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This article was published 17/4/2016 (1549 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In the annals of popular culture, there are a few key serendipitous moments that altered the course of music history.
For example, the day in July 1957 when a teenage Paul McCartney was introduced by mutual friend Ivan Vaughan to John Lennon following a performance by Lennon’s nondescript skiffle band the Quarrymen at a local church festival in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton. While hardly knocked out by the band, McCartney was nonetheless curious about their singer.
History records McCartney showed Lennon how to properly tune a guitar (at that point, Lennon only knew banjo tuning from his mother) and sang Eddie Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock, impressing his new-found friend by knowing all the lyrics. Still eager to please, McCartney also sang Gene Vincent’s Be-Bop-A-Lula and a medley of Little Richard tunes. McCartney and Lennon instantly discovered common ground and a shared love for rock ’n’ roll music. That moment marked the beginning of the Beatles. It’s almost unfathomable to ponder what popular culture would have been like had that encounter never taken place.
Or consider the time in October 1961, when first-year London School of Economics student Mick Jagger, toting several Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed albums under his arm, was spotted by a guitar-toting Keith Richards on a Dartford, East London train platform. Noticing the albums, Richards approached Jagger only to discover they had known each other years before at Wentworth Primary School. The two shared a love of blues music, and from that chance meeting, the Rolling Stones would ultimately emerge. Imagine what impact on music we would have lost had one of them taken an earlier train that day.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of another star-crossed encounter that forever altered the trajectory of popular music. On April 6, 1966, ex-Winnipegger Neil Young, driving a battered old hearse with Ontario licence plates, was spotted in a Los Angeles traffic jam by Stephen Stills, who happened to be going in the opposite direction. That night, the two, along with their respective passengers, formed one of music’s most influential and revered bands, Buffalo Springfield. A mere five days later, the band made its public debut at the Troubadour club in L.A. Their 1967 hit For What It’s Worth, better known for its chorus "Stop, hey what’s that sound," has become a ’60s anthem.
If Stills had been looking the other way, Buffalo Springfield and its many offshoots (Crosby, Stills & Nash; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Neil Young & Crazy Horse; Manassas; Poco; Loggins & Messina) might never have happened. Young himself may not have become the iconic musical force he remains 50 years later.
And it was a song inspired by a Winnipegger that served as catalyst to forming the band.
One year to the month before that legendary encounter, Young had left Winnipeg with his ever-evolving band the Squires, bound for Fort William, Ont. (now part of Thunder Bay). It was April 18, 1965, and Neil Young and the Squires (Ken Koblun and Bob Clark) were booked as the opening act for American folk quintet the Company at the Fourth Dimension coffeehouse in Fort William. The Squires had played in that city before, but this time the plan was to stay for several months working the local clubs, coffeehouses and high school sock hops.
"Fort William is like a forgotten chapter in my life," Neil revealed to me.
"But it had an immense impact on me because I really started to grow once I got away from home. It was my first big step on my own. It was more important than Toronto was later for me in terms of my growth as a singer and songwriter. I gained a lot of valuable experience there. I always knew that I could never get to be the biggest band in Winnipeg. But we were a step above most of the Fort William bands because it was a smaller town, and we were from Winnipeg."
Young also found a new sound.
"We got into a thing in Fort William where we did classic folk songs with a rock ’n’ roll beat and changed the melody. It was pretty interesting."
On the trip to Fort William, Young piloted the 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse, nicknamed Mortimer Hearseburg or Mort, his mother bought him the year before. The Squires arrived in time to play between the Company’s sets. Young was impressed with the short, blond singer/guitarist with the group, who introduced songs with a southern accent. His name was Stephen Stills. The feeling was mutual.
"Neil was playing folk rock before anybody else," enthused Stills years later. "He had his big Gretsch guitar, a rock ’n’ roll band that had just switched from playing Louie Louie to playing the popular folk songs of the day with electric guitar, drums and bass. It was an interesting band because they could go right from Cotton Fields to Farmer John."
As Young recalled, "We got on quite well right away. Stills’ voice was phenomenal. His guitar playing was marginal. He was the rhythm guitarist and didn’t really get into playing lead guitar until the Springfield. He had been with several singers in the Au Go Go Singers and the whole hootenanny thing in New York, so he was voice-oriented, had voice training and knew harmony."
Young approached Stills at the end of the Company’ second set, and the two hit it off immediately.
"We had a great time running around in Neil’s hearse and drinking good, strong Canadian beer and being young and having a good time," Stephen recalled.
"At first I thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna quit this idiot group and go play with him right now.’"
But Stills had other plans. He was using the Company’s short Canadian tour to get himself further west, where he would quit and head to California.
