Everybody look what’s going down – Stills song still rings true

 There’s something happening here – what it is ain’t exactly clear.

Stephen Stills

Last week at The Egg, the crowd cheered when Stephen Stills sang the opening words to his classic song, “For What It’s Worth,” as his final encore. The lyrics ring as true today as they did 45 years ago when he wrote them for Buffalo Springfield, and he sang them with a gutsy sense of urgency.

You can find the lyrics in full at the end of this post, along with a surprising twist on the events that inspired them. But what motivated me to write about the concert was the vivid  memory of my encounter with Stills in1972. He was playing with his band Manassas at the Academy of Music on 14th Street in New York City, the same venue where I first heard the Rolling Stones. A man I can’t recall had scored tickets to the Manassas concert and a coveted invitation to the party that followed, and he invited me along.

The concert was excellent, but Stephen thought otherwise. At the party, in a high-rise apartment on the East Side, I found myself in a bedroom with him and numerous others. Various drugs were there in abundance – even opium – but for the most part, I wasn’t partial to those kinds of substances. Perhaps I’d had a bit too much to drink, though. Stephen was critiquing the concert, saying that the band had sounded shitty and the whole performance was crap. 

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” I remember saying. “You shouldn’t put yourself down like that; you sounded great.”  He mumbled something in reply, and we went back to partying. So much for that fleeting brush with fame. 

At The Egg 39 years later, he still had that same self-deprecating quality. He joked about his failing memory for lyrics, attributing it to drugs as well as aging. Mentioning Aspen, he said “I spent most of the time face down in the snow – no, wait, that was Miami.”  The 1980’s went by in a blur, apparently, but his recall of lyrics was just fine, and his guitar playing was excellent. 

His voice is beginning to fail, and he actually sang off-key at times, especially in the first set. Remembering the elegant harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash, I could barely believe it was the same singer. Even so, his raggedy voice has a lived-in quality that’s still compelling. Yesterday I heard the original Buffalo Springfield version of “For What It’s Worth” while I was driving to the YMCA, and his voice was much less expressive than it is today.

Researching Stills and the song online, I learned that although people consider it a protest song about the war in Vietnam and our society in general, in fact he wrote it about a riot on the Sunset Strip in 1966, protesting early curfews for the clubs. The title, “For what it’s worth,” comes from a conversation he had with Ahmet Ertugun of Atlantic Records – “Here’s a new song, for what it’s worth.” 

Even so, the song packs a powerful message today, especially as we approach the tenth anniversary of the Patriot Act:

For What It’s Worth

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, hooray for our side

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
You better Stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
You better Stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down 

The Sixties were a tumultuous decade. Fifty years later, as the gulf between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider and our Big Brother government has the wherewithal to track our every move, we’re on the verge of another seismic shift in our society. Stephen Stills is right: everybody look what’s going down. It may well be the country we used to call the land of the free.

So what can we do about it? As they used to say, “think globally, act locally.” Or, with an election year coming up, act nationally. Too bad it’s probably too late for a viable third-party candidate to come along, but let’s make ourselves heard.


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