For What It’s Worth: Buffalo Springfield’s Song Isn’t About Vietnam

“There’s somethin’ happenin’ here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

That’s right: It wasn’t exactly clear what Stephen Stills, then in Buffalo Springfield, wrote about and sang in 1966. Many mistakenly thought it was an anti-Vietnam War protest song. And the soundtrack to Forrest Gump – while amazing – only reinforced that perception. The truth behind the song For What It’s Worth has nothing to do with Vietnam but everything to do with protests.

a crowd of young people protesting in front of Pandora’s Box club / Stephen Stills and David Crosby singing together to the same microphone / A close up of Neil Young

Source: Pinterest / Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal, Shutterstock / Richard Young, Shutterstock

One evening in November 1966, Stills was on his way to Hollywood to hear some live music on the Sunset Strip. What occurred was a defining moment in rock and roll, as what he encountered inspired him to write a song that would be loved – and misinterpreted – by many. This is the story of the song and the history behind the Sunset Strip riots.

The Sunset Strip

As Stills was heading towards Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, he stumbled upon a rally, in which hundreds, even thousands, of young people were protesting a new curfew and the looming closing of a club called Pandora’s Box. By the mid-‘60s, the Strip was dominated by young hippies of the rock and roll counterculture movement.

A crowd of young people protesting and holding signs

The Sunset Strip curfew riots 1966. Source: Los Angeles Times

But, as it typically went with hippies, there were both good and bad things. While they brought many artistic initiatives to the area, they also brought with them alcohol and drug abuse, as well as the disturbance of traffic. In 1966, the city came up with a way to limit the growing nuisance.

10:00 P.M. Curfew

What they did was target the Strip’s most prominent rock club, the Whisky a Go Go. The managers were forced to change its name to the Whisk . To make matters worse, the annoyed residents and business owners in the area endorsed the passage of a strict (10:00 p.m.) curfew in addition to loitering laws that would reduce the crowds of young clubbers.

A crowd of people walking down the street in front of the club Whisky a Go Go

Source: Pinterest

The hippies and local music fans weren’t happy. For them, this was an infringement on their civil rights. Their reaction: protests. On November 12, 1966, people distributed fliers along the Strip, inviting people to protest later that day. The initiators likely didn’t anticipate what would happen…

America in Danger

Hours before the protest, an L.A. rock and roll radio station announced that there was going to be a rally at Pandora’s Box, another club that faced forced closure at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights. The radio announcer warned people to tread carefully. That evening, over 1,000 protesters, including Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda (who was later handcuffed by police), took to the streets.

Young people standing in front of the nightclub Pandora’s Box

The Pandora’s Box Nightclub 1966. Source: Pinterest

Stills said in a 1971 interview that “A bunch of kids got together on a street corner and said we aren’t moving. About three busloads of Los Angeles police showed up, who looked very much like storm troopers. And I looked at it and said, ‘Jesus, America is in great danger.’”

The Tide Was Turning

The protests didn’t stop the next day or the next. They continued on and off throughout November and December of 1966. Meanwhile, the city decided to get tough and withdrew the “youth permits” for 12 of the Strip’s clubs, which meant that they would now be off-limits to anybody under the age of 21.

A crowd of young people and among them Sonny and Cher protesting and holding signs

Sonny and Cher protesting during the Sunset Strip curfew riots 1966. Photo by Everett/Shutterstock

In November 1966, the Los Angeles City Council voted to demolish Pandora’s Box (which took place in August of 1967). According to Timeline’s Matt Reimann, the Strip’s riots occurred in the wake of a cultural rift that only grew larger in the following years. Bob Gibson, the manager of the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas, reflected: “If you had to put your finger on an event that was a barometer of the tide turning, it would probably be the Sunset Strip riots.”

Their Only Hit

Within weeks of the first night that Stills encountered the riots, he wrote – and Buffalo Springfield recorded – the song For What It’s Worth, which would become the band’s only major hit. With Stills’ spooked voice, Dewey Martin’s gloomy snare drum, and Neil Young’s two-note guitar that sounds like a warning bell, a hit was born.

The members of The Buffalo Springfield band sitting in a field, one of them feeding a goat

The Buffalo Springfield. Photo by Mediapunch/Shutterstock

The track peaked at number seven in the spring of 1967. What was striking about it was the eerie sound. It captured the uneasy mood of the movement underway, beyond Los Angeles to Vietnam. Lyrics about “a man with a gun over there” and “young people speaking their minds” were the voice of the rock counterculture.

