“We’ll do a kind of science fiction story, if you’ll bear with us,” said David Crosby on August 18, 1969, as his band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played their song “Wooden Ships” at Woodstock. Crosby, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist who died Wednesday at the age of 81, was not a typical hippie, despite being one of the founders and leaders of the movement. But the band’s Woodstock rendition of “Wooden Ships” is a prime example of its singularly sweeping, sci-fi vision.
For him, the counterculture of the 60s was more than a protest movement or a bohemian aesthetic; it was a vehicle for exploring human reach. While many songs from the hippie era painted pictures of people’s peace—including CSNY’s own Graham Nash-penned “Teach Your Children” and “Our House”—”Wooden Ships” is an all-out, dark account. on the apocalypse. Still, he soars with cautious optimism, his titular ship sailing the sea or outer space.
Indeed, Crosby was known for his love of all things marine, and for him, the ocean flowed into the stars. Musically, Crosby weaved everything from free jazz to synthesizers into his cosmic Americana. “Science fiction was so vast and so limitless,” Crosby told Neil deGrasse Tyson on the second Star Talk podcast in 2016. “Anything could happen, and that was rich for me. And I loved it.” His obsession with space exploration, emerging music technology, and literature created the great future of humans.
Crosby’s band just before CSNY, the Byrds, started out as a group of deep Bob Dylan acolytes before quickly reaching breakaway velocity with songs like “CTA-102” – which mixed country rock with electronic noise and borrowed his name from a recently acquired song. quasar One of the reasons Crosby was eventually fired from the Byrds was a creative dispute over a song he wrote, “Triad,” which was drawn from Robert A. Heinlein’s classic novel A stranger in a strange land. It’s a song about group sex, yes, but it sets such earthly pleasures against a sci-fi backdrop. Where Dylan read Jack Kerouac, Crosby read Isaac Asimov.
Paradoxically, country music—Crosby’s first love as a musician—is a form that encourages tradition rather than innovation. When Crosby came up in the music world of the ’60s, country music was only progressive in a political sense, thanks to the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger on the left. So his first album since 1971, If only I could remember my name, is not only the crown jewel of his solo career; he elevated country rock to a whole new form. The track “What Are Their Names” contains Crosby’s most on-the-nose lyric—”Peace must be asked,” he sings—but he crosses that platitude with a fugue of plucked strings and layered vocals (provided by a choir including, among others, Jerry Garcia and Joni Mitchell). It all combines into an enveloping deep-space raga. The album cover shows Crosby’s face superimposed on a photo of the ocean at sunset—as if to announce the notion that his mind and music are part of an unbroken continuum, a kind of galactic hip.
In the liner notes for the CD reissue of the 1969 album Crosby, Stills & Nash, Crosby explained that “Wooden Ships” is an allegory in which “we imagined ourselves as the few survivors, escaping on a boat to create a new civilization.” But even though he outlived many of the hard-hitting musicians of his generation, Crosby survived the most. He changed the trajectory of American music with imagination far beyond his age.