Stephen Stills

A Portrait, For What It’s Worth

Tom Zimberoff
Jun 1 · 18 min read
Stephen Stills at Caribou Ranch in the Colorado Rockies, / ©1975 Tom Zimberoff / All Rights Reserved

My great friend, Donnie Dacus, personally introduced me to Stephen Stills. But the tortuous path to this portrait, made high up in the Colorado Rockies, initially led downhill; a year earlier and a thousand miles away.

Lookout Mountain Avenue — not really an avenue per se — is a steep and narrow lane that snakes halfway up and down the west side of leafy Laurel Canyon, a rustic residential enclave in the bosom of the Hollywood Hills. It was famous in the 1960s and 70s as a haven for rock ’n’ rollers. Donnie rented a house there in 1974, five doors down from the Eagles.

We were already on a roll, both of us, in a manner of speaking, starting out on top of the world that night. I wanted to show off my new Mercedes-Benz 280C. I was in way over my head leasing that car. But what the hey! I was a young rock ’n’ roll photographer; wasn’t I? And Donnie was an up-and-coming — perhaps just cresting the summit — rock ’n’ roll musician. He’d recently begun collaborating with Stephen Stills, co-writing and recording songs. Donnie got in the car, and we started driving down Lookout Mountain, lookin’ for love and, maybe, a bite to eat. It was just after dark. Not very many torchère lampposts, circa 1920, decorated our way. There was a light drizzle. Uh oh. That should’ve been a clue. The weather had been dry for months. So had the street. Now, mass, gravity, fluid viscosity, and a 30º downhill grade colluded, and my Mercedes collided with seven parked cars.

I only side-swiped them. Mirrors. Paint. Theirs. Mine. (Donnie is laughing nervously. I’m cursing.) During a long rainless spell, an untold quotient of automobiles, all over LA, leaked itty-bitty drops of motor oil that accumulated over time on city streets and were, of course, unable to mix with water. They now rose and spread above the wetted asphalt, reflecting rainbows of peril amidst a vast network of vehicular Wham-O Slip’n Slides. On vertiginous Lookout Mountain my brakes were useless. My tires had no purchase. Rubber never met the road. We planed downhill on a veneer of grease. Steering was no use either; no way to turn in a less humiliating direction. Haplessly, I anticipated each slow-motion frame of this horror-film stream of consciousness, as we caromed off one car then into the next one in sequence. Think Ice Capades meets Demolition Derby. Finally, the left front tire of parked car Nº7, banked hard-a-starboard with its tread poking out from under the fender, caught my right front tire. And we stopped. Otherwise, I could have racked up more points.

Somehow, I found enough traction to back up an inch or two. Ever so slowly, in low gear, I managed to pull over to the curb and park further down from those seven lacerated cars. I shut off my ignition and looked at Donnie. What now? Shrugs. I shuffled around in the glove box, looking for paper and pen, to write seven apologetically nice notes. Then, I realized that, even if I found something to write with, leaving each note under a windshield wiper would render them soggy and illegible, given the persistent drizzle. Donnie and I got out of the car.

Considering the ruckus I had just caused, we were surprised not to see angry faces peering through windows . . . citizens running out their doors wielding tempers. But the loud music — and, what was that, singing? — coming from a large house, lights ablaze, opposite the wounded cars, seemed to explain why we weren’t heard or seen. Again, I looked at Donnie. He nodded back. We tacitly agreed that I’d better go knock on the door of that house to inquire if my seven victims were inside. Donnie, good friend, accompanied me. Maybe he shouldn’t have.

I knocked hard on the door over the singing. The voices quieted. Seconds later the door swung open to reveal a tall, perfectly-groomed, familiar-looking man. I knew his name: Richard Anderson. Anyone who ever turned on a TV would recognize the co-star of NBC’s Nº1 hit show: The Six Million Dollar Man. Anderson played Oscar Goldman, head of a covert federal agency, opposite Lee Majors as Colonel Steve Austin, an astronaut who was gravely wounded in a plane crash then restored to super-human strength as the first bionically-enhanced human — and secret agent.

Standing at the door, in the rain, next to Donnie, I tried to describe what had just happened. I was beset with guilt. Seven insurance adjusters glowered in my imagination, plus an eighth: mine. It was hard to explain all of this to . . . Oscar Goldman. And, now, he’s peering over my shoulder at the abraded automobiles across the street, agreeing that, yes, they all belonged to his guests.

