Buffalo Springfield – Retrospective: The Best of Buffalo Springfield – Classic Music Review
My father has been pushing me to do more American music, especially from his salad days. In exchange for his guest post, I’m letting him have Buffalo Springfield, which I know is cheating. Buffalo Springfield wasn’t really an American band, since they permitted entry to Canadians. The truth is that I’m not especially motivated to do much with American bands from that era. Or any era, for that matter.
I don’t think there have been any American rock bands who come close to approaching the British in terms of quality or consistency. The San Francisco Sound was a passing fad, and the bands from that era either didn’t last or lasted way too long in cult status like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson
Airplane Starship. The most successful American band from that era was Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band I’ve always considered a fraud, since there ain’t no riverboats, bayous or fishin’ holes where John Fogerty grew up, in a dreary Bay Area burb called El Cerrito. The Byrds could never could never quite escape their status as a Bob Dylan cover band and finally went more country-western thanks to Gram Parsons. Promising bands like The Doors self-destructed, much like Nirvana did in my teens. American music in the intervening decades was dominated by Springsteen, a musician who defines the phrase “predictable and boring,” and the loud and obnoxious Aerosmith, Metallica, Ted Nugent and Kid Rock. Some of my high school mates were into R. E. M.; I found them rather predictable and their unusual song titles gimmicky.
I have many theories about why I feel this way. The only American roots music I care for is blues. Blues led to jazz, R&B, soul and rock ‘n’ roll, the genres where I spend most of my time, so there is a consistency to my tastes. I find most American folk music as predictable and boring as Springsteen, and compared to the melodic, rhythmic and lyrical quality of British folk music, it’s pathetic (though I am fond of Woody Guthrie’s more socialist numbers). I really dislike white roots music like bluegrass, and I’m less than fond of country music in general. I like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash, period, end of discussion.
That’s one clue. When American bands start to go too country on me, I check out. The Byrds did that, and to a lesser extent, so did Buffalo Springfield. Country music is inherently conservative and hasn’t progressed in sixty years. It’s now louder and more electric but it’s the same old chord structures and motifs. The “alt-country” movement hasn’t moved that needle, for though Neko Case’s lyrics may be more interesting, the underlying musical structure is same-o, same-o. When a rock band goes country, it’s a sign they’re getting lazy and comfortable with the old routines.
This aversion to country has nothing to do with my admitted aversion to things associated with the Deep South, like grits, fried everything and born-again Republicans. I love Lynyrd Skynyrd. I love Sonny Landreth. I love The Allman Brothers. Let’s just say that I have certain preferences when it comes to music and more than a few exceptions to those preferences . . . and get on with the review.
Buffalo Springfield didn’t leave behind much of a catalog to explore, and to say they were a band is a generous application of the word. They lasted two years and produced a grand total of three studio albums, but only the first was a truly collaborative work. The second album, Buffalo Springfield Rides Again, was more like Abbey Road or The White Album—collections of individual works with minimal collaboration. The third was cobbled together by Richie Furay and Jim Messina from tracks gathering dust in the studio, for by that time, the parts had gone their separate ways. Given such a meager catalog, it’s hard to buy my dad’s insistence that Buffalo Springfield ranks with the all-time greats. I think it’s more accurate to say that Buffalo Springfield was a vehicle that allowed Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay to get their feet wet before moving on to other things, and in the process, produced a few great songs.
“For What It’s Worth”: There were certain songs from the 60’s that deserve the label “iconic,” and this is one of them. Written in response to the relatively minor social disturbance known as the Sunset Strip Riots, the song was so prescient of the heavier shit that came down later that some people who should have known better associated the song with the anti-war protests and even the Kent State shootings that occurred over three years later (you wouldn’t believe some of the weird assertions I found in my research). Like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” the song grabs your attention on the first sound; here it’s that clear high note on the guitar that pulls you in, proving once again that simple can be stunning. For a relative novice at the songwriting craft, Stephen Stills nailed this one, identifying the major divisions that would tear the United States apart over the following years, a division driven by irrational, unthinking fear. His understated vocal is absolutely perfect, conveying both deep concern and his own feeling of uneasiness that things are about to spin out of control. The simplicity of the arrangement helps heighten the message, but there is enough variation through guitar fills and background vocals to forestall dreariness.
