Bruce Palmer, the original bass guitarist of Buffalo Springfield, died on Oct. 1 of a heart attack. He was 58.
Born in Nova Scotia and raised in Toronto, Palmer picked up his first guitar at the age of 10. In his teens, he played with area rock groups, such as the Swinging Doors and Jack London and the Sparrows, then joined the Mynah Birds, a Canadian group fronted by singer Rick James. The band recorded an album with Motown Records, but its contract was canceled when James was arrested for dodging the draft.
In 1966, Palmer and Mynah Birds’ guitarist Neil Young drove down to Los Angeles in Young’s black hearse. After running into singer Stephen Stills and guitarist Richie Furay in a traffic jam on Sunset Boulevard, the four musicians decided to form a band. Session drummer Dewey Martin soon joined the group, which became known as Buffalo Springfield.
Although it only lasted for two years, Buffalo Springfield developed a reputation for its topical lyrics and “West coast sound.” The folk/rock group topped the charts in 1967 with the song “For What It’s Worth,” but its influence would become more palpable after its demise. Upon the release of its third album, “Last Time Around,” Buffalo Springfield broke up; however, most of its members went on to critical acclaim and commercial success.
Palmer was forced out of the band just before the final record was released, due to immigration and drug problems. He produced a solo instrumental album in 1971 and later reunited with Martin to form the band Buffalo Springfield Revisited.
Download “For What It’s Worth”
October 21, 2004 by
Bruce Palmer, the original bass guitarist of Buffalo Springfield, died on Oct. 1 of a heart attack. He was 58.
In Memory of Bruce
Bruce Palmer dead at 58. Died of a heart attack in a town north of Toronto. My heart is in my mouth. He was once my friend.
I met him back in the 80’s. Long, long after his pot bust while a member of the Buffalo Springfield had gotten him and his bass deported back to Canada and he found himself out of a musical group that at the time was blazing like a nova. It only took a couple of years for the Buffalo Springfield to break up, crash and burn, but from the magic of it’s musical ashes would spring a whole lot of great music from such distinguished groups as Crosby, Stills and Nash, Manassas, Poco, Loggins and Messina, Neil Young and Crazy Horse and God knows who else.
By the time I met Bruce, the man had fallen from grace in the record industry. Once a lean and trim individual, the Bruce Palmer I knew sported a great paunch, had a fondness for soft cotton clothing and Buddhism, had a demeanor a bit like that great character actor Charles Laughton. Bruce often appeared to many as absolutely punch drunk and rambling in his conversations which almost always featured a great deal of whimsy. He could be both infinitely lovable and totally irascible.
As a young man growing up in Canada, Bruce Palmer was once in a rock group called the Mynah Birds with another fellow madman and lead singer, Rick James. One day Bruce met another young musician carrying an amp down a Toronto street. The guys name was Neil Young. Bruce invited Young to join the Mynah Birds. When Rick James got arrested for being AWOL from the US Army, the band folded. In March of 1966, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer struck out from Canada in Young’s hearse and drove to LA to find Steven Stills and found the Buffalo Springfield. The rest is rock and roll history.
Bruce’s growing fondness for alcohol and psychedelic drugs would often prove to be his undoing. For most of the time I knew Bruce, he remained on the wagon, restricting his intake to smoking a little grass and the drinking of green tea, but he would live a bumpy life. His initial musical influence seem to stem from funky blues. He was probably best known for his habit of turning his back toward his audience during a set and intently playing his signature bass stuff while facing the back wall. Totally into his music but private and shy as hell on stage–about it as far as I could tell.
I met Bruce in Topanga, CA. In those days I ran a used clothing store known as Topanga Threads and he was a favorite customer. His visits to the store often ran over an hour or more as we would endlessly bullshit about whatever. This alone says both a lot about my old store and Bruce’s life style.
Later, when my world came crashing down around me, when the store went belly up and I suddenly had no where to go and had lost all hope and had sunk into depression, Bruce helped get me back on track. It just so happened he was preparing to go out on a tour of the Colorado Rockies with his group, Buffalo Springfield Revisited. He knew I had previously did roadie work for the Beach Boys.
