The Infinite Jukebox: Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Expecting to Fly’

Before he launched onto a career of fifty-odd (some very odd!) albums in fifty years, Neil Young was one fifth of a West Coast band of the kind they don’t seem to make any more. Three-fifths of that band became prominent figures in the music of the Seventies, Steven Stills as part of Crosby, Stills and Nash, sometimes incorporating his Canadian ex-partner and Richie Furay as leader and driver of the underrated Poco. I mean neither of them any disrespect if I suggest that, in longevity terms, Neil Young is the one who really counts.
The band they all graced was Buffalo Springfield, noted for such Stills songs as the protest-heavy ‘For What It’s Worth’ and the bright and buoyant ‘Rock’n’Roll Woman’. It’s songs like that, upfront and fitted to their times, that stand out, and the band contributed heavily to the development of folk-rock, as well as incorporating a mixture of genres into their acclaimed style.
It’s not just Young’s work with the band that attracts me to Buffalo Springfield but it’s fair to say that it is his songs that attract me the most, and in particular, the extraordinarily beautiful ‘Expecting to Fly’ from the band’s second album, Buffalo Springfield Again.
The song is a haunting, delicate experience, with Young’s cracked-falsetto vocals at their sweetest and most plaintive, and the song is a fragile ballad of loss, of regret for someone leaving, and for all the things remaining unsaid. It is, in practical terms, a Neil Young solo, for his is the only voice heard on the song, and the instrumentation is a deep, slow, aching orchestration put together by Jack Nitzche over Young’s strummed acoustic guitar and delicate electric guitar figures.
The track introduces itself by means of a low drone, growing in intensity until the first taste of strings intrudes upon the sound. Young uses the acoustic guitar to create, not a rhythm but a sense of momentum whilst leaving his electric contributions to be complemented by Nitzche’s strings. But it is the picture he paints, the story he outlines, that goes to the heart.
Young sings the opening couple of lines in almost a state of amusement: there you stood on the edge of your feather, expecting to fly. It’s an absurd image, but no less a serious moment, immediately amended as he goes on, in a much darker manner, albeit denied by the smoothness and lightness of his voice, admitting that he laughed but at the same time he laughed he wondered if he could wave goodbye, the whole thing coming into focus on the simple, single line, Knowing that you’re gone.
The feather and the flying are no longer absurd, they’re a metaphor. She’s going away, out into a bigger, wider world than the place she’s been for so long, looking outward to make it for herself in this year of the counterculture in 1967. And it must be alone: you can’t make it for yourself with someone constantly around her, which means leaving Neil behind.
But what of him? He might well sing that by the summer it was healing, recognising the fact that we had said goodbye. But that doesn’t brush under the carpet all those years they spent with feeling, ended with a cry. Ended with a cry, he repeats. But which of them was crying?
The music stretches and curls, as Neil explains just what life is for him, in the wake of her departure or, as it seems to have been, release, for he has not stood in her way, sacrificing his content and life for her need. He tried to stand, but he stumbled and fell to the ground. His loss is plain and heartfelt, he tried so hard to laugh as he fumbled, and reached for the love he’d found. And again, that single, short line, without poetry or flowers, just the plain truth of it: Knowing it had gone.
Alone there, in the midst of this distance, sweet but comfortless, Young reaches back into the confusion of his feelings. If I’d never lived without her, but that’s exactly what he has to be doing now, now she knows I’d die. If I’d never said I loved her, now she knows I’d try.
And that sheds unwanted light on that beginning, tying the song into an unexpected little bundle. Those years of feeling? Just how much of it had been feeling unrevealed, feelings never spoken because, why? Did he assume that she knew and understood him, so that he didn’t need to go against his manliness and tell a girl she was important to him? Does that explain his laughter at the thought of her flying, flying away? Is Neil Young the sole author of his heartbreak and loss?
Neil won’t tell us, nor will Nitzche’s beautiful strings do more than hint. Yet again, this is a Sixties song that tells a story that is an iceberg, nine-tenths of it below the water. We each of us construct our own interpretation, once we move beyond being spellbound by the yearning and the loss and the beauty of the music and the voice.

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