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There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
This opening line is the one that confused most people, leading them to believe that it was about the Vietnam War or the Kent State shootings.
Despite the fact that the song was released a solid three years before the shootings, many listeners in the late 1960s and early 1970s assume that the "For What It's Worth" was written about the events at Kent State. Others believed that the song was meant to protest the Vietnam War.
The real inspiration, though, was much closer to home for the members of Buffalo Springfield. Beginning in 1966, there were a series of riots in Los Angeles in response to curfews imposed on young people who hung out on the Sunset Strip. Buffalo Springfield was the house band at the Whiskey a Go Go, a popular nightclub in West Hollywood, when the riots began.
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down
The chorus—or more specifically, the line "stop, children, what's that sound?"—is how most people know the song, and many assume that it is also the title.
Rumor has it that when Stephen Stills went to Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun with "For What It's Worth," he said, "I have this song here, for what it's worth, if you want it," and that became the title of the song.
Atlantic Records owned ATCO, Buffalo Springfield’s record label, and you might recognize Ahmet Ertegun as the man who discovered acts like the Drifters and Ray Charles (Ertegun, played by Curtis Armstrong, had a major role in the 2004 film Ray).
What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
This line is the most direct reference in the song to the confrontation between young people and the Los Angeles Police Department over the closing of Pandora's Box in 1966 and the 10:00PM curfews that were imposed in the area.
It's little wonder that the song is often read as a broadly aimed commentary on 1960s political dissent, as most of the lines are phrased pretty vaguely. This line, however, comes closest to referencing the specific confrontation between the young people protesting efforts to keep them out of the Sunset Strip, and the police officers ("heat") sent to control the crowd on November 12th, 1966.
The crowd, estimated by the LA Times to have been around 1,000-strong, included future Easy Rider stars Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson (check out the Times' look back at this event). Initially, the protest was peaceful; Stills described it as a funeral for Pandora's Box.
However, it grew violent when a car filled with off-duty Marines got into a traffic accident in the congested street. According to the Times, one Marine attacked the driver of the other car, and things went downhill from there. Soon, fists and rocks were being thrown, most of them at shop and car windows. Some ambitious protestors even tried to roll a city bus, and one protestor tried—but failed—to drop a match into a car's gas tank. (He was arrested.)
The battle was repeated the next night and periodically over the next month. Sonny and Cher made a brief appearance during one of the later protests and were consequently booted off the Rose Parade float they were supposed to ride on. Protestors carried signs that said, "We're Your Children! Don't Destroy Us" and "Ban the Billy club."
Ultimately, the protestors won a small victory. On December 25th, Pandora's Box opened for one night (Stills was on hand to sing "For What It's Worth"). The victory, however, was short-lived. The club was razed the next August in order to realign the streets, and no trace of it remains.