Such a quiet opening. Just two guitar chords, a steady, pulsing drumbeat and Stephen Stills’s voice, soft and low…There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear…
“For What It’s Worth” is creatively interesting because its inspiration is so far removed from the way it has been received by listeners.
Most people think of it as a classic protest anthem (as in this Youtube video) but it was actually inspired by a 1960s non-event in LA, “The Sunset Strip riots” but its plea for creative attention takes it way beyond its origination.
It was written in December 1966, by Canadian singer-songwriter Stephen Stills (the first person to be inducted twice on the same night into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work with Crosby, Stills & Nash and Buffalo Springfield).
At that time, Buffalo Springfield was the house band at “Whisky A-Go-Go”, on Sunset Strip. Local residents and businesses were annoyed by late-night crowds going to the clubs and bars along the Strip and lobbied the city to enforce a curfew after 10pm. Young music fans took this as an infringement of their civil rights.
Local rock radio stations rallied behind an organised protest which brought celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda down for a bit of civil unrest. The closure of some clubs followed.
It was against this background that Stills recorded what was to become Buffalo Springfield’s biggest hit.
Generally speaking, the more subtle and ambiguous and open to interpretation a song is, the more artful it is. (Just as the more subtle and ambiguous and open to interpretation our actions are, the more creative our outcomes in life.)
In its low insistence on creative attention, that the necessary response to stop and listen to the young (a metaphor here, and always, for the creative spirit) and in its plea to go beyond right and wrong and just wake up to what is there, underneath, always, “For What It’s Worth” transcends its time and place and inspiration.
So, for what it’s worth, Stop, children, what’s that sound…everybody look what’s going down…
For another take, again highlighting the creative ambiguity of the song, here’s the Muppet Show version: