Friday Evening Videos: “For What It’s Worth”

For a time in my teens and early twenties, I had a serious thing for the music of the 1960s. I remember I was becoming disenchanted with the direction contemporary pop music was headed by the late ’80s; meanwhile, the ’60s were very alive and accessible in the culture at that point, with constant media chatter about various landmark anniversaries, and period TV shows like The Wonder Years, China Beach, and occasional episodes of Quantum Leap. Probably the biggest reason was that I was spending every available moment of free time in the driver’s seat of my old ’63 Galaxie, which had only a stock AM radio, and there wasn’t much else to listen to on AM.

But whatever the impetus, I responded to this uncharted sonic territory like fanboys have done from time immemorial, by diving in headfirst and trying to learn everything about it I possibly could. I fondly recall afternoons at the library, paging through the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll and fat tell-all biographies of Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys. I loved discovering the connections between bands that I knew and ones I’d never heard of, and learning how the whole thing evolved. And I loved having this thing I could call my own. A lot of kids latched onto punk or Goth or some other form of “alternative” music. Later on, they’d have their grunge. Me, I expressed my individuality by digging the Sixties.

Eventually, the passion cooled and I moved on to other things, as one does. But there is still a lot of music from that era that I enjoy. Some of it is very badly dated now — the psychedelic stuff sounds really lame to me these days — but as with any musical genre or era, there are some songs that transcend their origins and continue to resonate. This week’s “Friday evening” selection is one of those.

“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield was written by Steven Stills, who would later become part of Crosby, Stills & Nash (and occasionally Young), and later still enjoy a successful solo career. The song is often said to be about the infamous Kent State massacre, when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fired on unarmed college students during an anti-war protest, killing four of them; in reality, the song was written in 1966, four years prior to the events at Kent State, which occurred in 1970. Released in 1967, it would become the band’s highest-charting hit and is today ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

It’s a song that has haunted me at various times in my life. It comes to mind whenever the world feels like it’s spinning a little too fast, or is about to tip all the way over. The lyrics about paranoia and battle lines never seem to lose their relevance, and just lately, with all the back-and-forth about police brutality and who’s got privilege and who doesn’t, the bit about a man with a gun “telling me I got to beware” is downright chilling. Especially today, the day after Charleston. I’ve been feeling an angry energy building out there, like static electricity in the air. At times like this, when all the troubles of our nation lay exposed on the ground beneath an unflinching sun and civilization itself feels most precarious, “For What It’s Worth” starts playing in my head.

The video clip I’ve found for tonight is a live performance from the Monterrey Pop Festival, a landmark concert event that predated the more famous Woodstock by two years. It’s a bit more upbeat than most versions of the song I’ve heard, and we’ve got some nice imagery of cute little hippie children and balloons to take off some of the edge. And just for fun, Buffalo Springfield is introduced by Peter Tork of The Monkees:

And with that, as they used to say back in the days of flowers and love, “Peace.”