painful at the time, but I love Neil Young and I understand him. I think that when we started to happen, he saw himself being [prevented] from doing the other things that he wanted to do musically. So, he got out before [Springfield] took on monster proportions and he wouldn’t be able to get out. I’ve never faulted his wisdom in starting a solo career. In the end, you have to go with what’s handed you. It’s fate and luck and wisdom and kid impulsiveness that causes things to happen and gives them their magic.
Q: What do you remember about the early days of Crosby, Stills & Nash? That harmony seems so effortless. Was it something that came together naturally or did you have to spend weeks working it out?
A: Oh, the first time. It was goose bumps, cackles on the back of the head . . . all that. We got together at Mama Cass’ house and David and I sang a very simple song in two-part harmony. Nash said sing it again, so we did it again. Then, he asked us to sing it one more time and we did and he put on this harmony and it was like wow. I think we decided the next day to start the group.
Q: After the way things worked out with Springfield, were you nervous about CSN also breaking up after just one or two albums?
A: Well, the idea from the beginning was to leave each other room to come and go, so we could each make solo albums, rather than being confined to a group. That’s what has enabled us to stick together all these years. The guys I admired always lasted a long time, people like Ray Charles. I’ve kind of always thought of myself as good for the long go, and you find yourself actually getting better, especially as a guitar player.
Q: How difficult has it been over the years adjusting to the moments of enormous success and commercial and/or creative dry spells?
A: Back in that stage of your career in the ‘70s when everything you say takes on incredible meaning and people are fawning over you, it gets to you a little bit and your hat size definitely changes. But it wasn’t long before I got a grip on things and realized what really matters.
But there is a hard part where you are too young to be a living legend and too old to be current, if you know what I mean. I remember Bruce Springsteen opening up for me. . . . There is a valley in everybody’s career, but you just have to concentrate on the music and getting better at your craft. It’s almost more rewarding getting up on stage at a time when you’re supposed to be done . . . a has-been, and you just kill ‘em with a show. That’s a great feeling.
Q: What about today’s crop of rockers? Anyone you’re impressed by?
A: Sure. Beck is very well spoken and a charming guy, a showman. . . . It’s like if you read too much into what he’s doing, you’re stupid, but if you miss the point of it, you’re also stupid. I get [the feeling] he came from the same place I do. He learned from all these blues guys. I also love Nine Inch Nails and some of the women who are coming along. They’ve got some fabulous songs.
You like to think it’s all one long tradition of music. The whole purpose of art is to make people not feel alone . . . to articulate feelings we all share. It’s one of the most valuable things we have.