Police, Guns, and Paranoia

For What It’s Worth transcended its particular origin story and entered the realm of pop’s most-covered protest songs. The song’s references to police, guns, and paranoia are ultimately evergreen and, to this day, remain relevant. The song has been covered many times, beginning already in 1967, with The Staple Singers.

The members of the band Staple Singers standing together hugging and smiling

The Staple Singers. Photo by Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

Since then, it’s been covered by Ozzy Osbourne, Lucinda Williams, Kid Rock, Rush, Led Zeppelin, and even Public Enemy, who sampled it on the 1996 track He Got Game. According to BMI, the song’s publishing house, it’s been played eight million times on TV and radio since its initial release. In 2014, it sat at number three on Rolling Stone‘s readers’ poll of the best protest songs.

He Wrote It in 15 Minutes

On the night of November 12th, after the radio station announced the protest at Pandora’s Box, a fight broke out for reasons having apparently had nothing to do with the newly imposed curfew. A car carrying a group of Marines was hit by another vehicle. Egged on, the protesters (who carried signs that read “We’re Your Children! Don’t Destroy Us”) trashed a city bus. They also threw bottles and rocks into store windows.

A policeman arresting a young man during the riots

Youth being searched by police during the crackdown on the Sunset Strip 1966. Source: Pinterest

What Stills saw that night clearly had an impact on him. “It was really four different things intertwined, including the war and the absurdity of what was happening on the Strip,” Stills told The Los Angeles Times. “But I knew I had to skedaddle and headed back to Topanga, where I wrote my song in about 15 minutes.”

For What It’s Worth

You’ve probably noticed that the phrase “for what it’s worth” isn’t anywhere in the song. According to one legend, Stills played the track for one of the group’s managers and prefaced it with, “Let me play you a song, for what it’s worth.” Buffalo Springfield singer/guitarist Richie Furay recalls that he, Stills, and Young played the new track for Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun.

Ahmet Ertegun wearing a tuxedo

Ahmet Ertegun 1997. Photo by Charles Sykes/Shutterstock

According to Furay, Ahmet came to Los Angeles, and they were all at Stills’ house. “At the end of the day, Stephen said, ‘I have another one, for what it’s worth.’” On December 5th, a few weeks after the first riot, Buffalo Springfield went into the studio to record the song in a one-day session.

A Guitar Pick and a Broom

Young credited sound engineer Stan Ross with the song’s near sinister arrangement. “Stan came in and said, ‘You gotta do this one thing to the drum, the snare,’” Young recalled. He then took a broom, a guitar pick, and mixed it to make that sound – “of a guitar pick going through a broom, on the straw. That was it.”

Neil Young playing the guitar

Neil Young, 1970. Photo by ANL/Shutterstock

Stills added later, “Neil came up with the wonderful harmonics part with the vibrato. The combination of the two guitar parts, with my scared little voice, made the record.” Furay admitted that at first, he didn’t hear anything special in the song. At the time, he was “more into the electric work, like Bluebird and Rock & Roll Woman.

A Rushed Release

Furay didn’t hear it, “but Stephen felt the pulse of it, and there you go.” Furay was pretty much the only one since everyone else knew right away that the song was special. The single was thus rush-released with a different title: “(Stop, Hey What’s That Sound) For What It’s Worth,” which was Ahmet Ertegun’s suggestion.

Stephen Stills playing the guitar

Stephen Stills 1970. Photo by ANL/Shutterstock

The song was also added into new releases of the band’s first album, which replaced another Stills original called Baby Don’t Scold Me. When Rush’s Alex Lifeson first heard the song when he was driving in the family car in Toronto, it was a memorable moment. “I clearly remember driving with my dad and wearing blue granny glasses, which I thought were so cool,” he admitted.

Lifeson’s All-Time Favorite Song

“It was a sunny day, and I put the radio on, and [the song] came on. I still recall feeling so moved by that song. It sounded so cool to me, that combination of the acoustic and electric guitars and the lyrics.” During their early days, the band Rush used to jam on the Buffalo Springfield song. “A 10-minute arrangement with a seven-minute guitar solo and a bass solo and then back into the chorus,” Lifeson recalled.

Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee playing the guitar during a concert

Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee 1979. Photo by Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

They later recorded it on their 2004 covers set titled Feedback. He said that it was an important song for all of them. Even when he hears the song now, he gets goosebumps: “I always think of the ride with my dad. It’s one of those really special, magical songs. It may be my favorite song of all time.”

