Part 9: Chris Sarns, Buffalo Springfield's Road Manager and the ’68 drugs bust
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 9: CHRIS SARNS
The Springfields road manager. Played guitar on “Broken Arrow” and, briefly, for Young’s former band The Mynah Byrds in the late 60s.
UNCUT: How did you first meet Neil?
SARNS: Stephen Stills had asked me to be in what became Buffalo Springfield. Later I was round Peter Tork’s house, and Stephen turned up and said, “Do you want to be road manager?” My first job as road manager was to get Neil Young back in the group. Stephen and I went to visit Neil in Laurel Canyon, where he was living. He was working with [Jack] Nitzsche, and he’d done “Expecting To Fly”, and we listened to that and jaw-jacked for a while. And evidently it worked out, because Neil came back. He struck me as a nice, kind of quiet guy. Stephen was being super-nice to him then, because he wanted him back. But they’re two very different, strong-minded people.
So we all ended in this great old house that Vincent Price used to own and had a lot of good vibes in it, in Malibu Road, just a little bit above the Colony. It was crooked, because it was sinking into the ocean slowly. Everybody lived there except Richie and Nancy [Furay], who were in Laurel Canyon. There was this big, outside, covered patio area, and I closed off the front of it, put in this huge bay window. And Neil had that. And Stephen and Dewey [Martin] had the upstairs bedrooms. Dewey managed to finagle the master bedroom, don’t know how he managed that. And then Bruce Palmer and Dale had a room downstairs, and I did. And Charley Brown, another roadie we picked up, was upstairs.
And what would be going on there, on a typical night?
The people that we knew were a group called The Doppler Effect, who lived right down the street, including No Pants Lance, who was absolutely frickin’ crazy. And then there were was Ray and Tay. Tay got the lead in Hair for a while. Buffalo and the Jefferson Airplane were not necessarily tight, but they knew each other and hung together somewhat, also.
And once Neil was back in the band, did he fit in pretty well? Did he hang out?
Stephen and he would still get into fights occasionally. But for the most part they got along really good. Most of the time I remember having a hell of a good time. It was like a big family. We would make music, and sit down and eat dinner as a family most of the time, with Bruce and his wife Dale, who had a little baby, and any girlfriends anybody happened to have. And we lived there for about six months.
And were songs worked out and put together there?
Yes. I would think so. That’s when they were doing the second album [Buffalo Springfield Again].
Thinking specifically about the material on Archives, what can you tell us about recording “Broken Arrow”?
We learned “Broken Arrow” in the studio. Which is a rather expensive way of doing things, because it has a lot of time-changes. It goes from 4/4 to ¾ back to 4/4 again, a lot. And we spent all freaking day, 117 takes. A lot of those were just two bars and stop. Stephen and Richie and I were playing guitar, except on the final take. Neil was producing until the final take, then he came in and played the guitar.
What state was that song in when Neil brought it into the studio?
He had it together. It was finished. But we had to learn it, on the spot.
In those days, did Neil generally have his songs ready to go in the studio, or was there much collaboration?
The songs were mostly done. He didn’t sit and write songs in the studio. The way “Broken Arrow” ends up on the record is this sort of collage…
Yeah, we had to learn that. There’s no cuts. We played it beginning to end. That’s what took so long.
Did Neil talk about why he wanted that snatch of “Mr. Soul” sung by Dewey at the start, and the crowd noises? Was that was some previous live show?
The crowd noises may have come later. I think he did that at the time, he had that concept he wanted somebody else doing his song, I don’t remember why. And Dewey used to be the lead singer in a group called Sir Walter Raleigh & the Coupons. But he had a vision. He would flesh it out, but he basically had it all together in his head.
Did he tell you what that vision was?
He just played it a couple of times. “Here’s the chords. Learn it.” Then he went in the booth, and he was in there producing while the rest of us learned it.
It’s a very ambitious bit of work, the way it’s all put together. Makes you think maybe Neil had been listening to The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”.
Absolutely. They were all huge Beatles fans. The Buffalos got together right around Rubber Soul time.
When Neil was in the booth, was he just letting you get on and learn it for most of those 117 takes? Or was he really pushing you where he wanted you to go?
He was mostly doing the technical stuff, while we were all taking turns screwing up. Neil was very calm, polite, helpful, because he knew it was difficult. In the studio, from what I saw, everybody was always way cool. It was a nurturing, supportive atmosphere. Nobody minded doing those 118 takes. It was the task in hand get it done.
What do you remember about the ’68 Springfield drugs bust?
Eric Clapton was there at the house, and Neil, and myself and Richie, and Jim Messina. Five guys and five girls. Earlier in the evening, we’d passed a doobie. There was no grass or drugs there of any kind. They were playing “Un Mundo” [released on posthumous Springfield album Last Time Around], Eric Clapton was there jamming on it. We had received a couple of complaints, so we knocked off at 9 o’clock. Then a couple of girls knocked on the door, came running in, said the cops are behind us, get rid of this stuff. I was trying to flush three or four containers of pot they’d given me down the toilet, I was watching it swirl round and it wouldn’t go down. It was a fuckin’ set-up. Eight or ten cops turned up at 9.10 for a noise compaint - five sheriffs from Malibu, and five from West Hollywood, so they had to have planned this days in advance. They were looking for an excuse. And the West Hollywood sheriffs were total fucking assholes, with combats on, helmets and sunglasses, just reeking with authority.
