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Stephen Stills: Just Roll Tape

The story is almost too good to be true. On April 26, 1968, Stephen Stills, 23 years old and just two weeks away from Buffalo Springfield’s final concert, slipped a couple thousand dollars to an engineer after a recording session with then-girlfriend Judy Collins and proceeded to run off a half-hour set list of new material. Forty years later, the tape shows up and winds up in the hands of Graham Nash.

But that’s basically the tale behind Just Roll Tape (Rhino Records): 12 songs, apparently released in the order in which they were recorded, with a later, seven-minute demo of “Treetop Flyer” added so it wouldn’t be the shortest CD ever.

Short though it might be, for Stills’ watchers, Just Roll Tape offers a nascent glimpse into his creative process at the beginning of a period of peak creativity that culminated in CSN&(sometimes)Y and his early solo records.

Three of the songs here – “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes,” “Helplessly Hoping” and “Wooden Ships” – would appear in finished form 13 months later on Crosby, Stills and Nash, the epochal album that made them huge stars and opened up the concept of country/rock to a mass audience for the first time.

“Black Queen,” which I heard on CSN&Y’s debut tour in the fall of 1969, shows up on record for the first time on Stills’ 1970 solo debut. Both “Change Partners” and “Know You Got to Run” don’t appear officially until 1971’s Stephen Stills 2, and “So Begins the Task,” another CSN live highlight, would wait for 1972’s Manassas. (Judy Collins would record “So Begins the Task” in 1973 for her True Stories and Other Dreams. )

I’m kind of surprised that “All I Know is What You Tell Me” didn’t see the light of day until now. “The Doctor Will See You Now” and “Bumblebee (Do You Need a Place to Hide?)” are both nice examples of Still’s unique blues stylings that apparently weren’t taken up in the ensemble process.

Looking over this sheaf of potential gold, with at least six career songs, it suggests that Stills knew what he had and was willing to wait to provide them, at least on record, at his own whims. It helped that there were other songwriters in his band.

If you argue that Stills has always better in group settings than as a solo artist, there is potent ammunition here. It’s obvious that “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes,” “Helplessly Hoping” and “Wooden Ships” are simply awaiting the glorious additions of David Crosby and Graham Nash.

It’s easy to forget how influential Crosby, Stills and Nash was at the time of its release. Although it was hardly a new concept, in the rock world it was novel to see members of previously influential groups forming a “supergroup” – or creating such a strong record.

Two of the songs on that album were especially revolutionary, and hearing these versions of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Wooden Ships” at this embryonic stage is kind of like hearing the original recording of the Beatles equally influential “Strawberry Fields Forever” and then hearing its evolution into the single version.

You can hear the three distinct parts that Stills stitched together to form “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” He adjusts the tuning between the first and second sections, and ends it with the penultimate line in the final version, “be my lady,” just before the miraculous “do-do-do-do-do” harmonies that magically end the recorded single.

Even more embryonic is the post-apocalyptic poem, “Wooden Ships.” Within a year and a half of this recording, two major groups, CS&N and Jefferson Airplane, would release very different versions of “Wooden Ships.” (I loved them both, though I preferred the CSN version). Like everything on this disc, all the pieces are here; they just haven’t been segued together.

All in all, if Crosby, Stills and Nash was an important musical signpost on the musical road of life, Just Roll Tape should tickle the hell out of you.


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