Stephen Stills- Change Partners : The Definitive Biography (BOOK REVIEW)

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Tracing Stephen Stills’ life from his childhood right through the most recent fracture of CSNY (of which, notably, he is not a part!), David Roberts does a great service to the man himself and his fans with Change Partners. Unfortunately, because the author could not gain access to, and authorization from, the musician himself, the book does not live up to its subtitle ‘The Definitive Biography.’

Nevertheless, in formulating the Stills’ story, the British writer does yeoman’s work in weaving together the various timelines within which the man lived and worked. For one thing, Roberts performs a crucial function in clarifying the the multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/songwriter’s  musical roots including blues and the Latin influences he absorbed while living with his family in Costa Rica. Would that the author had a chance to speak with Tampa Red or those players referenced in the anecdotes he includes in this particular passage.

Along those very same lines, it’s difficult not to long for a direct conversation with Stephen Stills as Change Partners progresses, if only because, with each quote from his subject that Roberts does include, he denotes the source, only further reminding the reader of the indirect nature of the reference. The author deserves great credit for his meticulous annotations even though it seems odd his bibliography doesn’t include the terrific Neil Young bio Shakey or David Crosby’s autobiography Long Time Gone. Or for that matter, given the duly-noted significance of Stills’ collaboration with Al Kooper on Super Session, the latter’s own  Backstage Passes and Backstabbing.

Apart from the chart positions of the various albums under discussion, the level of research involved in this book is in keeping with its relative depth. Few and far between as they are, some proofreading do blemishes appear, despite a credit for such work given to Matthew White in the front matter of Change Partners; a couple clumsy cut-and-pastes aren’t nearly so egregious as the the misuse of ‘self-deprecation’  rather than ‘self-deprecation’ which undermines an important point about the relative mellowing of Stephen Stills’ later in life. Another grammatical error is more understandable, but nevertheless simple to correct: it’s ‘bated’ not ‘baited’ breath.

Change Partners would definitely benefit from some more penetrating insight and David Roberts could compensate by offering more observations and analysis of his own. It’s arguable that the author’s respect for Stephen Stills borders too closely on reverence to allow a healthy skepticism and, in turn, true objectivity to become the foundation for this book. In fact, his introduction sounds almost apologetic for not getting Stills’ blessing for the book, to the extent that content might well have been combined with the afterword in order to put what’s in-between in a more broadminded perspective. And the author does succumb to some hyperbole: “Stephen Stills-Rock Segovia”?

Even so, on its own terms, The Definitive Biography is such a pleasant read because it proceeds at such a breezy pace. Roberts covers Stills’ formative years in a single chapter, right to the threshold of Buffalo Springfield’s formation and he applies a similar approach to the recurring reunions with Crosby, Nash and sometimes Young. Consequently, a section devoted to a discographical review of would allow suitably illuminate his subject’s body of work. The collection of Manassas outtakes titled Pieces might thus receive the attention it deserves similar to the backstory of ‘The Life-Changing Treetop Flyer’ Roberts relates to in one chapter .

As Change Partners draws to a conclusion, there’s a nagging sense that David Roberts’ hands-off approach to his subject is exactly that which precluded his capture of Stephen Stills’ blessing and cooperation in the composition of the book and, in turn, transforming the project into ‘The Definitive  Biography.’ That said, however, the British author’s work here reminds us in no uncertain terms that Stephen Stills’  life deserves a comprehensive chronicle, whether in the form of an autobiography or an all-access play-by-play tome: the artist’s double induction into the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,’ with Buffalo Springfield and CSN, is nothing more or less than the wholly legitimate ratification of his broad cultural influence, including the enduring relevance of “For What It’s Worth,” so much so an abridged version of this publication might well be worth the effort.

Top photo by Marc Lacatell

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