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A Hippie Prophet-God in His Prime

Recording at the peak of his powers in 1971, David Crosby was a genuine pop innovator.
Recording at the peak of his powers in 1971, David Crosby was a genuine pop innovator.

"Song with No Words (Tree with No Leaves)" starts softly, hazily, evoking the period when California rock stars were hippie prophet-gods basking in cash and groupies. A piano gently rumbles; vocal harmonies, stacked atop each other for maximum choir effect, melt over the instruments. The result is part choral music, part stoner rock; it's easy to imagine the joint being passed from one musician to the next.

But this being David Crosby — and David Crosby at the peak of his powers, in 1971, on an expanded reissue of his solo disc If I Could Only Remember My Name — nothing is ever too simple or too mellow. With each verse, the musicians, including Jorma Kaukonen and Jerry Garcia on guitars, hammer a little harder, adding tension to Crosby's wordless vocal fugue. By the end, Crosby is fervently scatting around his own one-man chorus, and Kaukonen and Garcia are stabbing at their guitars, pulling out sharp, shrieking notes in the process. The song heaves and lurches between lushness and roughness until, suddenly, it ends.

In the decades since its release, the luminous If I Could Only Remember My Name has been overshadowed by the details of Crosby's drug intake and weight gain, not to mention Melissa Etheridge-impregnation jokes. But "Song with No Words" provides a reminder of a time when Crosby was a genuine pop maverick/innovator unafraid to indulge in heady freak-folk. Just ask Jim O'Rourke (who cites the album's "Laughing" as the aural inspiration for Sonic Youth's "Disconnection Notice") or Devendra Banhart (who's covered "Traction in the Rain" in concert). Along with the most sparkling moments on the spotty box set Voyage, "Song with No Words (Tree with No Leaves)" lures listeners back to the days when Crosby was pushing the envelope not just in his lifestyle, but in his art.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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David Browne
David Browne is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and the author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth and Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Spin and other outlets.