Part 7: Springfield's Producer Jim Messina
In last March issue Uncut , we brought you the inside story on Neil Young’s long-awaited Archives project. We spoke to his friends, colleagues and conspirators and, over the next few weeks on uncut.co.uk, we’ll be printing the complete transcripts of these interviews.
Previous installments are available by using the links in the side panel on the right.
Part 7: JIM MESSINA
The Buffalo Springfield’s recording engineer and producer before replacing Bruce Palmer on bass in 1968 for the final LP, Last Time Around. Also played on Young’s solo debut.
I was hired as a recording engineer at Sunset Sound in LA. The first musician I’d worked with was actually David Crosby, who’d come in with a young girl singer who was looking for a record deal. They did about 12 tunes. It was the first time I’d ever heard anybody that phenomenal and it turned out to be Joni Mitchell. She was just exceptionally wonderful. Then I think David went back and told Neil about me.
Working on Buffalo Springfield Again was interesting. I had been working with various other people already, so editing tape with a razor blade and all it entailed wasn’t unusual for me. So when Neil brought in “Broken Arrow” what was interesting was that he wanted to use all these separate pieces. That was a first for me, but I knew what we had to do to make it work. The first person I ever met from the Buffalo Springfield was Neil. I was there as the engineer and he came in as the Buffalo Springfield, because that was what was marked on the work board. So I presumed his role was producer. He brought tons of tapes in with him, I think from Columbia Records, who’d started the project. Apparently something had happened with their management: Charlie Greene and Brian Stone. At that time I didn’t know all the politics of it, I was just brought in as engineer. I had no idea what had gone on, so I just thought Neil was the producer of the band. He always seemed extremely professional, with a good sense of what he wanted to do. And he knew how to convey it and was very good at articulating it. He was also very kind and supportive and certainly not someone who wanted to come in and take control. He was interested in it all and would ask questions. I think the most important thing was that I really felt he was there to help everybody, it wasn’t just about Neil. Sooner or later I got to meet the individual guys. But when I worked alone with Neil it wasn’t about making his own guitar parts sounds better, it was about making the best-sounding record he could, with the material he had to work with.
I think the episode that most summed up Neil’s creativity was working on “Broken Arrow”. I got a chance to see how his mind worked in terms of piecing all those images together. The last part has that jazz part in it, which I never understood why he wanted it there. But when it all came together, it was quite wonderful. And I would never have pictured that in that way, but Neil did. Sitting back and watching him think it through, then bringing the band in and getting them to play it, then putting that little piece in at the end, was fascinating. I remember him standing up when it was done, with a huge smile on his face, and saying: “That’s it. That’s great.” It’s wonderful to see anybody who has a passion and vision for something and is able to put it all together.
With Last Time Around, again I never knew what was going on with these guys, I just heard that Neil had left the band at some point. Then when I was finishing that record, he contacted me to say he had a song he wanted to add to it. I asked him if he needed help and he told me he was going to cut it in this small studio somewhere else. So he finished it up himself. I don’t think it was anything personal, it was just that work needed to get done and I was working on other things. And he took great care in getting it to me. I think by then he’d separated himself from the rest of the band and was happier working alone. When Neil and I worked together, it was all about the music. I didn’t know anything about him because he never talked about that stuff. I didn’t know about his relationships, or his parents or where he came from. It was strictly about the work that needed doing. When I was working with them, the Buffalo Springfield would very seldom play together, with everybody in the same room. Neil brought over a bunch of things from Columbia which needed things adding. It was a very incomplete project. I remember “On The Way Home” was something they did all play together on, but they’d get one piece right here and one piece right there. In the end I got tired and a little cranky so I said “Why don’t you guys go home and I’ll have this thing finished for tomorrow?” The next day I came in and edited it all together into one piece of work. Last Time Around took a lot of work to put together. [Label boss] Ahmet Ertegun had called me and said that he needed these guys to finish the record and didn’t trust any other producers to do it. What I realised though, when I got into it, was that I had to look at each of these guys and ask what were their individual needs. Neil had the least need for me because, again, he knew what he was doing and what he wanted. Stephen, on the other hand, was very impetuous. He’d come in, plug in his guitar and say: “Let’s start recording.” He wanted everything immediately, if not sooner. Richie had the right music but needed to be shown how to get it done. Stephen was really just trying to keep everything together by that time. But around completion time, people started giving up. My own biggest hope was that if I could get this thing completed and it was a biggish success, it might bring these guys back together again. For me, their biggest problem was that I got a sense they were struggling financially. It was hard to make ends meet. I’d go around to Richie’s house, for instance, and the food on the table was very modest. From a songwriting point of view, you had Richie writing in a more country-rock direction, Neil in another and Stephen in a different one. But when all these pieces came together, it really was phenomenal. To this day, “Bluebird” is one of my favourites. When they were actually together, it was wonderful.
