Named after a manufacturer of steamrollers (thereby hangs a tale), Buffalo Springfield burned very brightly for just a couple of short years from 1966-68, showcasing the combined talents of Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay, along with successive bass players Bruce Palmer and Jim Messina, and percussionist Dewey Martin. They were, in a word, terrific. The Rolling Stone Record Guide described them in one of its editions as “potentially an American Beatles”, and their songs truly rated the comparison, but rock groups are volatile things, and this one didn’t last long enough to attain the prominence that was briefly within its grasp.
In some ways they were like the Byrds, and their songs are now similarly evocative of their time and place, each of them practically a measured dose of the Sixties in a pretty bottle, especially For What It’s Worth, an account of the 1966 “curfew riots” on the Sunset Strip, as witnessed by Stills. Described sometimes as an “anthem”, it is in fact an almost impartial expression of dismay devoid of polemics, declaring that “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”, and repeating lines that would make sense in any era of unrest:
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
Have a listen:
Graced with three talented songwriters, the group produced a raft of iconic songs in a very short time, Bluebird, Mr. Soul, Kind Woman, Rock and Roll Woman, Questions, Broken Arrow and Expecting to Fly, among others, which ran the gamut from country to rock to full-bore art-rock (in the best sense). Attached is my favourite, On the Way Home. Written by Young but sung here by Furay, it’s sublime in so many ways, boasting one of the great melodies of the era, and a complex yet understated arrangement of interleaved guitars, strings, and horns, with a subtle overlay of what sounds like tubular bells, or perhaps a xylophone. The tone is wistful, reflective, and philosophical, and it climaxes with a poignant little aside on how we’re likely missing the point as we fuss and bustle around:
Though we rush ahead to save our time, we are only what we feel
The lyrics are a little opaque, but it’s Neil Young, so it can’t be a case of the words fitting the music, but not really meaning much. In part, it seems to be about how surprising it can be to see yourself through another’s eyes:
In a strange game
I saw myself as you knew me
When the change came
And you had a chance to see through me
At its core, though, it’s a love song, tinged perhaps with traces of regret and ambivalence, but a love song. Others might have put it more simply. It’s just that sometimes, things get complicated.