“Mr. Soul”: The producers of their first album didn’t allow Neil Young too many vocals because they thought his voice was too weird. It’s certainly an unusual voice, but so is Bob Dylan’s, and Dylan’s voice wasn’t hurting him with the public at that time. I’d describe Neil Young’s voice as compelling, but whether that’s because of the vocal timbre or the fact that Neil Young nearly always has something interesting to say is a jump ball. He claims it only took five minutes to write this song, and if true, he’s one of the most natural poets in rock history. The music isn’t half as interesting as the lyrics, which feature an internal rhyme on every line (thought-caught, trace-face, down-frown, raised-praise). Young’s cynicism concerning the notion of rock ‘n’ roll stardom comes through in the delightfully contrary second verse:
I was down on a frown when the messenger brought me a letter
I was raised by the praise of a fan who said I upset her
Any girl in the world could have easily known me better
She said, “You’re strange, but don’t change,” and I let her
I also love the seriously hot lead guitar licks in a variety of tones appearing in different spots in the stereo field and Bruce Palmer’s throbbing bass. As for Neil’s vocal, I like his natural voice better than the falsetto he used on many of his solo efforts.
“Sit Down I Think I Love You”: In contrast to the popular but very flowery Mojo Men version, Buffalo Springfield’s original is an odd combination of British Invasion and American country with awkward phrasing that sounds like Stills and company had a hard time remembering the words. The fuzz tone guitar solo is awful; the complementary clean tone solo fits much better with the general feel of the song.
“Kind Woman”: This Richie Furay song reveals his urges for that country honky-tonk feel that he would bring to Poco, a band I loathe as much as their progeny, Loggins & Messina. Bo-ring. Waiting for this song to end so I could get to the next one caused the kind of mindless anxiety I experience when sitting in an endless business meeting, where I feel constant urges to throw heavy objects at all the fucking people who are wasting my time.
“Bluebird”: Ah, that’s better. Stephen Stills wrote some pretty damned good songs in his youth, making me wish he would have shown a bit more judgment and avoided hooking up with Crosby and Nash. After writing a great protest song, he gives us “Bluebird,” a unique and wonderful tune with some of the most striking and energetic guitar work from that era, from the killer opening riff to the long (even longer when played live) guitar passage at the song’s core. The unusual rhythm in the verses is achieved through a combination of no-nonsense drum bashing from Dewey Martin and a bass line that follows Stephen Stills’ melody rather than the core beat. The acoustic flashes are frigging hot and the counterpoint guitar on the bridge is exquisite. The long acoustic-picking passage is sheer delight and a very impressive display of fingerboard control. “Bluebird” is really more of a suite than a standard rock song, and holds a unique place in music history as the only song featuring a banjo that I can actually stand—in fact, I love the honest beauty of the quiet closing verse as much as anything else in the song. Bravo!
“On the Way Home”: Richie Furay takes the lead vocal on this Neil Young composition, which features a beautiful, flowing melody over a soul music foundation that you hear in the rhythm, background vocals, use of horns and a touch of strings. The lyrics are excellent, an exploration of the confused feelings and fragile identity that often arise when we begin to explore intimate relationships. Neil Young showed signs of brilliance even at this stage, and the line “I went insane/Like a smoke ring day when the wind blows” is a vivid use of simile. The acoustic guitar splashes in this song are strikingly beautiful and again demonstrate the band’s strength with fills. Sorry to gush, but I find this song incredibly moving. I’m a certified sucker for honest expressions of vulnerability.
“Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing”: Stunningly, this was Buffalo Springfield’s first single. That’s what I call ballsy! They must have had more faith in the American listening public than I’ve ever had, but sadly, their faith was unrewarded and the single bombed. Let’s see—we’re talking about a song with changing tempos, changing time signatures and lyrics that open with “Who’s that stomping all over my face?” Sounds like a hit to me! Richie Furay sings what he called a “quirky” song with strong harmonic support from Stephen Stills, but the writing credit goes to the quirky Neil Young, and he deserves a lot of credit. This is a song about a man out of touch with his sources of inspiration, the singer who has lost his voice, the frustration of the artist at being unable (temporarily) to express himself (“Who’s putting sponge in the bells I once rung?”). The lost muse imagery of the line, “And taking my gypsy before she’s begun,” is a set-up for the conflict between the free spirit, unbound by convention, living in a world with vastly different expectations, “hung up on that happiness thing.” I think “Clancy” is a brilliant piece of work, but there was no way in hell it was destined to be a hit. [Sigh ] . . . I’d love to live in a world where a song like this shot to the top.