“Come on out on the road with me,” he said in his best mother hen.
At the time, Bruce was using a rented little wooden bungalow at the Topanga Beach Motel as a headquarters for his band, the Buffalo Springfield Revisited. It was a tiny little cottage with barely enough room for him, his old lady, a few meager possessions and his bass and amp and assorted Buddhist paraphernalia. From this tiny little headquarters we would launch out on two separate tours across country.
Both tours were strictly low-level rock and roll bombing runs. Somewhere along the line, Bruce had teamed up with sly, blonde-headed fellow. Another Canadian named Frank, who–on a good night–could sing Neil Young better than Neil Young. Actually, they were much more than a “homage band,” The material they were working with, the Buffalo Springfield songbook, was all top notch stuff that has withstood the test of time. Besides that, Bruce and Frank and the rest of the guys in the band which on various occasions sometimes included original Buffalo Springfield drummer Dewey Martin, well, they could really cook and always put on a fine show.
On the first tour I served as a driver/roadie for band I was only out on the road with them for a few weeks. It would prove to be a short, somewhat profitable tour of the snow-capped Rockies during the late winter/early spring season of 1988. Using a four-door sedan automobile and an extended diesel van, the Buffalo Springfield Revisited (consisting of a 5-man combo, luggage and equipment, plus me) struck out from the Topanga Beach Motel and headed for the Colorado Rockies and the spring thaw. The Rocky Mountain shows were booked by a young and aggressive Colorado promoter who ran a pizza parlor in Telluride. I think it was called the Roma. The pizza parlor was formerly a bar. A historic bar. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had wandered into that bar years ago. The two men had bought a drink and gathered themselves just before they headed down the street to rob their very first bank.
It was a long drive from LA to the first show which turned out to be a redneck bar in Grand Junction called Cottonwood Creek. We drove right out of California, stopping in a casino in Searchlight Nevada only long enough to sample the four dollar buffet. I can still remember my first sight of the Colorado Rockies as we drove across a flat section of eastern Utah while ahead of us in the distance stood the Colorado Rocky Mountains looking like tall, distant islands jutting up into the sky.
Nearing Grand Junction we were treated to snow flurries that caused a complete white out at high speed along the highway and I lost total sight of the Corona beer truck hurling down the highway just in front of me. I remember lightly tapping at the breaks repeatedly through the white out, afraid that if I hit them too hard I would spin out on the icy road.
The road tour would deliver several images that remain forever in my head. The monument to the snow plow driver’s who lost their lives keeping the road open in winter that stood at the top of some ghastly mountain pass we drove over in the Rockies. There was also the sight a several hundred deer viewed during a stretch of just several miles that were all casually grazing in farm pastures at just one particular elevation just below the snow line.
From Grand Junction we moved on to Telluride for several days, followed by a run out to Logan, Utah for another club date. Then north as far as Bozeman, Montana to play another redneck bar called The Cat’s Paw. The next day found us in Jackson’s Hole, Wyoming. Then it was on to the upscale indulgence of towns like Vail and Aspen. Palm Springs with snow. We would do shows in Evergreen and Durango. With shows often booked back to back like they were, the tour made money.
A few months later, I would strike out again with the Buffalo Springfield Revisited. This time the tour would be more ambitious. Cover more ground. Armed with a borrowed credit card from a friend to cover the cost of the gas to cross the country (Bruce mailed back the gas money when the group started getting paid for gigs on the East Coast) and a Calypso motor home that had seen far better days, we took off. There were five men in the band, plus me. It would be a tour that would take us up the eastern seaboard on a series of club dates. We would travel as far north as Vermont and eventually as far south as Texas in search of money and adventure and a place to put on a show.
It was a long run across the U.S. All the bunks in the motor home were taken up by the band, and when I wasn’t driving I usually slept on a foam pad on the rear floor of the motor home. It would prove a far cry from the hotel and rental car life of touring with the Beach Boys, but it was a kind of tour that put your ear close to the ground. You could really hear and see America.
I never met the person who booked this East Coast tour, but in many ways this one turned out to be a real joke. No sooner did we manage to cross the country than word came that a weeks worth of the bookings in the southeast had been cancelled. There was a hole in the tour. Money would not be made for a week, meanwhile money would be spent which is what happens when you are out on the road. The trip was destined not to be much of a money maker.
