Last night I went to a concert by Stephen Stills and Judy Collins, one-time lovers and long-time friends, but never before collaborators (except for Stills’ uncredited guitar backing Collins’ sixth album). They have a new recording coming out this month, supported by a tour of which last night’s event is a part. Stills was romantically involved with Collins when Crosby, Stills, and Nash began in 1968, but they split before the recording of CSN’s 1969 debut album. That record’s opening song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” the final encore last night, was Stills’ bittersweet look back at the relationship. The fledgling group’s performance of it is a highlight of the iconic Woodstock documentary and lives on as an evergreen classic-rock radio regular.
That they perform together now is remarkable. They cannot sing like they once did (and Stills cannot really sing at all anymore even though he can still shred on guitar), but it was still(s) great to see these old masters continue to work their magic after all these years. For me, the highlight of the evening was the iconic Stills protest song, For What It’s Worth (yes, that’s Stills, Jim Messina, David Crosby and Neil Young – The Buffalo Springfield – introduced in 1967 by Peter Tork of The Monkees in the video below).1
Stills and Collins both spoke last evening about certain songs regularly resurfacing due to societal need and argued that this song is one of them. Last night’s rendition was much less haunting and much more aggressive than the original, like the Stills solo version below.
The focus of the song is on the “battle lines being drawn … young people speaking their minds getting so much resistance from behind” while presumably speaking truth to power. That is a crucial part of the standard 60s narrative (along with peace, protest, love, and rock ‘n’ roll), even though it was also the most prolific period of domestic terrorism in our history. We have pretty much erased that from our collective memory.
According to Stills, the meaning behind the song was his concern that “America [was] in great danger of turning politically to the right…to the fascist right.” The specific genesis was the Sunset Strip curfew riots in Hollywood in November of 1966. Sunset Boulevard was home to the local rock, folk and psychedelic music scene. As described by John Densmore of The Doors, “So we’re the house band at the Whiskey a Go Go [as described last night, the club wherein Stills first met and was instantly smitten with Collins], and I’m sitting upstairs looking out the window. It’s like a Tuesday night, and it’s complete gridlock and thousands of hippies on the street and I said, ‘Wow, we’re taking over.’”
The area was pulsating with music, hippies, and kids looking for music, fun and the opposite sex (not necessarily in that order). Bands that built a following there included The Doors, The Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, The Turtles, and The Mamas & the Papas. Among the musicians who hung out there were Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In the telling of DJ Wolfman Jack, “They smoked dope in public, flashed bare boobies at people driving down Sunset, balled each other right on the sidewalk. … Pandora’s Box [another local club] had the Establishment pissed off in several different directions.”
Not surprisingly, the neighborhood homeowners and work-a-day merchants did not want to see the groovy take-over. They complained mightily. As reported by The Los Angeles Times, local officials ordered a curfew enforced and a crackdown. Confrontations with police became commonplace. “The commercial merchants on Sunset Boulevard in a certain area decided that the element of young people on the street every night was not conducive to commercial enterprise,” Stills said. Pandora’s Box was slated for demolition, and the rally to save it on November 12, 1966 was the epicenter of these events. Sonny and Cher, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and even Gilligan’s Island’s Bob Denver (more in tune with his Maynard G. Krebs character than with Gilligan) were among the demonstrators. As May Wines singer Tommy McLaughlin recalls, “the pigs were shutting it down, man.”
The rally failed and Pandora’s Box was razed. The Sunset Strip music scene dissipated and then disappeared. “The man won,” The Sloths’ Michael Rummans commented.
Sunset Boulevard is very different today. It is “corporate and commercial, with plenty of style but little soul.” Various musicians tried to explain what happened in the days that followed the riots, including Frank Zappa, The Monkees (!) and The Standells, as part of the trend whereby popular music became more explicitly socially conscious.
