Stephen Stills—in the NYRB

Ever since Bob Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, died in March, I wondered what would happen to the magazine. He had been the editor, along with Barbara Epstein (who died in 2006) since the magazine began in 1963: 54 years! His talents and diligence as an editor were legendary, and my friends who published there uniformly praised him, though sometimes beefed at what they considered his overly punctilious and demanding editing. But it was largely Silvers who brought the NYRB to prominence among real and self-styled intellectuals, and readers of all stripes.

I had an on-again off-again relationship with the magazine. When I had subscriptions (several times), it was others who gave them to me. In general I liked it, but I found too many of the articles pretentious and boring. On the other hand, they had some really good stuff, too, and tapped some excellent people as their regular writers. I always hoped to write for them, not just for the prestige but for the dosh (around $4500 per article, I believe); but that never happened. Still, my first graduate student, Allen Orr, has had a good run writing for them.

When reader Jon directed me to the new article below, however, I sensed that the Silvers era was over, as i don’t remember anything like this in the old NYRB (click on screenshot to go the piece). While its nominal excuse is a review of a new biography of Stephen Stills, one of my musical heroes, it’s really a Rolling-Stone styled piece about the author’s reaction to Stills’s music. The verdict on the book review is mixed, but the love of Stills is very strong, as it is for me.

Regular readers have heard me say that if I could change places with anyone, and live their life, it would have been Stephen Stills. Enormously talented in the trifecta of songwriter, singer, and instrumentalist (he could play anything), he was also one of the best-looking rock stars ever—in his prime. See the picture below:

If you like Stills—and that’s the same as saying “if you like good rock”—you’ll want to read this piece.  The author, Lorrie Moore, is described as  “the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt and the author of four story collections and three novels.” She’s a Stills-loving academic, just like me.

Her piece is tripartite, beginning with an attempt to list Stills’s five best songs (I agree on many of them, with “4+20” among my favorites), but she quickly gives up, as I did (there’s good stuff from the Buffalo Springfield through CS&N [&Y] and Manassas), and describes going to a recent concert at the famous Ryman Auditorium, where the aging star croaks out his old hits and suffers from arthritic fingers. Buried in the piece is a review of a new biographya; Stephen Stills: Change Partners, by David Roberts, which Moore doesn’t like very much.

But addressing the book is a minor part of the review, as it often was in the old NYRB, and the piece is a must-read for Stills fans, as we hear so little about the man these days. And it’s free, unlike many articles in the magazine.

Here’s Stills singing “4 + 20”. There’s a typical Stillsian mind-dump (perhaps fueled by drugs) at the beginning, but you can ignore that and listen to the song, which begins at 0:43. This was 1969, and he really was 24 that year.



  1. Posted August 7, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    It’s a bizarre concept-changing your life with someone but since you raise it and have chosen a member of Buffalo Springfield and CSNY I have to say I find many reasons to choose Neil Young over Stills.
    Neil has been a prolific and important song writer , singer and performer in multiple different genres for 50 years.
    He’s still incredibly relevant musically and is fighting for the environment and under privileged people to this day.
    He may not be as handsome as Stills but my God he’s a much better musician and songwriter.

    • KD33
      Posted August 7, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Hehe – yeah, I also like Neil’s music the best of this tribe, but if I had to exchange my life it would probably be with Stills! I had not seen his early solo vids so the post is nice. Come to think of it, I live in the same town as David Crosby and see him around now and then. He seems to be doing well, so maybe I better think this through a little more.

      • Posted August 7, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        David Crosby has had a liver transplant.
        Are you and PCC willing to accept being irrelevant and morbidly obese after age 40.
        I’m not sure of the guidelines for the life swap but I don’t think you get to keep the good parts (i.e musical ability) of the brain and delete the parts that lead to drug abuse, obesity and loss of creativity at an early age.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted August 7, 2017 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

        Graham Nash absolutely abhors David Crosby, but will not reveal why – other than to say Crosby tore CSN&Y apart. 50 years of resentment, perhaps deserved – who knows?

        My problem with Stills *used to be* the way he lived doesn’t match up to this blues, folk, Florida swamp thing he did so well, but I’ve realised since it’s a standard pattern for the fringe to gravitate to the comfortable middle.

        But Stills did it extraordinarily quickly [quicker than Phil Collins did when he went solo] – He bought Brookfield House, Elsted, Surrey off Ringo Starr, who in turn bought it off Peter Sellers/Britt Ekland. Maybe that was to keep his French missus happy I dunno – then he writes *John the gardener* [or similar title] about the chap who kept the grounds neat. This is one year after Woodstock! What bollocks really!

