Stephen Stills may have written or been involved in some of the most memorable protest songs of all time with Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” but turns out Stills isn’t necessarily the biggest fan of the genre.
However, he does feel that if the song comes organically and passionately the occasional political song is acceptable. Well, Stills became inspired to write about his recommendation for this upcoming presidential election in "Look Each Other In The Eye," a song that rails against Republican candidate Donald Trump’s vanity and hatred.
Stills spoke to me about the song available here, how the technology and business of music has changed since the ‘60s and why "For What It’s Worth" has not always aged well for him.
Steve Baltin: Was there one particular moment that inspired "Look Each Other In The Eye?"
Stephen Stills: I think it was when I broke one of my false teeth (laughs). I found bite marks on the table. It’s basically the disease you get if you’re kind of doing a lay about for a few months and spend too much time watching after dinner TV during an election cycle. I really wanted to make my recommendation in the strongest terms.
Baltin: One of the interesting things about today is you can get this music out so quickly.
Stills: Actually, we did a much better job of this in the ‘60s, we kept stumbling over my Luddite issues, which is I don’t know how to use social media worth a damn myself. My friends are texting me and going, "How can I get a link to this song?" I don’t know what any of that means. And since they are not gonna pay us anyway, why not? They’ve gutted all the copyright laws and it’s pennies on what used to be a dollar for me.
Baltin: How did you do it better in the ‘60s than today?
Stills: What we got better was getting it out there. I wrote a song one day, we cut it the next day and we put it out the next day. We actually got the single mastered and on the radio the next day and then we did it again with Neil Young’s "Ohio," in both instances shoving another song off an album that was already finished. Now it no longer matters how many songs you put on an album, they’re not gonna pay you for that X amount anyway, if they do pay you at all, which is kind of hard on putting the kids through college. Our avenues of income, except for really topline that sell lots of swag and stuff, you gotta either tour or tour. Or sell songs to movies cause you gotta have millions of downloads to make any money at all. It’s really silly.
Baltin: Do you tour more?
Stills: I don’t know how that works when you get in your 70s. When you get to a certain level you have to stay out for so long to keep up, but it’ll kill you off basically. We’re not in our teens anymore, or 20s, or 30s, 40s, 50s, by about the 60s the broken parts showing up, and knees and ankles and elbows and wrists and fingers. So I’m looking at my shirt, looking for the sell by date.
Baltin: So what do you do?
Stills: I have no idea, somebody think of something because this isn’t gonna work for very much longer, only for a few that get millions of downloads.
Baltin: What does it take to write a meaningful song of change?
Stills: You’ve got to be motivated enough to write a powerful enough song to get their attention, but mainly you can’t do too many of them. If you’ve got a message that’s profound and you keep trying to do that, and if you try too hard, it doesn’t really happen. It’s got to overwhelm you and suddenly it’s all inspiration and it’s very clear how it should go. But if you’re grinding out this pamphleteer material it can get boring. So this is my one. There are only two people on that record, me and Luis Conte. I played the bass to a morocco click track. We were very proud of it once we got out of the studio. And if I didn’t get the mix right then we’ll have it right on the album version, which will happen after I’ve written a bunch more songs in this particular frame up of just me and Kevin [McCormick]. It’s very comfortable just having me and him cause there’s not a lot of arguing.
Baltin: Are you writing quite a bit?
Stills: I’ve got stuff to do with Judy Collins later this year and then I’ll go on tour with the Rides in March and with Judy in July and August and in between there Kevin comes down and it’s just the two of us in my little studio playing around with little licks.
Baltin: What are the best protest songs to you?
Stills: Protest songs, as a genre, unless they come really naturally out of the movement and just evolve, like "We Shall Overcome" or something like that, they can be really contrived. I did one with "For What It’s Worth" and there were years I felt uncomfortable doing it and now if it comes around it still remains pertinent, which makes me sad. I don’t want to be doing this song after Trump’s gone away, which he never will now, thanks to the frustration of the other half of the country. "How did we get here and how do we stop this?" That’s the overwhelming meaning of the song. But the truth of the matter is electing the first woman president and having her be a liberal democrat is making a whole generation of guys like me go absolutely bats*** crazy. So I guess that’s what made me address it, which is I’ve got to tell you guys the truth. And the truth is, as James Carville once put it, "We’re right and you’re wrong, that’s it, get over it."