Made music history
Los Angeles traffic changed the course of rock
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.
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.