By the time he left home in 1975, when I was seven, my brother Fred must have had about fifty rock albums. There are three categories: in the first are the albums of which I remember the cover and I remember liking the music (for example Relics, After the Goldrush and Full House). In the second the albums of which I remember the cover and I remember disliking the music (for example Tommy, Fragile and Okie). In the third are those of which I only remember the cover. Stephen Stills Manassas is in the third. And it’s the only one in that category, now that I think of it.
I must have been unimpressed with the music and impressed with the cover. I still think it has a very good cover. That’s one of the assets of the album; if you don’t like the music you can always hang it on your wall. It is that good.
Manassas is very much a product of the early seventies when rock musicians operated under the general assumption that they had created, in Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury mainly but in other places as well, a revolution of peace and love. A chain of events that became known, simplified, as the sixties, or the Sexual Revolution or the Age of Aquarius. You know, man!.. Most, if not all, of the “rock music” in the seventies was inspired by those events. The inspiration could take the form of retreat, (Dylan becoming a family man and joyfully singing about the joy of bundles of joy and spreading the joy of country music) or the inspiration could be a counter reaction (anyone from Lou Reed to Bowie to Black Sabbath embracing Satan and sarcasm). And by the time Manassas came out some of the more intelligent rock stars had second thoughts about it (like John Lennon, Neil Young and Jackson Browne). But many rock musicians weren’t that perceptive and were not too modest to proclaim themselves the Gods of the new revolution and spread it’s euphoria through words and music. A euphoria that now, to my ears, sounds false and stale.
Stephen Stills was one of the latter. No wonder, he was one of the chief perpetrators in Woodstock.(So was Neil Young, by the way, but he may have written the song about Stills but it really is he: The Loner.)
And so it’s Post-Woodstock Euphoria that you are served on Manassas. And I do have the impression it is served at least routinely, almost against the will of the servers. Reluctantly. Because in spite of all the pomp and circumstance, all the professionalism and all the self congratulatory swagger I miss the spirit the sincerity and energy of rock and roll in most of the music on Manassas. And to be honest, I miss it in a lot of music from that era.There’s been a trade in; youthful exuberance for stale, routine euphoria. And self-importance.
That you can hear on Manassas. Mainly in the rock songs. It’s in the wide-eyed, over-emoting “sincere”, “soulfull” singing style of Stills. It’s in the arrangements, stuffed to the brim with embellishments; leaving the songs no room to breathe. It’s in the hooks of said songs; there aren’t any. And it’s in the pretentious but meaningless lyrics like:
“A superb point of reference detected
becomes absurd with a moment’s reflection
leaves one a passage of simple thought
not sagging with excess weight of excess baggage
and we move around
We move around “
Manassas was an attempt of Stephen Stills to break away from the dependance on Crosby and Nash and finally Young. So he recruited a number of usual suspects of which Chris Hillman is the most wellknown. But it never really became a functioning unit because of various members joining all kinds of other timely outfits, not rarely with the already mentioned Young, Crosby and Nash in different constellations. It is fun reading up on the history of Manassas, I think they call it incestuous?
Actually, I have the impression that being a rock star was an ordeal for Stills et al. Much of the album sounds like hard labor and mostly so the rock songs. I feel pity for them; to be a major figurehead of such a sea of hair and remain godlike about it must be hard. (By the way; there are two songs with lyrics dedicated to the life and loves of a rock’n’roll star so Stills must have been reflecting on that subject a lot. Unfortunately the lyrics are very shallow and clichéd.)
So that’s my main impression of the album; that it sounds tired and it’s energy sounds second-handed and artificial. And in that it is symptomatic of a lot of classic rock. It is probably needless to say that I’m not a big fan of classic rock, so there you have it.
But Manassas does have a lot of redeeming qualities. It is a double album of which side 1 (The Raven) and side 4 (Rock & Roll is Here to Stay) consist mainly of rock songs (sometimes more bluesy and sometimes a bit funky). Side 1 is arranged like a suite,with rapid transitions from one song to another so that you don’t get bored and almost fail to notice there are no actual songs. Side 4 offers no such pleasure; the songs sound obstipated and overlong. It closes with a bluesy acoustic solo song “Blues Man” on which Stills ruminates about the deaths of Al Wilson, Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix. Unfortunately the song is unremarkable and it’s lyrics so bad that it’s truly an embarrassment. Both sides mentioned are at some points livened up by Latin percussion. Which is welcome.
Side 3 (“Consider”) is also quite unremarkable; it is filled with folk rock songs and none of them stand out in any way except the hippy-sentimental “Johnny’s Garden”. Funny lyrics that one has, too:
“There’s a place
I can get to
Where I’m safe
From the city blues
And its green
And its quiet
Only trouble was
I had to buy it
And I’ll do anything
I got to do
Cut my hair and
Shine my shoes”
Now at least we know that Stills cut his own hair, quite unlike his fellow golden retriever Crosby who would rather die than do any such thing because he felt like he owed it someone, which explains why Stills looks better in photographs. And the moustache, or rather: absence thereof, of course.
Where was I? Oh yes: redeeming qualities. There are six, apart from those already mentioned. Six splendid, yes fantastic country-rock songs on the second side of the album (“The Wilderness”). Oh, maybe five and a half, because I find “Don’t look at my shadow” a bit corny. But the other ones are really great, heartfelt and not mangled by rock star posturing. Of these the break-up song “So Begins the Task” is the best; easily one of the best songs I heard for months.
Conclusion: Manassas is an album that’s seriously flawed by the stylistics of the era in which it was created and the position the creator had in that era. But it still has a lot going for it. And if you wish to demonstrate how country rock offered an escape from the deathtrap of rock goddism for rock stars in the early 70’s Manassas is extremely useful. & do listen to the Wilderness!