Stills: ‘Don’t let ‘em see you sweat’

The Grammy Award-winning Stephen Stills is a triple threat in the music business, scoring with voice, guitar and lyrics.

Stills achieved his greatest recognition through extensive collaborations including the renowned groups Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

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A native Texan, Stills cut his musical teeth in the early ’60s as a folkie in Los Angeles, where he co-founded Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young. Stills’s first spontaneous musical collaboration with David Crosby (formerly of the Byrds) and Graham Nash (then a member of the Hollies) was during a party at Joni Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon home. That celebrated and constantly reforming supergroup (sometimes joined by Neil Young) achieved almost instant success with its debut album and well-received performance at 1969’s Woodstock Festival. The band’s follow-up album, “Déjà vu” (which included Mitchell’s celebratory “Woodstock”), found a similar reception, as did the group’s live album, “4 Way Street.”

Stills’s solo albums spawned Top 40 singles, including “Love The One You’re With,” “Rock and Roll Woman,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Sit Yourself Down.”

Stills lends his support to countless causes, including Live Aid, veterans’ benefits and UNICEF.

ROBIN BRONK: If you had five minutes in the Oval Office with President Obama, what would you discuss with him? What issue would you like him to know about?

STEPHEN STILLS:  I would emphasize how impossible it is to govern with the perpetual filibuster and discuss that if we could trap Sen. McConnell into raising taxes, like we did with the holiday payroll tax increase, then keep doing what you’re doing. Strong-arm those bastards into raising revenue. Little by little, that is the way it’s going to be. Keep doing what you’re doing.

RB: If you could ask the president to make one issue a priority, what would it be?

SS: Priority issue is shoring up embassy security and to figure out who made that movie. We need to find out where it came from. He is smart and has learned from his generals that the first reports are always wrong.

RB: What piece of advice would you give the president?

SS: Don’t let ’em see you sweat.

 RB: If you were going to send the president to one of your favorite places in the United States for one day, where would that be? Why?

SS: He needs to see what I just saw this year. He needs to see the first part of the stimulus money being used. They are working on highways all over the country. I’ve been on the road since March and every place except the Deep South, they are working on the roads. Good reason to be happy about that. To relax, I would send him back to Hawaii, to that place on Kauai.

RB: What piece of music would you recommend that President Obama add to his collection? Why?

SS: “Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. 

RB: What book would you have the president read? 

SS: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro. It surprises me just how much weirder it is now than it was then, and it was weird enough then. I also would recommend any book by Churchill.

RB: What was your most successful attempt at influencing an issue through your music?

SS: Buffalo Springfield: “For What It’s Worth.” It was the piece as a whole; it was about more than just a funeral for a bar in L.A. It was about the boys on the line in Vietnam. 

RB: Would you ever consider a political career?

SS: I sort of had a political career; it’s only slightly less stressful. With the advent of new media, politicians enjoy a blazing failure more than a glowing success. I looked at politics in the ’80s, and it didn’t pass the smell test. I don’t want to.

RB: Who’s your favorite president?

SS: I would say John F. Kennedy; he started us on the path, and Johnson finished it. But Johnson got sidetracked by going into Southeast Asia. 

RB: Do you think this political cycle will be the last time we have a two-party system?

SS: Oh, no, it will hang on till it drags us into chaos. The fringe has just grown and it goes around the political spectrum. But this ain’t the Age of Reason. 

RB: When you first started down this road as a musician, did you intend to use your music to influence the way people think?

SS: I look at myself as a chronicler. Songwriting is a time for me to be a mirror. You know, Bob Dylan said the same thing. I think everyone who has written songs that have had an impact says this. You don’t start off saying, “I’m going to write a song about that, because he’s saying” — it comes off as really bogus. It has to sort of occur to you in the middle of doing it. You start and then go, “Oh, my God, I really gotta finish this thought!” I tell you, it’s really got to come as a surprise to you. 

RB: Do you have any advice for young musicians who want to use their art to be influential to the global agenda?

SS: I think they’re emerging. And again, I would caution, don’t try too hard. Just be a mirror, a reflection, and then suddenly you’ll wake up the next day or a year later, create something and say, “Wow, that was really profound!” and surprise yourself. 

Robin Bronk is CEO of The Creative Coalition — the leading national, nonprofit, nonpartisan public advocacy organization of the entertainment industry. Bronk is a frequent speaker on the role of the entertainment industry in public advocacy campaigns and represents The Creative Coalition and its legislative agenda before members of Congress and the White House. She produced the feature film “Poliwood,” airing on Showtime, and edited the recently published book Art & Soul. Bronk pens this weekly column with assistance from Risa Kotek.