His bandmate Graham Nash may have sung prophetically of being ‘King Midas in Reverse‘ – everything that is touched would turn to rust – but there was a golden period from the release of ‘Crosby Stills and Nash‘ in 1969 until maybe as late as 1977 when all that the trio, and occasional quartet with Young, touched was if not pure gold then a good quality alloy of gold and silver. Amongst all their combined outpourings as various solo, duo and full trio outputs there was also Stephen Stills’ incomparable side-band Manassas.
A true super-group, with Stills and long-term Byrd and then current Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman to the fore as singers and songwriters, with CSN(Y) drummer Dallas Taylor, bassist Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels who’d been touring with CSNY, Flying Burritos’ guitarist Al Perkins and from Stills’ touring band Paul Harris and Joe Lala. An incredible pool of talent, augmented by Byron Berline’s fiddle and even a Rolling Stone in the form of Bill Wyman.
The eponymous debut album was a 4-sided affair, a double album on which each side carried a title and had a musical consistency. ‘The Raven‘ was confessional singer-songwriter tied to Rock and Latin vibes addressing, at least in part, Stills’ failed romance with Rita Coolidge, ‘The Wilderness‘ was a mix of country-rock and bluegrass, ‘Consider‘ took folk and blues themes and mixed in some up to the minute Moog sounds whilst side 4 provided its own self-description ‘Rock & Roll is Here to Stay.’ Nothing jarred – every song was as good as the next – and there was such a satisfying blend that this writer owns that, when he finally got his hands on the CD re-release, for a period of about 18 months it was listened to at least once a day. At least. As often as not it was straight back to side one as the last notes of the closer ‘Blues Man‘ faded away.
The long recording sessions for the debut album attracted what can only be hoped is excessive exaggeration, Hillman has claimed that Stills “was a guy who could go all night and them some” whilst engineer Howard Albert spoke of recording sessions lasting “a hundred and six straight hours.” How truthful this may be is anyone’s guess, but there was clearly a lot of, ahem, “energy” in the room. Yet the results were better than could have been imagined – his first solo album had been well enough received, and ‘Stills 2‘ was pretty good but neither really indicated what he was truly capable of outside of Buffalo Springfield, and CSN(Y). All he needed, it turned out, was the right band.
Opening ‘The Raven‘ with ‘Song of Love‘ there was an instant groove, on a song that was more political and philosophical than romantic: Stills first questioned the ongoing Vietnam war with “pick up your feet you don’t have to pick up a gun” before later sarcastically enquiring “the Good Book tells us ‘thou shall not kill’, what is the meaning of this phrase?” The perfect segue from this straight into ‘Rock & Roll Crazies / Cuban Bluegrass‘ brought things back to the personal on a song that lays out the craziness of the music business whilst discretely offering some “I’ve already done this” advice whilst also acknowledging that the only way to learn it is to live through it oneself: “don’t want to tell you how to run your scene / all I can tell you is what happened to me / and keep your eyes open and keep a clear head.” Naturally this then slipped straight into the growling blues edge of ‘Jet Set (Sigh)‘, a further meditation on the wearying side of the Rock and Roll lifestyle, the soul-destroying aspects caught in the couplet “try to be cool – you’re just pitiful“. The mood became more upbeat, as Stills took a defiant stance on ‘Anyway‘, which passes through some neat changes in the middle section, as arrogant posturing gives way to a happier optimistic determination. This side closes out with ‘Both of Us (Bound to Lose)‘, which leads off with Chris Hillman’s vocals questioning why he seems to be invisible and his love of no value, before Stills returns to lead us into a calming solo. It’s a song which questions the public image and the idolisation of the rock star “how do you like the fool when he’s down – is that really how you see me, just a statue making sound?” And here we are at the end of side one, emotionally drained and exhausted from the musical exhilaration. And there are three sides still to go.