What the Strip Became

There were other, lesser-known, songs that sprang out of the Sunset Strip riots. For instance, there’s Standells’ Riot On Sunset Strip, S.O.S. by Terry Randall, Open Up the Box Pandora by the Jigsaw Seen, and Safe In My Garden by the Mamas and the Papas. Perhaps one of the more interesting ones was Frank Zappa’s Plastic People.

The members of The Mamas and the Papas standing together behind a wall

The Mamas and the Papas. Photo by: Mediapunch/Shutterstock

There was a B-movie, called Riot on Sunset Strip, directed by Arthur Dreifuss, which included footage of the riot, which was released only four months after the original disturbance. Eventually, business interests started profiting from the “peace and love” market. Within a couple of years, the Strip became a mecca for dropouts, druggies, bikers, and exploitative entrepreneurs.

The Birth of Buffalo Springfield

Young and Stills met in 1965 in Thunder Bay, Ontario. At the time, Young was with The Squires, a band from Winnipeg in which he was the front since 1963. Stills was on tour with The Company, a spin-off group out of the Au Go Go Singers. By the end of the tour, Stills’ band had brokne up, so he moved to the West Coast.

Stephen Stills playing the guitar during a concert

Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

There, he worked as a session musician while auditioning unsuccessfully for other bands, including The Monkees. He was then told by record producer Barry Friedman that if he could assemble a band, he would get work. So, Stills invited fellow Au Go Go Singers member Richie Furay and former Squires bass player Ken Koblun to join him. Both agreed until Koblun chose to leave.

Thanks to Rick James

In Toronto in early 1966, Young met Bruce Palmer, a Canadian bass player for The Mynah Birds. They were in need of a lead guitarist, so Palmer invited Young to join the group. The Mynah Birds, who were set to make an album for Motown Records, was led by singer Ricky James Matthews – later known as Rick James.

The Mynah Birds members playing on a stage

The Mynah Birds. Source: Pinterest

James was tracked down and arrested by the U.S. Navy for being AWOL. This meant that the Mynah Birds’ record deal was canceled, and thus Young and Palmer were stuck in a rut. They pawned their musical equipment, bought a 1953 Pontiac hearse, and drove to Los Angeles. They were hoping to meet up with Stephen Stills, whom Young had heard was in the city.

A Chance Encounter on Sunset Blvd.

Being the days before the Internet and cell phones, they searched for almost a week in clubs and coffeehouses, but no sign of Stills. Young and Palmer gave up and decided to leave L.A. and head north to San Francisco. As luck would have it, the two were stuck in traffic on Sunset Boulevard when they were seen by Stills and Furay, who were heading the other way down the same street.

Stephen Stills and Richie Furay singing to the same microphone

Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. Source: Pinterest

Stills and Furay switched lanes and went behind Young’s hearse, after which they pulled off the road and reunited. The Byrds’ manager, Jim Dickson, suggested that drummer Dewey Martin join the group. The band was now formed. But they needed a name…

The Buffalo-Springfield Roller Company

Why did they name themselves Buffalo Springfield? Well, the name was taken from a brand of steamrollers made by the Buffalo-Springfield Roller Company. The newly formed band debuted on April 11, 1966, at The Troubadour in West Hollywood, just days after their chance encounter on Sunset Boulevard.

The Buffalo Springfield members standing together hugging

The Buffalo Springfield 1966. Source: Pinterest

A few days later, they embarked on a short tour of California, opening for The Dillards and The Byrds. The Byrds’ Chris Hillman convinced the owners of the Whisky a Go Go to give Buffalo Springfield a spot on their roster. They became the resident band at the Whisky for seven weeks straight in May and June of 1966.

Deportation, Monterey Festival, and Another Album

Their first single, Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing, was released in August of ‘66, but made hardly any impact outside of L.A. But For What It’s Worth was a Top Ten hit by March 1967. In January 1967, Palmer was deported to Canada for possession of marijuana, and when he returned to the group in June, Young was temporarily absent.

The Buffalo Springfield members sitting and laughing

Source: Pinterest

David Crosby sat in for Young when they played the Monterey Pop Festival. Young returned in August, and the band divided its time between playing gigs and finishing their second album, titled Buffalo Springfield Again. They toured as support for the Beach Boys in early 1968. Palmer was yet again deported for drug possession.

Disturbing the Peace

Jim Messina, the engineer on their second album, was hired as a permanent replacement on the bass. It was around this time that Young started showing up less and less frequently, often leaving Stills to handle lead-guitar parts at concerts. The band was also causing trouble in the eyes of the law.

Stephen Stills and Jim Messina standing one next to each other

Stephen Stills and Jim Messina. Source: Pinterest

In April 1968, they hosted a small rehearsal party, attended by Eric Clapton and others. Despite reportedly playing music at a comfortable sound level, a cop arrived after a complaint of disturbing the peace. The cop smelled marijuana, which led Stills to run next door to “call his lawyers,” but what he was really doing was escaping out the bathroom window.

Calling It a Day

According to Stills, Young said he was going to chase the cops down the street, to which Stills said, “Cause he’s Canadian, and I guess in Canada you can do that.” In the end, Young, Furay, and Messina were arrested and sent to the L.A. County Jail. This one event led to the disbanding of Buffalo Springfield.

The Buffalo Springfield members standing in the snow

Source: Pinterest

After a gig at the Long Beach Arena on May 5, 1968, the band held a meeting to arrange their breakup. While Stills and Furay stayed with Atlantic Records, Young moved to Warner Brothers. Dewey Martin formed a new version of Buffalo Springfield in September that year. They called themselves New Buffalo Springfield, which consisted of guitarists Dave Price, Gary Rowles, bass player Bob Apperson, drummer Don Poncher, and horn player Jim Price.

Was It Young’s Fault?

Many people have blamed Neil Young for “killing” Buffalo Springfield. The truth is the Canadian musician had long been attracted by Hollywood’s power to frame your own story. He had, for a long time, been seeing the images in his songs as scenes from a film. It was always in the cards for him to go solo.

Neil Young preforming and playing the guitar

Neil Young, 1973. Photo by ANL/Shutterstock

Young’s contributions to Buffalo Springfield were cinematic. Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing is a song about Ross “Clancy” Smith, a kid who went to high school with Young in Winnipeg, who sang “Valerie Velara” in the hallway and suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. According to Young, many people “don’t understand” the song and its “symbols and stuff.”

He Hated Their Music

Young famously hated the sound of all the Buffalo Springfield songs, which actually improved drastically over their two other albums. He was always trying to learn more about recording and production. Young also took a different approach to the hedonism of the ‘60s; the songs Flying on the Ground Is Wrong and Burned both allude to the highs and lows from bad trips.

Neil Young sitting in front of a microphone playing the guitar

Photo by Crest Prods/Shakey/Kobal/Shutterstock

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,” wrote Snow on Thrasher’s Wheat. “He was having his first epileptic fit, a condition whose medical treatment only enhanced his moody and intense personality.”

The Loner Kid

Young wrote songs about personal experiences. “The way I do things is I give enough facts for people to get a feeling,” Young once said. He started realizing that L.A. was a bigger hassle than he anticipated. He was the self-described loner who used to be the quiet kid who carried turtles that he caught back home in Ontario in his toy wagon.

A portrait of Neil Young when he was young

Source: CBC/Gary Burden

That he made it in L.A. at all seems a little insane. But things were different back then. Buffalo Springfield broke up by the time their third album, Last Time Around, was released in 1968. Palmer’s drug use was out of control, and he was eventually deported back to Canada.

The End of an Era

But it was that one bust in particular when Stills escaped the cops, that unraveled them. Stills and Young went on in their own separate ways and found success. Furay eventually became a preacher. Palmer came back to California and lived in Topanga Canyon until the end of his life when he died of a heart attack in 2004. Dewey passed away in 2009.

Neil young and Stephen Stills facing each other, holding their guitars and singing

Source: Pinterest

By the ‘70s, when Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon were full of musicians posing as bohemians in a glorified suburb, Young just 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,” Young sang in Revolution Blues.

A Privilege, Not a Right

It’s not all that clear who, or what, killed Buffalo Springfield. Most people just point the finger at Young, who tended to abandon projects unceremoniously when they no longer interested him. It’s basically what happened when he broke up the band the first time as they were about to perform on the Tonight Show.

Joni Mitchell and Neil Young singing together

Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock

There was also the ill-fated Buffalo Springfield reunion in 2012, which was scheduled to be a 30-day tour before Young bailed after the band played only seven shows. He wanted to reform Crazy Horse instead. However, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Stills said he held nothing against Young, as it was always his M.O. “I can’t be unkind about it,” Stills said. “Working with Neil is a privilege, not a right.”

