“We’re going to make some kind of sci-fi story if you put up with it,” David Crosby said on August 18, 1969, when his band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were beginning their song “Wooden Ships” at Woodstock. Crosby, the singer, songwriter and guitarist who died Wednesday at the age of 81, was never a typical hippie despite being one of the movement’s founders and figureheads. But the band’s Woodstock performance of “Wooden Ships” is a perfect example of his immersive, unique, sci-fi-driven vision.
For him, the counterculture of the 1960s was more than a protest movement or a bohemian aesthetic; it was a vehicle for exploring the reaches of being human. While many hippie-era anthems painted pictures of popular peace — including CSNY’s own Teach Your Children and Our House, both written by Graham Nash — “Wooden Ships” is an absolute downer, a somber account of the apocalypse. Yet it hovers aloft with cautious hope, its title ship sailing either across the sea or space.
In fact, Crosby was known for his love of all things nautical, and for him, the ocean flowed into the stars. Musically, Crosby whirled everything from free jazz to synthesizers into his cosmic Americana. “Sci-fi was so vast and so limitless,” Crosby told Neil deGrasse Tyson StarTalk Podcast in 2016. “Anything could happen, and that was just rich for me. And I longed for it.” His obsession with space exploration, emerging music technology and the literature of the fantastic has forged a sort of future people.
Crosby’s pre-CSNY band, The Byrds, started out as a group of down-to-earth Bob Dylan acolytes before quickly hitting escape speed with songs like “CTA-102,” which blended folk rock with electronic noise while taking their name from a recently discovered borrowed quasar. One of the reasons Crosby was eventually fired from the Byrds was a creative dispute over a song he had written, “Triad,” which was adapted from Robert A. Heinlein’s classic novel Stranger in a strange land. It’s a song about group sex, yes, but it puts such earthly pleasures in a sci-fi setting. Where Dylan read Jack Kerouac, Crosby read Isaac Asimov.
Paradoxically, folk – Crosby’s first love as a musician – is a form driven by tradition rather than innovation. When Crosby emerged on the music scene in the ’60s, folk was only progressive in a political sense, thanks to left-wing artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. So his debut album from 1971, If only I could remember my name, not only became the crown jewel of his solo career; it raised folk rock to a whole new firmament. The track ‘What Are Their Names’ features arguably Crosby’s most striking lyric—’Peace is not an awful lot to ask,’ he sings—but he transcends that platitude with a fugue of plucked strings and layered voices (delivered by a chorus, the including Jerry Garcia and Joni Mitchell). It all merges into a sonorous deep space raga. The album cover features Crosby’s face superimposed over a photograph of the ocean at sunset – as if to promote the idea that his mind and his music are part of an unbroken continuum, a kind of galactic hum.
In the liner notes for the 1969 CD reissue of the 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 while he outlived many of the hardened musicians of his generation, Crosby did more than just survive. He changed the trajectory of American music with an imagination far beyond his years.