Over the past three decades there has been a great deal of musical archaeology dedicated to the unveiling as well as preservation of the historical legacy of Messer’s Crosby, Stills and Nash. One which has seen each artist dive ever deeper into their respective archives to reveal much buried treasure. From 1990’s original CSN boxed set, to more recent multi-CD retrospectives, it should come as no surprise that it would be Stephen Stills who had delved the deepest, issuing in 2007 a compendium of material recorded on 26th April 1968.
Stills himself described its origins thus: “I was at a Judy Collins session in New York… and when that was finished, I peeled off a few hundred dollars for the engineer so I could make a tape of my new songs. Some you’ll know, some you might not. The following fall we made the first CSN album, and the tape has been lost to the wind for almost forty years. Somehow it’s found its way back, and these songs now feel like great friends when they were really young.”
Just Roll Tape is Stills on his own, with an acoustic guitar, putting down as many songs as he could while the machine was running. Let’s not forget that 1968 was a pivotal year for America. The Vietnam War, the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, African American riots across the country, and worst of all, young middle class teenagers growing their hair long and listening to rock and roll. God, what was the world coming to?
Throughout these twelve cuts, Stills plays his guitar with all the fervour and urgency of someone befitting his youth. “All I Know Is What You Tell Me” is so brief that one hardly even notices it when it’s gone. “So Begins the Task” and “Change Partners” would appear on later LPs; however it remains fascinating to hear them in their more primitive incarnation. “Know You’ve Got to Run” and “The Doctor Will See You Now” are both intriguing but hardly memorable, although never the classic “Black Queen”, a song that would not appear until his first solo record a few years later.
“Judy” is a folk oriented ode to his love, and a transient one at that, while “Wooden Ships” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” are the tunes most fans will salivate over. Throw in a rudimentary run through of “Helplessly Hoping” and any CSN devotee’s life will be almost complete. Of course all that’s missing are those magical harmonies by Crosby and Nash. Other songs such as “Dreaming of Snakes” and the absorbing “Bumblebee (Do You Need a Place To Hide)” make their appearance here for the first time, and yet for some reason Stills never bothered to finish.
“Treetop Flyer” is listed on the album as a bonus track, although I have no idea why. Here we have just Stills on dobro, playing a country-blues in a way only he can. Stills would resurrect the song years later on 1991’s Stills Alone, but I think this version is the best.
If nothing else, what this LP highlights is how prolific the man truly was. And as imperfect as these recordings are, they provide a captivating insight into the creative mind of one who would shortly be at the forefront of popular music. With Buffalo Springfield standing on a precipice, Stills was already writing material that would take him into an entirely new direction, a path that would allow him to flourish and expand his craft beyond his wildest dreams. “Just Roll Tape” is the sort of unpolished time capsule the listener ought to be grateful for. That it survives at all, is perhaps something of a miracle in itself.