You’re traveling through another history, a history not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, Alternate History X.”
It is certainly not a question many people, even music historians, ponder, especially in 2010; however, what if Stephen Stills had successfully auditioned for The Monkees? How would that have affected the music of the 60s and 70s? One might be surprised at how many fingers Stills had in the stew.
Before diving in to the life and times of Stephen Stills, a little background on the Monkees (both the band and the TV series) is needed. Most people born before the ’90s know that the Monkees were a completely prefabricated Hollywood construct much more than they were a musical act. (Those of you from the 90s onward who were aware of that fact, kudos to you). The concept was created by director/writer/producer Bob Rafelson, most famous for writing and directing Five Easy Pieces starring Jack Nicholson, and Bert Schneider, a film producer who along with Rafelson produced Easy Rider. (Fun Fact: Nicholson wrote the screenplay for the Monkees’ film Head.) Originally, the producers wanted to base the show around an already-existing band, in particular, the Lovin’ Spoonful. However, the band’s record label refused to grant Screen Gems productions the rights to use any music. It was then that the decision was made to “make” a band.
The Monkees was comprised of three Americans – Mickey Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork – and one Englishman – Davy Jones, all of whom were more actors than musicians. Tork came to the producers’ attention via Stephen Stills, Tork’s friend and former roommate. Stills had auditioned for the Monkees in 1966 but failed to get cast mostly due to his appearance. He was only 21, but with his thinning hair and bad teeth, he simply looked too old. Stills also had issues with Screen Gems. Part of the contract with the show required all music publishing rights to go to Screen Gems, something Stills was smartly unwilling to give up. Tork was suggested by Stills and added to the band’s roster.
The Monkees went on to become a rather successful pop act, including becoming the first music act to win an Emmy, of which the band and show earned two, as well as being the only act to have its first four albums go to number one on the Billboard charts, something even the Beatles failed to accomplish. Their peak years were from 1966 to 1968, eventually disbanding in 1971, and their highlight reel includes giving the Jimi Hendrix Experience its first US concert appearances as the Monkees’ opening act in the summer of 1967, a few weeks after Monterey Pop. They may or may not have achieved these feats with Stephen Stills, but I don’t think that is the important issue. I think we need to ask, if Stills had joined, what wouldn’t have happened?
Once again, a little background is needed. Stephen Stills was born in Texas and lived throughout the southern US and Central America during his childhood. Upon dropping out of the University of Florida, he moved to New York City to pursue a life in music. Playing in various folk or vocal harmony groups, Stills hopped around the NYC coffee house scene eventually getting into a group called the Au Go Go Singers. It was in this collective that Stills met future Buffalo Springfield co-member Richie Furay. After the breakup of the Au Go Go singers in 1965, some of the members continued on as the Company and went on a short six-week tour of Canada. While on tour, Stills met a young guitarist and another future co-member of Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young. After the dissolution of the Company, Stills migrated to Los Angeles where he found himself immersed in the burgeoning folk-rock scene. During this time, Stills did session work and even auditioned for the Monkees. Here is where the fork in the road rests. All that happened before the Monkees’ audition would not change, but everything after could be forever changed and lost. Here is what wouldn’t have happened had Stephen Stills joined the world of pre-fab bubblegum pop television.
The first thing that would have failed to occur was the creation of Buffalo Springfield. Richie Furay would not have been coaxed out of Massachusetts to come to Los Angeles and join Stills in the Herd (BS’ original name). Neil Young would have continued driving down Sunset Boulevard in his retro-fitted hearse, not getting pulled over by Stills and Furay, and not joining Buffalo Springfield. Buffalo Springfield’s contribution to folk-rock and later, country-rock, is immeasurable, and along with the Byrds, helped lay a foundation for the California rock sound. Buffalo Springfield’s biggest hit,“For What It’s Worth”, which was written by Stills, would have never been composed. This song was one of the most representative tracks of the era, recognizable from the first guitar note through the drum progression and, of course, the unforgettable chorus. The song was inspired by the riots along Sunset Strip during 1966-1967. Using his own experiences of political rioting in Costa Rica during his youth and applying it to the current situation, Stills managed to create a song that carried its message without beating it over the listener’s head. Not quite a protest song, this track would help forge music’s path over the next few years. However, because Stephen Stills was busy in pre-production with The Monkees, Buffalo Springfield never matriculated. Richie Furay stayed in Massachusetts, never forming BS or Poco, two bands tremendously influential in the development of the California Sound and, in particular, the Laurel Canyon community. Neil Young managed to get a solo recording contract and piddled around during the next decade, eventually living out his days in a homeless shelter, wearing nothing but flannel.
Photo of Neil Young, taken shortly after self-titled solo debut dropped in ’66.
