Something terrible and irreversible happened when I listened to Buffalo Springfield Again.
I became old. Fully old. No more pretending otherwise.
Accepting it has taken a lot of processing and time set aside to listen to myself and to Buffalo Springfield Again again.
Where to begin? Not, actually, with my parents; they were a little too young for Buffalo Springfield proper, but they did have an LP of the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album packed away in the storage room of our old house. The one with the cover where the three of them are sitting on a couch and Graham Nash has his boots on the cushion—which, even though it’s a raggedy old couch on someone’s porch, would not have been acceptable in my house growing up. This guy may as well have been Marilyn Manson.
My parents also had LPs of Neil Young’s Harvest and After the Gold Rush, but by my time, any mention of Neil Young would trigger an eruption of spirited mockery, with either or both of them launching into a nasally, geriatric rendition of “Heart of Gold” (“I wanna heeeeeal”). In my father’s view, ahistorical but experiential, Young was the paterfamilias of what he called “whiner rock,” an umbrella term for all that ailed music during the Clinton administration. Bald guy from R.E.M.? Whiner. Dirty guy from Pearl Jam? Whiner. Bono? Still whining. Bald guy from the Smashing Pumpkins? Wouldn’t know one of their songs if I heard it, but…. On MTV and VH1, FM radio and cassette, whiners were legion.
My folks never played the records they owned. Their LPs belonged to another time, archaeological remnants of a past discernible only through Polaroids pasted in albums, a hazy world of wood-panelled basements, very blue denim, moustaches, plaid furniture, Playmate Igloo coolers, white T-shirts with red rings at the collars and sleeves, large glasses, Virginia Slims, and cans of Schlitz. I never heard those records, so for the longest time I couldn’t give a damn about Crosby, Stills, Nash, or Young. But one by one I came to know each of them, each like a horseman of the apocalypse come to visit my own transience upon me, tolling adulthood with each song shuffled up by my iPod, each play another revolution of time’s dread wheel.
Crosby happened first, at age 16, thanks to a public library copy of the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. The Byrds I came to from my old soul’s love of R.E.M. (whiners!). R.E.M. I came to from a copy of Automatic for the People bequeathed to my older brother following a divorce in my extended family that broke in our favor.
Next came Nash solely because of the Hollies’ “Carrie Anne,” one of a few songs written about Marianne Faithfull before she started writing better songs by and about herself. I hope like hell it’s not true, but I have a chilling suspicion I first heard “Carrie Anne” on an episode of Lost in 2007. It adds up, but I’m not prepared to confront that possibility right now.
Then Stills entered my life from the unlikeliest of directions. It was April 2010, the month of the BP oil spill and the Icelandic volcano that blocked air travel over Europe with a giant cloud of ash. Cypress Hill dropped the video for their single “Armada Latina,” featuring Pitbull and Marc Anthony. Outrageously, brilliantly, the song samples the doodoo do do do DOO do do doodoo-doo part at the end of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” from the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album, with Marc Anthony lending some genuine robustez to the near-inscrutable Spanish cawed by Stills on the original.
In the video for “Armada Latina,” B-Real, Sen Dog, and Pitbull are partying at L.A.’s Mariachi Plaza, their three bald heads reflecting the tawny waning sun. The camera cuts to a silhouetted figure during the parts by Marc Anthony, who for reasons of scheduling (or conscience) declined to appear in the video. Pitbull, however, revels with the vigor of two men, gamely dancing with mamis and abuelitas alike, telling Castro to eat shit. And then—under the gazebo!—is a treat for the geezers: the actual Stephen Stills, nondescript as an IT specialist in his Hawaiian shirt, miming away at the guitar part he recorded 40 years earlier. I didn’t know at the time what Stills looked like, but I knew enough to know it must be him. The shame of recognition could have been no less crushing in that moment than if Stills had looked into the camera to watch me watching him, and said, Stop, children, what’s that sound? You’re becoming unrelatable to your peers.