I think Neil was initially dismissive of Last Time Around because it wasn’t the album he wanted it to be. But I knew it was what it was, what each of them had or had not contributed. Maybe Neil felt there were things he hadn’t contributed, which would give cause to that effect.
I remember Neil being aloof and not saying a lot, but I didn’t take that as something personal. I felt that my respect for him and my service for him was a case of giving him all that I had to give. I gave him no more or no less than any of the other guys. It’s just that someone like Richie required more attention. So yes, Neil was aloof but I remember other people feeling the same thing too.
The final Buffalo Springfield gig at Long Beach [May 1968] was very emotional. My heart felt like it was ten times bigger than it should be and I was really trying to keep myself from leaking. I guess I was feeling lost. I felt it was like ‘What are we gonna do now?’ I’d put so much of my heart and soul into that record [Last Time Around] and, as well as being the engineer, I was also the bass player. I was very much tethered to it in as much as wanting to help all of them. From what I recall, the record wasn’t finished yet, so I felt very suspended. While everyone was celebrating, I still had commitments to honour. I couldn’t just say ‘fuck it’.
I knew Neil had had seizures before, but had never been in his presence while he was having one. My aunt had had them, so it wasn’t a mystery to me. Neil had a seizure on stage in Jacksonville, Florida, in April 1968. What really saddened me about that night, and I’ll go to my grave with this feeling, was it was the first time I recall that his parents had come over to the United States to see him play. They were in the audience. It was a very hot night and on the way there, Dewey [Martin] had been begging us to stop for something to drink. He finally convinced us to get some Applejack wine. Needless to say, when we rolled out of the limousine I was totally ripped. So I grabbed my bass and went out on stage. When it came to “Good Time Boy”, Dewey got down from his drums, took his shirt off and jumped down into the audience, where he started singing. A very large Southern policeman then came over, grabbed him by the hair of his head, jerked the mike around and said: “The concert’s over.” Around that time, Neil had walked off stage and then had fallen. Everyone was scrambling to get out of there, then I saw him lying there all by himself. My thoughts were, ‘Isn’t anybody going to help? Where is everyone?’ And I remember there was a little tear coming out of the corner of his eye. It really saddened me because I knew his parents were there to see him. So it must have had an effect on him, to have a seizure at that point. And I didn’t see anybody coming to help. It really freaked me out. Then somebody grabbed me and said: “You’ve got to leave!” So he was just left there. To this day I find that memory really sad.
I remember visiting Neil at the house that [astrologer and “good witch”] Kiyo Hodell had sorted for him in Laurel Canyon. She had a very interesting cottage of her own: very fantasy-like, very fairy-like. I was in her house and these beehives came pouring out of her fireplace. She was very sweet and I certainly never felt she was a bad person. I never had any sense that Neil was in danger, for example. There was no sense of her leading him or misguiding him. If I looked at it in this day and age, she’d be seen as more of a goddess type than a witch.
I enjoyed playing on Neil first solo album. I can’t remember exactly what song we were working on, but I recall walking in there and saying to him “I’d like to write a chart out on this.” Neil just replied, “Well, it’s pretty easy.” So I wrote the chart out on it, then went and sat down and asked if we could run through it. After we’d done that I told Neil “Right, I think I have it. Let’s play it for real.” And he just said, “Nah, we’ve got it. That’s fine.” And that was it. It was wonderful working that way. I have to tell you I would have loved to have played with Neil again after that record. But after Buffalo Springfield, I felt Richie was the one left hanging the most. And because he’d helped me get the last record finished, I had that empathy with him. And that’s what led to Poco. Neil never really conveyed to me that he would like me to work with him again, although I probably would have enjoyed that experience much more, if only because Neil was so much into the electronics of music. He and I both liked old sounds and compressors. He still has an amp of mine that I lent him many years ago. And we traded guitars. I gave him my old black Les Paul that wasn’t tuned up. We shared a lot of things back then. In the long run I probably would have been more musically satisfied if I’d played with Neil. But working with Richie was a choice I made that was comfortable. In the end he needed my services more than Neil did. I have heard a few rumours over the years that Neil had some dissatisfaction with what I’d done with him. But you know what? He never told me personally. And I always feel that if that had been the case, he would have told me.
We never socialised, it was all about the work. But Neil did seem to be more comfortable, verbally, alone with me rather than with a bunch of other guys. I think what made him unique was that he thought things out carefully, came in organised and was ready to work. There was no bullshit, no drugs, no drinking. He was always right there. From a creative standpoint, he did things differently in terms of how he approached things. When I look back now, he was trying to be unique. I’m looking at an old picture of him and I together and he’s wearing a sweater with Indian symbols on it, he’s wearing a choker chain and he’s got a look of his own. I think he had a very good sense of self. If there was any negativity about him, I think it was disappointment at his inability to be there sometimes. But then again, I don’t know why he left the Buffalo Springfield. He must have had a good reason to leave.
INTERVIEW: ROB HUGHES