I came to praise Manassas, or Manassas, but now I’m not so sure. It seemed like a good idea a few weeks ago, when a streaming link to this Stephen Stills project appeared in my e-mail in-box.
It was the Rhino Records Album of the Day. Anyone can sign up for this by clicking on https://www.rhino.com/newsletter. Rhino Records is the catalog marketing division of Warner Music Group, which includes labels such as Warner Records, Reprise, Atlantic, Elektra, Asylum, and so many more. You can immediately stream the Album of the Day, and add it to your library, on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music and others. You can also go back and stream previous Albums of the Day – the “ping” in my e-mail as I write this is for AOTD Electric Warrior by T-Rex (expanded and remastered “5.1 Surround Sound Music”), which the many of you who are audiophiles can compare and contrast to whatever version you like.
Manassas, the album, was a two-LP vinyl release by a group called Manassas. But you wouldn’t be wrong if you called the band Stephen Stills’ Manassas. I had never heard it before. That moment when it was released, April 12, 1972, I was preparing for final exams and graduation from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and suffering country rock fatigue from previous years. The second most streamed track on the album is called “Colorado,” and the Rocky Mountain high was starting to get weary. It was just my taste, of course, but I was much more excited by the self-titled debut album by Blue Öyster Cult, and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded.
There was a second Manassas album, Down the Road in 1973 that peaked at No. 26, which we’re not considering here, which marked the beginning of the decline in popularity of Stills’ solo career; even Long May You Run, by the Stills-Young Band in 1976, did no better than the second Manassas album.
The standard operating procedure of the time was to prioritize the name of the rock star, which Stephen Stills certainly was. To make sure the consumer could not misunderstand, the Manassas album cover looked like this, a statement so lacking in clarity that the consumer could in fact totally misunderstand who was what, except that Stephen Stills was prominently involved.
Stills’ name appears alone above Manassas, or Manassas, whether that is the name of the band or the album title or both. The average consumer, or even the above-average consumer, would not notice there was no possessive after the first (or second) “Stills.” Below the title are the names of the seven musicians, on two tiers: Stephen Stills, Chris Hillman, and Dallas Taylor, the drummer here and for Crosby, Stills and Nash and CSNY on top; and below in what appears to be a slightly smaller font (possibly an optical illusion), the other four guys: Paul Harris, Fuzzy Samuels, Al Perkins (dobro, steel guitar), and Joe Lala. Hillman was one of the original Byrds and with Perkins a refugee from the Flying Burrito Brothers. Harris (keyboards), Samuels (bass), and Lala (percussion), were from Stills’ band.
The 1993 edition I have of the often-arbitrary Rolling Stone Album Guide avoids the issue by not mentioning either of the two Manassas albums, either under “M” or under “Stephen Stills.” There is one passing reference: “With former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman, Stills in the early 1970s founded Manassas, a crew of high-caliber players who squandered their talents on Stills’ increasingly perfunctory material,” which I think is mostly correct. It continues to say the band was “impressive” live, and concludes that in his solo career, Stills “never descends beneath competence.” Rock Criticism 101.
Actually, the formation of Manassas, the band, was triggered by a less-than-competent performance that Hillman witnessed of the Stephen Stills Band performing in Cleveland. “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 sh*tty,” Hillman told Cameron Crowe retrospectively in a Rolling Stone interview in 1976. Hillman went backstage to talk to Stills, and they ended up making Manassas at Criteria Studios in Miami.
It didn’t always go well, with Stills working for more than 80 hours without sleep, according to some reports. The question is, how does one stay up for more than three days recording music? Is it dedication? Or drugs? Or some combination of dedication, drugs, and egomania? There were arguments. Hillman, rightly, might have thought that Manassas was half his band, deserving equal billing, since he had been both in the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, and was one of foundational figures in the establishment of country rock. Arguments followed Stills around like a loyal but crazy dog. I mean, Crosby, Stills, and Nash fought all the time. Hatreds persist: in a blunt interview with the Guardian in 2021, 80-year-old David Crosby tells Simon Hattenstone that Stills is the only member of CSNY that he speaks to (CSN toured as recently as 2015), which is surprising, since Stills burned quite a few bridges in his life and career, though not with the same self-destructive flamboyance as Crosby.
The first Manassas album was an immediate success, and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard album charts at the end of April, 1972, weeks after its release. Then, strangely, the album was said to disappear from stores, because, Stills has said, Atlantic Records co-founder and CEO Ahmet Ertegun wanted him back in the “goldmine” with Crosby and Nash.
