Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
“Just Roll Tape” was recorded on April 26, 1968, after Stills has split from the rest of the herd in Buffalo Springfield, when he was attached to folk singer “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes” Collins like a German Shepherd in heat, and nearly a year before he linked up with David Crosby and Graham Nash to change the face of music. “Just Roll Tape” is a musical Mapquest, a travelogue of Stills’ classics in their infancy, inspired snippets and long-buried treasures.
After playing guitar for Collins, Stills slipped engineer John Haney a few hundred dollars for an impromptu session of his own. Once he hooked up with Nash and Crosby, and the tapes languished in Atlantic’s vaults for nearly 40 years before their rediscovery. Newly restored and dusted clean of any tell tale signs of Medicare eligibility, “Just Roll Tape” is Stills’ best solo effort since 1975’s “Stills,” a must for any product-hungry disciple of CSN. A spartan recording, “Just Roll Tape” is Stills by his lonesome in the studio with his acoustic, with nary a sign of Crosby, Nash or Sweet Judy.
“All I Know Is What You Tell Me” has influences of delta blues, Woody Guthrie and Stills easy-goin’ Texas twang. It’s a very short tune, little over a minute and change, but it’s sung with as much care and sincerity as his finished epics. “And So Begins the Task” would resurface on “Manassas.” This version is a step higher and a beat or two faster than the superb final version, which was filled out by Chris Hillman, Stills and Al Perkins’ back up vocals and percussion from Joe Lala and Dallas Taylor that rolled along like a happy hay wagon. On this unplugged version, Stills vocal is crisp, part country, part folk, and his fingers roll energetically and arthritis free across the strings. This guy was and is an impressive picker.
“Change Partners” would be revisited on “Stephen Stills 2.” Like “And So Begins the Task” it’s partially realized, with the same southern charm as the waltzy cotillion version. It would take half a dozen musicians to pull off the final version. Here Stills does it all by himself, his hands banging out the chords (a little too hard perhaps, there’s a bit of distortion on the tape). He pushes his voice a step higher than he should, but this is a young, vibrant Stills, with the vocal power of a charging bull taking charge of the streets of Pamplona.
“Know You’ve Got To Run,” also later revamped for “Stephen Stills 2,” is radically different from the sanctioned release. In its final form it was yet another variant of “Bluebird,” which made Stills devotees (like me) wonder if the prolific Captain Many Hands was finally running out of ideas. This version is in the country-folk vein of “Change Partners,” delivered in the wordy style of an angry 60s Greenwich Village troubadour freshly injected with Maxwell House. Familiar lines in other songs appear, indicating the song was used for spare parts. (For example, “You expect for me to love you, when you hate yourself my friend,” would show up in 1970s “Everybody I Love You” on Déjà vu. The same can be said for the dobro-doused “Bumblebee (Do You Need A Place To Hide).” The lines “Everybody lookin’ at my girl, everybody thinkin’ about my girl” would serves as a jump point for the superb “Love Gangster” on “Manassas.”)
“The Doctor Will See You Now” is beautifully sung, with a smidgen of the arrangement Stills would further develop for “Wooden Ships.” It goes off on diarrhea-of-the-mouth tangents that only a multiple personality could follow: “You tell me your soul is leaking and it needs fixing.” Well, so did this idea, Stephen. Back to the vault for this one.
He who lives by the blues sings the blues, so Stills recorded numerous versions of “Black Queen,” including one for his first solo album and the reissue of CSNY’s “4 Way Street.” Captain Many Hands plucks a mean delta guitar, but this is a hushed and rushed version of the song, without the grit of the other two versions. Does it still merit a listen? You bet. Stills quietly let’s loose with a barrage of strings midway that Muddy himself would admire – and lest we forget, Stills’ best days as a guitarist were still ahead of him, so his work here serves as a preview of Stills’ six string gunslinging yet to come.
Didn’t every young poet or musician write about his heartbreaking girlfriend? Stills was no exception, and like every smitten young fool probably cringes these days at his unabashed puppy love for Judy Collins. Lines like “I’ll do anything to please you, will you let me try,” and “Judy when you’re floating, where do you go? Would you like to tell me, ‘cause I’d like to know,” smack of a boy so blindly in love he doesn’t realize how silly he sounds. No wonder “Judy” remained hermetically sealed for so many decades. It’s juvenile, but once again Stills’ guitar work is unequivocally brilliant.
Stills was battling his anger/jealousy issues as far back as ’68, and “Dreaming of Snakes” has a dark spin to it. This is torment in ¾ time, much more bleak than “4 & 20,”entirely captivating, and at 1:40, one of the short gems on the CD. Here are the lyrics in their entirety: “When the morning breaks, chasin’ away the snakes, is it my fate? To dream of snakes. Darkness is my boon, paradise is blue. Thinking room, loneliness too. In my bed I curl, despair around me swirls. I whirl and find a girl...” The lyrics may seem slight on paper, but couple them with Stills mahogany delivery and depth of his abandonment become abundantly clear.
Stills ode to Collins, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” is presented as a work in progress. The verses are tighter and Stills sings with more verve, using his strings like percussive baseball bat, whacking at them until they sting. The later part of the song later picked up by Crosby and Nash (“Friday evening…Sunday in the afternoon…”) is sung in a near-falsetto that indicates Stills may have been hanging out with Joni Mitchell as much as Judy.
“Helplessly Hoping” misses CSN’s three-part harmony, but Stills’ fills the spaces with melodic guitar and a vocal that rises and falls like a lonesome cowpoke longing for his home on the range. A Reader’s Digest (condensed) version of “Wooden Ships” follows, with Stills launching into the lyrics, his expressive voice taking over in spots that would later be filled in by keyboards and bass on the first CSN album.
The only forgettable cut is “Treetop Flyer,” the “bonus” track that ends the album. Aside from Stills expert picking, (he overdubbed this one with guitar and dobro) – this is bombs away. Vocally it’s a parody of the blues, with Stills grunting and growling about smuggling something illegal in on a plane. He’s a virtuoso of the back porch Dobro, but his creative fills are grounded by the inane subject matter. “There’s things I am, there’s things I’m not. I could get caught and I could get shot.” You mean shot down, dontcha, Bubba?
Stills revived the idea of recording a solo acoustic record with 1991’s stillborn “Stills Alone.” “Treetop Flyer” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” were cited as the album’s standout cuts, but Stills is mush-mouthed throughout, and the rest of the material takes longer to get through than Lindsay Lohan’s rap sheet. “Just Roll Tape” got the concept right decades ago. It’s a shame it wasn’t released when the material and its performer were fresher. There’s no denying that the fully realized versions of songs are better than the ones on “Just Roll Tape,” but the CD offers a unique opportunity to hear Stills rising toward the top of his game, before his hugely successful partnership with Crosby and Nash, Crosby’s drug-fueled implosion, his own boozy blackouts and the group’s years of being wasted on the way. To quote Stills: “These songs feel like great friends when they were really young.” Want to sip from the fountain of youth? Then just roll tape.