“For What It’s Worth” is the classic of this genre. It was written “in about 15 minutes” right after the riot. As police and youth clashed, the song stays eerily quiet and understated with Neil Young’s chiming guitar tolling a warning in one of the great hooks in rock ‘n’ roll history. “It turned out to be indicative of what was about to happen,” said Stills.
As Stills came to tell it, “On the night of the riot, I was coming to the Strip from Laurel Canyon. We got about a block away, I see kids, and a line of cops, lined up like Roman Centurions. I turned the car around — didn’t even want to go in there. I’d seen all I needed to see, and I wrote ‘For What It’s Worth’ on the way back.… It reminded me of … the politics of fear, like we’re doing today.”
This Stills masterpiece was recorded by The Buffalo Springfield on December 5, 1966 and released as a single in early 1967. The song landed in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and quickly became known as a protest anthem. Its references to protest, signs, police, guns and paranoia are continually relevant. In 2014, it ranked number three on the Rolling Stone readers poll of the best protest songs, behind only Neil Young’s “Ohio“ and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.”
The song is more complex than often assumed. After all, “There’s something happening here,” but “What it is ain’t exactly clear,” especially since, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Even so, the situation is tense and polarized. The third verse is crucial.
What a field day for the heat.
A thousand people in the street,
Singing songs and carrying signs,
Mostly say, “Hooray for our side.”
The final stanza makes the warning about fear and paranoia more explicit, but I keep coming back to the protesters and their signs, “Mostly say, ‘Hooray for our side.’” Even in our best moments, we are often partisan confabulators. Stills gets it just right. “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Especially in the heat of the moment, it can be strikingly difficult to tell the neo-Nazis from Antifa (if Noam Chomsky is criticizing radical left wing protestors, something must really be wrong).
Once we have bought-in to a particular narrative we are mostly cheering our side on rather than doing anything like substantive analysis. The “Hooray” signs will not convince anyone and are hardly designed to do so. They may be high order virtue signalling, but persuasive propaganda they are not.
Our favored narratives, especially those connected to strong commitments and beliefs, become increasingly more difficult to falsify, even (especially!) when presented with contradicting fact. Consider the example of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children and the pediatricians who try to convince them otherwise. When presented with unequivocal information that autism and vaccinations are not linked, the strategy backfired (thus, the “backfire effect”) and parents became more set in their ignorance. In other words, the disconfirming facts offered actually (in effect) turned up the volume inside the echo chamber such that the truth could not be heard.
Finding truth can be really hard, in music, in politics and in investing. We tend to “know what we know,” contrary facts notwithstanding. Today’s highly polarized and seemingly binary environment makes matters even worse. There is nothing inherently wrong with cheering for our side of choice, but it takes constant vigilance to have a chance to overcome our various preconceived notions. “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
1 The song, classic that it is, has been covered by many great artists in multiple styles and genres. There is an interesting Dave Matthews cover here (opening with a killer guitar solo by Warren Haynes); one from The Muppets here; a cool one from Mia Borders here; Ozzy Osbourne here; the wonderful Lucinda Williams here; a recent one from Loose Cattle with Lynn Drury here; the great Burton Cummings (who was lead singer of The Guess Who) here; Led Zeppelin here; Rush here; Rise Against here; Tom Petty here; a haunting acoustic version from The Lone Bellow here; Ernie Hendrickson and Anne Harris here; one from The Staples Singers here; a Mavis Staples solo version here; Bonnie Raitt here; a Crosby, Stills & Nash live version here; The Staple Singers here; Lou Rawls here; Kid Rock here; Ann Wilson here; and even Cher here. The great jam band Widespread Panic does a great version here. Public Enemy sampled it on He Got Game (Stills appears too). Here is a brand new version by 76 year-old Eric Burdon (who was lead singer of both The Animals and War) and another by Seth Glier. It was of course a concert constant for CSN and CSNY (see above and here). It is also a great chart for various “all-star” get-togethers such as CSN with Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne (Stills and Raitt are smokin’) as well as Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow, supported by Vince Gill.