California Dreaming: Expecting To Fly

Since I’m talking about maybe doing an audio version of this blog if my Patreon gets enough people, I thought I’d try with this post, so you can hear me reading this here

“Jack Nitzsche was the Yoko Ono of the Buffalo Springfield”, according to Nitzsche’s friend Denny Bruce.

As with the Beatles’ breakup, there was much more to Neil Young leaving Buffalo Springfield for the first time than the influence of one outsider — Young’s relationship with Stephen Stills had become strained, especially after For What It’s Worth had become a hit and made people think of Stills as the star of the band, and Young also missed Bruce Palmer on bass. Young always thought that the core of the band was himself on guitar, Dewey Martin on drums, and Palmer, and enjoyed playing with them as a rhythm section while Stills and Richey Furay were up front, and when Palmer was deported and was temporarily replaced first by Ken Forssi of Love and then by Jim Fielder of the Mothers of Invention, Young thought the band lost a lot.

The band were also fragmenting in the studio, recording more as a set of individual singer/songwriter/guitarists than as the live unit Young enjoyed. But it was still a shock to the rest of the band when Young called a band meeting (something they never did) and announced that he was leaving the band.

It perhaps shouldn’t have been as much of a shock as it was, though, given that Young had already started work on what was intended to be his first solo track.

Expecting To Fly was the first collaboration between Neil Young and Jack Nitzsche, who wanted to start a new record label with Young as its main star. Young had played Nitzsche the song on his acoustic guitar the first time they properly met, and Nitzsche had exclaimed half-way through “Fuck, that’s a great song!”, to which Young had replied “shut up and listen.”

But despite this, Young was in awe of Nitzsche, who had only recently ended his collaborations with Phil Spector, and who was probably the single most important arranger in pop music at the time. Nitzsche and Bruce Botnick went into the studio with the Wrecking Crew while Young was on tour with Buffalo Springfield and cut a basic track, before the three men spent the next month obsessively tinkering with the song, layering Young’s guitars, and adding backing vocals by some of the best soul singers in the business. The result was a dreamy soundscape unlike anything Buffalo Springfield had ever done. In place of stomping beats and duelling guitars came a cavernous sound made almost entirely of reverb, a hollowed-out wall of sound so fragile it feels like a single touch could make it collapse. Nitzsche and Young were learning from Brian Wilson, who had learned his tricks from Nitzsche in the first place.

A simple but enigmatic song of love and loss, Expecting To Fly could have fit, as a song, on Pet Sounds, and Jim Gordon’s drum sound in particular could have come from Caroline, No without any change, but the wash of guitar was distinctly Young, as were the trembling, quavering, double-tracked vocals. Other than the layers upon layers of acoustic guitar, the instrumentation was sparse, the arrangement utterly different from the kitchen sink arrangements Nitzsche had put together for Spector, while still having the same sonic power.

But the most interesting part of the track was not actually part of the original conception. At the end of the track, before the massed female vocals come in for their final “ooh”, the orchestra was meant to build up to an enormous crescendo and a long fade. Unfortunately, between the track being recorded and its release, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out, and with it the Beatles’ A Day In the Life, which was similar enough that Young’s track would sound like an imitation. So Young snipped the crescendo from the end of the track (the splice before the vocals come in is audible if you listen closely), and reversed the beginning, fading it in so it swelled and then died down. This was then placed at the beginning of the song, giving it its unique introduction.

Meanwhile, Buffalo Springfield had carried on without Young. Bruce Palmer had, temporarily, rejoined the band, and they’d gone on to perform at the Monterey pop festival (with David Crosby of the Byrds sitting in), tour for a couple of months, and had continued work on their second album with engineer Jim Messina. The split looked permanent, until one day Young heard a DJ play Mr Soul, the last track he’d recorded with the band, and say at the end “When Neil was with ’em, baby.”

Up to that point, Young, Nitzsche, and Denny Bruce had been planning to travel to the UK, set up residence there, and build a solo career for Young — Nitzsche had apparently even sold his house in anticipation of the move. Instead, Young rejoined Buffalo Springfield, and Expecting To Fly was added to the tracklist of their second album.

The reunion wasn’t to last. While the second album, Buffalo Springfield Again, contained much of the band’s best work (including another track in the vein of Expecting To Fly, Broken Arrow), the band soon splintered, with Palmer being replaced by Jim Messina and Young leaving again. The third album was put together by Messina after the band had split, and while a band continued touring as New Buffalo Springfield for a while, this was Dewey Martin touring with Jim Price (later to become a successful session horn player), Dave Price (Davy Jones’ stand-in for the Monkees TV show) and a bunch of other unknowns. That band were soon sued into nonexistence, and Buffalo Springfield were no more.

Expecting To Fly
Neil Young
Line-up: Neil Young (vocals, guitar), Don Randi (keyboards), Carole Kaye (bass), Jim Gordon (drums), Russ Titleman (guitar), Gloria Jones, Merry Clayton, Gracia Nitzsche, Brenda and Patrice Holloway (vocals), strings led by Johnny Vidor
Original release: Buffalo Springfield Again, Buffalo Springfield, ATCO 33-226
Currently available on: Buffalo Springfield, Rhino box set

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