Farewell David Crosby 1941-2023
The voice of an angel, extravagant facial hair and sympathy for the Devil: former-Byrd David Crosby epitomised the free-spirited ’60s Californian hippy dream – and its souring – better than anyone else. In 2014 he welcomed Pat Gilbert to LA...
For the conscience of liberal America and keeper of the Woodstock hippy flame, David Crosby has an unusually bad-ass line in banter. “You can print that picture,” he trills, realising we have just snapped him onstage striking a comedy Saturday Night Fever disco pose. “But if you do, I will kill you.” He cocks his head and cracks a theatrical smile. “And, hey, what’s a little death between friends?”
We’re watching preparations for Crosby’s show at the Troubadour, the legendary folk club in West Hollywood where in 1964 he formed his first band, The Byrds, and where tonight he is showcasing the sumptuous jazz-rock stylings of Croz, his first solo album for some 20 years. Climbing down from the stage, he offers a firm handshake and scans us sceptically before we trail wordlessly behind him, as if members of a strange cult, to a quiet corner of the upstairs bar.
Seated squarely on a bench, the Crosby, Stills & Nash legend relaxes a little. At 72, he looks unnervingly like a hybrid of Custer of the West and Stinky Pete from Toy Story, his explosion of unkempt hair and magnificent walrus moustache now a perfect snowy white. Yet it’s his twinkling eyes that draw your attention the most; two brown beads full of profound humanity and boyish mischief.
Cold bottles of Stella appear, but alas he can’t partake. “I can’t drink because of my liver [he received a transplant in 1994] and medication for Hepatitis C,” he explains, matter-of-factly. “But I’ve never been much of a drinker anyway, always a doper. Pot’s fine, it doesn’t do shit, man, it doesn’t do a damn thing. But if you’re a psychopath, don’t take anything. Not even a fucking aspirin!”
We’ve been forewarned that, following recent heart surgery, Crosby may be a little fragile and tetchy; but during an hour of conversation, over two sessions 24 hours apart, he proves to be neither. As a man who has looked death in the eye several times, and ticked off every major item on the rock maverick’s checklist – drug addiction, arrests, prison, financial ruin, life-threatening illnesses, and, yes, a peerless album or three – he still seems to be bearing up pretty well.
“If you ask me something intelligent, I can put some meat on the answers and give you something informative,” he smiles. This is surely a Jedi-style mind trick, as your jet-lagged correspondent’s mind suddenly goes all fuzzy. “No, go on,” he says. “Just don’t ask me anything too stupid.”
David Crosby was born in 1941, the son of a respected Hollywood cinematographer, and mostly behaved himself until discovering in his late-teens that playing a guitar vastly increased the chances of a chubby teenage boy getting laid. But though venal pleasures have played a large part in his life, this isn’t why we’re talking here today. It is, instead, because Crosby has been a creative engine behind some of the most extraordinary and powerful music ever to emerge from the United States – first as the irascible, musically adventurous misfit in psychedelic folkies The Byrds, then as the politically fired-up, honey-voiced third of late-’60s/’70s soft-rock harmony giants Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Though never a prolific writer, Crosby’s marquee songs – Everybody’s Been Burned, Renaissance Fair and Mind Gardens in The Byrds; Long Time Gone, Wooden Ships and Almost Cut My Hair with CSN – oozed mysterious, trippy magic and liberal wisdom. His debut solo album, 1971’s If I Could Only Remember My Name…, has in recent times been re-evaluated as a cult classic; in fact, the Vatican, of all institutions, bizarrely declared it in 2010 to be the second best pop album of all time [behind The Beatles’ Revolver] – something even Crosby finds extremely freaking weird.
“No one has yet worked out what the hell that was all about,” he says, pulling a pained face. “And why should the Vatican have an opinion on music in the first place? And to choose me?! It baffles me as much as it baffles you, man. I got an email from David Gilmour saying, ‘Dammit!’ – Pink Floyd [with The Dark Side Of The Moon] only came in third.”
