Why Manassas Was Stephen Stills' Best Band

By 1972, what we call classic rock was pretty much peaking - though nobody at the time knew it. Except maybe Stephen Stills. The band and double-album he piloted and released that year—both named Manassas—now seem pivotal. Manassas brilliantly summed up the remarkable 1960s creative surge that revitalized rock's roots and encouraged experimentation just when it was at its crest.

A lot had changed since that surge began. Rock went from being a marginal sideshow for major record labels to a billion-dollar industry. Freewheeling entrepreneurs with "big ears" yielded to corporate types focused on market share and growing profits. "Supergroups" manufactured by producers and agents who headlined arena shows became the standard of success.

The top-flight outfit Stills assembled in late 1971 and named for a bloody two-part Civil War battle (the album's cover shot was taken on that battlefield) could nimbly navigate damn near every polyglot style rock was evolving-- from blues (Jet Set) to bluegrass (Fallen Eagle), country rock (Don't Look At My Shadow) to Caribbean beats ("Medley"), folk-rock (Johnny's Garden) to proto-metal (Right Now). Jamming out complex, textured arrangements in the studio, they successfully translated them to stages in Europe and the US. But Stills always felt that Manassas struggled for recognition because his handlers wanted him back in the gold rush that Crosby Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) generated.

Whatever the reason, Manassas remains one of rock's half-forgotten treasures. But it's arguably the best album and band Stephen Stills ever helmed.

Early Days

Born in Texas, Stills was raised in Florida, Costa Rica, and the Panama Canal Zone as his military family rotated through duty stations. He absorbed all sorts of music along the way, and learned to play them on guitar, keyboards, bass, banjo, and assorted percussion instruments. The rootless kid found his mooring in sound. He beat up his family's furniture until his dad finally got him drums to go with his drumsticks. After a week of college, he quit to be a musician.

His scuffling path through the folk revival introduced him to dozens of players, like Richie Furay and Neil Young, who'd become his creative network. It also put him into play at the onset of rock's 1960s creative surge. He was in Los Angeles trying to peddle his songs when he turned down a slot with the corporately manufactured Monkees (he recommended Peter Tork instead), and jumped headlong into the exploratory waves with his tempestuous Buffalo Springfield.

Buffalo Springfield

The Springfield surfed onto the national Top 40 charts with Stills's brooding For What It's Worth. In the studio, on tracks as radically distinct as Kind Woman, Rock and Roll Woman, and Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing, they probed the new ideas firing young musical imaginations from London to California. Live, the band crackled with guitar-hero firepower, when Stills and Young opened up in redoubtable jams.

His songs were innovative, superbly crafted, stylistically diverse; Bluebird is a stellar example of his fondness for complex structures. His lyrics could be elliptical or nakedly autobiographical; often infused with dark romance (Hung Upside Down, Questions) his confessional story-telling updated his beloved blues. Onstage, he hurled himself at the microphone, when he wasn't prancing or dancing; he was so intense, his full-throated vocals seemed to come somehow from his entire body.
Bandmate Richie Furay called him "the heart and soul of Buffalo Springfield." Others, in a nod to his multi-instrumental chops, called him "Captain Many Hands."

Super Stardom and Solo Flops

Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills

The unstable chemistry and battling egos that fired the Springfield's creative ambitions inevitably blew it apart. But the band had barely disintegrated before Stills was off solidifying his guitar-hero credentials on Super Session, with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. On Season of the Witch, Stills dialed up a distinctive voice on the wah-wah pedal Jimi Hendrix turned him onto, floating sweet nothings and yearnings tinged with acerbity.

Thanks to his network, a series of accidents drew Crosby Stills and Nash together. Their 1969 debut met with critical hosannas and gold-record status, and marked the dawn of that record-industry stepchild, the supergroup, with high-powered handlers and big-ticket arena tours. Ironically, today it can sound like an almost-solo Stills album, so completely did his songwriting and talents—he played nearly all the instruments—dominate it.

Stephen Stills

Graham Nash said, "Stephen had a vision, and David and I let him run with it." Or maybe he just steamrolled over them.

A year after Déjà Vu, what was now CSN&Y exploded, and its members released solo albums. Stephen Stills went gold, scored a hit (Love the One You're With), and was the only album ever to feature both Eric Clapton (on Go Back Home) and Jimi Hendrix (on Old Times Good Times). But it and its followup drew ho-hum reviews; so did his tours. Critics and fans wondered if Stills was yet another self-indulgent rock star running out of gas.

A Twist of Fate

Stills describes himself as "aggressive," "obnoxious," and the like, all meaning he's a control freak—an auteur, if you like. In those days, he was usually packing an enviable pocketful of new tunes. He could out-sing almost anyone and play one-man band if he wanted. You can see how he'd be a hard guy to face off with about creative issues.

Yet he knew he needed feedback. He wanted to improvise with players whose ideas and chops stood up to his own. Then he could let jamming unleash creative interactions to enrich his ideas. That was how he worked during the Springfield's best days.

A twist of fate gave him his shot. In 1971, he was coasting along on a lackluster but lucrative tour when he happened to cross paths with Chris Hillman. As Hillman recalls, "Stills was playing a concert in Cleveland with the Memphis Horns. I was sitting in the audience, going, 'Jesus Christ. They're making 25,000 bucks and they're shitty. The Burritos are better than this.' I went backstage, and that's when we renewed the friendship."

Their bond dated back to 1960s LA, when Hillman—among the most catalytic figures in rock history—got Buffalo Springfield the gig as the Whisky A Go Go's house band. That launched them to stardom.