I remember watching Bruce pace back and forth one night in the darkness outside a gas station somewhere on the East Coast. What to do? What to do? He was wearing a big, wool overcoat open at the paunch. Hair tussled, hands clasped behind his back, pacing about like an aging Napoleon Bonaparte trying still one more time to grasp victory from defeat and work his way back on top.
Once again, memories of the tour have remained with me over the years. I remember a late night drive half lost, winding our way through Steeltown in Pittsburgh during a freak electrical storm. All those rusting and decayed steel mills, locked up and closed and suddenly illuminated by the flashes of lighting across their ghostly facades. It was like walking into an old, black and white movie about Oliver Twist.
The club dates scheduled on the tour ran from the sublime to the ridiculous. There would be no auditorium shows. They played an old, dingy jazz club close by the old money part of Newport, R.I. I think it was called the Pelican Inn. A rock club in Providence, had an outlandish time performing on the deck of a tour boat in the middle of Boston Harbor playing on a bill with James’ brother, Livingston Taylor.
By the time we arrived at a run down club somewhere in the backwoods of Connecticut, the Calypso RV was running on seven cylinders. It had a fried spark plug wire and a broken shock absorber. The club itself was nuts. I never realized there were so many dense rednecks in Connecticut of all places. The back room where the bands waited to go onstage featured various holes in the plaster walls where people had busted through with their fists and even their heads. Many of these fist and head holes were signed and dated.
Frank, the lead singer, was the only guy in the group with any mechanical ability. With a handful of small tools he brought with him, Frank tackled the broken shock mount. When it got to be a little too much for him, Frank enlisted help from one of the crazier locals who had some tools in his car. The guy said he would help us out but only before stationing me back at the rear of the motor home. The guy was quite drunk. He calmly told me that he was going to crawl under the motor home and help Frank, but he had previously been involved in a serious scene with another guy sometime earlier. He told me if they guy showed up carrying a gun while he was working under the car, I was to warn him immediately. “No problem,” I told him.
The Buffalo Springfield Revisited continued it’s tour up the eastern seaboard.
My favorite show took place in a working man’s bar in Nantucket. The place was owned by a real character who called himself Captain Seaweed. We stayed in a room out back next to a studio that made those famous Nantucket woven baskets. The band couldn’t bring their equipment over on the ferry because they hadn’t made previous reservations and the group was forced to perform on crappie, borrowed local equipment. Still, it was a hell of a show.
Five minutes before showtime, Frank, the lead singer, finally managed to show up from his trip out to the waters just off the Coast Guard Station where he had been fishing with a borrowed pole. Frank stumbled into the kitchen holding an enormous Blue fish caught just before showtime. A proud smile across his face, Frank turned it over to the cook before heading for the stage. The bar was filled to capacity and they had to shut down the door because they were over their fire limit. Still, many of the locals continued to climb in through the bathroom windows to get inside. It was a great show.
Eventually, we reached the part of the tour where the hole had appeared. We were now moving southwest, away from the eastern seaboard. With dates cancelled in Missouri and other places, there was nothing to do for days. The next show was nearly a week away in far off Dallas, Texas. An informal meeting took place. What to do?
“Graceland, we gotta go to Graceland,” the rhythm guitar player suggested. “It is the chance of a lifetime.”
We would head for Memphis and pay a light-hearted homage to the tackiest of Americana–the worship of all things Presley. And that is just what we did.
I remember the thing that struck me most about Graceland was standing beside Elvis’ grave and noticing the small grave site of his twin brother who is buried next to him. The one who died at birth. What? Elvis had a twin brother? By God, ’twas fate that killed his twin at birth. There could only be one King!
After Graceland we drove all the way from Tennessee to Texas so the group could play “For What It’s Worth,” “Bluebird,” “Clancy” and the other songs to a half- filled club in Dallas. The “coup de grace” was delivered to us we were leaving Texas and heading back home, running along Hwy. 10 west of El Paso. It was very late in the night when we hit the border patrol station situated about 40 miles north of the Mexican border. I was at the wheel of the funky old motor home when pulled up alongside a small building. The only other person still awake was the rhythm guitar/ pedal steel player riding shotgun in the front passenger seat, while everyone else slept in the back of the motor home.
