It was about something larger and deeper, a sense of hope that my generation, which came of age in the late 1960s and 70s, had once clung to fiercely but had gradually begun to relinquish as we grew older. It was not just because the disappointments and limits of life had crept up on us, but because something more important seemed to be slipping away: a belief in human connection and progress, in the power of beauty to wash away the petty and cruel impulses of human nature and allow us to start over.
For years, whenever I felt lonely or confused or discouraged, I have turned for solace to the close blend of harmonious voices and uplifting messages that Crosby, Steve Stills and Graham Nash, often with Neil Young, created. In “Wooden Ships,” a lost soldier reaches out to an enemy, offers to share his wild berries and asks which side had won the war. In “Our House,” a man describes his happy home life with fresh flowers in a vase and “two cats in the yard.”
Some of their songs are anthems or pleas for causes I shared, such as their early homage “To the Last Whale,” which described the magnificent cetaceans as hunted to near-extinction to make cosmetics and pet food. Others bemoan the folly of celebrity and self-indulgence, or painfully acknowledge inner struggles and a yearning for permanent peace.
“Somewhere between heaven and hell, a soul knows where it’s been. I want to feel my spirit lifted up and catch my breath again,” Crosby and Nash wrote in their later years. “Lay me down in the river and wash this place away. Break me down like sand from a stone, maybe I’ll be whole again one day.”
But even their most melancholy songs are still soothing. Their protests are sung with a familiar blend of voices, and the melodies always resolve on a reassuring note. Like many of my old friends and contemporaries, I have always cherished the music of Paul Simon, James Taylor and Bob Dylan.
I know that I will always remain stuck in a certain musical and emotional time warp, permanently defined by songs like Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in their Game” and Simon’s “Cathy’s Song,” as well as many others by Crosby, Stills and crew, such as “Daylight Again/Find the Cost of Freedom” and “See the Changes.”
I also know that one day, not terribly long from now, all of those extraordinary songwriters and singers will be gone too. Yet somehow, despite his private battles and public estrangements, the passing of Crosby, who was 81, feels to me like the death of harmony in a new age of rage.
The first time I heard the group’s music was in 1970, when I was a freshman in college. It was the year after Woodstock, and lilting melodies wafted from dorm room speakers across the campus green, beckoning us with tantalizing visions of unbound adventures and inward journeys. Then came the Cambodia bombings and the police shootings at Kent State University, shattering the freewheeling, peace-loving illusion of Woodstock with jarring, angry force.
Scott Ainslie, a singer-songwriter in Vermont, was one of several friends with whom I exchanged emails Friday to commiserate about Crosby’s death. He told me that in May 1970, he was at a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert in Baltimore. At one point, Stills introduced Young, who plugged his guitar into an amplifier and performed a stunning song he had just written called “Ohio,” about the Kent State shootings during a campus protest that left four students dead and nine injured.
“Those kids’ bodies were barely in the ground when I heard that song for the first time,” Scott wrote. The impact of the piercing guitar and powerful lyrics changed him forever. “I have never forgotten it and have long tried to repay the debt I owe them in my own work.”
Although I bought and memorized every one of their albums, the only time I heard the group sing in person was about 10 years ago. It was a summer reunion concert at Wolf Trap. Stills was stout and hoarse but still nimble on the guitar. Crosby was warm and smiling, having survived multiple journeys to hell and back and written several songs about it. His voice blended in as naturally as ever that night, even after years of quarrels and silence.
Like me, many people in the audience were nearly as old and gray as the performers, but we were all still alive and kicking. In some way, it felt like we were hoping to preserve the idealism and communal spirit that had once defined our generation, even if the tickets were overpriced and the sloping lawn was no longer comfortable to sit on.
We wanted to feel something that mattered, that still flickered, that drew us together without introduction or hesitation. We applauded wildly and smiled at strangers during intermission, sharing unspoken memories.
Now, even just a decade later, that notion seems almost quaint. Driven apart by covid and politics, our society has become even more divided and withdrawn, quicker to take offense and place blame. Violence more deadly than Kent State is common, with guns everywhere. To be sure, there are many causes that appeal to a new generation, especially global warming and racial injustice, but common ground is hard to find.
Life is louder, faster and more treacherous now. The quieter songs of aging children are fading, along with the passionate innocence of a time that will not come again.