Many of Neil Young’s songs explore his early days as part of the counter-cultural phenomena which came to be known as “the hippie movement”. The Canadian singer and songwriter started his career in the 1960s, working as a guitarist for some of the era’s most defining artists, including Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, and even The Monkees. But by the late 1960s, just as he was beginning to step out on his own, Young began performing with Crosby, Stills & Nash, who subsequently became the impossibly named: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The quartet’s unique blend of folk, psychedelia and blues won them a Grammy Award in 1969 and took them to the famed Woodstock festival that same year. But despite this period being one of immense creativity for the band, there was a great deal of hostility between its members. As is often the case, that hostility stemmed from the group lacking a clear leader, and so, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were always fighting for control over the band’s direction. This was all mixed up with the band’s heavy drug use, especially that of David Crosby. As a result, Young placed greater emphasis on his solo career, releasing his third studio album After The Gold Rush in 1970.
By 1986, hippie idealism had ceased to feel relevant. Many of the counter-culture movement’s most iconic figures were now either washed up or had died due to drug overdoses. And it was at this moment that Neil Young took the opportunity to write a song that had been brewing ever since he’d been with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. ‘Hippie Dream’ is a swipe at David Crosby, who in the mid-1980s was still battling the drug addiction which had taken hold of him during the summer of love. Crosby had been an icon of that era and still espoused many of the key principles of the hippie age. But, for Young, Crosby was just another “flower child” who had gone to seed.
When Young sings: “But the wooden ships were just a hippie dream,” he makes direct reference to the Crosby, Stills & Nash song ‘Wooden Ships’, mourning the groups’ youthful idealism. For Young, the hippie movement was all about ideas rather than meaningful acts and, as a result, it fell prey to commercialism, corruption, and substance abuse. In the next few bars, Young sings: “Capsized in excess, if you know what I mean,” and in doing so, alludes to Crosby’s addiction and subsequent decline, a fate which befell many followers of the hippie movement. In Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young biography, Shakey, producer Joel Bernstein noted how he “got chills when I heard it. ‘Hippie Dream’ is a great portrait of David. So cutting.”
‘Hippie Dream’ is not simply a criticism of David Crosby. It is a criticism of the entire ‘60s counter-cultural movement. Exploiting the benefit of hindsight, Young looks back on the era that defined his career with both nostalgia and pessimism. He seems to long for the days when the river of hippiedom “was wide. And the water came running down”. But in the same breath, he appears to recognise that the dream has died, describing the modern world as “an ether-filled room of meat-hooks. It’s so ugly. So ugly.”
In this song, Young mourns the death of something which, arguably, never even existed. Hippiedom was always an idea, something which was always slightly out of reach. And because it was founded on such shaky principles, it didn’t take much for the hippies to “capsize into excess” in the manner Young describes. Whether through drug use or a hasty abandonment of the principles of commonality and anti-materialism that they had once held so dear, supporters of the hippie movement became products of their own apathy – eventually trading in the bio-dome and the festival ground for the luxury apartment and well-furnished office.