The soundtrack to driving in Los Angeles is made complicated by its ceaseless traffic, as music too fast or too slow always seems to be laughing at you, the mere mortal stuck in perpetual gridlock. But during my several months living out West, driving around in a rental car and breaking our no smoking agreement via a fat sack of hydroponics, there was no better carpool passenger than Neil Young’s guitar tone.
Biting and immediate, able to ignite even the slowest of grooves with a scathingly unapologetic sonic primacy, the wails of that Goldtop Gibson he painted black channel all the road rage you want to express, the middle finger you offer as you finally disappear over the horizon line.
I didn’t know then that a traffic jam brought Young his first success in Los Angeles. When Young drove out West from Toronto with fellow Canadian and certified roustabout Bruce Palmer, he’d already cut his teeth playing with Stephen Stills back at Fort William in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He knew Stills had moved out to L.A. from New York first, but had no idea where. And it was a traffic jam that finally brought Buffalo Springfield together.
Stills was driving with Richie Furay in a white van when they got stuck in traffic on Sunset Boulevard. Shooing a fly off his arm, Furay saw in his peripheral a black hearse with Ontario plates traveling in the other direction, and immediately knew who that was. Young’s first hearse, Mort, had shit the bed a few years prior (which was immortalized in “Long May You Run”) but this new hearse, Mort II, kept Young making an entrance in style. He and Palmer were actually on their way to San Francisco when Stills and Furay found them. And it’s a good thing they did, or Buffalo Springfield might never have existed.
“They were going that way and we were going this way,” Bruce Palmer told Young biographer Jimmy McDonough in Shakey. “Karma turned Richie Furay’s head.”
“He’d already been seeing the images in his songs as scenes from a movie.”
If the whole scene of a white van and a black hearse sounds cinematic, what better place for it to go down than Hollywood. Young had long been attracted by Tinsel Town’s power to frame your own story, and the year before he’d direct countless of his own concept projects and concert films under the Nom de Guerre Bernard Shakey, he’d already been seeing the images in his songs as scenes from a movie.
Which is to say, how satisfying of a scene it must have been to see Young grooving on Motown tunes with Bruce Palmer and Rick James, the Superfreak himself, when they performed as The Mynabirds a few years back in Vancouver. “Come and join our band—there’s a Negro lead singer, we do rock ’n’ roll and hey, who cares that you play a 12-string and sing like a fag?” Young claims Palmer told him after they ran into each other in the street years earlier. All of these men came together by happenstance, doesn’t that seem almost romantic now? You can’t make this shit up.
L.A. was the perfect time and place for Buffalo Springfield to form in February ’66, so named because they saw it branded on the side of a steamroller outside their apartment on Fountain Avenue. “For a city so derided, usually by Californian rival San Francisco, for being ‘plastic,’ it is ironic that folk was its fortune,” writes Mat Snow on Young fansite Thrasher’s Wheat. “LA had not only those Dylan-endorsed hitmakers The Byrds, but also the icons of new bohemian hipsterism Sonny & Cher. With year-round sunshine to nurture the muse, and LSD still not yet illegal, even those candy-striped squares The Beach Boys had grown their hair and got hip.”
By the time Buffalo Springfield has released that first album in 1966, they had very much fallen into that scene.
Young picked up the love of British Invasion music from his time in Winnipeg, and though he was by no means a mod, that played well when it came to writing songs with the rest of the band. The great Acid Tests went down in San Francisco that prior November, and bands like The Charlatans, who lived on a ranch outside of San Fransisco, were already doing the jug band thing. Hence, the folk-rock scene in L.A. was pop music’s way of preserving the music of the kids.
Buffalo Springfield was released 50 years ago this week on December 5, 1966, and so much of it now seems like a time and place. But there are moments of contrarian loneliness and ugliness on the album, too, courtesy of Uncle Neil, when the seeds of headiness were planted. After all, it was Ken Kesey who said that you see your whole life play out as one big movie before you die, an idea Neil would later use as compositional bedrock on 1974’s flawless On the Beach.
Listening to Buffalo Springfield now still proves a startling listen, though, as you can hear the sounds of its talents trying to find their voice. Stills’ classic “For What It’s Worth” would go on to soundtrack many a scene from the Vietnam War, playing in lockstep to the shuffle of young men trudging through some swamp on their way to die, but he never wrote the tune as a comment on war.
Rather, the song depicted an incident when a curfew was enacted in a futile effort to get the hippie kids off of Sunset, where they congregated by a club called Pandora’s Box. The hippies protested, and the cops brought out their nightsticks. Stills simply saw this incident for what it was—rock ‘n’ roll, the music that belongs to kids wherever they choose to rebel against their square parents.
But he’d also just returned from Nicaragua, and wanted to document how much of a uniquely American scene was going down. “All the kids on one side of the street, all the cops on the other side—in Latin America that meant there’d be a new government in about a week,” he said. Young’s lead guitar cuts through all of it, of course, the perfect final string between order and chaos.
Meanwhile, Young’s contributions to the album never made the charts, but they were nonetheless cinematic. “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” is a comedown of a tune, conspicuously placed on a record of love songs and country roads. Clancy is Ross “Clancy” Smith, a child who went to high school with Young back in Winnipeg, sang “Valerie Velara” in the hallway, and suffered with Multiple Sclerosis.
“Many have said that Young can hear how many volts are coming out of an amplifier.”
“Many people I know tell me they don’t understand ‘Clancy,’ ” Young told an LA reporter in ’67. “They can’t figure out all the symbols and stuff. Well, I don’t think it’s possible at all for them to know who he really is. For listeners, Clancy is just an image, a guy who gets comedown all the time.”
