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A Son of Pop

Pop Beat: Yes, Chris Stills is the offspring of the rock legend, but that doesn't mean he isn't making a name of his own--with a little help from dad.

December 06, 1997|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Has breaking into the music business been easier for Chris Stills because he's the son of Stephen Stills?

No doubt about it.

"I've gotten gigs just on account of my name," admits the 23-year-old offspring of the Crosby, Stills & Nash co-founder. And in January his debut album, "100 Year Thing," will be released by Atlantic Records, the label his dad has recorded on for most of his career.

Stills is very much aware of how his heritage affects people's behavior toward him, particularly as his career is just starting.

"I had an interview with some lady in New York, and she just refused to talk about my record and just wanted to talk about my dad and his cooking," said the tall, blue-eyed singer-songwriter over dinner on a recent rainy evening at a Laurel Canyon restaurant.

Rather than resenting the inevitable, Stills takes it in stride. He clearly respects his father, citing "For What It's Worth"--which Stephen Stills wrote in the '60s during his Buffalo Springfield days--as a seminal inspiration.

The country- and blues-flecked ballads and rockers on "100 Year Thing" do reflect the era his father helped shape more than that of his peers. But Stills is confident he will prove himself on his own terms, noting that he got his record deal by himself and that his father didn't encourage him to become a musician.

"When I told my dad what I wanted to do, he says, 'Just go to college, please, don't do what I did, look at me!' He was totally against it," said Stills, who was a teenager living in Paris with his mother, French pop singer Veronique Sanson, when he broke the news to his parents.

The younger Stills never made it to college, but his father remains supportive, if cautious. "He tells me to keep eyes in the back of my head," said Stills. "Don't trust anybody, and keep your publishing [rights]."

Stills, whose parents divorced in 1978, grew up in California, then shuttled between L.A. and Paris, finally choosing to live in the City of Light, where he attended high school. After serving as a guitar technician on tour with Crosby, Stills & Nash, he settled in L.A. about a year ago to record the album and nurture his career.

The elder Stills' misgivings about his son's choice of career didn't keep him from introducing Chris to musician Ethan Johns, son of veteran producer Glyn Johns, with whom Stephen had been working on his own album. The next generation quickly forged a close working relationship, the younger Stills said.

"100 Year Thing" is designed as an intimate session, with Stills' relatively unadorned vocals; he and Johns played most of the instruments, including guitars, organ, percussion, mandolin and banjo.

The album doesn't literally recount Stills' experiences in the two worlds of his childhood, but it features themes of questioning and searching, reflecting a writer becoming aware of just how vast and complex life can be, while viewing it with the clear-eyed morality of the young.

"I want to make people think," Stills says about his penchant for metaphor. "I don't want to spell it out. If you just say, 'This happened, that happened and this happened to me,' it's just sort of, 'OK, well, that happened to you.' "

The lyrics invite interpretation, but there's only one way to interpret the messages: Choose right over wrong and be true to yourself. "No one's really telling you how to be yourself and not be afraid to stand up for something," said Stills. "It's always about blending in."

Stills has an expatriate's well-developed dislike of mainstream American culture, particularly of people he considers its architects. "There's no natural thing anymore," Stills said of such pop products as movies, sitcoms and talk shows. "I just see right through these things, and I see a table full of producers who thought the whole thing up."

* Chris Stills performs on Thursday at the Dragonfly, 6510 Santa Monica Blvd., 8:15 p.m. $7. (213) 466-6111.

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