Working with Neil Young in choosing material for the new four-disc Buffalo Springfield boxed set “was like watching a home movie and visiting your therapist at the same time,” Stephen Stills says, before erupting in loud, throaty laughter. “Neil and I just sat there and laughed and cried and held hands and hugged.”
“At one point,” Stills adds, “Neil and I even went, ‘Wow! You can hear us — we’re starting to deteriorate right there, we’re starting to fall apart.'”
The fruits of that “therapy” see the light of day on July 17, when Rhino issues the 88-track, $59.98 “Box Set,” a project Young has been working on sporadically for about a decade. With more than 30 priceless demos — including several tracks featuring Young on solo guitar and lead vocal — “Box Set” is the first multi-disc set to honor the revered, short-lived supergroup. Over just 19 months in 1967 and ’68, Buffalo Springfield established itself as a folk/country/rock pioneer, producing the transcendent political anthem “For What It’s Worth” along the way.
Stills notes that, in addition to Young, production coordinator Joel Bernstein deserves much of the credit for unearthing, obtaining, listening to, and laboring over the music used on “Box Set.” “I couldn’t listen to it all at one time. Neil and I nearly went mad. It was so emotionally draining. It’s like revisiting your childhood.”
While Young worked on the project in between albums and tours, Bernstein invested a couple of years into cataloging the tracks considered for “Box Set.” The collection includes remastered versions of the band’s first two albums — “Buffalo Springfield” and “Buffalo Springfield Again” — in their entirety.
The Los Angeles-based group’s third and final album, “Last Time Around,” was released after the band (Stills, Young, singer/guitarist Richie Furay, drummer Dewey Martin, and bassist Bruce Palmer, who was later replaced by Jim Messina) broke up. It was completed without the full involvement of its members. Though the band wasn’t entirely happy with “Last Time Around,” all but two tracks from the album are included on “Box Set.” Two of the songs have been remixed.
Furay, now a minister living in Boulder, Colo., says the recent completion of “Box Set” also has him strolling down memory lane. “I found myself sitting there saying, ‘Oh, my God. I forgot about this,’ or ‘I forgot that this was even recorded,’ ” he says. “One of the biggest surprises for me was when we got around to the third disc, and I heard a song that I wrote called ‘What a Day,’ and Steven’s singing it. That blew me away because, No. 1, it sounded really good. And, No. 2, I never remembered him even doing a vocal on it.
“I can hear how some of the songs got worked and why we chose one song over another,” Furay adds. “Steven and Neil were very prolific. Songs were coming together so fast and furious that maybe one song fell together quicker than another song. I remember Steve coming to me and playing me a song, saying, ‘Here, what do you think of this?’ And, boy, I was like, ‘Wow, man, that’s good. We ought to record that.’ But two days later, he would come to me and say, ‘Here’s another one, what do you think?’ It would be just one right after the other. Neil was the same way.”
In their brief time together, the members of Buffalo Springfield were not only heartthrobs (clippings from the teen magazines of the day are included in the boxed set’s booklet) but trailblazing genre-benders.
“The vision and the level of creativity that they had, given the fact that these were really young guys, is just mind-blowing,” James Austin, Rhino senior director of A&R for special projects, says. “When was the first time you ever heard banjo on rock’n’roll radio? It was the extended version of ‘Bluebird.’ That’s pretty ballsy. I mean, we’re talking about the late ’60s. There was a stigma about country music and all that twang. But when you heard Buffalo Springfield employing all those country-twangy elements and the harmonies of that music — but not trying to be country music — it was like, ‘Wow! This doesn’t sound like anything before.’ “
Austin says that everything about “Box Set” — the look, the sound, everything — has been “Neil Young’s vision.” Final approval for everything down to the text on the label’s stickering has gone through the office of Young’s manager, Elliott Roberts. After years of anticipation, Young delivered the collection to the label about three months ago.
Inside the set’s booklet is a collage of authentic newspaper clippings. “The audience left their seats to mass at the edge of the stage during the long last song [“Bluebird”], applauding and cheering emotionally,” reads a review of the band’s final concert — a gig at the Long Beach Arena in California.
Over the past 30 years, a mystique has built up around Buffalo Springfield — partly because the band was so innovative when its members were so young (in their early- to mid-20s), partly because the band proved to be a launching pad (it included future members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Poco; and Loggins & Messina), and partly because it was able to so encapsulate the mood of Vietnam War-era America in the two minutes and 37 seconds of “For What It’s Worth,” a song that has remained a classic-rock radio evergreen.
“It’s weird,” Furay says. “People are still coming up to me and telling me, ‘You did this.’ And I think that’s partly because nobody really had a chance to see or hear us. We never really toured extensively.”
Stills and Furay attribute the band’s breakup to youth — and the arrogance, insensitivity, and foolishness it brings. Buffalo Springfield fell apart just as it was beginning to capture its live energy, Stills says. “We used to rock like the Rolling Stones. And nothing that we ever cut got that power. I mean, we scared the hell out of ’em at the Hollywood Bowl. We rocked… we just never got it on record. And we were busting up just as we were learning how to get things to sound right.”
Unfortunately, “Box Set” doesn’t give fans any sense of that “power.” Although full of demos and alternate versions of songs, the set lacks any live material. Instead, the collection — which starts off strong, with 11 previously unreleased demos — includes both stereo and mono versions of many of the tracks from the band’s first two albums, which both appear together, in their original song sequence, on the fourth disc.
The 1999-2000 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion came as a result of Stills and Young collaborating on “Box Set”, but it’s unclear whether Buffalo Springfield will have such a revival. “It’s up to Neil,” Furay says. On his last studio album, Young included the sweetly nostalgic, almost apologetic “Buffalo Springfield Again,” which remembers their time together and seems to hint at a reunion.
Reunion or no reunion, there couldn’t be a finer way to go out than “Box Set”, says Furay, who adds that, on the demos the band is “wearing it on our sleeves. Steven and I were singing together, in harmony, in duet. We didn’t have the digital stuff to make sure that that was on pitch. We actually sang on pitch, we sang in key. It’s on the sleeve: What you hear is what you get, and that’s who we were.”