Made mu­sic his­tory

Los An­ge­les traf­fic changed the course of rock

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - WORLD -

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.

COUR­TESY OWEN CLARK

Stills and Young re­hearse at the Whisky a Go Go club on bor­rowed gui­tars in May 1966. Band­mates Ken Koblun (from left), Young and Bob Clark with Young’s first hearse.

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