And finally I made it to Young from Buffalo Springfield Again. Its cover drew me in. The band is floating over a row of mountains and a shimmering lake, holding hands with each other and what could be an angel or just a woman in a bathrobe. A Mothra-sized butterfly and a colossal bluebird are in flight too, the whole odd scene framed by a border of flowers. It has a certain slapped-together elegance, inviting and trippy but not alarmingly psychedelic (like the cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears from that year). Eve Babitz asked to design it in exchange for giving Stephen Stills a ride home from the bar one night.
The album itself is a collage too; each song sounds like it comes from a different band, which isn’t so off the mark since the studio door seems to never have shut with the traffic of personnel and ideas across of most of 1967. It’s like Young, Stills, and Richie Furay decided to make a joint solo album featuring Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer. The effect is jarring.
Young’s brooding and almost sinister “Mr. Soul,” the opener, drives us through a dark tunnel to the wholesome country morning of “A Child’s Claim to Fame,” Furay’s toe-tapping out-Byrding of the Byrds’ “Time Between” from that year’s Younger Than Yesterday album. The volatility just keeps up from there, each song not sustaining but undoing the vibe of the last. Stills is feelin’ languidly groovy on “Everydays,” but then Jack Nitzsche’s Wall of Sound production on “Expecting to Fly” blasts Neil into orbit over that radioactive lake on the cover. Elsewhere is the incorrigibly patchoulied “Bluebird”; the derivative white soul of “Good Time Boy” (where, by the grace of God, Dewey Martin narrowly restrains himself from letting out a “sock-it-to-me”); and “Rock and Roll Woman,” written by Stills either directly or indirectly with David Crosby, a song whose harmonies break in the couch of the first CSN album.
The tenderest moment on Buffalo Springfield Again is also the least exciting: Furay’s near-solo performance of “Sad Memory,” a song he recorded for the album on a whim. It sounds like an early 60s song, not a late 60s song—from a time before “For What It’s Worth” and all the generational chaos that song has come to signify in documentary montage after documentary montage. (You can see it now, can’t you: yellow flowers sliding into gunbarrels, purple smoke rising in plumes from the paddies.) According to John Einarson’s book about Buffalo Springfield, “Sad Memory” is one of the first songs Furay ever wrote, “when I was still a folkie in New York,” he said, “about a girl back in Ohio.” It’s a still point in the storm of Buffalo Springfield Again, an old-fashioned lament so generic it feels out of place.
For just that reason, though, “Sad Memory” represents better than any other song the album’s liminal quality: the band’s caught looking backwards and forwards at the same time, untethered from any one sound, any one songwriter, any one reality (as they drift hand-in-hand over the mountains). Hear the lyrics of “Mr. Soul” and “Rock and Roll Woman”: they don’t even sound in accord about what it’s like to be rock stars. They’re moving in five directions at once and somehow getting somewhere, though it would take until after one last album for what’s happening on Buffalo Springfield Again to resolve itself into the more comprehensible forms of Poco, of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and of the man who would be “Don Grungio,” Neil Young (whiner!). It’s like a transitional fossil.
“Sad Memory” is what made me old, not the fact that my taste ran to Buffalo Springfield Again or the Byrds or Cypress Hill (who formed before I was born). The song drifted by me dozens of times before I read about how Furay started recording it alone one day while waiting for the rest of the band to arrive at the studio. Years after writing it, he was still only in his mid 20s. It’s like he put his hands up six songs in and said,
I want off this ride for a minute. I want down from the mountains and the giant bluebird. I need to sing this very normal song about a person in Ohio I don’t even talk to anymore, who probably never thinks about me now. But I’m not ready to give this one up while I still feel it just a little bit.
I hear you, Richie, I replied to my own imagination. That’s our age for you. Revising the memory of every old thing in turn. Deciding what the past ever did for you. Returning sometimes or often to the most sentimental, irrelevant things if for no other reason than because you realize you’ll never have them at closer reach than they sit today. Call it the spirit of the empty high school parking lot at night.
So I listened again to Buffalo Springfield Again in that frame of mind. From beginning to end, I felt right there with them on the messy cusp of everything. And then I listened to it all again, and felt none of it.