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This story is part of American Anthem, a one – year series on songs that spark, unite, celebrate and call for action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.
It was in February 1967 and Bill Ehrhart, an 18-year-old Navy first-class soldier, was a few days away from leaving for Vietnam. He had just enjoyed his last weekend off the base and his friends had offered to take him back to Camp Pendleton, California, before sunrise.
"It was a goodbye civilian world, next step in Vietnam," said Ehrhart, a writer and poet today.
During their nocturnal walk on the California coast, his friends turned on the radio. It is then that Ehrhart heard for the first time:
The radio was playing "For What It Worth" by Buffalo Springfield, the folk-rock band led by Stephen Stills and Neil Young.
"I remember very well thinking:" Wow, what a great song, "said Ehrhart." By the time I left the country, the anti-war movement was still a marginal movement, so I did not understand literally what those guys were singing. "
Although it is often recognized as an anthem of anti-war protest, "For what it's worth" does not really rest on Vietnam. Stephen Stills, the author of the song, was inspired by a home showdown that broke out on a few famous neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
LA's Sunset Strip was a world away from Vietnam: a crowded boulevard lined with billboards, gloomy music clubs and a teens-filled diner. In the 1960s, the region had the pulse of the rock and roll counterculture – and that's where Buffalo Springfield made its name.
"It was like a carnival halfway," says photographer Henry Diltz, who used to hang out on the Strip. "Hundreds and hundreds of young children, all dressed in socks and tinted dyes, came and went in the clubs and walked the streets, it was a kind of event."
But behind the bustling nightlife, there was a simmering tension. Owners of upmarket restaurants and luxury boutiques have complained that hordes of teenagers were bad for business. At the same time, Ernest E. Debs, Los Angeles County Supervisor, wanted to build a new highway and turn the Sunset Strip into a financial district, according to the book. Riot on Sunset Strip: the latest rock 'n roll stand in Hollywood.
In an effort to erase what Debs called "beatniks" and "crazy-eyed children," L.A. County began enforcing a 10-hour law. curfew for under 18s. In response, the youth scene has been transformed into waves of adolescent – led demonstrations against the forces of order.
"These were not neighborhood policemen dressed in a blue uniform," Diltz said. "They were policemen with helmets, big boots and hockey clubs – it was a scary scene in the midst of all that peace and love."
On November 12, 1966, a crowd of young people gathered in front of a club called Pandora's Box to protest the "disrespect and mistreatment inflicted on young people by the police", as described in the leaflets distributed in the region. Hundreds of teenagers blocked the boulevard, some carrying placards: "Youth Rights too", "Stop Blue Fascism", "Leave us alone".
The police shouted through the horns of bulls: "Anyone under the age of 18 staying in the area will be arrested. When the protesters refused to leave at 10 pm, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department began their crackdown. The confrontation became known as the Sunset Strip Curfews.
A local KBLA disc jockey, known as Humble Harve, broke the format to take listeners' calls about "the situation on Sunset Strip". "I saw him," a correspondent told him on the airwaves. "I saw the teenagers being beaten – beaten – by the police. "
Michael Rummans, a local musician and regular at the Sunset Strip, still remembers how he was confronted when he approached the scene: "A policeman came to me and he said: & # 39 "Get out of here now or I'll get you out of this car and kick you out."
"We decided not to leave," says Francie Zbilski, who was inside Pandora's Box with her boyfriend that night. "We were all prepared for the idea that we were going to be arrested. The club was usually a noisy scene with a rowdy crowd and live music, but that night, she said, the guests were quiet. She could hear the hubbub outside, then came a powerful knock at the door.
"I've never seen so many police officers in my life," she says. "We were just surrounded by policemen, like an army of them."
Zbilski says that she was taken outside to be able to check the IDs. "The cop behind me stuck a stick between the shoulder blades and pushed me, which prompted me to turn around and give him a finger – because, you know, at 16, I was really brave, "she laughs. "I would not do that now."
In the street, the protesters had taken the bus from the city. As the police rushed to intervene, Zbilski slipped into the crowd. She has never been arrested.
According to legend, Stephen Stills, troubled by the images of police brutality that night, wrote "For what it's worth" in 15 minutes. The band's director, Richard "Dickie" Davis, was in the studio when Buffalo Springfield recorded the song.
"It was recorded in one night: voice, overdubs, bass track, everything that was done in one night," said Davis. Despite all this momentum, Stills feared how the band could be screened if the song was successful.
"That name," For what it's worth, "is the kind of name most" aw, shucks, "says Davis. "Like," Oh yeah, well, here's my opinion, you do not have to listen to it. … He was worried that this would define the band and he did not want that to happen produce. "
But he did it: "For what it's worth" has become a lasting success. Whether we talk about Vietnam War or Sunset Strip, the song was for young people caught at the front.
"The song was about the time," says Davis. "The protests for the Vietnam War were at stake at that time and they were in the spirit of Stephen, just like anything else.The song was written about the Sunset Strip, but it is bigger than that. "
Thirteen months after hearing the song on the way back to base, Bill Ehrhart returned from Vietnam. This was not the war he had been waiting for.
"A few months after I arrived in Vietnam, I realized:" I do not know what's going on here, but it's certainly not what Lyndon Johnson and my high school teachers m & # 39; 39, said, "he said. said.
As anti-war protests multiplied throughout the country, Ehrhart's policy changed little by little. The next time he heard Buffalo Springfield, "For what it's worth" meant something else.
Something is happening here
What is not quite clear
There is a man with a gun there
Tell me that I have to be wary
"I realized, hearing this song again -" Oh, wait a minute. I was the guy with the gun over there. I am the bad guy, "says Ehrhart." Whenever I hear this song, I think of my innocence and my ignorance. I did not know at all what would happen to me. And that's what the song brings me. "