To say that the members of the Byrds and fellow Byrd-man David Crosby had issues by the time they dismissed him from the band would be an understatement. So, to say that Stephen Stills helped speed up that decision may or may not be entirely accurate. During 1967, the Byrds were huge. Crosby and McGuinn had come into their own in terms of signature songwriting and sound. Drugs, alcohol, and ego combined to create a very tense working environment. During the Byrds’ Friday-night performance at Monterey Pop, Crosby would rant on with his political discourse in between songs, much to the band’s dislike. The following night, Stills managed to add fuel to the fire when he asked Crosby to fill in for a missing Neil Young during Buffalo Springfield’s set. Crosby was dismissed from the Byrds the following fall. Now, Crosby would have been fired soon enough; however, it wouldn’t have been Stills’ fault, because in June of 1967, Stills was in rehearsal for the Monkees tour to begin in July, with Jimi Hendrix as opener, and not at Monterey Pop poking the bear.
Stills and Hendrix were friends regardless of being in the Monkees or not; however, if Stills had joined the Monkees, Hendrix may have never offered the position of bass player in the Experience to him. Actually, Hendrix never made the offer directly but rather through Stills’ manager. Afraid that Stills would have taken the gig and left Buffalo Springfield, he never passed on the message. Hendrix would go on to offer the spot to Noel Redding. Despite not working together in the Experience, the two musicians remained friends, and Hendrix played guitar on the song “Old Times Good Times” from Stills’ self-titled, solo debut in 1970. Of course, that wouldn’t have happened had Stills been with the Monkees. But that would be in 1970, and we are getting a little ahead of the story.
After the dissolution of Buffalo Springfield in 1968 and Crosby’s dismissal from the Byrds in the fall of ‘67, Stills and Crosby found themselves at Joni Mitchell’s house in Laurel Canyon through an invitation by Mama Cass Elliot. While there, the two met British musician Graham Nash, formerly of the Hollies. From this meeting the three went on to form the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash. The intricate vocal harmonies, soaring guitars, and beautiful songwriting would help propel Crosby, Stills & Nash (and occasionally adding Neil Young) towards becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, crossing folk, rock, pop, and even dabbling in other influences. Joni Mitchell wrote the song “Woodstock” for the festival, which they sang. And “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and about a half-dozen other songs Stills wrote in relation to folk singer Judy Collins would not exist. In fact, his relationship with Collins probably would never have occurred. I doubt a serious folksinger would want to mingle with a Monkee, especially if she knew in an alternate timeline her would-be boyfriend wrote “For What It’s Worth”.
However, Stephen Stills did not attend such a gathering of musicians at the behest of Mama Cass, because he never officially met her. 1968 was the final season of The Monkees, and as such, Stills would have been in pre-production during the fall of 1967. He was also probably collecting his Emmy instead of the multiple Grammys he might have won had his thinning hair and bad teeth worked against him.
So, in effect, if Stephen Stills had joined the Monkees in 1966, there would have been no Buffalo Springfield, no “For What It’s Worth”, no CSN(&Y), no Judy Collins pining, no new direction in harmonizing and songwriting, no development of country-rock in the way we know it today, no soft-rock stars like James Taylor or Carly Simon, no alternative country, no Flying Burrito Brothers, no Manassas... (Extending it to today, there would be no Anodyne, no Wilco, Ryan Adams who?) But there would have been one not-so-funny, heavyset, slightly balding guy on TV that might have made you laugh.
Now, here is where another fork can be inserted. Peter Tork (Stills’ replacement) left the Monkees in 1969 citing exhaustion and stress. Now, Stills probably had a sturdier constitution and probably would have stuck it out until the next year when Michael Nesmith left. After Nesmith’s departure, leaving only Dolenz and Jones in the band, Stills might have also jumped ship. When Dolenz and Jones lost the rights to use the name “the Monkees” on any future recordings, Stills would have definitely split the scene. So, effectively we can say that by 1970 Stephen Stills would have been a solo artist again. Just in time for the release of his 1970 self-titled debut.
Stills’ debut came out in 1970 and featured both Hendrix and Clapton on guitar (one track each) and backing vocals from Crosby, Nash, and Cass Elliot. It is a folk-rock masterpiece on par with CS&N’s Crosby, Stills & Nash and DéjÃ vu. This album was recorded amidst the breakup of the supergroup, and Stills injects personal feelings throughout, allowing it to feel akin to the previous albums but still render a different outcome upon listening. However, none of this would have happened. During the time that Stills had cultivated these friendships and working relationships, he would have been with the Monkees. He would never have been in the same circles as Clapton, Hendrix, or Elliot, and as such, his solo album would have sounded remarkably different.
It is known that Michael Nesmith and Frank Zappa were good friends. So much so that the latter appeared in a cameo bit introducing an episode of the series. Imagine Stephen Stills having Zappa playing with him and Stills working with the Mothers instead of the Laurel Canyon community. Zappa protégé Captain Beefheart may have also been different had Stills been a collaborator with the Magic Band. If Stills’ masterpiece Manassas had been made without the collaborative help of former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman, it might still have been one awesome, experimental masterpiece unrivaled by anything Zappa, Stills, or Beefheart did on their own (much less any of the folk-rock/country-rock outfits), but it most certainly would not have been as instrumental in furthering the development of what would come to be called “country-rock.” Or it could have been one utterly grotesque, bloated disaster much like Beefheart’s Unconditionally Guaranteed.