“We’re going to do sort of a science-fiction story, if you happen to’ll bear with us,” David Crosby stated on August 18, 1969, as his band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Younger started enjoying their track “Picket Ships” at Woodstock. Crosby, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist who died on Wednesday on the age of 81, was by no means a typical hippie, regardless of being one of many motion’s founders and figureheads. But the band’s Woodstock efficiency of “Picket Ships” is an ideal instance of his sweeping, singular, sci-fi-driven imaginative and prescient.
To him, the counterculture of the ’60s was greater than a protest motion or a bohemian aesthetic; it was a car for probing the reaches of being human. Whereas many anthems of the hippie period painted footage of folksy peace—together with CSNY’s personal “Train Your Kids” and “Our Home,” each written by Graham Nash—“Picket Ships” is an outright downer, a darkish account of the apocalypse. Nonetheless, it soars with cautious hope, its titular ship crusing both the ocean or outer area.
In actual fact, Crosby was recognized for his love of all issues maritime, and to him, the ocean flowed into the celebrities. Musically, Crosby swirled every little thing from free jazz to synthesizers into his cosmic Americana. “Science fiction was so expansive and it was so limitless,” Crosby advised Neil deGrasse Tyson on the latter’s StarTalk podcast in 2016. “Something might occur, and that was simply wealthy to me. And I lusted after it.” His obsession with area exploration, rising musical know-how, and the literature of the incredible solid a sort of future-folk.
Crosby’s band proper earlier than CSNY, the Byrds, began out as a gaggle of earthy Bob Dylan acolytes earlier than rapidly reaching escape velocity with songs comparable to “C.T.A.-102”—which blended folk-rock with digital noise whereas borrowing its identify from a not too long ago found quasar. One of many causes Crosby was finally fired from the Byrds was a artistic dispute over a track he had written, “Triad,” which drew from Robert A. Heinlein’s traditional novel Stranger in a Unusual Land. It’s a track about group intercourse, sure, however it units such terrestrial pleasures towards a sci-fi backdrop. The place Dylan learn Jack Kerouac, Crosby learn Isaac Asimov.
Paradoxically, folks—Crosby’s old flame as a musician—is a type fueled by custom somewhat than innovation. When Crosby got here up within the music scene of the ’60s, folks was solely progressive within the political sense, because of the leftist likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. So his debut album from 1971, If I Might Solely Keep in mind My Identify, turned not solely the crown jewel of his solo profession; it elevated folk-rock to a complete new firmament. The observe “What Are Their Names” accommodates what is likely to be Crosby’s most on-the-nose lyric—“Peace shouldn’t be an terrible lot to ask,” he sings—however he transcends that platitude with a fugue of plucked strings and layered voices (provided by a choir that features, amongst others, Jerry Garcia and Joni Mitchell). All of it coalesces right into a ringing deep-space raga. The album’s cowl depicts Crosby’s face superimposed over a photograph of the ocean at sunset—as if to promote the notion that his thoughts and music are a part of an unbroken continuum, a sort of galactic hum.
Within the liner notes to the CD reissue of the 1969 album Crosby, Stills & Nash, Crosby defined that “Picket Ships” is an allegory the place “we imagined ourselves because the few survivors, escaping on a ship to create a brand new civilization.” However though he outlived a lot of his era’s hard-living musicians, Crosby did greater than survive. He altered the trajectory of American music with an creativeness far past his age.