“Come in out of the rain,” he said. His guests were now at the door, a dozen of them or so, staring at Donnie and me. Beyond them, inside, it looked cozy and warm. There was s a fire going. Donnie was getting fidgety, standing there with me; loyal bystander.

Anderson smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it now” in his smooth Oscar Goldman baritone, the same voice that intoned an iconic catchphrase in the prologue of every weekly episode, “We can rebuild him; we have the technology.” In person he said, “Come in and pray with us,” as though he were saying, We can rebuild the cars; we have the technology.

Okay, Donnie’s more than fidgety now. I could tell he’s getting creeped out — I’m creeped out! — ready to hightail it on foot about a half-mile back up to his house. But Anderson pulled us both inside. It’s a goddam Bible meeting.

“Praise the Lord,” they said, one after another. The congregation stood us within a semicricle in front of the fireplace, holding hands. A prayer of deliverance for my and Donnie’s safety was murmured. Then some more singing. I kept mum, repressing a devilish impulse to suggest “Hava Nagilah.”

After the singing, refreshments were served; cookies and potluck. Donnie and I made our formal introductions, shaking already held hands. And I could look forward to remaining in good hands with Allstate, confident that they would take care of my bruised Benz without cancelling my policy. I have to say, these meetings must work. My prayers were answered. After I was praised for not absconding, each of my victims volunteered that their individual insurance policies would cover their repairs. I was sure they’d keep a bodyshop busy for a month or more. And I suppose Donnie’s prayers were answered, too. He was captivated by a beautiful woman who reciprocated his attention. They were sneaking lascivious looks at each other. Donnie collected her phone number. I reminded him, for awhile, what great lengths a friend like me will go, to introduce him to girls.

To say that Donnie plays guitar is to trivialize virtuosity. And his voice. Oh yeah, the guy’s got pipes like a Wurlitzer organ. We’ve been friends since 1971, two years after he first blew in to LA from Cleburne, Texas. I was still in music school at USC. Photography was a diversion. But, as I grew more attached to the camera and honed my skills, so, too, did Donnie tune up his guitar and tune in to the LA music scene, where bands were like Silicon Valley start-ups today. Managers were the CEOs; record producers were the VCs. Like startups, bands frequently proffered a garage origin story. A demo tape was the equivalent of a PowerPoint deck. And the pitch went something like, We’re the Beach Boys of Country Folk.

Photographers and musicians have always traded off each other’s talent and connections, promoting each other for career advancement. We were artrepreneurs, making our bones. So, when a former high school classmate said he managed a band with a rising star on guitar, and asked me to take some publicity photos, I jumped at the chance. In the mode of Cream, the Doors, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the new band I was about to meet was a trio called Westbourne Drive.

Westbourne Drive / ©1971 Tom Zimberoff

I was blown away when I heard Donnie fronting Pug Baker on drums and Larry Gould on bass, the three of them blowing the roof off Larry’s mother’s garage, next to her modest West Hollywood home on — Westbourne Drive. Donnie, a skinny kid with long straight blonde hair, 19 like me, was shredding his gold-lacquer Les Paul with fingers flying fast across the frets of his musical imagination through cover songs peppered with some of his own originals.

Westbourne Drive played gigs in LA’s San Fernando Valley hot spots like the Palomino, the Brass Ring, and the Blah Blah Café. They also opened for bigger acts at the Whiskey á Go Go on the Sunset Strip. When Donnie wasn’t working, he sometimes accompanied me on photoshoots at big arenas because I could get backstage passes for both of us to see bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer, T-Rex, Traffic, Jethro Tull. . . and, at smaller venues, performers like Little Richard, the self-proclaimed Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll. Richard Penniman loved to tell stories. On the telephone, he once told me how he taught Paul McCartney how to scream: OOOOOOOOOOh!

My high school acquaintance, Ron (surname expunged), who was less manager than wanna-be drug lord, faded into oblivion — not soon enough. His influence was a ball and chain around Donnie’s career. With the help of a more conscientious friend named Kerry Berry, I made it my business to help the band get gigs up and down the SoCal coast in small clubs, from Venice Beach to Seal Beach. Kerry had a VW “hippie bus” that came in handy, lugging instruments up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. (Bumper sticker: Don’t laugh; your daughter is inside.) Donnie has since forgiven me for instigating a a silly showbiz stunt at the finale of their set: singing Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire,” Donnie leaned back and lifted his screaming guitar above his belt to reveal a battery-powered light flashing red in his crotch through tight white slacks.

