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Stephen Stills, double inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and writer of "For What It's Worth," didn't initially set out to make a name for himself in rock and roll.
First, he and his roommate, Peter Tork, auditioned for the pop music TV show The Monkees. Luckily for the world, the way-too-talented-for-a-sitcom guitarist Stills didn't quite fit the bill. If you've ever seen the Monkees, you know that their hair is key, and 20-year-old Stills was already losing his. His teeth, like many of those who grew up in the pre-braces generations, were also not quite camera-ready. Tork became a Monkee, and Stills became a rock legend.
Stills may have been disappointed, but clearly, the rock and roll gods got this one right. He decided to step away from pop and move more toward folk and rock and roll, and he resolved to form a band with some old musician chums from New York. The group was aware that they were missing a crucial piece of their band, though: Neil Young.
Stills and Young had met a year earlier in Ontario, and they were hoping to reconnect in Los Angeles. There were no cell phones back then, though, and it was often quite difficult to get ahold of someone if you didn't know exactly where the person was. Young was in Los Angeles looking for Stills, but he and bassist Bruce Palmer hadn't had much success, and they decided to ditch LA. Resolved to head up to San Francisco, the two were stuck in traffic when Stills spotted Young's unmistakable car: a 1953 hearse. Stills flagged Young done, and the rest was history.
Within weeks, the newly formed Buffalo Springfield—Stills, Young, Palmer, guitarist Richie Furay, and drummer Dewey Martin—was playing local clubs. Within months, the band had cut an album. And by the end of the year, they had released the single that would become their signature piece and one of the great anthems of the 1960s: "For What It's Worth."
Contrary to popular belief, "For What It's Worth" wasn't written as a reflection on any of the historic Vietnam War protests or civil rights marches of the era. Stills actually wrote the song—in only 15 minutes, he claims—about the "Sunset Strip Riots" that were a reaction to the closing of a popular LA nightspot, Pandora's Box, and to the curfews imposed on the area to deter young people from loitering outside of clubs and bars. The LAPD had tried to enforce the curfew laws by shutting down a handful of hangouts frequented by teens and people in their early 20s, so a local radio station called for a rally to protest. About 1,000 young people showed up and milled about at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights until fighting broke out. Some blamed a car of off-duty marines for inciting the violence after they became involved in a car accident, but whatever the spark, kids were soon smashing windows and rocking cars. (Source)
While the event was certainly politically, socially, and emotionally charge, it surprises a lot of people to learn that this was the inspiration for the Buffalo Springfield classic. "For What It's Worth" was almost immediately embraced as an anthem for much larger social and political protests. It's difficult to imagine that Stills would have made that type of impact as a member of the Monkees.
The song was ripe for new interpretations because of its simplicity. It's so vague that it can almost mean anything. A piercing guitar pleads for our attention while a quiet voice tells us to wake up and look around. The somewhat cluttered politics of the song are simply overwhelmed by the repeated refrain:
I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down.
The song's vague lyrics actually allowed it to be parodied as well as it was appropriated. Jim Henson's muppets famously performed a version of the song during a skit on The Muppet Show. A possum sang the song, and the "man with a gun over there" was a group of hunters looking for game.
This gentle call would have fallen flat had it not struck a chord with something building within the hearts of America's young people. This line might not have stirred such a response if the political climate was not as turbulent as it was. And had the next few years played out differently, the song might have passed into obscurity as quickly as the last train to Clarksville. But "For What It's Worth" was written during a time when baby boomers were fighting for their own cultural freedoms, African Americans were fighting for basic civil liberties, and U.S. soldiers were fighting for their lives in Vietnam, and across the nation protesters of all kinds took up the song as their anthem.
The vague and somewhat innocent questions posed by the song gave way to more certain conclusions as the decade wore down. In 1966, Stills knew something was happening, but what it was wasn't exactly clear. There were "battle lines being drawn," but events had not yet forced the generational armies into all-out war. Over the next few years, however, all hell broke loose. Kids took to the streets in much larger numbers, not just so they could stay out late, but to force an end to the war and remove a president from office. Some occupied university buildings, some lay siege to the Pentagon, and a few even planted bombs and schemed crazily of global revolution.
And as their actions escalated, so did their music. By 1968, Phil Ochs knew the answers to the questions that Stills had raised; they were "written in the ashes of the village towns we burn / written in the empty bed of the fathers unreturned" (source). By 1969, Country Joe McDonald was asking the 400,000 children at Woodstock not just to stop and look around but also to spell out a different four letter "f" word than the "Fish" cheer he had previously called for at concerts.
Buffalo Springfield didn't stay together for long, but their impact on rock history is still felt today, as several of its members went on to long and highly successful careers. By 1970, Stephens Stills had joined David Crosby of the Byrds and Graham Nash of the Hollies (and sometimes Neil Young) in a folk rock supergroup.
Stills has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice: once for Buffalo Springfield, and once for CS&N. Young has also been inducted twice, the first time being for his solo work. (Crosby and Nash have also been inducted twice, but they weren't in Buffalo Springfield, so we don't care about them.) Richie Furay went on to form country rock band Poco, and Jim Messina, who played bass for Buffalo Springfield after Bruce Palmer was deported to Canada after being charged with drug possession, went on to a successful career as well, most notably as a part of the soft rock duo Loggins and Messina with Kenny Loggins. Yes, "Highway to the Danger Zone" and "Footloose" Kenny Loggins.
Original members of Buffalo Springfield (Stills, Young, and Furay) performed publicly in 2010 for the first time since 1968. Their set included—you guessed it—"For What It's Worth." Their signature song continues to have a life of its own—just look at Buffalo Springfield's IMDB page to get an idea of how many feature films, documentaries, and television shows it's been featured in, including, perhaps most famously, the Vietnam scenes in Forrest Gump.