Cosmic Americana by David Crosby – The Atlantic

Cosmic Americana by David Crosby – The Atlantic

Cosmic Americana by David Crosby – The Atlantic

“We’re going to do a kind of science fiction story, if you’ll bear with us,” said David Crosby on August 18, 1969, when his band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young began playing their song “Wooden Ships” at Woodstock. Crosby, the singer, songwriter and guitarist who died on Wednesday at age 81, was never a typical hippie, despite being one of the founders and leading figures of the movement. However, the band’s Woodstock performance of “Wooden Ships” is a perfect example of their sweeping, singular, 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 probing the limits of the human being. While many hippie-era anthems painted pictures of folk peace — including CSNY’s own “Teach Your Children” and “Our House,” both penned by Graham Nash — “Wooden Ships” is downright depressing, a bleak account of the apocalypse. Still, he flies with cautious hope, his titular ship sailing the sea or outer space.

Indeed, Crosby was known for his love of all things maritime, and for him, the ocean flowed to the stars. Musically, Crosby blended everything from free jazz to synthesizers into his cosmic American culture. “Science fiction was so expansive and so limitless,” Crosby told Neil deGrasse Tyson in the last Star Talk podcast in 2016. “Anything can happen, and that was very rich for me. And I coveted it.” His obsession with space exploration, emerging music technology and the literature of the fantastic forged a future of sorts.

Crosby’s pre-CSNY band, the Byrds, started out as a group of Bob Dylan’s earthly acolytes before quickly hitting escape velocity with songs like “CTA-102” – which mixed folk-rock with electronic noise while borrowing its name from a newly discovered quasar. One of the reasons Crosby was eventually fired from the Byrds was a creative dispute over a song he had written, “Triad”, inspired by Robert A. Heinlein’s classic novel. Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s a song about group sex, yes, but it puts those earthly pleasures in a sci-fi setting. While Dylan read Jack Kerouac, Crosby read Isaac Asimov.

Paradoxically, folk – Crosby’s first love as a musician – is a form fueled by tradition rather than innovation. When Crosby emerged on the 1960s music scene, folk was only progressive in the political sense, thanks to leftists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Then, their 1971 debut album, If I could only remember my name, became not only the crown jewel of his solo career; elevated folk-rock to a new firmament. The track “What Are Their Names” contains what may be Crosby’s most incisive lyric – “Peace ain’t too much to ask,” he sings – but he transcends that commonplace with a fugue of plucked strings and layered vocals (provided by a chorus that includes, among others, Jerry Garcia and Joni Mitchell). Everything merges into a deep space raga. The album cover depicts Crosby’s face superimposed on a photo of the ocean at sunset – as if to advertise the notion that his mind and music are part of an unbroken continuum, a sort of galactic hum.

In the liner notes of the CD reissue of the 1969 album Crosby, Stills & Nash, Crosby explained that “Wooden Ships” is an allegory where “we imagine ourselves as the few survivors, escaping in a boat to create a new civilization”. But though he outlasted many of the hard-lived musicians of his generation, Crosby did more than survive. He altered the trajectory of American music with an imagination far beyond his years.

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