Friday, November 11, 2011

November 11-12-13, 1966: Buffalo Springfield/Country Joe and The Fish/Bola Sete, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA

"For What It's Worth"-Buffalo Springfield (Atco Records, Dec '66)
Everybody recognizes it now: the droning guitar chord, and Neil Young squeezing out a sustained note. On cue, just as we expect, the voice of the young Stephen Stills conspiratorially sings "There's something happenin' here/What it is ain't exactly clear." As the music rises, he goes on "There's a man with a gun over there/Telling me I got to beware." Whether it's the radio, the muzak at the supermarket, or a beer commercial, we all subconsciously join in on the chorus "I think it's time we stop children/What's that sound/Everybody look what's going down." Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," released in late 1966, is one of the classic songs of the 60s, full of anger and yet reserved, catchy and memorable, featuring two guitarists who were eventually among the most well-known names in rock.

"For What It's Worth" was Stephen Stills reaction to the so-called 'Sunset Strip' riots. Although the problems on Sunset Strip were actually spread out over a number of weeks, the critical event was on the night of Saturday, November 12, 1966, when dozens of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officers cleared the streets of teenagers, mostly around a teen club called Pandora's Box. The Sheriff's Department had been anxious about the number of teenagers coming to Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood to drive around and hang out, and they finally decided to put the hammer down and clear the streets. Unlike in Berkeley, where cops battled college student protesters over the Vietnam War, in West Hollywood it was mostly suburban teenagers with cars and nothing to do, and they were only "protesting" their right to have fun. The cops were afraid of a replay of the previous year's Watts Riots, and so they put a stop to all the hanging out in the most heavy handed way possible, immortalized by the Stills song, which was quickly recorded and turned into a massive hit by his band The Buffalo Springfield.

No one thinks Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die, and yet he wrote and sang "Folsom Prison Blues" with power and conviction. So it was that Stephen Stills was not present at the climactic event of the Sunset Strip Riots on November 12, as the Buffalo Springfield was playing the Fillmore in San Francisco that weekend. "For What It's Worth" captures the ambiguity of the event with power and dignity, while maintaining the confusion associated with protests in general. Allowing teenagers to hang out on Sunset Strip at night was hardly the most important issue facing America, and yet it was where the flash point was in Southern California in 1966. On the other hand, as the song warns about people "singing songs and carrying signs/Mostly saying 'hooray for our side,'" a cautionary note about protests in general. Stills was working out of town that night, so he missed the whole event, and yet he seems to have captured the importance of it from a distance. At the time, Stills was just an aspiring folk-rock nobody, looking for a break with an out-of-town gig.

Entertainment listings for Friday, November 11, 1966, from the SF Chronicle
November 11-12-13, 1966, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA
Bola Sete/Country Joe And The Fish/Buffalo Springfield
Bill Graham and Chet Helms began what we recognize as the modern rock concert industry with a Jefferson Airplane concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco on February 4, 1966. The Fillmore, at 1805 Geary Boulevard, was a former big band dance hall, built in 1912, and by the early 1960s it had become a prime stop on the African American R&B circuit, featuring acts like B.B. King, Ike & Tina Turner or Little Richard. When promoter Charles Sullivan retired, Graham took up the lease and started presenting rock shows  in the style of Ken Kesey's notorious 'Acid Tests' with lights and loud music. Rock music was art now, not just entertainment for kids.

By the Fall of 1966 the San Francisco rock underground was in full swing. The Fillmore was the coolest place in town, except perhaps for its rival the Avalon Ballroom, run by Helms, who had split with Graham in the Spring. People went to the Fillmore because it was the place to go, and the posters looked cool. Although the names on the posters are famous to us now, many of them were largely unknown at the time. The weekend of November 11-13 was one such booking.

Bola Sete
Bola Sete is a considerably less memorable name than either Country Joe and The Fish or Buffalo Springfield, but he was far and away the best known act at the Fillmore, so he headlined the show. Brazilian Bossa Nova music was becoming very popular around this time.  Bola Sete was a Brazilian guitarist who had lived in California since the early 1960s.  Bola Sete (a nickname meani)ng “Seven Ball”;  his real name was Djalma de Andrade) had recorded on Fantasy with pianist Vince Guaraldi who by 1966 was best known for the "Peanuts" theme music.  Whie Brazilian music was integral to Bola Sete’s style, but he was more of a West Coast jazz artist.  Nonetheless, thanks to the popularity of Gilberto Gil and others, his excellent music had a much higher profile.  At the time, he was touring as a trio with two percussionists, Paulinho de Costa and Sebastian Neto.

Bola Sete had released several albums and he was a "name," so he was the headliner. One of the ways that the Fillmore stood out was the way in which it mixed rock, blues, folk and jazz artists on the same bill. While Bola Sete played jazz, it was lively and energetic and would have been a good fit for the lively scene at the Fillmore. Since the capacity of the room was only 1500, his trio would still have communicated well with the crowd. Compared to the groups below him on the bill, however, Bola Sete is now just a footnote, if a very talented one.

Country Joe And The Fish's 1966 EP on Rag Baby Records
Country Joe And The Fish
Country Joe And The Fish had originally been a folk duo, featuring Berkeley folkies "Country" Joe McDonald and Barry "The Fish" Melton. Their nicknames were obscure references to Joseph Stalin and Mao, respectively, but Berkeley residents at the time probably recognized the allusions. After having seen The Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Fillmore in February, Barry and Joe decided to "go electric." They got some folkie friends and plugged in, figuring out how to be rock musicians as they went along. Country Joe And The Fish, the band, played a fluid sort of bluesy rock, with avowedly political songs.