My First Album Cover

Greater success for the band was not in the cards. But it was clear that Donnie had the chops to break out. I had a hand in getting him his first record deal by introducing him to a producer, Karl Bornstein, from whom I was renting a room in a bitchin’ little house — my first home away from home when I left USC — on the palisade overlooking Santa Monica Beach. Karl was putting a band together for Motown’s MoWest label called Odyssey, as obscure at the time as it remains today. But Donnie was now getting recording-studio experience, trading licks on gigs with the legendary Wrecking Crew, the most formidable studio musicians on the West Coast, and with the players who made the Motown Sound sound Motown, even if the label was based in LA by that time.*

* I had been shooting pictures for Motown acts like Stevie Wonder (see “Blind Luck”) for a couple of years before, coincidentally, my sister, Dede, married a man with the corporate title of Vice-chairman of the Board of Motown Industries, Mike Roshkind, who was instrumental in getting Berry Gordy to move the label to LA from Detroit.

My interest in the music business waned as my photography client list grew. Donnie’s career went gangbusters, and he became a sought-after sideman, recording with Billy Joel, Boz Scaggs, REO Speedwagon, Elton John, and many other artists. By 1978 he was tapped as lead guitar and singer for the band Chicago after founding member Terry Kath’s tragic death. The following year, while on a gig in New York City, a friend asked Donnie to accompany him on a casting call, for moral support — hand holding. Reed Kailing, who was already playing the part of Paul McCartney in Beatlemania on Broadway, was auditioning for a part in a movie. The audition lasted as long as it took his friend to read a few quick lines. Then, as he and Donnie were picking up their stuff to walk out the door, the director called out, “You! De blonde fellow. Vat did you brrring?”

United Artists

Donnie, startled, looked back at Milos Foreman. Not half as startled as Reed was, Donnie did a double take. “Me?” said Donnie. Then out came, “I ain’t here for a audition” in full Texas twang. He tried to beg off, truly embarrassed. But the more he spoke, the more Foreman wanted to hear. Ultimately, Donnie, not Reed, was cast in the movie version of Hair and given a starring role as Woof who led off singing the title tune. He and Reed remained close, despite that rub. I got to know him, too. And he didn’t hold it against us that, some time later, while he was decked out in full Nehru jacket and mop top, Donnie and I, both stratospheric on Maui Wowie, showed up at the theater, shanghaied him into a limousine, and took him to dinner at Elaine’s, where we didn’t bother to dissuade a number of credulous people who thought he really was Paul McCartney. They even sent us a bottle of champagne. The week went wild.

Dubbing the soundtrack for HAIR in New York / ©1979 Tom ZImberoff

A year later, I was back in New York, just as Donnie wrapped on Hair. Thanks to the production company, he was still holed up in a suite at the Plaza Hotel. We picked up our shenanigans right where we left off, and continued, over the years, to sow acres of wild oats. Ultimately, we were best man at each other’s wedding, nineteen and twenty-four years, respectively, after we first met.

In 1974, before his gig with Chicago and then Hair, Donnie was in a band called Spirit when Stephen Stills heard him play for the first time. Their introduction led to an inevitable duel, a competitive compulsion common to all guitarists, to size each other up riff by riff. Their professional collaboration began almost immediately.

Chris Hillman at Union Station, Los Angeles / ©1973 Tom Zimberoff

It wasn’t surprising. Stills was going through a fractious phase in his relationship with Neil Young. Those two, of course, were the driving force behind the unprecedented sound of Buffalo Springfield. Then came the phenomenon that was Crosby Stills Nash & Young, which imploded on its own fame. Stills’s next band, Manassas, quickly played itself out; and Donnie’s truckload of talent had already pulled up to the loading dock. (Manassas included Chris Hillman, who has also posed for my camera.)

Neil, Donnie, and Stephen at UCLA’s Royce Hall / ©1975 Tom Zimberoff

Stephen has always needed to play off another instrumentalist who can dish it out as well as he can take it. I once heard Graham Nash reply to the question: Why would Crosby Stills & Nash want to add Neil Young to an already successful group? To wit he replied, “Have you ever heard Stephen Stills and Neil Young play guitar together on stage?”Incidentally, Donnie and Neil have played together, too. The three of them have played side by side on stage. I was right there with them, shooting pictures. Later, Donnie and Stephen had their own falling out; and Stephen reunited with Neil for a brief tour. But, for the time being, it was Donnie who was laying down tracks with Stephen, in 1975, for his Illegal Stills album at Caribou Ranch.

