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Stills Alone Today, Looking to Tomorrow : Pop music: Touring solo but still very much a part of CSN and the nostalgia for the '60s, the optimistic veteran singer-guitarist says his best work is yet to come.

September 02, 1993|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not too long ago, underground cartoonist Drew Friedman created a satirical advertisement for a Crosby, Stills & Nash album he made up, "Fat, Bald, Bitter & Angry" on Old, Old Dog Records. The trio was depicted in bloated, liver-spotted caricatures.

For years, some quarters have singled out the members of CSN for a particularly malicious brand of scorn and ridicule. To these detractors, the group epitomizes all that is to be disdained about the '60s: laid-back music, drippy hippie ethos, hypocritical hedonism, a descent into burnout and irrelevance.

To some extent, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash have brought this contempt upon themselves with well-publicized bouts of mind-boggling drug abuse, waistlines expanding to morbid proportions and a seemingly endless series of painfully off-key reunion concerts. But at times, the venom has seemed undeniably, unnecessarily mean-spirited.

Accordingly, Stills--who will sing Friday and Saturday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--is more than a little resentful, not just of the nastiness directed at him and his cohorts but also by the factionalization in the rock scene since the '60s.

"It really disgusts me after a while," he said during a recent phone interview. "It's like the antithesis of everything we ever believed in. I mean, come on! Lighten up! Rock 'n' roll has become like Bosnia--eight different tribes that all hate each other."

All this is in rather stark contrast to what rock represented in Stills' heyday, when music was a unifying force among young people, and idealism was an essential element of a musical, cultural and social movement.

Performing on his own as well as with CSN (and with Buffalo Springfield before that), Stills was one of the most successful artists of the '60s and '70s, with clear, high-ranging vocals, complex guitar work and folk-influenced songwriting skills.

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"For What It's Worth," "Bluebird," "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," "Teach Your Children," "Love the One You're With"--the hits he wrote and/or sang read like a playlist for a classic rock radio station.

But Stills says his best work is yet to come. "The old stuff holds up with anything ever recorded for its inventiveness, but I'm a much better singer now and, of course, a much better player after 30 years."

If his most recent album ("Stills Alone," 1991) is any indication, Stills is kidding himself, at least as far as his singing goes. His once magnificent and versatile pipes sound drained and leathery as he strains to reach notes that once came easily. The fact is that age and overindulgence have taken their toll.

Nevertheless, his remains an honest and expressive voice--timeworn but experienced, battered but comfortable as an old cowboy boot, able to convey emotion through the hoarseness, like John Prine or Jerry Garcia.

"Stills Alone" (released by Visions Records, Stills' own small label) is a simple pleasure in its way, a refreshingly pared-down collection of solo acoustic recordings of solid new originals and songs by Dylan, the Beatles and Nilsson, performed sincerely and with dignity.

But--though once it was unthinkable of a Stills release--the album didn't meet with much success. "My mom and nine of her friends bought it, because they were the only ones who could find it," Stills joked. "Hey, a friend of mine who works for a major label said that if it was 1969, they wouldn't have signed Crosby Stills & Nash; they wouldn't have signed Cream and they wouldn't have signed Hendrix."

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Yet while time and tastes change, nostalgia is eternal. For every CSN detractor, there still are a dozen die-hard fans who attend those reunion concerts, relishing every bent harmony and blown note.

Next year, the group--which Stills still refers to affectionately as "the boys"--will celebrate its 25th anniversary and "we'll probably all be living together again. When I get back from this tour, we'll sit down and say, 'OK, what do you want to do?' "

Can this series of reunions continue ad infinitum? "Why not?" Stills asked. "The alternative is to be a grown-up, and I hate grown-ups."

* Stephen Stills sings Friday and Saturday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Susan James opens at 9. Tickets: $28.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.

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