Stick around 3 score years or so, and you’re likely to have a certain number of deja vu moments. Cue Stephen Stills’ 1967 hit, For What It’s Worth. [“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”] It became the anthem of the anti-Vietnam War movement, although he wrote it in response to a scuffle between rowdy clubbers and policemen in NYC [4 years before the student deaths @ Kent State, mind you, as mourned in his former bandmate Neil Young’s song, Tin Soldiers.]
[Music trivia note: The band’s name, Buffalo Springfield, has nothing to do with the Wild West, where endangered species roam, play, etc. It was inspired by a steamroller parked in the street outside their LA house, manufactured by the Buffalo-Springfield Roller Company.]
For me [who took to playing it on “infinite repeat” during those anarchic, all-bets-are-off days of the late 60s], the song had the power to transform my overwhelming fear (for myself, for my classmates who were facing the nightmarish fight [in Nam] or flight [to Canada] dilemma, and for my going-to-the-dogs country) into something less primal. Like all works of art (and this one earned the band induction into the Roll & Roll Hall of Fame, ya know), it imposed some order on the chaos, partly by making the general particular: “There’s a man with a gun over there.” As the song implies, it doesn’t much matter if he’s a public servant or a vigilante. Either way, it lights up our limbic system.
Good ol’ Stephen Stills channels his pre-frontal cortex, and advises, “I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”
There you have it. That’s the whole, sane, soothing message of his song. Not an empty promise of “Everything is going to be all right.” Not the braggadocio of “We will rock you.” Just, “Stop. Everybody look what’s going down.”
Cuz, as he said in another song, with another band, “We have all been here before…”