The Byrds were the very first folk-rock band
flight, and the one that achieved the greatest fame, but to many
In the literature chronicling the 1960s music scene, few stories are repeated more frequently than the legend surrounding the formation of what would later be regarded as perhaps the first ‘supergroup.’ All such accounts unquestioningly retell the story as though it were the gospel truth, seemingly oblivious to the improbability of virtually every aspect of the legend. And curiously, virtually every version of the story contains some form of the word “serendipity,” as though everyone has been copying off the same kid’s homework.
As the story goes, Stephen Stills and Richie
formerly of the Au Go-Go Singers, had recently transplanted themselves
Meanwhile, up in Toronto, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer were playing in a band known as the Mynah Birds – a band fronted by an AWOL Navy man known as Ricky James Matthews, who would later morph into funkmeister/torturer/rapist Rick James, but whose real name was James Ambrose Johnson, Jr.. The Mynah Birds broke up in March of 1965, just after authorities came calling on Matthews and tossed him in the Brooklyn Brig. Now in search of a new band, Young made the curious decision to head out to LA, for no better reason than that he had what Palmer described as “a hunch, a feeling that … Stephen Stills was in LA.”
Of course, Young had no clue if Stills was in
nor did he know anyone else in LA. And you would think that he would
realized that, even if Stills was there, there was virtually no chance
finding some random person in a city of millions, especially when the
doing the searching had no idea how to get around the city. But no
had a calling, so he jumped into an old hearse, of all things,
to ride shotgun, and the two set off on the lengthy trek to
They arrived, the legend tells us, on April 1,
April Fool’s Day, appropriately enough – and began the search for
Several days of searching yielded no results, however, and on the
April 6, the frustrated pair decided to head off to
But as fate would have it, just as they were
to head out of town, Stephen Stills found them. As Barney
the story in his Hotel California, “Early in April 1966, Stills
Richie Furay were stuck in a Sunset Strip traffic jam in Barry
Bentley. As they sat in the car, Stephen spotted a 1953
The pair had actually driven out from
Anyone who actually lives and drives in LA likely knows that “difficult” is not really the word to describe the feasibility of making an impromptu U-turn in rush hour traffic on the Sunset Strip; the correct word would be “impossible,” which is the same word that accurately describes the likelihood of that van “maneuvering its way through the line of northbound cars,” or of it finding “curb space” on Sunset Boulevard. But let’s just play along and assume that Neil Young and Stephen Stills, each of whom, for some reason, had been dreaming about forming a band with the other, had a random, chance encounter on Sunset Boulevard. In that brief moment in time, a band was formed – or at least 4/5 of a band.
Retiring to the home of Barry Friedman, who
later legally change his name to Frazier Mohawk, the quartet of
quickly decided that their newly-formed band would only perform
material. With no less than three singer/songwriter/guitarists on board
Young and Stills), along with a bass player (Bruce Palmer), all that
was a drummer. Three days later, on
The Dillards, as it turns out, had just decided to go back to their acoustic bluegrass roots, so they no longer needed a drummer. They also apparently had no further need for a whole bunch of new electric instruments and stacks of amplifiers, so Dewey, according to legend, brought all of that with him. Because the Dillards, you know, were just going to throw it all away anyway. So now, with the stars all properly aligned, the band was not only complete but they each had shiny new electric instruments to play – and it all had magically come together in just 72 hours.
There was still much work to be done, of course. For one thing, they all had to learn to play those shiny new electric instruments. And they all had to learn to play together as a band. And they had to build up a repertoire of original songs. And they had to rehearse and polish those songs. But not to worry; they had, as we’ll see, at least a couple of hours to work on each of those things.
Unlike, say, the Byrds, the members of the Buffalo Springfield were, by all accounts, talented musicians from the outset. Stills and Young were both skilled lead guitarists and songwriters, though Young’s vocals were, to be sure, an acquired taste. Furay was an accomplished rhythm guitarist and songwriter, as well as being the group’s best lead vocalist. Bruce Palmer was a respected bass player who, shockingly, actually had experience playing the instrument. And Dewey Martin, several years older than the rest of the crew, had drummed for such rock and country legends as the Everly Brothers, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, and Carl Perkins.