CJF had built up a following in Berkeley, and had started to generate interest in San Francisco. With typical Berkeley iconoclasm, the band had recorded a three-song EP in June and released it on their own Rag Baby label. The Country Joe and The Fish EP was sold through used bookstores and head shops and the like, and sold something like 15,000 copies, an amazing number for the time. For much of the country, even the Bay Area, the San Francisco underground scene was just a rumor, and the EP was often the first "psychedelic" record many people had heard. Country Joe and The Fish had filled in at the Fillmore on August 27 and September 4, but the November date was their first formal booking at the auditorium. Since they had a sort of underground hit record, they were higher on the bill above the Buffalo Springfield. Even so, Country Joe and The Fish were still really underground. Drummer John Francis Gunning refused to learn any of the songs, simply letting the band start up and then drumming along however he felt.

Buffalo Springfield
Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay, all singing guitarists and aspiring folkies, had decided to form a rock group instead. The story of how they met is too well-known to recap here, but suffice to say they all found themselves in Southern California in early 1966. Along with bassist Bruce Palmer and drummer Dewey Martin, they debuted on April 15, naming themselves after a tractor company. Since The Byrds were huge stars, record companies were looking to snap up their own folk-rockers, and Atco Records rapidly signed the Buffalo Springfield and put them in the studio.

By November of 1966, the Buffalo Springfield had recorded their first album, but it hadn't been released yet. They had released one single, "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," a Neil Young song that featured Richie Furay on lead vocals, since Furay's voice was considered more salable than the reedy Young's. "Clancy" had reached the Top 25 in Los Angeles, but hardly made a ripple anywhere else. Perhaps a few San Francisco radio listeners had heard their song played on one of the big AM stations (KFRC-610 and KYA-1260), but in general the Buffalo Springfield was completely unknown outside of Southern California.

The Buffalo Springfield would have played two 35-minute sets each night. Probably they appeared first and fourth in the evening. Generally, Bill Graham instructed groups to play different sets, since many patrons at the Fillmore sat through all six sets. The first Buffalo Springfield album had been recorded, but not released. While it's not a bad album, most of the songs that we associate with the Springfield, like "Bluebird," "Mr. Soul" and "For What It's Worth" were still in the future, so while they were a great band, it may not yet have been entirely obvious to the Fillmore audience.

Meanwhile, back in West Hollywood, the confrontations between the Sheriff and the local teenagers were escalating, and they reached a peak on November 12, while Stills and the Buffalo Springfield were playing the Fillmore 400 miles to the North. Filmmaker Roger Corman produced a quickie movie called Riot On Sunset Strip that, for all it's cheesy production values, provides a pretty good snapshot of the situation. The total budget of the movie must have been about $11, but it does feature the wonderful Chocolate Watch Band, and most of the extras are wearing authentic fashions (probably their own clothes). Under the circumstances, the script is a fairly good accounting of the tensions, even if it's delivered by less-than-Oscarworthy acting performances.

Stills and the Springfield had been around Hollywood as the confrontations started, and they must have gotten back for the aftermath. It is generally elided from rock history, however, that Stills was working out of town when it all came to a head. Just as Joni Mitchell managed to capture the spirit of Woodstock without actually being present, Stephen Stills managed to capture not only the Sunset Strip riots but the tension of protest in the air throughout America. "For What It's Worth was debuted a few weeks later, over Thanksgiving weekend at West Hollywood's hippest club, the Whisky A-Go-Go. The Springfield immediately went in to record the single, and it was on the air by the end of the year. By early 1967, "For What It's Worth" was turning into a big hit.

Atco had released the Buffalo Springfield's debut album to little acclaim in December 1966, but around March 1967 they replaced one of the songs with "For What It's Worth," and the single and the album took off. The single apparently sold a million copies, and remains a powerful song to this day, and Stills and Young had finally gotten the career break they had been hoping for. Just as Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno, however, Stills wasn't there for the event that triggered his most famous song. If anyone tells you that they saw Buffalo Springfield at the Fillmore in November of 1966, they were lucky indeed, but don't listen when they tell you that Stills sang "For What It's Worth."

Bola Sete had a reasonably successful jazz career, but he never really got any bigger than he was in the mid-60s. He died in 1987.

Country Joe and The Fish were signed to Vanguard Records a few weeks after these Fillmore concerts. As a condition of their contract, they had to destroy all the remaining copies of their EP. In December, the band recorded their memorable Electric Music For The Mind And Body album, which was released in April. Along with its successor, Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag, Country Joe and The Fish made some of the most memorable music of the 1960s. The band broke up after 1970, or more accurately Joe and Barry broke up, since the band members had already changed several times (other than Joe and Barry, none of the band members playing in the Woodstock movie would have been at the Fillmore in 1966, for example). Joe and Barry have periodically reformed the band for brief tours and benefit performances, although less so n recent decades.

Buffalo Springfield's last live performance in the 20th century was May 5, 1968 at the Long Beach Arena. Neil Young went solo, while Stephen Stills went on to form Crosby, Stills, Nash, soon rejoined by Young. Richie Furay did not reach the heights of either Stills or Young, but he put out many excellent albums with the group Poco and had some fine solo albums as well.  Bass player Bruce Palmer died in 2004, and drummer Dewey Martin passed on in 2009, but on October 23 of 2010 Stills, Young and Furay performed again as the Buffalo Springfield, at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA, just South of the Fillmore. They played a brief concert tour in California in June 2011, followed by a festival performance (at Bonaroo). According to Furay, Buffalo Springfield will be touring again in 2012.

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