Buffalo Springfield is a band that never quite reached its true potential but still made a big impression in the late sixties. This song comes in with a bang. “Mr. Soul” It was written by Young after experiencing an epilepsy attack after an early show with Buffalo Springfield in San Francisco. Many people in the audience were questioning if it was part of the act.
The lyrics had reflected Young’s experience, feeling as though he was about to die. Thereupon, he was advised by his doctor to never take LSD or any other hallucinogenic drugs.
The song was the first track of their second album Buffalo Springfield Again. The song did not chart.
One hardly knows where to begin with this song’s lyrics. In just three short verses with no chorus, Young practically flaunts his lyrical prowess at this early stage in his career. He invokes both Beatles and early proto-punk, in verses that manage to be both angry and whimsical at the same time. Like the team of Lennon-McCartney, Young and Stills experienced friendly rivalry with their equally matched talents that also inspired each of them to top the other, bringing their work to an edginess that drove them to brilliance.
At the time of “Mr. Soul,” Young was wavering on leaving the band. His first departure was on the eve of Buffalo Springfield’s booking to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which he was vehemently opposed to. Young later told British music magazine Mojo, “I thought it was belittling what the Buffalo Springfield was doing. That audience wouldn’t have understood us. We’d have been just a f–kin’ curiosity to them.”
Along with missing The Tonight Show, Young’s sudden departure also cast a cold shadow over Buffalo Springfield’s appearance at the now-legendary 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. Buffalo Springfield brought in Doug Hastings to substitute on guitar and had Stephen Stills’ friend David Crosby drop by to assist with the Festival appearance, but even so, the group’s performance suffered so much that they were dropped from the Pennebaker documentary.
The book Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History says that this song “was likely more indicative of where his [Young’s] head truly was. Much like the songs from the Springfield’s debut, ‘Mr. Soul’ suggests that Young’s work was still razor-sharp, even when it was coming from a very unhappy place.”
While we’re book-hopping, there are some ties between Buffalo Springfield members and Al Kooper (of Blues Project / Blood Sweat & Tears fame). In Kooper’s memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, Kooper consulted with David Crosby when the idea of Blood Sweat & Tears was forming in his mind, and also recruited Jim Fielder (Frank Zappa and the Mothers alumni), who also part of Buffalo Springfield when they were seeking a replacement for Bruce Palmer’s continuous absences. And then Stephen Stills himself popped by to fill in for Mike Bloomfield when Kooper, in a panic, called him to help complete the album Super Session. There, is that enough threads weaving everything together?
Robin Lane ran in Young’s circle in the late ’60s. She also lived with him for some time and sang on “Round and Round (It Won’t Be Long).” Lane told Songfacts that the song “Mr. Soul” was inspired in some way by the death of Lenny Bruce, who died less a year before the song was recorded. In Shakey, Jimmy McDonough writes that Young himself had no recollection of the Bruce connection.
Oh, hello Mr. Soul, I dropped by to pick up a reason
For the thought that I caught that my head is the event of the season
Why in crowds just a trace of my face could seem so pleasin’
I’ll cop out to the change, but a stranger is putting the tease on.
I was down on a frown when the messenger brought me a letter
I was raised by the praise of a fan who said I upset her
Any girl in the world could have easily known me better
She said, You’re strange, but don’t change, and I let her.
In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster?
Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster
For the race of my head and my face is moving much faster
Is it strange I should change? I don’t know, why don’t you ask her?