Rock legend Stephen Stills amused and shocked a group of about 30 students assembled in the Kirkland House Junior Common Room, as he spoke about the ties between politcs, youth activism and rock ‘n’ roll.
The Harvard College Democrats invited Stills to Harvard as part of their “$10,000 Dollars, 10,000 hours” campaign, an effort to provide time and money to the presidential candidacy of Sen. John F. Kerry, D.-Mass.
Stills has been a political activist throughout his forty-year career. He appeared with Crosby, Stills & Nash bandmates David Crosby and Graham Nash at the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and has helped raise money for a wide range of causes, such as Miami hurricane relief.
He has played numerous concerts on behalf of former President William J. Clinton and Florida Governor Lawton Chiles.
In a short speech followed by a question and answer session last night, Stills repeatedly referred to President George W. Bush—whose supporters he called “the shrubs”—with a variety of expletives.
“That son of a bitch is the bogeyman,” he said.
He reserved some of his derision for supporters of independent candidate Ralph Nader, exclaiming, “A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush!”
Aside from attacking individual candidates, Stills spoke primarily about combining his passions for politics and music.
“When you write something and put it to music, you have added emotional impact,” he said.
He added that music enables him to not only make a point, but convey what that point “feels like.”
In a moment of inspiration, “you just put your hands on the piano and you get the right notes almost by magic,” Stills said.
“Say what you think, feel what you say and fuss with it...the system will work if you work the system.”
The singer said he credits the success of his career to advice he received from Ahmet Ertegun, a producer at Stills’ first record company, Atlantic Records: “Walk slowly and you’ll bump into a genius.”
“That’s what happened—I bumped into these people,” Stills said, in reference to Crosby and Nash, with whom he formed “Crosby. Stills & Nash” in 1968. The group added Neil Young shortly thereafter, and the band found instant fame playing in front of 400,000 people at the Woodstock Music Festival in just their second live performance.
In addition to CSN&Y, Stills has released about half a dozen solo albums and has authored hit songs like “Love the One You’re With.”
He has played with legends like Jimi Hendrix, Ringo Starr, and Eric Clapton, and was enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 1997.
Stills made a point of being supportive to new muscians interested in making political statements. In response to a a statement from an audience member that political protest music seems to be less popular today than it was in the 1960s, Stills replied that this is only “because it’s not as new.” He remarked that a large number of protest groups are currently travelling around the country.
“Only the clothes have changed,” he said.
Students reacted warmly to his enthusiasm for new artists.
“He seems to have a lot of faith in young, contemporary musicians who focus on protest music, which is encouraging,” Emily M. Anderson ’05 said.
“He certainly is a larger than life character.”
At the end of the discussion, Stills surprised the audience by pulling out a guitar and playing two songs, a new one he did not name and his famous protest song, “Find the Cost of Freedom.”