Winding down the window, I drove up alongside the building where a man in the dark was waiting on the other side of an open window. The man asked me some kind of question as to just who we were.
“We are a rock band from Los Angeles. Heading home,” I told him.
“Whose in the back of the motor home?” he asked.
At that point, the back up guitarist (who had spent the entire tour displaying his sharp, biting and quick wit. A man who obviously reveled in his own brilliance) now leaned across from the passenger seat and addressed the border guard. “Don’t worry, officer!, ” he announced. “There are no Mexicans in here. Just Americans and a couple of Canadians.”
“Pull over to the side, gentlemen. We are going to have to see some identification.”
As I sat in the darkness I heard Bruce let out a groan from his bunk in the rear of the motor home. “A couple of Canadians, you say to the man…a couple of Canadians…Good grief!”
Frank was Canadian and his papers were in good order, but Bruce’s visitor’s status had long expired and we could only watched as he was taken from us, put in a squad car and taken off into town. We followed in the motor home and had to stick around a couple of hours until they finally released him giving him a specified amount of days to get out of the country and return to Canada to square up his legal status. His name was now in their computers and they had him good.
When we got back to LA, Bruce paid everybody off. The tour had lost money. As low man on the totem pole, I was paid a pittance. Outside of some grand memories of a life being lived, I would come away with little to show for my services on that trip. What money Bruce had made from the road tour would have to be spent on an airline flight back to Canada and the chance to square up his legal status in the U.S. once more, so he could return to LA and continue his efforts to keep the group alive.
I first began writing this missive because I was moved by the news of Bruce’s death and I wanted to put something down to remember him by. Unfortunately, the two road trips I made with the guy happened 20 years ago. In truth, I no longer the remember the essence of any of our many conversations. I even have a hard time trying to hear his old speech patterns which I am presently too chickenshit to even try to reproduce. Instead, I have put down the flood of memories that well up inside of me when I think of those two quixotic tours on the road with him. They offered me a brief reprise from thoughts of where I have been and where I was going. I have Bruce to thank for those memories.
bruce, you sound like a cool guy even though you are dead i hope you keep rocking in the after life if there is one.
i came here because bruce palmer had his start in the canadian groups the sparrow and the mynah birds…..these same groups also gave birth to many of the members of steppenwolf one of my fav bands…….john kay, nick st. nicholas, and goldy mcjohn were also involved with the sparrow and the mynah birds………i didnt know much about bruce but the above tribute by JR ball was a truly beautiful thing to read…….almost like a little novel and very touching…..Mr. ball you are truly a great writer and a poet…..your decription of driving through pittsburgh during a thunderstorm was amazing………anyhow thank a lot and as for bruce…..the man was truly a rocker!!!!!!
Despite the obvious talents of the other members of Buffalo S,; I agree with Neil Young that Bruce Palmer was the actual driving pulse of the energy and rythm that drove the band.
After a hiatus of 17 years dating back to the Yorkville days of the mid sixties, I met up with Bruce once more when visiting a friend in the Beaches. Bruce was living on Willow Avenue and had a sweetheart of a woman by the name of Ellen for a girlfriend. He was gearing up for the Trans tour with Neil Young. In spite of his continued problems with alcohol I was absolutely amazed at how lucid he was in thought and the depth to which he took his thoughts. When the rest of the music industry gave up on this man, Neil gave him a chance and he proved his worth.
He was an amazing contrast to me, who stayed sober his whole life including drugs, practiced to death on string bass and in the early seventies gave it up because it was obvious I had no real talent other than the ability to perform rapid scales. Dear brother, I should have listened to you in 1965 when you told me what I came to realize myself 7 years later.
I still have the tapes you let me record, unbeknownst to the rest, with Jack London. I listen to them often and hope you have the peace where you are now that they give to me.
I miss you.
bruce was the real thing man.
that fucker could eat more acid than anyone i every knowed.
what a strange trip he was man