The pressure of that bust was part of why Springfield split up, wasn’t it?
Another one of the Archives tracks is “This is it!”, from Buffalo Springfield’s final concert. Can you tell us about that?
It was in Long Beach. It was a helluva night, a great crowd. A bunch of teenage boys started to climb up on the stage and there were fuckin’ police everywhere. I motioned the police to go back, and told the head guy of those boys to get down, we don’t want a frickin’ riot here. And they were cool. They were just a bunch of enthusiastic teenage boys, not much younger than we were. The police had got nervous, but they relaxed after that. We had a full house, it was an auditorium, held 1000 people, and they were a great, cheering audience. It was a cool way to go out.
What was it like in the dressing room afterwards? I assume everyone knew it was the last show?
Yeah. But I don’t remember the details. Except that it was a good show, and we were all still living together in Malibu. I guess shortly after that, we left…
Did you spend much time with Neil in Topanga Canyon?
When we left, Bruce got a cool little place in Topanga Canyon, in the Old Canyon, then when he left, he gave it to me. I took Stephen to introduce him to my friend Linda Stevens, and when we walked in she had Buffalo Springfield on the record player. I was up on the ridge, and Stephen ended up down in the valley, a quarter-mile apart. I was on Skyline, Stephen was on Old Topanga Canyon Road… Neil was living in Topanga too, over near where the Eagles lived. He bought it from the guy that owned the Topanga Corral. It was really cool, two, three stories. But the garage was open. It was 20’ by 20’. And out there was this one four-by-four post holding up this whole frickin’ two-storey house. It was nuts. I know wood has a lot of compressive strength. But a four-by-four holding up two storeys? If somebody had hit back into that, they could have brought the whole house down. It was the dumbest design I have ever seen. Then Neil put a studio in, and had it lined with lead. I’m amazed that house stood up.
What was special about that Topanga neighbourhood?
You were right next to LA, but you were 100 years away. It was uncrowded, unhurried. Very steep hills, with little bitty roads, and houses tucked hither and yon. Sometimes there’d be a bunch in a row, if there was a ridge where you could get them. But it was a community. Neil’s girlfriend at the time owned the Canyon Kitchen. It was laid-back.
It strikes me it was like living in a Western…
Almost. You would see horses at the Center, where the market and Neil’s girl’s café was. It was really rustic. Funky. There was one gas station, a market, a café, and maybe a leather shop. That was the Center, as we called it. At the time, it was a little piece of heaven.
I know you were in the studio for the whole of the Crosby, Stills and Nash album. Did you stick around when Neil joined? How did he fit into that outfit?
Well there was about a year in between. David had a house in Beverly Canyon, and Stephen was in Laurel Canyon. They wanted Graham Nash, and Stephen went to a Hollies concert, and he’s a good talker, and managed to persuade Graham to come to his house afterwards. It was Stepehen and his girlfriend at the time, Susan, and David, and Doug Dillard, the bluegrass player was there too, we got a little drunk, had a hell of a good time, a ball, and sang all night. That was the birth of Crosby, Stills and Nash. And then Neil came along. I remember we were in New York, at a club called the Bitter End. It was in the daytime, and they were negotiating it. It was an argument - a heated, very serious debate. It was Stephen and Neil, and maybe somebody else. It was still amiable and friendly, because they had to work it out. But Stephen and Neil are both incredibly strong-minded, bull-headed people.
Had Neil changed? Because obviously he’d had some solo success.
No. He was always the same guy.
What do you remember of the gigs you did with CSNY?
I just did the first couple of gigs. We did Chicago, and then Woodstock, and then the Greek Theater, and then Big Sur. Oh, boy, Woodstock was a blur. Hadn’t slept for 24, 36 hours. Things had got screwed up, we’d got stranded at La Guardia. We finally got there, and we got it done. We missed the party. But the boys did a good job. I seem to remember they had trouble keeping the guitars in tune, because of the wind. I remember Grace Slick at breakfast the morning after, and she had gold contact lenses.
What are your main impressions of Neil, looking back?
Actually, he’s kind of a quiet guy. Very soft-spoken - unless he was arguing with Stephen. Got a very wry sense of humour. And just a very thoughtful guy. As a person, hanging out with him in Topanga, he was an easygoing guy. There was one instance. They [Springfield] were playing the Cheetah, on New Year’s Eve, and they were playing very, very loud. I’ve got hearing loss because of it. Neil blew a fuse, and the spare I was supposed to have on me wasn’t there. And he went off on me afterwards, when there weren’t other people around. And I was so pissed. When we got home, I got in Neil’s face and said: “Don’t you ever do that to me again.” And he didn’t. I would never have hit the guy. But I did my best to give the impression that I would. Since then, he’s always been very, very good with road managers.
INTERVIEW BY NICK HASTED