Buffalo Springfield: Back in the summer of '67

Buffalo Springfield were a seminal band of the late Sixties but split acrimoniously after only two years together. Stephen Stills and Richie Furay tell how their new project has begun to heal some old wounds
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The Independent Culture

The Buffalo Springfield's time together was brief: 25 months from their inception in April 1966 to their implosion in May 1968. They released only two albums during their lifespan and disowned a posthumous, contractually obligated third release. But, though they never had the sustained commercial success enjoyed by their peers while they were together, the Springfield laid a strong claim to being the greatest American rock'n'roll band of their era.

The claim is strengthened by the release of a four-CD box set painstakingly compiled over the past 10 years by Neil Young, a founder member and the man most responsible for their disintegration. Alongside the first two albums, there are 35 unreleased tracks revealing the astonishing pool of musical diversity and creativity generated by three quixotically gifted singer-songwriters – Young, his twin lead guitarist Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay.

In Spinal Tap terms, Furay was the mild-mannered element, sandwiched between Young's ice-cool calculation and Stills' fiery creativity. Thirty-five years on, not much has changed.

"It was Steve's band: he was the inspiration, the motivator and the heart and soul. I saw both of them as tremendously talented; I was happy to play my part," says Furay.

"I think, early on we all saw our individual roles, and those roles weren't intimidating or threatening. The unfortunate thing was, it didn't continue."

Nicknamed The General because of his military background and habit of taking control, Stills was a wildly ambitious, mercurial figure. By his 20th birthday he'd lived in three continents, soaking up everything from deep blues, Gregorian chants and Latin American rhythms. He and Furay discovered the complexity of harmony singing with Jim Friedman's radical nine-piece folk conglomerate The Au Go-Go Singers. After being struck by Young's singular talent on a trip to Fort William, Canada, in 1965, Stills was with Furay in Los Angeles a year later when they famously spotted Young and the bassist Bruce Palmer in their trademark black hearse.

"The fact I was the leader of the band was probably what led to its demise, Neil Young not being the type to be led," Stills cackles through newly implanted teeth which suggest years of hard living.

"I learnt to play lead guitar, see, and that was his role. So we ended up playing lead guitar together. At first, it irritated him because I wasn't that good but I started getting better. He says he never minded that. We'd get into fierce conversations on stage, through our instruments, but with no animosity. Within our circle we could scream at each other as much as we wanted; we were young kids and what team doesn't that happen on?

"Much more was made of it than existed. I always knew that Neil would end up a solo artist – how could you not reach that conclusion when he quit three times in two years?"

As soon as they were formed, the Springfield established themselves at the centre of the known musical universe on a six-week stint at Los Angeles' Whisky A Go-Go.

"When Springfield began, no one knew who we were. Six weeks later, there were queues around the block, people identifying with the music, a whole community gathered round us. Maybe that blew things out of proportion for us, but it was when we were at our best. We looked at everybody else making records and knew we were as good as any of them," says Furay.

In the months ahead, revelling in the musical freedom instigated by the Beatles and Dylan, they would fuse the folk-rock alchemy of The Byrds with The Beach Boys' harmonies and studio mastery, and prefigure The Band's evocation of a mythological Americana in Young's majestic "Broken Arrow" and the social awareness of John Fogerty in Stills' timeless "For What It's Worth".

"I had a song I was going to write about the guys who'd been thrown on to the front line in Vietnam," says The General. "Then one day we went out on to the Strip, and the cops were there in full battle gear, like the Macedonian army. On the other side of the street, kids were having a funeral parade for a bar that was closing, and they started smashing heads and going crazy. We were new to LA and didn't realise the LAPD had a reputation that went back decades for being real goons."

The song brilliantly captured the fraught, troubled atmosphere of the times and gave the band a Top 10 hit in March 1967, but already they were fragmenting. Bruce Palmer was deported back to Canada after a drug bust. "The drugs came, and we loved 'em, but they got in the way pretty quickly. That's all I want to say about that really," barks Stills.

When they played the epochal Monterey Pop Festival in May, Young, frustrated at the way the hit single had put the focus on Stills, had temporarily left the group. Obviously, he had great personal ambition but perhaps the epileptic fits he was increasingly prone to were also a factor in his decision to leave. Stills isn't so sure:

"When he went into his Indian period he started wearing these really heavy leather anoraks with fringes, we'd go onstage and it was so hot he'd pass out. He'd say, 'Oh dear, I'm having another seizure', but he would just succumb to having lost 20 per cent of his body water. It was like going on stage wearing a Parka. I'd say, 'You dummy, you're wearing a quarter-inch piece of rawhide all over your body; you're dressed appropriately for the Dakotas in winter. This is California in the summertime, and you're on stage. He finally went, [adopts Jimmy Stewart voice] 'Aww, you could be right...' "

"Did I think he was manipulative?" considers Furay. "No, but I think he had more of a sense of direction about what he wanted to accomplish. At certain points if that didn't include the Springfield he'd move ahead at any cost. He was on a mission, and he'd move with reckless abandon."

Pretty soon, Stills was making his own alternative career plans. By the end of 1967, his Malibu Beach house hosted several jam sessions with his new pal Jimi Hendrix.

"That was going to be my next thing. I've got a great piece of tape which was our first effort as a band. He didn't want to be with The Experience any longer; The Band Of Gypsies wasn't it either. He called David Geffen to ask me to play bass for him when we were putting Crosby, Stills and Nash together. He lied and said he didn't know where I was."

Still, time – and perhaps the promise of a handsome royalty cheque – heals old wounds. Stills and Young have been musical collaborators/competitors since the Springfield split, most recently on last year's Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tour. While Stills remains mostly unknown to contemporary audiences, Young's career has been hallmarked by an ability to see the bigger picture, and the Springfield's one-time leader was happy to entrust him with the job of preserving the band for posterity.

"I sent him everything I had because he has the facilities: a 2,000-acre place with big barns, a platoon of people working for him and storage facilities for tapes that need to be handled with care in case they fall apart.

"One day I get a call out of the blue and he says, 'Well, I've done it.' Done what? Had another baby? And he says, 'I've found everything we recorded back when we were children.' So I went along and listened to the first half of it. It was too intense to listen all the way through: we were laughing and crying and holding each other's hand. Some of it was joyful; some painful.

"You ask questions like: why did we go over the top there? Who gave the drummer dexedrine? But it was a wild time; we were playing fast because we were so fucking excited."

Among the cognoscenti, The Buffalo Springfield has remained a strong touchstone and influence. "A 14-year-old kid came up to me in a store the other day," says Stills. "He goes, 'Stephen Stills, The Buffalo Springfield is my favourite band of all time.' I said, 'Sure, so long as you'll be a focus group for my next album. I'll play you all the tunes and you tell me what you think.' 14-year-olds don't lie."

The four-CD 'Buffalo Springfield Box Set' (£39.99) is out now on Rhino