Fortunately ‘The Wilderness‘ draws things back to earth a little – the eco-tale of ‘Fallen Eagle‘ is a Bluegrass excursion into a land of traditional farmers, and the fun they have chasing eagles in helicopters: the rural idyll, back to the country y’all. After this flip-off though the rest of the songs on this side revel in the soul restoring powers of the natural beauty of the rural States – where a man can recover from a broken heart (‘Jesus Gave Love Away for Free‘), experience the healing solitude of the mountains (‘Colarado‘), and finally start to come to terms with the lost love in ‘So Begins the Task‘. This last benefits from warm, rich harmonies, weeping pedal steel and a perfection in the depiction of loss “I must learn to live without you / As I cannot learn to give only part somehow / All of these cages must and shall be set aside / We will only keep us from the knowing.” With this resolution it’s possible to move to a classic country depiction of an expired romance, and ‘Hide it so Deep‘ is marked by pedal steel and fiddle – and then close the side out with a honky-tonking ‘Don’t Look at My Shadow‘, a jaunty mythologising of Stills’ musical career from bars where no-one listens to…well, to here.
As the title suggests ‘Consider‘ is the side where Manassas get to show off their philosophical and more melodic side – vibes inhabit ‘It Doesn’t Matter‘ is rocked up Crosby Stills and Nash: “calling for someone living right now / something is shallow ugly and hollow / doesn’t even allow you to want to know how / you might live for the living and give for the giving.” ‘Johnny’s Garden‘ paints a picture of contentment in the house and garden Stills bought from Ringo – and how symbolic is that, moving into a Beatles’ home? – with the reflection that he only gets to enjoy the creations of his gardener if Stills will “keep on singing the blues.” A period of experimentation enters with ‘Bound to Fall‘ with light touch use of the Moog to generate some unusual percussive “whoops“, which get’s expanded into full-on electronic experimentation on ‘Move Around‘, a song which is bookended by some straight-ahead blues rock on ‘How Far‘ and the wah-wah exuberance of ‘The Love Gangster‘. It’s the most musically varied of any of the sides, but it’s so well handled that the changes of pace, the move from blues braggadocio through sensitive balladry to experimental electronica just flows like a natural thing. It shouldn’t gel – but it does.
‘Rock & Roll is Here to Stay‘ picks up threads of loss and weariness of the musical madness of Stills’ world that have run through the album. ‘What to do‘ makes a bold statement for a well-known control freak “I’m not the one to tell you what to do – I have no desire to run your life / do your thing you know what to do – just don’t let nobody tell you no lie.” It sounds sincerely meant. ‘Right Now‘ shoots down the road at double speed recalling a last conversation with a lover – presumably from what has gone before referring to Rita Coolidge and particularly how she left Stills for Nash: “one of my best friends took her down with his games for sure” – there’s a livid edge of bitterness given more power by the vocals of Stills and Hillman doubling up. There follows a highlight amongst highlights, the boastfully titled ‘The Treasure (Take One).’ Here Stephen Stills concedes vocal priority to the band’s collective playing – before throwing in a superb guitar solo, yes, heavy on that wah-wah peddle but only because this is the perfect sound to back up a tale of many loves “Where did they go / And which one took my heart / Which one took my soul“. The long coda explodes with imagination – it’s one of those solo’s one would wish to have continue forever. So of course the album closer is Stephen Stills alone – wooden music on ‘Blues Man‘, a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Al Wilson and Duanne Allman: “three good men I knew well, never see again“.
There was one more full album by Manassas, ‘Down the Road‘, which is frequently and tediously underrated as not being a patch on the debut. Other then not being a double album (and the late appearing album of demos and outtakes ‘Pieces‘ shows that there was plenty more material that could have been finished), which is a huge caveat, there’s not really a discernible drop in quality. If ‘Down the Road‘ had been the debut it would have been feted. Despite a hard-touring schedule; by all accounts Manassas struggled to make money for anyone – and Atlantic records were anyway much more interested in another CSN and preferably Y release. For a glorious moment though Stills helmed the greatest rock and roll band on the planet. Check out this live TV segment for additional proof.