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Friday, February 21, 2014

Forever Young # 8: "The Pact"

Song:  Broken Arrow
Album:  Buffalo Springfield Again
Released:  October, 1967

 Monday, President’s Day, was one of those rare, nothing-to-do mornings.  I’d be taking Peter and his buddies to the YMCA for some basketball later, but the early goings of the day were strangely free of commitments.  How to take advantage of the time?  I turned the Olympics on for some early-morning hockey, but this was not enough.  I needed to listen to some music, and with Neil Young constantly on the docket this year, I had both focus and range to work with. 

 The reconnection with a free, tune-filled morning brought me back…way back actually, to my college years, when a weekend’s early hours would often be dedicated to broadening the music-knowledge horizons.  I recalled my senior year, spring semester ’84 in North Adams, living with Bob Bouvier and two other music-loving roommates (well, one of them had a steep learning curve) in an old, Victorian, 3-story, 3 apartment off-campus house-on-a hill.  Posters of the Who (and only the Who), decorated our T.V. room and quite often it was the Who that was all we played. 

 But we would break from the norm on occasion and in these moments we could be heard listening to quite a range of other stuff, including Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Pete Townshend solo (primarily the then-recently released ‘All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes’) and Stevie Ray Vaughan (one of Bouv’s favorite songs at the time was Vaughan’s version of Mary Had a Little Lamb).  We would also go downstairs to our fellow tenants’ apartment to hang out and listen to their collection, which was quite extensive.  Thinking back this past Monday, I recalled a good dose of Allman Brothers (it’s where I got into ‘Eat a Peach’), Zappa and Steely Dan.  It was all coming back.  And then another album materialized in my mind:  ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’. 

 Upon that recollection, I knew what I had to do. 

 And so, for the next 5-6 hours, I listened to Buffalo Springfield.…. again.  And not only did I listen to their aforementioned 2nd album, but the 1st (‘Buffalo Springfield’) and 3rd (the aptly named ‘Last Time Around’) albums as well, along with a handful of outtakes, singles and bootlegs.  Like the Beatles and the original Byrds, this was a band that did not survive the 60s and so, the context of all their music can be taken in entirely through that prism.  That thought helped put me in the right frame of mind, and before long, I was immersed in it all.

 What an eclectic band this was.  First, there was a young Stephen Stills on lead guitar/vocals, full of rock swagger, vigor and raw talent, not one to shy away from the spotlight.  There was rhythm guitarist/vocalist Richie Furay, bringing a softer angle to the mix, who may have paved the way for country-rock bands like the Eagles (though on their last album, Furay diversified nicely with more experimental, Grateful Dead-like sounds).  There was drummer/vocalist Dewey Martin, who would not have been out of place if he were picked up and dropped off behind the British-Invasion drum kit of a band like the Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark Five (Buffalo Springfield was an entirely North American band).  Looking at video footage, these 3 gents appeared to occupy the bright parts of the stage.

Then there were the guys who occupied the darker corners, the two Canadians in the band, bassist Bruce Palmer and lead guitar/vocalist Neil Young.  Although there may have been other reasons for this (both were in the USA illegally and without work permits during their tenure with Buffalo Springfield) it appears to me as a natural fit for them.  Palmer and Young came across as moody in demeanor and appearance.  Bruce Palmer combined his preference for dark corners with turning his back to the crowd (more on this below).  For Neil Young, his talents would not allow the shadows for much longer; his time with Buffalo Springfield proved to be the only period in his career where he would be allowed to stand behind someone else.   Together Palmer and Young gave Buffalo Springfield a deeper and more expansive, sound. 

 When I think of Buffalo Springfield, what often comes to mind is that now-famous chance encounter at the crossroads.  Driving in one direction was Young and Palmer, at the tail end of a futile week-long search for Stills and Furay in the streets of L.A. after a cross-country trip to get there; now broke and about to give up and head back north. From another direction was Stills and Furay, who spotted Young’s black hearse (which was familiar to Furay, having connected with Young in New York) and flagged him down.  The rest history. 

 I believe we all have a crossroad moment in our lives.  For me, it was in the summer of ’84, another memorable visit to Ottawa, Canada, and long term implications this time with a job on the line at one of the few places I could work:  The American Embassy (my lack of a work permit a mirror to Neil Young’s predicament in the States).  But it was not to be.  Several months later, back in Massachusetts, I met Nancy, and I have never looked back (though I still recall Fred’s comment to me in Ottawa that summer along the lines of “Pete, this is a great fit for you”).    