Besides, Stills knew that Hillman was far more than a catalyst. After a whiz-kid run as a bluegrass mandolinist, he played innovative bass, doubled on guitar, sang lead and harmony, and co-wrote songs with the Byrds. When Roger McGuinn unceremoniously dumped his friend Gram Parsons afterSweetheart of the Rodeo, Hillman left, and the Flying Burrito Brothers were born. Parsons and Hillman penned a few matchless songs that other composers would likely swap body parts for, like Sin City and Wheels.

But the Grievous Angel was riding hard on the road to ruin; sloppy business dealings, erratic performances, and over-the-top drug use and boozing got him fired from his own group before Burrito Deluxe was released in early 1970. Hillman tried steering the band, but its personnel kept changing; the near-chaos made the Burritos musically unpredictable and financially disastrous.

Opportunity Knocks

So when Hillman and Stills accidentally crossed paths in Cleveland, they both glimpsed opportunity. Stills' bounteous talents and fierce competitive drive almost ensured he would overshadow nearly any setting he was in, but he was discouraged by his solo ventures. He needed a creative ally he respected, someone who'd push back but not combust or split.

Hillman, who may be rock history's best-ever second banana—dealing with McGuinn and Parsons were hard-to-beat baptisms of fire—was secure enough in his own creativity to deliver. He would co-write two songs for Manassas (Both of Us, It Doesn't Matter), help Stills wrangle others into shape, and supply his subtle, pure-toned harmonies throughout.
As Stills explained, "I basically wanted a partner, somebody who had a sense of songs. Chris invented the phrase 'lyric police,' and was a tremendous help. But I was still on that real powerful, energetic 'Let's go, I know what I'm doing' kinda thing. Chris realized it was my band, and that was OK for him."

A few weeks later, Stills called Hillman and invited him down to Miami's famed Criteria Studios, where engineer-producer Tom Dowd had shepherded Derek and the Dominos' monumental jam-fuelled Layla sessions the year before. As it happens, the producers for what would become Manassas worked on it too.

The stage was set to replace the sterile studio feel Stills hated with the onstage improvising looseness he loved. He had his co-pilot. So who else would joust with Captain Many Hands?

The Cast

From the shambling Burritos came two key talents. Violinist Byron Berline was a bluegrass vet who'd clocked time with stars like Bill Monroe and Dillard and Clark. Fallen Eagle, a breakneck bluegrass protest song against ranchers killing our endangered national symbol, puts his dazzling, keening fiddle and Hillman's virtuoso mandolin in the forefront.

Al Perkins learned to play Hawaiian steel guitar at nine, mastered the dobro and pedal steel, performed with country and western bands, then shifted gears to tour his native west Texas as a rock guitar slinger. He supports or duels with Stills on all his axes. On Jesus Gave Love Away For Free, his aching steel solos swell and sigh; on Don't Look at My Shadow, they glide with glee. On "Jet Set," he plugs into effects to go grungy and deliver slashing, whiplash blues in Duane Allman fashion to counter Stills' gurgling wah-wah. He plays both steel and guitar on Song of Love.

Perkins, Stills, and Hillman take their guitar army acoustic for Johnny's Garden, where their loosely braided, ever-shifting lines gently nudge Stills' yearning vocal.

The rest of the cast came from Stills' solo albums and tours.

Bassist Calvin "Fuzzy" Samuels brought the Caribbean feels Stills craved, as the burbling line on "Song of Love" demonstrates. But he could nail the bottom hard on blues-rockers like "Jet Set."

Keyboardist Paul Harris, a session vet, could play almost any style; with Hillman's adept rhythm guitar, his keys became the session's sonic glue.

Latin percussionist Joe Lala co-founded Blues Image (Ride Captain Ride) and sang with gritty, soulful conviction. He vocally challenges Stills on Cuban Bluegrass, and delivers the pulsating Latin rhythms Stills adored throughout.

Drummer Dallas Taylor was Stills' running buddy—and a wild card. He played on CSN(and sometimes Y)'s first two albums and tours; they fired him because his substance abuse rivaled the Grievous Angel's. But this bad boy had exactly what Stills wanted on drums: he could float, dance, or slam it home.

Was Manassas Stills' Best Band?

What was slated to be Stills' third solo album had morphed completely. The band's chemistry clicked almost instantly, and its boundless energy and chops meshed with Stills' vision and discipline. A few weeks of jamming out arrangements fused the wildly diverse material and sounds into a sum greater than its parts. They came out of it as a fierce, tuned machine. (See for yourself on this high-quality German TV recording, where Stills wails on wah-wah for "Jet Set" and "Treasure of the Oneness.")

No wonder Bill Wyman, who co-wrote Love Gangster with Stills and played bass for the track, said he'd leave the Stones to join Manassas. Hillman understood why: "We were always more of a band than people thought. Stills wouldn't have been the same without us, that's for sure. Manassas was the best band Stills ever played in."

The album ends with a final stark jolt. Blues Man finds Stills alone with an acoustic guitar, like the host of a wild party sitting amid the wreckage after it's over. He channels everything he ever absorbed from his revered blues masters into his gritty, anguished vocal and nimble fingerpicking to sketch a raw, painfully dark elegy for three of his friends. Jimi Hendrix, Al Wilson (Canned Heat), and Duane Allman had all recently died.

They weren't the only ones: Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison were among the others. Many were wondering if rock's creative surge had run its course. Did Stills?

Who knows? But an era was indeed ending. And nothing Stills has done since approaches the epic scale and artistic heights of Manassas.

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