Maybe It Was the ‘60s

You could say that Palmer killed Buffalo Springfield with his decadent drug use. Really, at the end of the day, no one’s hands were completely clean. You could even say that it was the ‘60s that did it. Young left Canada because he didn’t see the point in making it big in a place that didn’t really care.

Bruce Palmer Playing the guitar

Bruce Palmer. Source: Twitter

Then, by the end of the ‘60s, it seems as though he felt that way about L.A., too. Singing about bad trips is one thing, but once they come true, it’s an entirely different story. “I just see pictures,” he told a reporter years later. “I just see pictures in my eyes.”

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Sometimes Young

In 1969, Young joined the already formed band Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Stills and Young had a somewhat strained relationship, and, according to Nash, Young just used bands as steppingstones without ever fully committing to any. Regardless, the guys brought him in anyway.

Neil Young, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills sitting in a row playing and singing

Neil Young, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills. Photo by Ray Stevenson/Shutterstock

Their second gig together was at Woodstock in August 1969. The scenes in the recording studio were almost always ridiculous, with rages fueled by cocaine. Young soon distanced himself – as he typically did – sometimes showing up, sometimes recording tracks from another location. At one point, Nash lost control and exclaimed, “We’re f—— losing it. It’s over.” But they weren’t over.

The Story of Ohio

The band played at the notorious failure of a concert, Altamont. They managed to get away before the stabbing. Soon enough, everyone was off doing their own projects while Déjà Vu exploded on the charts. Then, the Kent State University shootings happened, and Young wrote the protest song Ohio within minutes.

A crowd of young people running away from a gas jet

Tear gas disperses crowd on Kent State University Commons 1970. Photo by Everett/Shutterstock

Young was hanging out in Pescadero, California, at the house of his road manager, Leo Makota, when Crosby handed him the latest issue of Life magazine. There was a vivid and shocking report of the killing of four students at Kent State University by an Ohio national guard that occurred during a demonstration against the Vietnam War. Sitting there on Makota’s porch, Crosby handed a guitar to Young, who wrote a song right there on the spot.

A Matter of Emergency

“I remember getting nuts at the end of the song, I was so moved,” Crosby said. Crosby and Young then flew down to L.A. to join Nash and Stills, and the four of them recorded the song within a couple of weeks. The single was then rushed into production and was on the streets within a week or so. The record was wrapped in a sleeve that reprinted a section of the Bill of Rights – the part that guarantees free assembly.

David Crosby standing crossing his hands on the chest

David Crosby of Crosby Stills and Nash 1969. Photo by Globe Photos/mediapunch/Shutterstock

CSNY’s remarkable single is a moving and memorable protest song, and many figured it would be the birth of a new revolution. NME’s Ritchie Yorke predicted: “There will almost certainly be a trend towards very politically oriented pop acts in the very near future. Entertainment for the revolutionary troops, so to speak.”

He Surprised Everyone

But the revolution never came. Rather, it seemed to be the end of the political songwriting era that had begun with Bob Dylan. “Neil surprised everyone,” Crosby told a reporter. “It wasn’t like he set out as a project to write a protest song.” According to Crosby, Young’s explanation was pretty vague, saying, “I don’t know. Never wrote anything like this before… but there it is.”

CSNY singing during their concert

Photo by Peter Tarnoff/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

At that point, Young was the only member of CSNY who hadn’t written a protest song before. Young wrote from his gut, which was, for the first time, full of rage. And while he was sincere about Kent State, he wasn’t a radical. After Ohio, he recorded three more protest songs: Southern Man, Alabama, and War Song. None of them, however, touched Ohio.

A Long, Strange Trip With Neil Young

When CSNY was on tour in 1970, things erupted. Young was furious about Stills’ cocaine use, which would materialize on stage and bothered everyone. Nash, Crosby, and Young decided to call off the tour in Chicago. Not only that; they took the first flight out and didn’t even tell Stills. He found out only when he came back for the show.

Tom Jones with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young preforming on stage

Tom Jones with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young 1970. Photo by Valley Music Ltd/Shutterstock

The band lost $7 million, which could have been made from the tour. By the time their 1974 tour rolled around, Young was back to his old isolationist methods. As for Stills, he still needed to be watched on stage. Mood swings were so extreme that Crosby named it the Doom Tour. In the end, Nash was at peace with Crosby and Stills, though he concluded: “The jury is out on my long, strange trip with Neil Young.”