Inside Buffalo Springfield's Anthem To The Sunset Strip Curfew Riots Though often associated with the Vietnam War, Buffalo Springfield's signature song was inspired by a confrontation back home, which erupted on a few famous blocks in Los Angeles.
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A Thousand People In The Street: 'For What It's Worth' Captured Youth In Revolt

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A Thousand People In The Street: 'For What It's Worth' Captured Youth In Revolt

A Thousand People In The Street: 'For What It's Worth' Captured Youth In Revolt

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It was a cool California night, February 1967. Poet and writer Bill Ehrhart was an 18-year-old Marine. He was enjoying a weekend with friends before his deployment.

BILL EHRHART: Linda and her older sister Patty were taking me back to base. And I would leave for Vietnam within - I don't remember exactly - two or three days.

GREENE: They were driving, listening to some music.

EHRHART: In those predawn hours, the girls had the radio on, and there it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD SONG, "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

EHRHART: I vividly remember thinking, wow, what a cool song. I mean, I literally didn't understand what these guys were singing about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) There's something happening here, but what it is ain't exactly clear.

GREENE: Those guys were Buffalo Springfield, and their tune, "For What It's Worth," captured the imagination of the Vietnam War generation, including Erhrart on his ride back to base.

EHRHART: You know, it was goodbye, civilian world. Next stop, Vietnam

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) Stop, children. What's that sound? Everybody look what's going down.

GREENE: This song is part of our American Anthem series. And one thing to know - "For What It's Worth" was not actually written about the Vietnam War. NPR's Danny Hajek has the story.

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: It was a world away from Vietnam - a crowded boulevard lined with billboards, dumpy music clubs and a diner packed with teenagers. The Sunset Strip in Los Angeles was the pulse of the counterculture and 1960s rock 'n' roll.

HENRY DILTZ: It was like a carnival midway.

HAJEK: Music photographer Henry Diltz was there.

DILTZ: Hundreds and hundreds of young kids, all dressed up in bell-bottoms, whatever, tie-dyes. And they would come in and out of the clubs and just walk up and down the street. It was kind of a happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is it - the famous Sunset Strip in Hollywood, the neon Neverland that the modset calls home.

HAJEK: Buffalo Springfield made their name on the strip, led by a couple of long-haired guys named Stephen Stills and Neil Young. This was the setting behind their song, "For What It's Worth." Behind the vibrant nightlife, there was simmering tension. Developers wanted to turn the Sunset Strip into an upscale financial district, according to the book "Riot On Sunset Strip," a history of the era. So LA County began enforcing a curfew for anyone under 18.

DILTZ: They didn't like all those damn hippie kids being there at night. Well, you know, get over it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Now.

HAJEK: That youth scene turned into waves of teenage-led protests against law enforcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Do we want the strip back?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Yeah.

HAJEK: The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the LAPD were called in. Henry Diltz remembers.

DILTZ: And these were not friendly neighborhood cops, you know, in a blue uniform. These were patrolmen with helmets and great big jack boots and billy clubs. Yeah, it was kind of a scary scene in the midst of all that peace and love.

HAJEK: On November 12, 1966, at 10 p.m., police began their crackdown. It became known as the Sunset Strip curfew riots. Buffalo Springfield's song "For What It's Worth," it's based on that night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) There's something happening in here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARVE MILLER: The music has been stopped for this hour, taking calls on the situation on the Sunset Strip.

HAJEK: This local disc jockey named Humble Harve took calls from listeners that night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLER: A lot of people are saying police are hassling teenagers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I've seen the teenagers be beaten - beaten by the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) I think it's time we stop, children. What's that sound? Everybody look what's going down.

HAJEK: Local musician Michael Rummans remembers pulling up to the scene.

MICHAEL RUMMANS: A cop came up to me, and he said, get out of here right now, or I'll drag you out of that car and kick the [expletive] out of you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Anyone under the age of 18 years old remaining in the area will be arrested.

FRANCIE ZBILSKI: We decided not to leave. We were all kind of prepared for the fact that we were going to be arrested.

HAJEK: Francie Zbilski and her boyfriend were inside a tiny music club when police stormed in.

ZBILSKI: The cop behind me stuck a billy club in between my shoulder blades, and he gave me a good shove, which elicited me turning around and giving him the finger because, you know, at 16, I was really brave (laughter). I wouldn't do that now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) What a field day for the heat, a thousand people in the street.

HAJEK: Legend has it, Stephen Stills, who heard about the protests while he was up in San Francisco, wrote "For What It's Worth" in just 15 minutes. Band manager Richard "Dickie" Davis was in the studio when Buffalo Springfield recorded it.

RICHARD DAVIS: It was recorded in one night. Vocals, overdubs, bass track - all that was done in one night. And it was a hit.

HAJEK: It's so often associated with the Vietnam War, but here it's written about something else.

DAVIS: The song was about the times. The protests for the Vietnam War were in play right then, and they were on Stephen's mind, just as much as anything else. The song was written about the Sunset Strip, but you know, it's bigger than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) We better stop now. What's that sound? Everybody look what's going down. We better stop, children. What's that sound?

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

HAJEK: Thirteen months after he heard that song in his friend's car on his way back to base, Bill Ehrhart returned from Vietnam. It wasn't the war he expected.

EHRHART: Within a few months of my arrival in Vietnam, I had realized that I don't know what's happening here, but it sure as heck isn't what Lyndon Johnson and my high school teachers told me was going on.

HAJEK: As the anti-war movement grew across the country, Ehrhart's politics started to change, too. The next time he heard Buffalo Springfield, "For What It's Worth" meant something else.

EHRHART: I realized, hearing that song again, oh, wait a minute...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) There's a man with a gun over there.

EHRHART: I was the guy with the gun over there. I'm the bad guy. Every time I hear that song, I think about how innocent I was, how little I knew. I had no idea what was about to happen to me. And that's what the song brings back for me, is just how - I don't know how else to say it - how naive I was.

HAJEK: A song about Vietnam, a song about the Sunset Strip - "For What It's Worth" was for the young people speaking their mind. Danny Hajek, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) There's battle lines being drawn and nobody's right if everybody's wrong.

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