Saturday, May 20, 2017

Transmission Impossible | Lefsetz Letter

I found this on Deezer.

I wonder, at some point in the future, will a younger generation go back and discover the classic rockers the same way boomers and Englishmen went back and discovered the Delta bluesmen?

They were hiding in plain sight. Harvard students looked them up in the phone book and brought them up to Cambridge to play. All those legendary names, most had given up their itinerant musician ways and were working straight jobs, or were retired, eking out a living on Social Security. But the recordings, they were percolating, being played in dorm rooms and flats, and they were the basis of rock and roll.

Rock and roll is in a death spiral. Primarily as a result of abuse, after a splintering amongst its acolytes, who couldn’t agree whether it was attitude or skill, whether it was better to be a punk or a prog rocker, although we know how that worked out, since all the punks got into the R&RHOF before the proggers, because a coterie of writers and insiders are more interested in perceived credibility than music, but it’s the music that survives, or does it?

“Find The Cost Of Freedom” was the b-side of “Ohio,” but this was back when people had given up on 45s and were buying LPs, and the only version most people owned was the live one on “Four Way Street,” at least until the greatest hits package “So Far” was released in ’74, but by that time the bloom was off the rose, Nixon had resigned eleven days before, Ford was President and boomers were licking their wounds and going back to the land. CSN would re-emerge in ’77, Neil Young would continue to be a fixture, but their sound was superseded by tracks crafted to fit Lee Abrams’ SuperStars format on FM.

Not that you never heard “Love The One You’re With,” it’s just that that’s all you heard, all the rest of Stephen Stills’ oeuvre receded into the bedroom, you played the records at home or in your head, but they ceased being in the air, everywhere.

When I get restless, what can I do
When I need someone, I think about you

That’s from “Sit Yourself Down,” the second side opener of Stills’ solo debut. It was not the hit, but it’s my favorite cut on the LP, because of the changes, from verse to chorus, with the background vocals in a waterfall, it’s a production tour-de-force built upon a great song. They don’t build them this way anymore, because it costs too much money for so very little in return. Spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars in the studio, partying, getting it right, and you’ll find you release it to a limited audience with limited revenue, best to stop recording and just go on the road, playing to the already converted, that’s where the money is.

And he cries from the misery
And he lies singin’ harmony
She is gone there is no tomorrow

That’s from “Do For The Others,” song two on side one, quiet after the exuberance of “Love The One You’re With,” it expresses the pain of a breakup, something we rarely hear in today’s popular music. Sexual harassment was worse in 1970, despite nascent feminism, opportunities for women were limited, but men were more sensitive, they could reveal their vulnerabilities, their pain. That’s something we’ve lost in the coarsening of America, no one can appear weak, no one can be a loser, it’s all victory all the time, to admit you’ve got more questions than answers is anathema, you just put your head down and march forward, internalizing any doubt. But it didn’t used to be that way.

So, after playing “Find The Cost Of Freedom,” going back to Stills’ debut, I decided to search online to find out if the CSNY live box from ’74 had made it online.

It hadn’t.

But that’s when I discovered “Transmission Impossible,” a forty five cut album of previously unreleased live cuts by Stephen Stills, it was like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls, unearthing this previously unheard work of a master, some recorded during his heyday, some as late as the nineties, but it’s positively…


I’ll be honest, I pulled up “4+20” first, there are two iterations, one from the King Biscuit Flower Hour in Portland in ’78, another from the Bread and Roses Festival in Berkeley the same year.

Four and twenty years ago, I come into this life
The son of a woman and a man who lived in strife
He was tired of being poor
And he wasn’t into selling door to door
And he worked like the devil to be more

Twenty four is not what it used to be. Now there’s a great bifurcation, either you’re on the path to riches or not, you went to college or you didn’t, you’re a winner or a loser, but way back when it was much less clearly defined, fewer people went to university, which was not a glorified trade school, but a place to expand your mind, and it wasn’t uncommon to find yourself at that age being completely lost, wondering how did you get here and where are you gonna go?

A different kind of poverty now upsets me so
Night after sleepless night I walk the floor
And I want to know, why am I so alone
Where is my woman can I bring her home
Have I driven her away is she gone

So different from the bitches and ho’s ethos of today, wherein you abuse them and then kick them to the curb, at least that’s what popular music tells us, the truth, amongst the hoi polloi? I think Stephen Stills has it right.

And “Transmission Impossible” is a cornucopia of covers and originals, there’s even a rendition of “Midnight Rider,” because a great song is a great song, even though this version is mostly a curio, but still, when you’re going deep, when you’re a fan, you want to hear everything.

And you’ll want to listen to “Helplessly Hoping,” live from the Palladium in New York City back in ’76, an almost completely forgotten song from the CSN debut, it’s another number with magical changes, hopscotching through your brain.

And from that same show is a combo of “49 Bye-Byes” and “For What It’s Worth,” which segues into a cover of “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

But the ’78 shows are better, Stills is in better voice, I loved listening to “Fallen Eagle,” because that Manassas debut is even better than Stills’ initial solo, but it’s like it doesn’t exist. Which brings me to my favorite cut on “Transmission Impossible,” a live version of “So Begins The Task” (mislabeled “SHE Begins The Task”), which segues into “Johnny’s Garden” from that same Manassas debut, recorded at the Joint at the Hard Rock in Vegas back in ’95. And the most amazing thing is like so many cuts on “Transmission Impossible” it’s just Stills and his guitar, no trickery.

Live material used to be dribbled out. You’d go to a bar and they might have a King Flower Biscuit Hour on reel to reel tape, recorded off the radio, but labels parsed out their material, they didn’t want to overload the audience, there was no YouTube, there was a dearth of this stuff.

And then during the heyday of file-trading, all this stuff surfaced.

And then it disappeared. Funny how legality does this.

And I’ve got no idea of the legality of “Transmission Impossible,” it’s not on Spotify in the U.S., but you can buy the album on Amazon, both in the U.S. and the U.K.


Now I wanted to go deeper. I found that Stills is still recording, with Barry Goldberg and Kenny Wayne Shepherd as the Rides, I saw they played at that theatre in Northridge a year or two ago, but people today care about combos of superstar rappers, not classic rockers.

And after the splintering of CSNY over David Crosby’s ill-considered words about Neil Young’s personal life, Stills is touring this summer with Judy Collins. And the truth is although Stephen’s picking is intact, is voice is not, but he’s still out there, available, like the rough-vocaled Delta bluesmen of yore.

If you’re a boomer, you know. You’ve probably seen him, with or without his compatriots, but if you’re under thirty, certainly under twenty, you’re probably clueless.

And maybe it skips a generation, maybe it’s a decade or two out, when word starts to spread and people go deep into the talent of someone who shined so brightly back then whose star has dimmed considerably.

Or maybe not.

“Transmission Impossible” (UK version with track-listing)”

“Transmission Impossible” (US Version)


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