 This and other road-trip experiences are one reason I believe I can relate to Neil Young.   I was in search of something back then, though not quite knowing what it was or how it would all come together.  But I was willing to travel to find it.  Neil Young wandered North America and eventually found what he wanted.  His North American experience and the times that it all happened are familiar to me, more so than say, what many of my favorite British bands went through (though those experiences were challenging in their own rights).

 A few years back, the family and I took our second trip to Newfoundland, a top drawer destination for me.  The trip included a 13 hour overnight ferry ride from the northern tip of Nova Scotia to the Avalon Peninsula (east coast of Newfoundland).  On the ferry was a young kid who sat out on the cold deck during the dusk and dawn hours and played guitar, his girlfriend close by his side.  He played some great music, and I stood out there longer than I would normally have, just to listen and I guess to also offer support.  We talked a bit.  He was Canadian.  This was his first trip to Newfoundland, and he, simply put, wanted to see what he could find in himself there - on a wing and a prayer.  Later I would run into him several more times in the streets of St John’s.  He was drawing a small crowd, and yet it was clear he was a struggling musician trying to make ends meet.    I was impressed.  Was this kid at a crossroads? I thought of Neil Young and what it must have been like for him in his early break-away days in Thunder Bay and Toronto.  This young man had painted an indelible image for me. 

 Over the past few months listening to Neil Young’s music, I’m beginning to see a triple pattern with what he does.  Concepts seem to come in 3s for Mr. Young.  There’s the “Ditch” trilogy (discussed in Forever Young # 7); there’s the fever-inspired triple set of Cinnamon Girl, Cowgirl in the Sand and Down by the River on ‘Everybody Knows this is Nowhere’ (see Forever Young # 5).  There are references linking Young’s acoustic albums, ‘Harvest’, ‘Comes a Time’ and ‘Harvest Moon’.  There’s the triple album retrospective ‘Decade’. 

 And there’s Neil Young’s classic triple contribution to ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’; Mr. Soul, Expecting to Fly, and this week’s Forever Young tune, Broken Arrow ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXqR8fj0MUM ).  These three songs complement one another with themes of soul, love and peace (respectively) which were the 3 core ideals in the hippie movement of the late 60s.  Young seems to be making a pact with himself here:  To keep his soul intact on his path to fame (which he appears to fear losing in Mr. Soul) he would focus all his energies on writing music about love and peace.  These two themes would remain the cornerstones upon which he would weave his magic for the rest of his career.  He’s never lost those hippie ideals.

 It’s fascinating seeing the rise of Neil Young during his period with Buffalo Springfield.  The band’s appearance on ‘Hollywood Palace’ (where they lead off with Stills’ hit For What It’s Worth (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gp5JCrSXkJY ) is indicative of this.  The second song of the night was Mr. Soul (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRhHDS69iU0 ).  Neil Young is intense here, which comes across most clearly during the 1:22 to 1:37 stretch of the clip, when Young walks up to Bruce Palmer (who looks as if he is conducting an orchestra, his back to the camera, directly in front of the audience!) and goes into overdrive; oh too short, but still sweet.  Young is playing off the bass.  It may have been the moment Crazy Horse was born, as he would search for this type of lock-in often with Billy Talbot in the decades that followed.  I love Palmer’s bass jam here, but make no mistake that Neil Young is the catalyst.

 My final thoughts here though are on the song Broken Arrow.  What a play with lyrics in the refrain:

 Did you see him in the river?
He was 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? “

 “Broken Arrow” is another triple theme with Neil Young.  It’s not only a song title for him, but a 1996 album title and the name of his Northern California ranch as well.  Clearly, the term means a lot to him. “Broken arrow” has several meanings, but Young’s use of the term is in relation to it being a peaceful gesture by Native American warriors, which brings to mind the 500 year struggles of these first Americans since Europeans first landed on these shores.

 It’s another struggle though, the Vietnam War, that jumps out at me even more starkly in this song’s second verse:

 “Eighteen years of American dream,
He saw that his brother
Had sworn on the wall.
He hung up his eyelids
And ran down the hall,
His mother had told him
A trip was a fall,
And don't mention babies at all”

 Wow.  A young man coming to grips with what his older brother went through in the jungles and small villages in Southeast Asia.  The line “And don’t mention babies at all” the most poignant. 

 Broken Arrow starts off with a brief live clip of Mr. Soul…. “Well, hello Mr. Soul I dropped by to pick up a reason” (sung by Dewey Martin). Neil Young picked up a reason all right, not only with Broken Arrow, but with most everything he’s written subsequent.

 Peace!

 -          Pete

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