None of that, however, explains the absurdly
meteoric rise of the Buffalo Springfield. On
A month later, on July 25, the band landed the opening slot on the most anticipated concert of the year – the Rolling Stones show at the Hollywood Bowl, sponsored by local radio station KHJ. The station, by the way, had just been launched the previous year, in May of 1965, just a few weeks after the Byrds had taken the world by storm with the release of Mr. Tambourine Man and sparked a folk-rock revolution. Just as new clubs had magically appeared along the Sunset Strip in anticipation of the about-to-explode music scene, so too did a radio station magically appear to promote those new clubs and the artists filling them. Such things tend to happen, as we know, rather, uhmm, serendipitously.
Three days after the Stones concert at the Bowl, Buffalo Springfield released its first single, the Neil Young-penned Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing, which failed to connect with the record-buying public. Several months later, the band would release what was to be its only hit single, and what would become the most recognizable ‘protest’ song of the 1960s. But before we get to that, let’s start back at the beginning … actually, let’s veer off on a tangent first, and then start back at the beginning.
As was duly noted in the last installment of
series, the law enforcement community had ample opportunity to silence
muses of the 1960s counterculture. That the state consistently chose
utilize that power says much about the legitimacy of that
if these iconic figures posed a demonstrable threat to the status quo,
would they not have been silenced? Why, for example, were three members
Buffalo Springfield – Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina, along
Clapton, Furay’s wife, the band’s road manager, and nine others –
arrested in a
drug bust at a
The state had other means to silence young critics, of course, one of the best being the military draft. As Richie Unterberger noted in Turn! Turn! Turn!, “Most folk rockers (if they were male), like their audience, were of draft age.” But curiously enough, “Very, very few had their careers interrupted by the draft.” Actually, Unterberger appears to just be playing it safe with the “very, very few” wording; after reading through both of Unterberger’s books and numerous other tomes covering similar ground, I have yet to read about any folk rocker whose career was affected by the draft in the 1960s.
What you will find in the literature are
mentions of various people receiving their draft notices, but those are
invariably followed by amusing anecdotes about how said people beat the
board by pretending to be gay or crazy. Of course, if it were really
to fool the draft board, then Uncle Sam probably wouldn’t have been
come up with all those bodies to send over to
Hundreds of thousands of young men from all
the country were swept up and fed into the war machine, but not one of
musical icons of the
Not likely. The reality is that ‘The
as it was known in those days, had the power to prevent the musical
the 1960s from ever becoming the megastars that they became.
The state, aka
A real grass-roots cultural revolution would probably have involved a bunch of starving musicians barely scratching out a living playing tiny coffee shops in the hopes of maybe someday landing a record deal with some tiny, local independent label and then, just maybe, if they got really lucky, getting a little airplay on some obscure college radio stations. But that’s not how the ‘60s folk-rock ‘revolution’ played out. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
As Unterberger duly notes in his expansive, two-volume review of the folk-rock movement, “much folk-rock was recorded and issued by huge corporations, and broadcast over radio and television stations owned for the most part by the same or similar pillars of the establishment.” Right from the start, in fact, it was the largest record labels leading the folk-rock charge. The very first of the folk-rock bands, the Byrds, signed with Columbia Records – whose name, in case you were wondering, is derived from a little place known as the District of Columbia, where the label was founded and headquartered some 120 years ago.
From about the age of twelve, Ahmet grew up
DC’s Embassy Row, attending elite private schools with the sons and
of senators, congressmen, and spooks. In 1947, three years after his
died, Ertegun founded Atlantic Records. At first, the label was home to
and R&B artists, including Ray Charles, the company’s first big
the late 1950s, Ertegun took on his first assistant: a guy by the name
Spector, who, rumor has it, was recently convicted of blowing a hole in
It would appear then that the two record labels that signed and launched Laurel Canyon’s first two folk-rock bands were not only major record labels, they also just happened to be corporate entities that had deep ties to the nation’s capitol and power center.
It was the major record labels, not upstart
independents, that signed
Unterberger notes that “AM radio (and sometimes
network television) would act as a primary conduit for this
expression.” Conservative, corporate-controlled AM stations across the
almost immediately began giving serious airplay to the new sounds
coming out of
The boys in the Buffalo Springfield, for example, managed to find themselves appearing as guests on an impressive array of network television shows, including American Bandstand, The Smothers Brothers Show, Shebang, the Della Reese Show, the Go Show, the Andy Williams Show, Hollywood Palace, Where the Action Is, Joey Bishop’s late night show, and a local program known as Boss City. They also made guest appearances, curiously enough, on primetime hits like Mannix and The Girl From Uncle.