Crosby had been a wannabe on the mid-’60s LA folk scene for a couple of years before he joined unknowns Jim McGuinn and Gene Clark onstage one night at the Troubadour, thus effectively creating The Byrds. Within a year or so they were at Number 1 in the US singles chart with a jingle-jangle rock version of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man; within two they were competing with The Beatles and The Beach Boys to cut the most out-there psychedelic pop records that a doobie and tab or two of acid could ever inspire. The magnificent Eight Miles High, partly inspired by their 1965 tour of the UK, won that fight for a while, but Crosby’s interest in exploring the furthest reaches of modal, lysergic rock soon pissed off his bandmates.
“They thought some of the stuff I was writing was total crap,” states the Walrus. There were personality clashes, too. “I was more political and outspoken than the others. And, yes, possibly more naughty and troublesome.” Ever the rebel, Crosby refused to suffer music biz sycophants gladly, or play the marketing game. At a press conference in England, he met a reporter’s question with the retort, “What the fuck’s that got to do with you?” He has no memory of the incident, but admits, “it’s entirely like me to say something like that. The press were a bunch of fucking imbeciles, man.”
In late 1967, the inevitable happened: outraged by, among other things, his no-show at a recording session and a meandering drug-fuelled opus he’d written called Triad, McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman drove over to Crosby’s house and fired him. Crosby took a handsome pay-off, bought a sleek 74-foot schooner called Mayan, and spent the next few months enjoying the sun, sea and a new, weapons-grade variety of weed he’d discovered called sensimilla. One of his first converts to the drug was Joni Mitchell, a singer-songwriter he’d met in Florida, whom he took back to LA and persuaded the president of Reprise Records to sign. “Everybody was smoking crap at the time, but I had this real strong stuff,” he beams. “I’d say, ‘Now, Joni, sing a couple of songs…’ I got people way higher than they were meant to be – I’d unscrew their head and stir their brain with a spoon.”
It was while hanging around in London and LA in 1968 that Crosby hooked up with Graham Nash from The Hollies and former Buffalo Springfield guitarist, Stephen Stills. As harmony singers they were arguably untouchable; and as songwriters complemented each other perfectly – Nash, the pop genius; Stills, the king of country and R&B; Crosby, the cosmic, psychedelic yachtsman. This new “supergroup” played their second gig at Woodstock, the giant flower-power festival staged in upstate New York in August 1969, garlanding an enduring image as long-haired, free-lovin’, dope-tokin’ doyens of the counter-culture.
Out on the road, Crosby took to expressing his increasingly fervent political views in rambling between-song rants, berating the US government over Vietnam, civil rights abuses, racism, corruption, bagism, shagism, everything, anything. To this day, his anger over what he regards as the “corporatocracy” secretly ruling America remains unabated, rearing its head in fiery spurts throughout our conversation, and spurring a recommendation that we all should check out left-wing satirist Bill Maher’s political documentary series, Vice.
For Crosby, it was the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 – the inspiration for Long Time Gone on CSN’s self-titled debut album – that signalled there was something diseased at the heart of his beloved nation. “I knew they weren’t telling us the truth, man,” he says. “I love the idea of America, I love the idea of freedom and democracy. Those Greeks were pretty smart guys for inventing that. But I was bereft at the loss of the two Kennedys. We didn’t have to be in Vietnam, the only reason we were there was for profit; they wanted a war because it was good for the economy. Nothing has changed to this day. The only victory I can see is the end of war for profit.”
Yet Crosby discovered soon after Woodstock that political bereavement was nowhere near as painful as the real thing. In September 1969, his girlfriend, Christine Hinton, died in a car crash. They had been the perfect hippy couple, disposed to sitting naked in their garden, smoking pot and entertaining friends. Holing himself up in Wally Heider’s studio in San Francisco, his boat moored nearby, he tried to make sense of his loss through music: and out came the eerie, emotionally wrought psychedelic folk of If I Could Only Remember My Name….