'You wonder about kismet and fate and all that when you consider this. Truly amazing ‐ bass player Bruce Palmer
After the Company’s weeklong stand at Fort William’s 4D, the group left for another week’s engagement at Winnipeg’s 4D on Pembina Highway at University Drive. From there, they would play the 4D in Regina. Stills then left, using his earnings to buy a ticket for a bus bound for L.A. Meanwhile, Young remained in Fort William. Stills had given him an address in New York in case he ever went there. It was an apartment members of the Au Go Go Singers kept.
"We didn’t talk about forming a band together then, but we knew that we wanted to get together later," said Young.
"I knew he was going back to the States, and I wanted to go to the States, and now I knew a musician in the States."
On the afternoon of June 17, Young and various musicians were hanging out at the 4D in Fort William when local guitarist Terry Erickson asked Young if he would drive him to Sudbury. Erickson had a gig with a band there. The Squires had changed their name to the High Flying Birds, after the Billy Edd Wheeler folk song Stills had performed so well, and had a booking at Smitty’s Pancake House in a few days. With nothing better to do, Young agreed. Taking a few others along for the ride, Young borrowed money for gas from a friend, and off they went.
Near Blind River, Ont., Mort developed problems, ultimately stalling on the highway. The hearse, with its passengers on board, was towed to Bill’s Garage in Blind River. They never made it to Sudbury. Instead, after spending several days waiting for a new transmission, Young left for Toronto.
"It broke my heart to leave Mort behind," lamented Young. "I loved that hearse."
He later composed a paean to Mort called Long May You Run.
Young’s attempts at launching a music career in Toronto ran aground almost immediately. His new band, Four to Go, failed to score a single booking, and his turn as a solo folksinger also crash-landed after a couple of unremarkable gigs.
"Toronto was a very humbling experience for me," he admits.
"I just couldn’t get anything going."
In early December, Young and Koblun journeyed to New York, where Young hoped to score a solo recording contract. He went to the address Stills had given him only to discover his new-found friend was now in California. Instead, he was greeted by Au Go Go Singers alumnus Richie Furay, who was working at Pratt & Whitney Aeronautics in between music gigs.
Young played Furay a new composition of his, borne out of his frustrations over not being able to make any headway in his career. The song used Young’s former Kelvin High School classmate Clancy Smith as a metaphor for his own stalled ambitions, under the title Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing. Young recorded some demos at Elektra Records, but when they passed on him, he and Koblun returned to Toronto. Furay learned Young’s song, and when Stills contacted him in February (after failing a Monkees audition) to come out to L.A., he brought the song with him and taught it to Stills.
"It had a haunting melody to me," notes Furay.
"Maybe it was the way Neil sang it. It was certainly not a typical song like the kind I was used to listening to. It had metaphors and allegories about this classmate who was just one of those guys everybody picked on. What a strange song, but I was captivated by it."
In late January 1966, Young joined well-known Toronto rock band the Mynah Birds on rhythm guitar.
"I had to eat," states Young. "I needed a job, and it seemed like a good thing to do."
He had traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic 12-string, so he now added a pickup to it. Shortly thereafter, John Craig Eaton of the department store dynasty purchased new equipment for the band, including a Rickenbacker electric guitar for Neil.
The band soon fell apart during recording sessions in Detroit at Motown studios when singer Ricky James Matthews (later to become funk music star Rick James) was arrested in the studio for being AWOL from the U.S. navy. "We didn’t know he was a draft dodger," says Young.
The remainder of the band limped back to Toronto and folded.
"Neil and I were sitting at the Cellar Club in Yorkville one night in March just after the Motown deal fell flat," recalls Mynah Birds bass player Bruce Palmer. "Neil turns to me and says, ‘Let’s go to California.’ I thought that was a good idea. There was nothing else happening. So we decided then and there to head out to Los Angeles."
Young knew Stills was somewhere in Los Angeles, and the opportunity to put something together with him was inducement enough for heading south.
"Canada just couldn’t support the ideas I had," mused Young. "I just couldn’t get anyone to listen. By 1966, I knew I had to leave Canada, and the sounds I was hearing and the sounds I liked were coming from California. I knew that if I went down there I could take a shot at making it."
Young lost no time in putting his plan into motion. "We were like on a mission from God," he reflects, "and there was nothing going to stop us."
He needed a vehicle. Scouring car lots, he discovered a 1953 Pontiac hearse. But paying for it was another matter. In a brazen move considering the stuff wasn’t his, Young decided to sell all the Mynah Birds’ equipment — guitars, amps, drums — and use the money for the hearse.
"Bruce and I pawned all the band’s equipment," Young explained. "It was the only way we could go. The band had broken up. Bruce and I were the only ones who wanted to be in the band. Ricky was in jail. There was no Mynah Birds without him. It was the band’s equipment, but it was really Eaton’s equipment. We got the hearse and left within a couple of days. We took one guy with us named Mike whose last name I can’t remember, (folksinger) Tannis Neiman, another girl with long, red hair and a third girl, Jeannine Hollingshead. Three guys and three girls."