The print media did its part as well to raise awareness of the new music/countercultural scene. In September 1965, the nation’s premier newsweeklies, Time and Newsweek, “ran virtually simultaneous stories on the folk-rock craze,” just months after the first folk-rock release, the Byrd’s Mr. Tambourine Man, had climbed to the top of the charts. The country’s biggest daily newspapers chimed in as well, providing an inordinate amount of coverage of the emerging scene. By the end of 1967, the movement had its very own publication, Rolling Stone magazine. Initially designed to look as though it were a product of the underground press, it was, without question, very much a corporate mouthpiece.
Another avenue of the print media provided the scene with considerable exposure as well; as Einarson notes, many of the Laurel Canyon stars, particularly members of the Buffalo Springfield and the Monkees, were “the darlings of the California teen magazines,” including Teenset, Teen Screen, and Tiger Beat.
As the story is usually told, the 1960s countercultural movement posed a rather serious threat to the status quo. But if that were truly the case, then why was it the “pillars of the establishment,” to use Unterberger’s words, that launched the movement to begin with? Why was it ‘the man’ that signed and recorded these artists? And that heavily promoted them on the radio, on television, and in print? And that set them up with their very own radio station and their very own publication? And insured that new clubs sprung up like mushrooms along Sunset Boulevard so that all the new bands would have venues to play?
There are some readers, no doubt, who will
this was simply a case of corporate
The question that is begged by that explanation, however, is why, after it had become abundantly clear that a monster had allegedly been created, was nothing done to stop the growth of that monster? Why did the state not utilize its law enforcement and criminal justice powers to silence some of the most prominent countercultural voices? And why did the draft board – in every known case, without exception – allow those same voices to skip out on their military service?
It’s not as if the state would have had to resort to heavy-handed measures to silence these allegedly troublesome voices. Being that the vast majority of them were draft-age males who were openly using and/or advocating the use of illegal substances, they were practically begging for the powers-that-be to take action. And yet that never happened.
And now, while you ponder all of that, I’ll
back around and tell the Buffalo Springfield story from the beginning,
in 1945 when Stephen Arthur Stills was born to William and Talitha
John Einarson recounts in For What It’s Worth, Stephen’s “roots
firmly planted in Southern soil. His family traces its history back to
plantations of the rural antebellum South. After the Union armies laid
much of the Southern farm economy, the family relocated to
Einarson describes William Stills as “somewhat
soldier of fortune, an engineer, builder, and dreamer who frequently
the family to follow his dreams and schemes.” That is, I suppose, as
definition as any for what he actually appears to have been: a military
intelligence operative who was frequently on assignment in
At a fairly young age, he attended the
According to Einarson, “An unfortunate
the administration at his
By the summer of 1964, he had drifted to
In July 1964, Stills found work as one of the
members of the Au Go-Go Singers, the newly-formed house band for
By November 1964, the Au Go-Go Singers
an album out. But trouble soon arose, due primarily to the fact that
was under contract to Morris Levy, a known organized-crime figure who
soon be indicted on an array of criminal charges. The band soon broke
Furay headed off to
Stephen Stills, meanwhile, hung out in
Richie Furay apparently soon found himself
Stills but didn’t know how to reach his former bandmate, so he sent a
Stills’ dad in
Meanwhile, up in
As Einarson recounts, “Neil Young and Stephen Stills had more in common than music. Both had grown up in transient families, Neil’s journalist father Scott uprooting his mother Edna ‘Rassy,’ Neil, and older brother Bob several times during Neil’s first 15 years.” Novelists, I’m guessing, need to move around a lot.
Just after his seventeenth birthday, Neil
first band, the Squires, and began playing local gigs. It was during
early years, according to legend, that Young and Stills first briefly
paths up in
The Mynah Birds, by the way, also at one time
featured Nick St. Nicholas and Goldie McJohn, both of whom defected to
local band known as the Sparrows. The Sparrows, after a lead singer
replacement, would morph into Steppenwolf. And Steppenwolf, like the
spawned by the Mynah Birds, would migrate to – guess where? –
To be continued in Part XVI …