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Stephen Stills "Look Each Other in the Eye" (Single Premiere)

Photo of Stephen Stills courtesy of Stephen Stills official site and Warner Brothers/Rick Gershon

Stephen Stills has never been reluctant to raise his voice in song when he sees “something happening here/what it is ain’t exactly clear.” On December 5, 1966, Buffalo Springfield recorded those now-classic, and often-repeated words, from Stills’ song “For What It’s Worth.” Although the song quickly became a protest anthem echoing across city streets and parks where demonstrations against the Vietnam War were erupting, Stills wrote the song about the protests over curfew laws that the city of Los Angeles had imposed in November 1966 in an attempt to regulate noise and traffic congestion near clubs, such as the Whiskey Au Go Go, on Sunset Strip.

Almost fifty years later, Stills has looked around him to see a similar, but much uglier, scene. Fifty years ago, protestors and police didn’t see eye-to-eye on an ordinance that would have changed urban policy and affected a small number of individuals. The protests raised far deeper questions, though, about free speech, civil discourse, respect for others, as well as the easy acceptance of violence to resolve political issues. Even more, though, each side’s refusal to see the other as human enabled each side so readily to embrace violence against each other.

Almost fifty years later, the loss of civil discourse in an election year, the steady and willing ability to avoid seeing each other as fellow humans struggling to find our way, the steady and willing embrace of violence as an almost immediate response to conflict, the readiness to see anyone unlike ourselves as a hated other, and the hatred bred by fear of others gave Stills fertile ground to write a new single, “Look Each Other in the Eye.”

“Look Each Other in the Eye” opens with Stills’ bright lead guitar riffs that shuffle into an almost joyous reggae tune, made more so by the presence of steel drums. However, to reverse Still’s other famous line from “Love the One You’re With,” this bright tune holds a fist in the rose-petaled glove. From his first words of “Look Each Other in the Eye,” Stills spits out his anger and his disgust at the state of American culture these days. He has no affection for a presidential candidate who’s always “looking in the mirror” thinking he’s cute, “dialing up the hate” and being “always first to rise to the bait. In the song’s second verse, he thinks that maybe he’s dreaming and begs to be woken when this election cycle is over; releasing the song a few days before Halloween, Stills uses that dream-like and sometimes scary character of that night as an image for the scariest political candidate: “Halloween/irony is fitting/finally we know what we’ll be getting/not you clown/because we need a statesman.”

Yet, as always with Stills, “Look Each Other in the Eye” is not just about bringing us down and attacking the forces that have helped create the fear and hatred that now permeate American culture. In the song’s refrain, Stills pleas “how can we stop the fightin’?” His straight and clear answer, right in front of us for so long but which we refuse to see, echoes loudly and propels the song forcefully: “we have to live among each other/look each other in the eye.” To look each other in the eye cuts two ways in Stills’ song, of course. First, by looking other in the eye we give up our fears and confront our conversation partner face-to-face (eye-to-eye) so that we’re seeing the real person and not only the rhetoric that’s created an illusion of that person’s beliefs. Second, and even more important, to look each other in the eye means seeing the common humanity we share with that person, acknowledging it, and recognizing it, making it much harder to dehumanize the other.

Let’s hope that “Look Each Other in the Eye” becomes an anthem not just for the final weeks of the election cycle but one that reminds us that only by looking each other in the eye can we recover the civility and civil discourse so sorely absent from our culture these days.

This is a great way to wake up election day, Henry. Thanks for this. It about nails what I needed to hear today. I love the song.