In addition to being a recording studio, Caribou was a very private retreat, a rock ’n’ roll dude ranch built in 1972 by record producer and manager of the band, Chicago, Jimmy Guercio. Its 4,000 acre campus consisted of multiple log cabin suites surrounding a state-of-the-art recording studio inside an erstwhile barn. The property was a blend of Old West chic with every imaginable modern appurtenance, replete with ranch hands on call at any hour to rustle up some tasty vittles or wrangle a hoss from the stables. Despite the luxurious accommodations, Caribou was less about playing Wyatt Earp than playing music in a stress-free environment. Regular guests included Elton John, Earth, Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, U2, Frank Zappa, Michael Jackson . . . The list is long. Caribou Ranch was that place I alluded to at the beginning of my story, high up in the Colorado Rockies where I made Stephen’s portrait. Let me tell you how I got there.

Picture me on an airplane seated next to a screaming-gorgeous blonde, a typecast Hollywood starlet. Her name was Kathleen (surname also expunged), the captivating lady from the Laurel Canyon Bible meeting who had since become Donnie’s main squeeze. She moved in with him. I was escorting her to Denver, then a drive into the mountains; both of us to visit Double D (the nickname I’d given him) at work with Stephen at Caribou. My plan was, at Donnie’s invitation, to stay for a couple of weeks and enjoy the perquisites of rock ’n’ roll paradise; take a deep breath of mountain air, discover my inner cowboy, saddle up, and enjoy the ride.

On the flight to Denver, I got my my first inkling that there’d be trouble in River City; trouble that starts with T and rhymes with P, and that stands for Purgatory. That blathering Barbie talked my ear off about her: her agents; her auditions; her nails; her relationship with Jesus. She wanted me to know whom she knew in Hollywood and whom she wanted to know. She wanted to know whom I knew. I felt compelled to ask her to change the subject to something less vapid than her Hollywood ambition, which was not, I suggested, going to earn her a rite of passage through the Pearly Gates. I must have used kinder words. Still, it was chilly the rest of the way to Caribou.

Kathleen, Bible thumper that she was, never got Donnie to come to Jesus. But she sure as her own hell tried to get him to come to Wells Fargo. She was a certifiable gold-digger, and Donnie was a 24-karat specimen of clueless. I didn’t warn him explicitly; he wouldn’t have listened. He was a little too up in the clouds with his rapid rise to good fortune. He may have felt he needed the eye candy to compete with Stephen’s equally gorgeous wife, a famous French chanteuse, Véronique Sanson, who was also on her way to the ranch with their infant son, Christopher.

Donnie didn’t see it coming when Kathleen started forging checks or, years later, when his criminally corrupt manager, threw destructive parties and sold cocaine in Donnie’s Woodland Hills home, which he bought after leaving his Lookout Mountain rental. Good ol’ Ron only managed to tear that place apart physically while Donnie was on the road. Again, I regret to say, I knew this horrible creature from high school. Nevertheless, it was he who introduced me to Donnie — the only good thing he ever did in his life. And I regret, albeit inadvertently, introducing Donnie to Kathleen.

No one invites a photographer to visit without expecting him to take pictures. And that’s what I did. I only brought a couple of cameras and lenses, with as much color and black-and-white film as I could fit in my bag. No lights. It turned out that Stills’s management hadn’t given thought to the need for an album cover photo. And here I was, thanks to Donnie. I had an idea.

Only my headshot of Stephen was used on the album cover

Stephen travelled with a collection of rare guitars, all on hand for their different musical timbres in the studio — for performing live, too. I suggested posing him with all sixteen of them for the album cover, sitting within a garden of guitars growing in a mountain pasture. (A different picture of mine was actually used: a headshot in a cowboy hat.) We had a beautiful late evening sky. But by the time we got the guitars outside and set up, the sky turned gray, I didn’t have a a tripod. Because of the low light, I pushed the Tri-X film (underexposing it and giving it extra time in the soup, to compensate) to facilitate the use of a high-enough (fast/short enough) shutter speed to avoid shake while hand-holding my camera. The photograph is grainy because of the push-processed film.

Stephen, Tom, and Donnie doing a Caribou can-can

I handed a camera to a ranch hand to snap some pictures of Donnie, Stephen, and me. Later, either he, or another hand, got caught trying to steal several of those guitars. Someone else snapped some pictures over my shoulder while I was photographing Stephen and tried to peddle them to a magazines. I nipped that in the bud and placed a curse on his wretched soul. But I knew there was still some mendacity at play when, decades later, at a Graham Nash book signing, I had to convince Nash that it was I who made the “famous” photo of Stephen with the guitars.

