Mr. Soul (1967)
She said, You’re strange,
but don’t change,
and I let her.
When Neil Young and Steve Stills hit a groove they were always unstoppable.
“Mr. Soul” from 1967′s Buffalo Springfield Again is one of a handful of examples when it all went down just right, all the parts fitting like those in a Swiss clock. One painted Day-Glo colors, of course.
Drop by to pick up a listen:
The result is a classic Psychedelic Rock track, a bizarre meeting of guitar minds, and the ghost of music groups yet to come – in this case Neil Young’s monumental work with Crazy Horse, and the conflict-ridden Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young efforts that careened from lollipop music to killer heavy Rock.
From the opening riffs we know we’re in for a rare treat. They herald weirdness of the first order. Neil’s lyrics are already pointed in the direction of the elliptical style he would refine on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere after stumbling on his garbled first album, the eponymous Neil Young.
The verbal obliqueness grew organically out of his songwriting on the first Buffalo Springfield album, named simply after the group. “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” a moving soliloquy about misinterpreting romantic signals and the utter aloneness each human being experiences, and the haunting, teary-eyed Country masterpiece, “Flying On The Ground” contain lyrical signposts for the future Young canon. “Expecting To Fly” falls into the same category and then plummets into the inner space of another dimension.
“Mr. Soul” is a flat-out rocker. Neil and Steve Stills battle it out like two warriors from The Hobbit. They are struggling for supremacy in the ensemble; that they don’t declare a truce till the song ends is all to the great delight of the listener.
Although they have to pay obeisance to their psychedelic predecessors, The Springfield grab the Byrds by the lapel and shake them until they’re near dead or at least lost a hell of a lot of plumage.
Richie Furay provides a furious, driving rhythm guitar while Neil and Steve duke it out. Dewey Martin uses his drums sparingly, clearly heavily under the spell of Ringo Starr’s pre-Pepper playing. It fits “Mr. Soul” to a T, clipping along with the other players without overwhelming the relatively spare arrangement.
Well hello Mr. Soul,
I dropped by
to pick up a reason
For the thought that I caught
that my head
is the event of the season
Why in crowds just a trace
of my face
could seem so pleasin’
I’ll cop out to the change,
but a stranger
is putting the tease on
The song is vaguely about existentialism, vaguely about Neil’s relationship with his audience, a little bit impressionistic, a little concrete. In the end, regardless of what he might be “saying,” his voice carries us on down a rushing spring-melt river. It’s exciting, scary, puzzling and pleasurable.
A bare minute into the song, after the second verse ends, Young and Stills engage in a guitar duet that gives birth to Grunge but also nods to the pair’s mutual fascination with country music. The hard rocking saber-rattling gives way to something like a panorama, a vast open vista of the mind, perhaps somewhere in the American (or Canadian) mountain west. Mesas, ravines, canyons, big sky everywhere.
The solo then turns into a short, punchy journey into acid-head Rock, playing a few games by altering the speed of the tape.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the less-than-three-minute tune is that Young samples himself using the song on the last cut of Buffalo Springfield Again, “Broken Arrow,” the sober, kaleidoscopic survey of North American history. The version is a different one than the regular cut and lasts about half a minute, slower, choppy and, if ears don’t deceive, it sounds as if Neil is doing a send up of Otis Redding on “Try A Little Tenderness,” when Otis sings “You got to, got to, got to…”
Underneath all that are fade-ins and fade-outs of crowds cheering as if at a Rock concert. Some odd reference to Beatlemania? (The Buffalo Springfield were known, at least for PR purposes, as “The American Beatles.”)
This was a sign of things to come. Flying under radar, “Mr. Soul” is Neil’s most-often-released song.
The song is tantalizing because we are given a taste of what might have happened had Stills and Neil not fought like brothers with bad blood between them. Young turned out to be one of the best, most prolific songwriters of his era. Stills got the short end of the stick, although intermittently he’s managed to put together some brilliant work. He remains one of the least appreciated guitar players in the history of Rock.
Note the riff lift from The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” almost a steal but not quite.
Also note the second video in the library is based on a 45 rpm single mono mix with a much farther out guitar solo than the stereo album track. Well worth listening to.
The closing verse begins:
In a while will the smile
on my face
turn to plaster?
And that about sums it up.
- It seems that as soon as Neil Young was joining The Buffalo Springfield, he was exiting. He was testy about sham appearances on mainstream TV shows, such as Johnny Carson’s Tonight.
- Young once told British music magazine Mojo, “I thought it was belittling [to] what the Buffalo Springfield was doing. That audience wouldn’t have understood us. We’d have been just a fucking curiosity to them.”