        BTW the gardener, John, was Sellers’ model for Chauncey The Gardener in Being There.

        I think right about now Stephen Stills [72] is touring with Judy Collins [79] – I listened to a track they’ve released & all I advise is don’t listen!

        So I’m down with Rust Never Sleeps at volume 11

    • Kevin
      Posted August 7, 2017 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Stills first, Young very close second, then Crosby and last Graham.

    • Posted August 7, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      I’d take issue with your musical judgment, but the reason I wouldn’t change places with Young is that he’s got severe back problems and epilepsy. And he doesn’t strike me as being very happy.

      • Posted August 7, 2017 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        He’s being playing a Gibson Les Paul for 50 years! PCC, have you ever strapped one one? Very heavy! I get back pain after 15 minutes.
        Epilepsy was only an issue early in his career.
        He’s a sensitive and tortured creative genius, constantly creating and trying to improve music-it’s hard to look happy when you are carrying that load. It’s remarkable how productive he has been very late in life.
        I highly recommend you read his autobiography
        “Waging HeavyPeace: A Hippie Dream”, you will get a better feeling for his humor and thoughtfulness.
        Also, to experience how brilliant and funny he was in the first 10 years of his career get Archives, Vol 1, his self-curated collection of unique videos, recordings and pictures.

        • Kurt Lewis Helf
          Posted August 7, 2017 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          I do love Neil but soured on him slightly after his whole Pono boondoggle.

          • Posted August 8, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

            I’m curious why you call Pono a boondoggle.
            Neil is convinced we are only hearing a fraction of the sound in our typical digital musical formats and wanted to fix that.
            He was probably swinging at windmills too big for him to go after but at least he tried.
            I don’t view him as having done this for money. He does nothing for money. You will never hear his songs licensed for advertising thank FSM.
            Did you buy some Pono equipment. As much as I love Neil and support him in his Quixotic endeavors, I never purchased Pono

      • Posted August 8, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

        One (or two)final thoughts PCC:
        1. Stills has prostate cancer and underwent prostate surgery. Very high rate of erectile dysfunction and incontinence after such surgery.
        2. Robbie Robertson is who you really should trade lives with. Such stories he has!

  2. Liz
    Posted August 7, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is one of my favorite songs by anyone. I read somewhere once that he wrote one of the last verses in Spanish and wanted it to be very difficult to understand. I still don’t really know what it means even with having read a translation.

    “Chestnut brown canary, ruby throated sparrow. Sing a song, don’t be long. Thrill me to the marrow.” The best.

    • Liz
      Posted August 7, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      I thought it was actually sing *the* song. At least that’s what I hear.

  3. Posted August 7, 2017 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I have discovered the full Manassas and Stephen Stills albums on You Tube. My vinyl copies have long gone, been giving them a ‘spin’ all very convenient, headphones and i’m off to my days of yore.
    The most excellent treat for a non intellectual..

  4. Jon
    Posted August 7, 2017 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Can’t say that I think Stills was the prettiest of the rockers (though a couple of women contemporaries swear he was!) I agree he was one of the best – amazing to me how many great songs he wrote/co-wrote.
    ….and a nice reflection on the NYRB, PCC. I have been back and forth with them for many years myself; I subscribe now as much for access to the archives as for the current mag. Some brilliant work in there over the years.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 7, 2017 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    … he was also one of the best-looking rock stars ever …

    Not sure what Dr. Freud would make of this blond-haired, blue-eyed shaygetz idealization of yours, Jerry. 🙂

    But if we’re picking a rock star on a sliding scale of musicianship and male pulchritude — and why shouldn’t we? — make mine that handsome young devil, Ry Cooder, glass eye and all. I love his slide-guitar playing and his singing, and he’s got impeccable musical tastes.

    Plus, let’s face it, he’s got a really cool name — here it once, you’re like to never forget it.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 7, 2017 at 4:27 pm | Permalink


  6. Posted August 7, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I never get tired of listening to 4 Way Street.
    In 1970, for some reason our director decided that our sleepaway camp should take in an outdoor Stills concert at SPAC. Let me just say that the scene was “eye-opening” for this 11-year old! Never forgot that night.

  7. Nancy
    Posted August 7, 2017 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    FYI – Stills is at RAVINIA w/ Judy Collins on July 26th.

    • Liz
      Posted August 7, 2017 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

      That already happened. Would have loved to see.

  8. revelator60
    Posted August 8, 2017 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the future of the New York Review of Books–the incoming editor will be Ian Buruma (/ I’ve read several of his reviews and columns and think he’s definitely qualified for the job.

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