The year is 1967. The place California. A stringy-haired emaciated looking youth is lying on the floor with spittle around his mouth, caught in a ghastly seizure. The epileptic fit that has hold of him has been brought on in part by a vicious verbal assault from a person supposed to be his friend. It takes the man lying on the ground some time to recover. It’s not the first time he’s suffered a seizure but it will be the last time he lets his guitar wielding partner get the better of him.
The men in question are Neil Young and Stephen Stills. Both are part of the band Buffalo Springfield. They will not be for long. Ultimately the rivalry between them will reach the point of fusion. The explosion will send their careers on new trajectories … occasionally they will meet, ignite in rivalry and then move on but at every turn Neil Young will trump his potentially more talented rival with an artistic focus as fierce as any in the history of rock.
Forty years on, with both men acutely aware their careers cannot go on forever, interest has now turned to their legacy. Even here the rivalry remains. They may no longer trade abuse or guitar licks. Now the ammunition in this quiet war is their respective back catalogues and the undiscovered gems that remain in the vaults.
Neil Young got out of the blocks early. For more than a decade he has threatened to deliver a career-spanning box set. He was ready to release it, then he wasn’t. He had problems with the format. Young hates CDs. The sound is tinny he thinks. In classic Young form though, right as the box set seemed set for release he began to deliver bits and pieces of his archive as single albums. First came Neil Young and Crazy Horse live.
Now for those that love Neil Young this was big news. This was not just Crazy Horse but Crazy Horse with guitarist Danny Whitten playing second guitar to Neil. There have been many great partnerships in rock but these two men together were and are, how can I put it, fascinating. A tragedy of epic proportions in many ways, simply because they were so good together but in the end played only a small number of concerts and one full album.
Young likes nothing better than to wrench noise out of his favoured Les Paul and Whitten, rather than competing, compliments him – shuffling and teasing .. urging him on. For those that love a band, with a crack rhythm section playing behind the beat this is nirvana.
Was this an accident that a live, much-discussed concert with another great guitarist who replaced Stephen Stills in Neil Young’s life comes out first. Not at all me thinks. More was to follow from Young. First a classic solo acoustic performance from Canada in 1971 and then just to drive home the point another from 1968 when he was still finding his feet as a solo artist.
Stephen Stills must have been a little spooked. But not to be completely outdone, Young’s old band mate released a CD called Just Roll Tape. The name says it all. After Buffalo Springfield and before Crosby, Stills and Nash … Stills was a session musician. One of the best. Amongst the people he played hired gun for was Judy Collins (yes, Judy Blue Eyes). One afternoon when he wasn’t playing on her session he slipped the recording engineer a few bucks and told him to roll tape. What came out was pretty special. More than a dozen songs that would soon become major anthems for a generation. In there final form many would sound a little different, some would sound “better” but there is something about the intimacy of these stripped back versions that haunts you. It’s like eves-dropping on something great in the making. The tape sat unplayed for 40 years and then someone told Stills about it. Presto, an LP. Take that Neil Young.
If Young was daunted it didn’t seem like it. Next he let loose the box set. What a box set it is. Eight CDs or you can have it on DVD or if you prefer Blue Ray. Put it in your computer and it goes interactive … with mementos, photos and moving footage of Young’s life between 1963 and 1972. It was if nothing else a labour of love, perhaps some might say “self love”.
What did Stephen Stills do to respond to this? Well he did release a beautiful collection of songs from 1972 -73 cut by his band Manassas that have also never seen the light of day. They’re interesting but in the end hardly an answer to the blitzkrieg that Young had delivered. So is Stephen Stills up for a box set just to keep in the race? In a recent interview in Shindig magazine Stills was asked about the possibility of that happening. No he said, the economic times weren’t right. From here I interpret that as saying I’m running up the white flag Neil … you win.
It was a sound move from Stills in the past few months Young released a highly acclaimed live album from the early 1990′s showcasing songs from the Harvest Moon album. Now he’s rumoured to have begun work on a box set detailing the next decade or so of his career from the mid 70s. Enough Neil, enough!
So there we have it, one of the great creative rivalries of rock still going strong after four decades. From a fans point of view you could say it’s the rivalry that keeps on giving. Is this the end of it? Well in the case of these two, we can only say that “while there’s life there’s hope”. In what form the next battle between these two is fought, we’ll have to wait and see. As Neil Young would say it’s going to be “very inner-esting”.
Mark Bannerman is the supervising producer of ABC TV’s Four Corners.