How about the music? Critical response was good: even Creem, no fan of country rock or singer-songwriters or egomaniacal rock stars, gave it a good review. But it was a two-record set, so you know that if you’re not Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, or even the Beatles, a double album was going to have some waste. The first time I listened to it a few weeks ago, it sounded really good, as if I had missed an important record. But the more I listened, the more superficial the songs were. On Spotify, which I admit is a yardstick as variable as Wikipedia is as a place for serious research, two of the songs have more than 4.5 million streams: “Johnny’s Garden” and “Colorado.” With more than two million are “Song of Love” and “So Begins the Task,” the latter one of many songs about coming to terms with the fact that he and Judy Collins were not going to be romantic partners again. Stills’ most daring composition and CSN signature tune, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” was of course about Judy Collins. The two are now good friends, and made a record and toured a few years ago.
But “So Begins the Task” is no “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” a song with harmonies unsurpassed since John, Paul, George (and Ringo) escalated to “Yeah yeah yeah” in “She Loves You.” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” sounded intoxicating to those of us of a certain age, although it has not aged well, to some. Overplay on FM radio, long after it’s sell-by expiration date, recently led my oft-contrarian Copper colleague Tim Riley to call the song the ” ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of country rock.”
The attractiveness of the songs on Manassas is millimeters deep. The medley “Rock and Roll Crazies/Cuban Bluegrass,” one of the better songs, seems to fade away before the “Cuban Bluegrass” section, a bit of salsa vamping featuring Lala’s congas, which really get going. In fact, some might admire the economy of the songs; almost of them were designed to fit the minimal three-minute appetite of once-again tight radio playlists after the brief expansionism of “freeform radio” in the late 1960s. Songs that seem capable of developing end just as they are getting started.
So, with capable collaborators in Manassas, including top-liner Chris Hillman, why are almost all of the songs on that album by Stills? Because Stills’ esteem for his own brilliance knew no bounds. Breanna McCann, a writer and editor at the Split Tooth Media website, did a long essay, posted January 20, 2022, cleverly headlined “The Treasure of Oneness: Stephen Stills and Manassas.” It’s an article about Stills and the many excellent bands he was associated with that were burned through quickly: Buffalo Springfield, any CSNY combo, Manassas. McCann writes:
“The stark contrast between his proclivity for collaborative efforts and his inability to maintain them is a startling contradiction and one that feels almost impossible to reconcile, almost as if they were two different people…Despite his ego, it was not really about him in his mind. It was all about the music.”
Yet there are always little jabs. On his first solo album, Stephen Stills (what else?), the one that opens with the great, and great rationalization, of “Love the One You’re With,” there is a song called “We Are Not Helpless.” Was this a retort to Neil Young’s “Helpless?” Or is it Stills finding his footing after his own CSN song, “Helplessly Hoping?”
The most revealing song, to me, is the most-streamed on Manassas, and strangely, the most obscure “popular” song in the Stills catalog, “Johnny’s Garden.” It is about a real person, a gardener named Johnny, who landscaped the estate in the English countryside that Stills bought from Ringo Starr in 1970.
It is here, in “Johnny’s Garden,” that he feels safe “from the city blues.” He sings: “It’s green and it’s quiet, only trouble was, I had to buy it.” He continues: “I’ll do anything I got to do, Cut my hair and shine my shoes,” to stay there. Even in solitary serenity, is Stills referring to David Crosby’s near-confession on CSN’s Deja Vu album, “Almost Cut My Hair”? Crosby’s tune was stoner comedy about the existential decision that ends with Crosby deciding to let his “freak-flag” that is, his long hair, “fly.” Stills hair was always on the short side, and besides, no one was going to kick him out of the house he owned. We’ll never know, however, whether he shined his shoes in order to buy the property.
There is also a collaboration with Bill Wyman, then bass player for the Rolling Stones. “The Love Gangster,” written by Stills and Wyman has some excellent wah-wah guitar, and Stills’ vocals reach hard. But there’s also strange paranoia in the lyric: one moment he’s talking about how everyone is crazy for his girl; the next moment, he sees a policeman and doesn’t know which way to walk. It has been said that Wyman said he would have liked to have played more with Manassas.
But you know what would have been a better move for Stills? Joining the Eagles, before Joe Walsh brought his rocking guitar to their party. He could have made great music with Frey, Henley, and company. And had some legendary ego collisions as well.
Copper contributor Wayne Robins writes the Critical Conditions Substack, http://waynerobins49.substack.com, and teaches at St. John’s University.
Header image of Stephen Stills courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Davidwbaker.