Showing posts with label Buffalo Springfield. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Buffalo Springfield. Show all posts

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Buffalo Springfield Again

A few days ago, in my post titled “Year One: Reflections,” I mentioned that my interpretations of pop songs such as “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses),” “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and “Crimson and Clover” have consistently received hits through web searches over the past few months. I neglected to mention in that list my discussion (from last June) of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”—the entry is available here—which has also received a good number of hits over the past few months as well. Looking back on that post after the distance of a few months, however, left me dissatisfied with my discussion, not because I think I was especially “wrong” about the song, but because the discussion stopped short, leaving unstated the larger point I was trying to make.

While I think my essential point is correct—that the song, upon close inspection, really doesn’t express a coherent position about much of anything—in retrospect I think I was foolish, for one thing, to expect a pop song to express a coherent position about politics, much less complex social problems: pop songs are basically reactionary in nature. But more importantly, the larger, theoretical, point was left unstated. What I was trying to say is that the song is a sign without a referent: it means, but it doesn’t refer. The song doesn’t depict any “real” or actual event, despite being putatively inspired by the so-called “Sunset Strip Riot” in November 1966. (“Riot” was the word used by the media to represent the event, presumably instigated by discontented youth; whether it actually was an event of such proportion I have no idea.) Bertrand Russell illustrated the distinction between meaning and reference in his famous example, “The King of France is bald.” The sentence means, but it doesn’t refer—because there is no King of France.

Records, like movies, are signs without referents. As Robert Ray explains:

...behind Casablanca or “Fight the Power” lies no single, “real” event that has been transcribed and reproduced…. In 1967, situationist leader Guy Debord warned that in “societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” (How A Film Theory Got Lost, 69)

Debord’s last sentence can be amended to say, “What was once directly lived has moved away into a construction”—whether that is a record titled “For What It’s Worth” or a movie called Riot on Sunset Strip (1967). Simon Reynolds observed, “The power of pop lies not in its meaning but its noise, not in its import but its force” (Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, 10)—as this performance of “For What It’s Worth” from American television in 1967 should remind us. The television appearance occurred in 1967, the same year as Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle was initially published. Ironically, Neil Young explicitly acknowledged the replacement of the live by the recording during the TV appearance.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

"For What It's Worth"

Perhaps one of the best-known songs of the decade of the 1960s is Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” released as a 45 rpm single in January 1967 (not included on the first pressing of the band's first LP, it became such a huge hit that later pressings of the album replaced one track and included it instead). It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that "For What It's Worth" appears on the soundtrack of just about every documentary one can find about that tumultuous decade. I think a good, concise interpretation of the song--the complete discussion of which can be found here--is as follows:

The . . . song . . . manages to warn of increasing polarization and violence in American society, without taking any stand other than that of acceptance of diversity and free speech. In other words, it comments on politics without itself being political.

I believe this to be a standard interpretation, but I find the claim that the song "comments on politics without itself being political" to be extremely revealing. Interestingly, the historical origins of the song don’t especially shed light on its meaning, although it clearly partakes of what was referred to at the time as “youth culture.”

The song was inspired by an event in November 1966, the year during which Buffalo Springfield started playing as the house band at the famed Whiskey A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. At the dawn of the psychedelic era, on Saturday, November 12, 1966, near a club at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights named Pandora’s Box (pictured), supposedly 1,000 youthful demonstrators (I say “supposedly” as the number strikes me as dubiously high) erupted in protest against the perceived repressive enforcement of recently invoked curfew laws. As I understand it, these curfew laws were passed in order to get a handle on underage drinking going on at some of the Sunset Strip clubs catering to a youthful clientele (a painfully banal explanation, to be sure). Apparently some business owners wanted the authorities to pass laws that would help rid the Sunset Strip of vast numbers of loitering teenagers as well as the growing number of "hippies," the pan-handling presence of which were discouraging patrons from attending their drinking and dining establishments.

Referred to as the “Sunset Strip Riot”—inspiring the movie Riot on Sunset Strip (1967)—apparently the event was characterized by some rather typical youthful expressions of outrage: rock throwing (where did the rocks come from?), an attempt to set fire to a city bus filled with terrified passengers, and various other acts of destructive vandalism. The event was referred to in the L. A. press as a “riot,” perhaps to link the disruptive moment to the more destructive and socially significant Watts riots of the year before. The net result was that within the year—by August of 1967—Pandora’s Box was demolished and paved over to make an easy access road to Crescent Heights off of Sunset Boulevard. That's one way to solve a problem.

As is widely known, the so-called “Sunset Strip Riot”—and perhaps the Watts Riots the year before—inspired then Buffalo Springfield band member Stephen Stills to write “For What It’s Worth,” recorded about three weeks after the so-called "riot," on December 5, 1966. The lyrics are so well known it hardly seems necessary to reproduce them, but I do so below for the sake of convenience:

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
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Gettin’ so much resistance from behind
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
inging songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the Man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

Although famous, and strongly associated with the decade of the 1960s, I find this a hard song on which to get a critical handle, especially as any sort of trenchant "social criticism." For one thing, what’s the level of intellectual commitment to the so-called issue of freedom of expression (a value that is, of course, never actually named)? It seems more like a sum of commonplaces strung together rather than expressing any deeply felt social outrage. The title, especially, doesn’t help: the colloquial expression, “For What It’s Worth,” offers only a minimal commitment to an idea; it seems a strangely noncommittal title for a song that putatively contains acute political insight. A better title might be, “My Two Cents’ Worth,” as that phrase more accurately suggests the level of extent of the emotional engagement with the issue(s). No doubt it was influenced by the overt political protest characteristic of 1960s folk music, but it lacks the clear statement of a political position that these songs make explicit. In this sense, we can see that it positions itself somewhere between outright polemic and disinterested social observation: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” The line reminds me of something a fence-riding high school guidance counselor told me in response to the Kent State campus shootings in 1970. If it is considered, narrowly, merely as a response to the so-called "Sunset Strip Riot," then it amounts to nothing more than an argument insisting that teenagers ought to be able to have fun when they want to have fun.

In retrospect, the whole song smacks of fence-riding. In Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, the fence-riders—named "Neutrals" in J. D. Sinclair's translation to desribe those who never took a position in life—are situated in the vestibule to Hell, Hell refusing to let them in because they never made a decision on anything during their lives.

To properly understand the song, I think, we need to focus elsewhere than on politics, and recognize that it owes something to the ideas in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), and Kesey’s use of the mental institution as a metaphor for everyday life: “You step out of line, the Man come and take you away.” Think of the 60s novelty song “They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”—that was, incidentally, released in July 1966, four months before the Sunset Strip Riot, and about five months before Buffalo Springfield recorded "For What It's Worth." One of the novelty song’s lyrics refers to the “funny farm,” which is, of course, a colloquial reference to an asylum. The narrator of Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief Bromden, uses the phrase “the Combine” to refer to the large, invisible system of coercion that society uses to control and manipulate individuals. I’ve written a great deal, recently, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, so I don’t think that his fame and notoriety during this period in the 1960s needs rehearsing. The way authority is referred to only in the abstract--"man with a gun," "resistance from behind," "the heat," the Man"--also supports the idea that the song refers to the repressive operations of "the Combine."

If nothing else, a close analysis of the song warns against any attempt to transform pop songs into agitprop.