Tom directing Donnie and Stephen

Stephen’s friend, Jack Daniels, often accompanied him into the studio for late-night recording sessions. Stephen was hitting the bottle hard one night while I was in the recording booth shooting candids between takes — and he tried to hit me! He took a swing and a miss for a strikeout. It was less an issue of my being a bother than his self-consciousness. Donnie’s ratiocination for Stephen’s behavior was that, because he had been portrayed unflatteringly in the past under vulnerable circumstances, he acquired a habit of taking drunken swings at photographers who got within range of a roundhouse. I told a sobered-up Stephen the next morning that I once photographed him during a show at the Whiskey, years earlier, when he really did look like he was afraid he looked. Even though we hadn’t been introduced then, I never published the pictures. He apologized. I told Stephen, who was sobered up the next morning, that I photographed him during a show at the Whiskey, years earlier, when he really did look like he was afraid he looked. Even though we hadn’t been introduced at the time, I never published those pictures. He apologized.

The rest of my sojourn at Caribou was uneventful, just relaxing but for an adventure-filled day on the open range. Donnie and I got two horses saddled up, and we two buckaroos galloped into them thar hills.

I’d ridden before, but not often and not well. It doesn’t take that much skill to sit on a horse. Not falling off is the trick. Donnie, well, he was a Texan; a natural. What was exceptional for me was that I had never ridden with only a sidekick for company on open rangeland before. I’d never ridden so fast, either. I don’t know why it didn’t scare me to death. I don’t know how I held on without breaking my neck at breakneck speed. It was exhilarating.

We reined in amongst a grove of birch trees sticking out of the earth like poles, their yellow leaves shimmering as birch leaves do in the late afternoon breeze. It had been sunny and warm when we left the corral. We were beyond sight of the ranch. Too quickly, cool breeze turned into a cold, hard wind. The leaves were no longer shimmering but shivering. We were shivering. We could feel our horses shivering. The cold came on like the snap of a broken branch. The sky turned silver and the mercury, we found out later, dropped forty degrees. Snow drifted down from the sky like lint. Then faster. Everything turned white. We could no longer see the trail we’d so bravely blazed across the range and into the woods. We could see some fence posts, though. We followed them, letting the horses plod along. We figured they’d know the way back. And they did. We got back safely but not too soon. A blizzard and a white out set in. We got back safely but not too soon. A blizzard and a white out set in. We could imagine the headlines: ROCK STAR DIES WITH HIS BOOT ON. FROZEN CORPSES OF GUITAR STAR AND PHOTOGRAPHER FOUND AFTER SNOW MELT. FILM AT 11:00. It would be a cozy night with a bottle in front of the fire. It would be a cozy night with a bottle in front of the fire.

Stephen and Donnie after the Buffalo Springfield reunion / ©2011 Tom Zimberoff

I saw Stephen again thirteen years later in Silicon Valley, in 1988, visiting Steve Jobs and I was shooting Jobs for a magazine cover plus my “Nose Jobs” portrait.

Another twenty-two years after that, in 2011, Donnie and I were invited backstage to say hello to Stephen in Santa Barbara, California, after a reunion performance of Buffalo Springfield. It was kind of strange for me, at first, perhaps because Stephen still associated the theft of his precious guitars with our photoshoot that day, long ago, at Caribou. It took him a beat to realize I was the photographer, not the guitar thief. Although Donnie and Stephen were cordial to each other, I’m not sure they buried the hatchet over a songwriting-credit dispute from back in the day. But there was no doubt about their mutual respect for each other as musicians. Unfortunately, Neil Young cut out immediately after the show; so we didn’t get to meet and greet.

Finally, I went to see Stephen, backstage, after a performance at Yoshi’s jazz club in San Francisco in 2013. I brought him two prints of the Guitar Garden portrait; one for him to keep and one he signed for me. The portrait was last published, twice, in 2013: in Stephen’s box set of CDs called “Carry On” and in a chapter about yours truly in the French book titled 40 Ans — De Photojournalisme Génération Sygma, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Sygma Photo Agency.

Donnie’s beautiful wife Beth made this photograph of Donnie and me in Santa Barbara in 2011, the day after we saw Buffalo Springfield

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Tom Zimberoff

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Storius Magazine

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