Speaking with McDonough for Shakey, Young broke it down even more—”The song is not meant for them to think about me, the song is meant for them to think about themselves.”
That’s the mentality of self-improvement that propelled Young, Stills, Furay and Palmer to keep getting better. Young famously hated the sound of all Buffalo Springfield recordings, which improved drastically over the two other albums, but he was always trying to learn more and more about recording and production to rectify it. You could surmise that Young’s years-long tirade on low-fidelity digital music was first borne when he heard this Buffalo Springfield record. After all, many have said that Young can hear how many volts are coming out of an amplifier.
McDonough also points out that “Clancy” was the first example of the cinematic ear that Young had for songwriting—”a landmark for Neil Young, one of the first major works in which he blends opposed realities in the same peculiar way that would become a characteristic of his more abstract songs,” he writes. “Young cuts up time and place in a way not unlike the films of Nicolas Roeg or the writing of William Burroughs, but their methods are perhaps not as powerfully primitive or emotional as Young’s. In Young’s hands, it is not an intellectual exercise, and there is a naïve, almost preposterous beauty to many of his cut-up songs.”
That fragmentation also became a clever way for Young to take a contrarian approach to the hedonism of the ’60s, something no one else was really doing at the time. “Flying on the Ground is Wrong” and “Burned” both allude to submission and comedowns from bad trips, but they also reference Young’s first bout of epilepsy.
“He and Bruce Palmer were stoned, standing in a small crowd watching a man demonstrating a Vegematic kitchen slicer when Neil collapsed,” writes Snow on Thrasher’s Wheat. “He was having his first epileptic fit, a condition whose medical treatment only enhanced his moody and intense personality: simultaneous (such were the times) self-medication of dope, speed and acid didn’t help.”
It’s fascinating to put the power of imagery in perspective, especially in these songs. Like “For What It’s Worth”, which would subsequently be liberated from its true origins and serve as the de-facto Vietnam tune, Young was writing about personal experiences. It’s a testament to the clarity of their visions, then, that so many other ears were able to extrapolate their own meaning from the words. “The way I do things is I give enough facts for people to get a feeling,” Young told McDonough.
And as those meanings continued to deviate from the images their authors saw, Young started realizing that L.A. was a bigger plastic hassle than he’d anticipated. Penultimate track “Out of My Mind” gets left out of the discussion of Young’s great early contributions, but it shouldn’t—unlike his other contributions to the record, his lead vocal dominates the overdubbed harmonies, and his ability to astutely describe the ugliness of high vibe Tinseltown hits you from nowhere: “All I hear are screams from outside the limousines/That are taking me/Out of my mind”
This was the self-described loner, the quiet kid carrying snapping turtles he’d caught back home in Ontario through the center of town in his toy wagon, already operating as a charmingly brooding misanthrope who knew the value of distancing himself from the herd. That he made it in L.A. at all now seems unfathomable. But those were different times.
Buffalo Springfield had already broken up by the time their third album, Last Time Around, was released in July ’68. Bruce Palmer’s drug use was getting out of control, and after countless arrests, he’d been deported back to Canada. But it was one bust in particular, when the band was jamming with Eric Clapton at the home of Stephen Stills’ then-girlfriend in Topanga Canyon, that unraveled them. “They were partying…the Marshall amps were stacked,” friend Linda Stevens told McDonough in Shakey. “Clapton and Stephen were playing so loud, the mountains were ringing. One of the neighbors didn’t think it was so cool.”
“Singing about the images of bad trips in your mind is one thing, but once they’ve come true it’s a whole other ballgame. “
Stills and Young would go on to make the mountains ring many more times over, of course, while Furay eventually became a preacher. Palmer lived in Topanga Canyon through the end of his life, until he died of a heart attack in 2004. When McDonough went out there, “in the wilds of Topanga Canyon outside some woebegone hippie house, past its prime and oozing that Manson vibe” to interview Palmer for his book in the late ’90s, and Palmer tried to hit him up for money first.
By the ’70s, when Laurel and Topanga Canyons were filled with singers and songwriters posturing a bucolic life in a glorified city suburb, Young wasn’t buying it. “I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, but I hate them worse than lepers, and I’ll kill them in their cars,” he sang in “Revolution Blues.”
But it’s still not clear who, or what killed The Buffalo Springfield. The easiest answer is Young, who famously abandons projects with little notice when they cease to remain interesting to him. Such was surely the case when he broke up the band the first time before their Tonight Show appearance, or with the ill-fated Buffalo Springfield reunion of 2012, which was slated to be a 30-day tour before Young bailed to reform Crazy Horse after the band only played seven shows.
But in an interview with Rolling Stone, Stills said that was nothing to hold against Young, as it was always his M.O. “I can’t be unkind about it,” he said. “Working with Neil is a privilege, not a right.”
Maybe Palmer killed Buffalo Springfield, with his enabling decadence and gratuitous drug use. But nobody’s hands were totally clean. So if there’s an answer at all as to what killed Buffalo Springfield, the answer has got to be the ’60s. They were a time and place. Young had left Canada because he didn’t see the point in making it big somewhere that didn’t matter. And by the end of the ’60s, you get the idea he was starting to feel that way about L.A., too.
Singing about the images of bad trips in your mind is one thing, but once they’ve come true it’s a whole other ballgame. “I just see pictures,” he’d tell a reporter years later. “I just see pictures in my eyes.” To see the pictures of your life flash before your eyes and live to tell about it is no small feat, but to do it with friends is even bigger. Some things aren’t meant to last, while others last longer than the people who make them.