“Broken Arrow”: Using a structure that juxtaposes snippets of social reality with a motif of broken dreams and promises within the archetypal context of White America’s history of betrayal of Native Americans, Neil Young produced one of the most poetically satisfying songs of the 1960’s. The first section opens with a “live” snippet from “Mr. Soul” that is actually sung by drummer Dewey Martin and uses the screams from a Beatles concert. It fades into the first verse, where the first broken dream or promise is the belief that one can find happiness through fame; what awaits is instead separation from humanity and the madness of adulation:
The lights turned on and the curtain fell down
And when it was over it felt like a dream
They stood at the stage door and begged for a scream
The agents had paid for the black limousine
That waited outside in the rain
Did you see them, did you see them?
The second broken promise—the American Dream itself—is preceded by a booing crowd and a dissonant fragment from “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” As depicted by Neil Young, the American Dream is eighteen years of programming and sexual denial (“His mother had told him a trip was a fall/And don’t mention babies at all”). The last broken dream follows a series of military drum rolls and seems the most obscure and contradictory, describing a wedding parade where the queen wears white gloves, but the procession carries a black-covered caisson, implying a funeral rather than a wedding. Given the timing of the song and the timbre of the military snare drum that precedes the verse, my interpretation is that this passage describes the promise of the Kennedy ascension and the shattering of the dream through assassination. Jackie wore white gloves with her pink outfit, and the “black covered caisson” could refer to the presidential limousine. In this context, the first lines of the repeated chorus have more poignancy, and give the dual symbolism of the river as a dividing line and the flow of life and death more impact:
Did you see them in the river?
They were there to wave to you
Could you tell that the empty-quivered,
Brown-skinned Indian on the banks
That were crowded and narrow
Held a broken arrow?
The jazz combo fade led by clarinet seems trivial in context, but it is followed by the sound of the heartbeat, creating an ironic version of “la, la how the life goes on.”
Neil Young had written “Broken Arrow” after breaking up with the group, saying he needed more space. He then returned to the group to record the song. I’m glad he did, and all 100-plus hours of recording time were worth it. Neil Young has remarkable ability to communicate tragic and unacceptable realities to people who don’t want to hear them, but when he’s really on he also expresses a kind of sadness that says, “Hey, I don’t want to have to sing about this,” which gives him more credibility as a social critic. “Broken Arrow” is a brilliant piece, one of the most substantial pieces to come out of the 60’s.
“Rock and Roll Woman”: Stephen Stills was also a pretty hot songwriter before he fell in with the evil Crosby and Nash and wrote absolute crapola like “helplessly hoping her harlequin hovers nearby.” In comparison to Neil Young, who is a gifted, all-purpose poet, Stills’ best work is that of a lyric poet like Hopkins or Shelley, focusing on first-person emotional experiences:
‘Neath the shadow of a soothing hand
I am free there, just to make my plans
Dream of far away lands, anything close at hand
The musical achievement here is to turn a major-seventh chord into a rock and roll chord with credibility. Major sevenths are the bane of my musical existence, as they’re sappy and incomplete when used as the lead chord for a song (think “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”). Here Stills uses an Fmaj7-D7 combination in the opening lines and keeps the Fmaj7 as the root throughout the song, giving it a romantic tension that works well in this fascinating relationship he has with a woman who is “just hard to find.” The vocal arrangement and harmonies here are outstanding, and the up-tempo musical interlude a nice break from the dominant pattern.
“I Am a Child”: Although the chord pattern is interesting, there’s too much bluegrass-country feel here in the guitar pickin’ and harmonica for me to get into this song. Neil Young’s lyrics aren’t particularly interesting either. Hey, you can’t knock it out of the park every time you go to bat!
“Go and Say Goodbye”: Ditto for “Go and Say Goodbye”. Stills should have given this as a going away present to Richie Furay for use in Poco. The music’s a bit too cheery for a message to a friend who’s having a hard time telling his future-ex goodbye to her face.
“Expecting to Fly”: Entirely written and performed by Neil Young, this is a dreary song with a Pet Sounds feel and overwrought arrangement that simply does not work.
It’s not surprising that after two years and three albums that a band is going to have a hard time filling up a greatest hits collection, but on the flip side, few bands have recorded as many truly great songs in such a brief snatch of time. I think with more collaboration and commitment to a musical vision, Buffalo Springfield coulda been a contendah for one of the all-time great bands, but when you compare their meager amount of quality work to The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, Jethro Tull and even the short-lived Cream, you can see how they fell short. They certainly had the talent to do it, but apparently things just didn’t work out. Stephen Stills gave the best explanation I could find for their early demise:
We were of the age where you can very easily get the diva syndrome before you’ve sold any records or anything and all that stuff, and there was a little of that. And it was so laden with talent, this bunch, that we just hit the track going too fast that we went into the wall with no skid marks. It was just . . . we spun out. But we spun out because we didn’t realize how hot the car was.