: Bruce Palmer’s bass playing was unconventional. –>
Remembering Bruce Palmer’s singular solo
By Bruce Robinson
The music fades in with the song already underway: congas are chattering, a flute chirps languidly while a burbling bass holds down the center. Minutes pass, the tempo shifts while the meter remains indeterminate and some nearly comprehensible vocals come and go. The track is titled “Alpha–Omega–Apocalypse,” fairly descriptive of its trance-jam expansiveness, and it runs nearly 17 minutes. Little wonder that its source is now hailed as one of the intriguingly obscure recording projects of the psychedelic era.
That album, The Cycle Is Complete (Collector’s Choice), the lone “solo” album by one-time Buffalo Springfield bass player Bruce Palmer, is, in its way, a quintessential example of the free-flowing musical ethos of the fading 1960s. Defiantly anticommercial, it was originally released in 1971 on the mostly jazz Verve imprint. It’s hard to say which is more surprising, the fact that Palmer was offered the opportunity to create a record on his own or the iconoclastic aural legacy that resulted.
Palmer, who died Oct. 1 of a heart attack at 58, was a Nova Scotia native who hooked up with Neil Young in Toronto in 1966 in the band the Mynah Birds (which also included one Ricky James Martin III, later known as funk superstar Rick James). When that group’s early sessions for Motown went nowhere (James was busted for being AWOL from the Navy), Young and Palmer drove Neil’s hearse to L.A., hoping to find Stephen Stills and start a new band. Against all odds, they crossed paths with Stills and Richie Furay on Sunset Boulevard, and with the addition of Dewey Martin on drums, Buffalo Springfield was born.
Although Palmer neither sang nor wrote any of the Springfield material, his surging bass lines were a key element in the band’s pioneering sound. “Bruce would lay down a groove, and we could have done anything,” Stills once said of his former band mate. “He was the focus that balanced Neil and me.”
Onstage, Palmer was an enigmatic figure, perpetually wearing dark glasses with hair hanging down around his face as he stood, back to the audience, churning out his distinctive lines. That stance, now a cliché, gave the Springfield an added measure of intrigue, but Palmer supplied some core energy as well. His bass often provided a melodic counterpoint to the vocal line, while somehow also affirming the harmonic underpinnings on the downbeat. (In addition to the obvious “Mr. Soul,” listen to “Leave” and “Hot Dusty Roads” from the first album. Palmer’s assertive bass also drives a poorly recorded “Bluebird” bootlegged from the Fillmore West in 1967, but he wasn’t around to cut the tamer studio version.)
But for all his talent, Palmer was apparently not very focused on his music. Deportations for pot busts and a traffic violation interrupted his participation in the sessions for the band’s second album, and Buffalo Springfield scattered before their third and final album was completed, just two years after they joined forces. Despite support from Stills and Young, Palmer failed to land the bass job with CSN&Y, so he was at loose ends when the solo recording opportunity arose.
In John Einarson and Richie Furay’s There’s Something Happening Here: The Story of Buffalo Springfield, Palmer recounts being invited to record for MGM, and writing his first song as a demo to get the gig. But the actual sessions were an extended instrumental jam with Rick James and four guys from the post-David Lindley Kaleidoscope. “It was spontaneous music, over two hours long, so I had to edit it down to 45 minutes,” Palmer said. “I handed it to [the company] and they dropped their drawers. I gave them what I thought music was about, and not what they thought music was about. . . . They released it and I retired. I had a laugh at the industry’s expense.”
How that album stands up now is highly subjective. The CD reissue label, predictably, boasts that “this stuff predates new age, trip-hop and two or three other related contemporary musical currents,” and it’s hard to argue with their chronology, if not their musical analysis. The Cycle Is Complete is idiosyncratic and self-indulgent, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on your tolerance for unstructured jamming.
Palmer mostly made good on his retirement. Aside from playing on Neil Young’s Trans, and a short-lived trip around the oldies circuit with Dewy Martin as Buffalo Springfield Revisited in the ’80s, he lived out his life in Canada, away from the maelstrom of rock stardom that he tasted in Hollywood.
If nothing else, the title of his long-forgotten solo disc may have been a personal affirmation.
From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.