Sunday, May 26, 2024

David Crosby in 2012. (Photo: Christopher Michel via Flickr)

The recent Washington Post obituary of David Crosby claims he “made no sense … singing supremely delicate harmonies while living a reckless life.” The facts are there, but to me they miss the essence of Crosby and how he captured his era. Crosby will always be known for his haunting harmonies with Stills and Nash, but just as important to me are the powerful electric guitar riffs and the ambiguous lyrics voicing hope, despair, love, loss, escape. The late ’60s and early ’70s were a difficult time to be young, but maybe it is always a difficult time to be young. Music and dancing certainly helped me through those times, and that music still helps me through hard times.

I came home the other evening from a Cambridge City Council meeting where I spoke, along with many others, to advocate for a community-based alternative to the police: trained EMT responders without guns to handle mental health crises and issues in our schools and of the unhoused. We didn’t get very far. It is slow, grinding work that wears you down. But I heard of David Crosby’s death and immediately went to YouTube and listened to “Carry On.”

“Love is coming to us all” – and that great instrumental in the middle, and “we have no choice but to carry on.” And on top of all that, this song is so danceable. This is healing music for difficult times. It is that combination of “a gentle voice connected to an angry heart” (perhaps the best phrase in the Post obit) and the way the electric guitar grabs you way down deep that gives this music such lasting power, such durability.

Where the Post obit sees CS&N at Woodstock as “proposing a countervailing idea to the screaming guitars of Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix,” I see them on a continuum of powerful, danceable, guitar-based rock and roll. I go back to CSN&Y more often than Simon & Garfunkel (who also sang beautiful harmonies) because their songs are more complicated, like “Judy Blue Eyes” with its harmonies, the ache in the lyrics, but also that gripping electric guitar. 

“Do not let the past remind us of what we are not now” …. “You are what you are – and you make it hard …” 

And “Wooden Ships,” a song you can listen to over and over. This is the music that we dreamed to, that colored our lives and still does. 

Music can be an escape, and ’60s rock music is certainly associated with stoners who just “drop out” of society, but for millions of that generation who didn’t drop out, who can look back now on long, productive and sometimes useful lives, the music remains powerful. That is because all music, and this music in particular, provides an alternative way of processing the world, an alternative to facts and speeches at council meetings. There are the melodies, the harmonies, the idealism, the conflicting emotions and then the fabulous electric guitar riffs that help you to heal. They just pour over you, soothing, centering, energizing, sometimes making you dance – and that is healing too.

The idealism was definitely appreciated. We sang along to “Teach your children well” and tried to “feed them on [our] dreams,”  and many of us still lament that “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” – Woodstock …

You can find idealism in many songs, many poems, but pairing that with the complicated energy and immediacy of electric guitar riffs adds power I find myself coming back to over and over. 

Every time I listen to “Long time Gone”  “It appears to be a long long time before the dawn … hear what the people say / You know that something is going on around here … but you know the darkest hour is always just before the dawn” – I renew my energy to not give up on ideals.

It is regrettable that the obituaries of the ’60s rock musicians so often become litanies of drug use, depression and other foibles common to celebrities. But what is important is what joy and power this music gave to an entire generation, to millions of people who have achieved much, who have led full and useful lives and who continue to try to live their ideals in a complicated world. No one said it would be easy, but rock ’n’ roll music really helps. And thanks to recorded music and the Internet, it’s easy to listen to these powerful songs that stand ready to be discovered by much younger people too.

Crosby’s wife sends “peace, love and harmony” to all who loved him. I would add that his music gives us healing and joy and the strength to Carry On.

RIP, David Crosby.

Susan Ringler, Kinnaird Street