Recalling the hassles the Mynah Birds had endured at the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, Young instead journeyed hundreds of kilometres out of his way to enter the U.S. from Sault Ste. Marie.
"What we found at the border was laughable," Palmer remembered.
"There was this old man sitting in a rocking chair in front of a little shack out in the middle of nowhere."
Brandishing his Manitoba driver’s licence with his Grosvenor Avenue street address, Young said he was going home to Winnipeg to see his mother. Canadians often chose to drive the less-rugged U.S. route than through the Canadian Shield. Waved on through, the hearse made a detour soon after and headed down Route 66 bound for California.
"We were constantly stopped by highway patrolmen who were curious about what this was," recalls Palmer regarding the hearse.
"You have to visualize this. Six hippies — three guys and three girls — with musical instruments, marijuana stuffed into various pockets and crevices, who had crossed an international border."
All was not well, however, between the travellers. "These girls were driving Bruce and I nuts," stresses Young.
"They were destroying the car when they would drive, and I was paranoid the car was going to break down. I didn’t want another Blind River."
Unable to sleep when others took the wheel, Young soon assumed all the driving duties, day and night. The endurance took a toll on him.
"We got to Albuquerque, and I got real sick," he remembers, "almost a nervous breakdown from exhaustion or nerves. I had to lie down for three or four days."
Neiman, Hollingshead and Mike opted to remain in Albuquerque. Young, Palmer and the red-haired girl soldiered on, arriving in Los Angeles on April 1. It was hardly an auspicious arrival.
"We slept in the hearse, parking it on the street at night," says Young. "Right away after we got there, the red-haired girl got scared, so we sent her home on the bus. So it was Bruce and I in L.A."
The two set out to find Stills, unaware of his whereabouts or the fact Furay was with him.
"I knew Stills was down there, but I didn’t know where. Bruce didn’t know him, but I had told him about Stills. I was asking about him in clubs and coffeehouses around L.A."
That search strung out into almost a week. "To get money for gas, cigarettes and food, we used to rent out the hearse for rides from a place where there was a scene happening to another scene. But we never heard anything about Stephen, so Bruce and I decided to head north to San Francisco."
It was rush hour on the afternoon of April 6 when Young and Palmer attempted to wend their way northward on Sunset Boulevard heading out of town. At that same time, Stills, Furay and manager Barry Friedman were driving south on Sunset.
Furay takes up the story: "We were driving in a white van going south. I don’t remember what we were doing, but we got stuck in traffic. I spotted this black hearse with Ontario plates going the other way. Stills had told me Neil drove an old black hearse. Stephen was sure that it was Neil. Somehow we managed to change lanes and chase them down. We pull up behind them and honked our horn. Sure enough, it was Neil and Bruce." The two vehicles managed to pull into the parking lot of the Ben Franks restaurant on Sunset, where the occupants got out and hugged one another.
They reconvened at Friedman’s house on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood. Once there, Stills and Furay played Young’s song Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing for him. He was suitably impressed, and with Palmer on board, they agreed to form a band that very night.
"When Stephen and Richie sang Clancy to us, Neil and I were aghast," Palmer remembers.
"It was so good. They could really sing. Clancy had been the first song Neil had ever played for me. We were all looking for a band, and now we had one."
A mere five days later, Buffalo Springfield — with Canadian drummer Dewey Martin enlisted — made their debut at the Troubadour, using guitars and amplifiers borrowed from the Dillards.
"We were so confident of what we were doing and the sound we had that we saw ourselves as having no competition other than the Beatles or the Stones," says Young.
"It was that good in the beginning."
Writing to his mother back in Winnipeg a few weeks later, he declared, "Time meant nothing. We were ready."
A few weeks after forming, Buffalo Springfield was opening for the Byrds in Southern California.
"It all happened so fast," recalls Young.
"All of a sudden, things had a different perspective to them. The band was good. People were digging us. I was singing some songs and starting to develop again. It was really good, so I just went with it."
Reflecting on that serendipitous traffic-jam encounter, Palmer mused, "It was the most remarkable karmic event ever. We passed parallel to one another, and imagine if they had been looking the other way? You wonder about kismet and fate and all that when you consider this. Truly amazing."
Adds Furay, "Nobody could have made up this story. Nobody."
And what of the hearse, Mort II?
"I used to pick everybody up in the hearse, and we would drive it to the Byrds’ manager’s office," recalls Young.
"Then we would leave it there parked on the street and get into a limousine for the ride to the concert. One day, we got into the hearse and the back end fell out. It needed a U-joint, but we couldn’t find one, so we just left it there on the street and never came back."
Three months later, on July 28, Buffalo Springfield released their debut single, Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing.
Sign up for John Einarson’s summer Magical Musical History tours at heartlandtravel.ca.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.
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