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

Feb 20, 2019
Originally published on February 20, 2019 1:48 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


It was February 1967, and 18-year-old Marine Pfc. Bill Ehrhart was days away from leaving for Vietnam. He had just enjoyed his last weekend off base, and his friends had offered to drive him back to Camp Pendleton, Calif., before sunrise.

"It was goodbye civilian world, next stop Vietnam," says Ehrhart, now a writer and poet.

During their nighttime drive down the California coast, his friends turned on the radio — and that's when Ehrhart first heard it:

The radio was playing "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield, the folk-rock group led by Stephen Stills and Neil Young.

"I vividly remember thinking, 'Wow, what a cool song,' " Ehrhart says. "By the time I left the country, the anti-war movement was still very much a fringe movement, so I literally didn't understand what those guys were singing about."

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While it's often recognized as an anti-war protest anthem, "For What It's Worth" wasn't actually based on Vietnam. Stills, who wrote the song, was instead inspired by a confrontation back home that erupted on a few famous blocks in Los Angeles.

LA's Sunset Strip was a world away from Vietnam: a crowded boulevard lined with billboards, dumpy music clubs and a diner packed with teenagers. In the 1960s, the area held the pulse of rock and roll counterculture — and it's where Buffalo Springfield made its name.

"It was like a carnival midway," says music photographer Henry Diltz, who used to hang around the Strip. "Hundreds and hundreds of young kids, all dressed up in bell bottoms and tie-dyes, and they would come in and out of the clubs and walk up and down the street. It was kind of a happening."

But behind the vibrant nightlife, there was simmering tension. Owners of upscale restaurants and fancy storefronts complained that the hordes of teens were bad for business. Meanwhile, Los Angeles County Supervisor Ernest E. Debs wanted to construct a new freeway and turn the Sunset Strip into a financial district, according to the book Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock 'n' Roll's Last Stand in Hollywood.

In an effort to clear out what Debs called the "beatniks" and "wild-eyed kids," LA County began enforcing a 10 p.m. curfew for anyone under 18. In response, the youth scene turned into waves of teenage-led protests against law enforcement.

"These were not friendly neighborhood cops in a blue uniform," Diltz says. "These were patrolmen with helmets and great big jackboots and billy clubs. It was kind of a scary scene in the midst of all that peace and love."

A flier distributed in advance of the Nov. 12, 1966, rally against curfew laws on the Sunset Strip.
Courtesy of Gary Strobl

On Nov. 12, 1966, a crowd of young people gathered outside a club called Pandora's Box to protest the "disrespect and abuse of youths by police," as flyers distributed around the area described it. Hundreds of teens jammed the boulevard, some holding signs: "Rights For Youth Too," "Stop Blue Fascism," "Leave Us Alone."

Police shouted back through bullhorns: "Anyone under the age of 18 years old remaining in the area will be arrested." When demonstrators refused to leave at 10 p.m., the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and LAPD began their crackdown. The confrontation became known as the Sunset Strip Curfew Riots.

A local KBLA disc jockey who went by the name Humble Harve broke format to take calls from listeners about "the situation on the Sunset Strip." "I've seen it," one caller told him on-air. "I've seen the teenagers beaten — beaten — by the police."

Michael Rummans, a local musician and Sunset Strip regular, says he still remembers how he was confronted the moment he pulled up to the scene: "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 s*** out of you.' "

"We decided not to leave," says Francie Zbilski, who was inside Pandora's Box with her boyfriend that night. "We were all kind of prepared for the idea that we were going to be arrested." The club was usually a noisy scene with rowdy crowds and live music, but that night, she says, patrons were quiet. She could hear the commotion outside, and then came a loud bang on the door.

"I never saw so many policemen in my entire life," she says. "We were just surrounded by police officers, like an army of them."

Zbilski says she was marched outside so they could check IDs. "The cop behind me stuck a billy club in between my shoulder blades and gave me a good shove, which elicited me turning around and giving him the finger — because, you know, at 16 I was really brave," she says, laughing. "I wouldn't do that now."

Down the street, protesters had taken over a city bus. As police rushed to intervene, Zbilski slipped into the crowd. She was never arrested.

Protesters gather outside Pandora's Box on Nov. 12, 1966.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

As legend has it, Stills, disturbed by the images of police brutality from that night, wrote "For What It's Worth" in 15 minutes. Band manager Richard "Dickie" Davis was in the studio when Buffalo Springfield recorded the song.

"It was recorded in one night: vocals, overdubs, bass track, all that was done in one night," Davis says. For all that momentum, however, Stills was afraid of how the band might be typecast if the song did catch on.

"That name, 'For What It's Worth,' is the most 'aw, shucks' kind of name," Davis says. "Like, 'Oh yeah, well, here's my opinion, you don't have to listen to it.' ... He was worried about it defining the group and he didn't want that to happen."

But it did: "For What It's Worth" became an enduring hit. Whether one hears it as about the Vietnam War or the Sunset Strip, the song was for the young people caught on the front lines.

"The song was about the times," Davis says. "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 it's bigger than that."

Thirteen months after he heard the song on his way back to base, Ehrhart returned from Vietnam. It wasn't the war he had expected. "Within a few months of my arrival in Vietnam, I had realized, '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,' " he says.

As anti-war demonstrations grew across the country, Ehrhart's politics gradually changed, too. The next time he heard Buffalo Springfield, "For What It's Worth" meant something else.

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

"I realized, hearing that song again — 'Oh, wait a minute. I was the guy with the gun over there. I'm the bad guy,' " Ehrhart says. "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."

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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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.