“I was sitting there fucking crying,” the singer recalls. “The woman I loved had been killed. I had no way to deal with it, nothing. The only place I felt safe was in the studio. Then my friends dropped by – Graham Nash, Jerry Garcia, they were there every night; the [Jefferson] Airplane, [Grateful] Dead and Quicksilver people. It was a pretty generous thing they did. They didn’t want anything, they just dug that I was singing the songs.”
In 1970, CSN – with the addition of Neil Young – cut a second album, Déjà Vu, which sold seven million copies in the States and as many again elsewhere, turning the group into international superstars. But beyond the mellow hippy façade, ego clashes and divergent agendas were tearing the band apart. Nash unwisely ran off with Stills’s girlfriend, the singer Rita Coolidge; Young – perhaps the most consistently brilliant songwriter of them all – capitalised on the album’s success by ruthlessly developing his own solo career, subsequently joining and leaving CSN as he pleased; Crosby, meanwhile, became ever fonder of his yacht and the blissful dream-state induced by grass and opiates.
The band finally managed to settle their differences in 1974, playing a US stadium tour that grossed millions of dollars; but relations turned poisonous when Stills and Young wiped their bandmates’ vocals from a proposed new album, leaving just an S&Y credit on 1976’s Long May You Run. CSN – without Y – finally made an album in 1977, but by that time everyone had long burned out.
“We’d spent a long time being angry with each other, for a good cause,” sighs Crosby. “And we were total assholes to each other, many times, when we should have been focusing on the gifts we had. I’m glad that we’ve gone past all that to become good friends today. That’s a nice feeling.”
As a new thing called punk rock began kicking up a stink, the princes of West Coast hippie-dom began to fall out of favour. The fact 1977’s CSN album was hardly a world-beater didn’t help, nor did uncool things like them visiting their Democrat friend President Carter in the White House. (And, no, Crosby never did smoke a joint in the Oval Office as many would like to believe.) To this day, Crosby can’t understand why groups like the Sex Pistols and Ramones were being taken seriously.
“Punk?” he spits, with a disbelieving grin. “There’s no excuse for making bad music, man. Just because you’re being rude and frighteningly dramatic doesn’t mean you can’t have songs. Bad attitude is no substitute for great music like Joni Mitchell or James Taylor. By the way, I thought disco fucking sucked, too.”
By the late ’70s, though, Johnny Rotten and Donna Summer were the least of Crosby’s worries.
Onstage at the Troubadour tonight David Crosby, smartly dressed in black strides and a crimson shirt, receives an ovation before he reaches the mic-stand. He performs new album Croz to a spellbound crowd, before launching into a “greatest hits” set – though, as he reminds the writer, “None of my songs have ever actually been a hit.” His keyboard player and musical director is son James Raymond, whom he and a girlfriend had offered up for adoption in the ’60s, but was reunited with his father after news broke in late 1994 that Crosby was to undergo a life-saving liver transplant.
After 1977’s CSN album, the singer increasingly became a slave to freebasing cocaine and by the early ’80s his songwriting faculties – though not his voice – had almost completely abandoned him. A rap for firearms and cocaine possession in Dallas in 1982 eventually led to a nine-month prison sentence three years later. It was to prove the turning point.
“Prison was… I didn’t want to go down to the TV room as that’s where the fights happened,” he explains. “[Being well-known] cut both ways. Some people liked my music, but then others were like, ‘He’s had more pussy than a cat farm, I’m gonna break his arm, just for fun.’”
But after several months, the fug of years of abuse lifted. “I woke up in prison, I remembered who I was and discovered the world again. I crawled out of my own ass and started this long progression back to consciousness, one rung at a time. I wrote a series of dumb songs, then I wrote Compass [appearing on CSNY’s American Dream album in 1988] – that is not a dumb song.”
After his liver transplant – reportedly paid for by fan Phil Collins – the singer forsook drink and class-A drugs for family life on his ranch, while availing himself for lucrative CSN (and Y) tours, and performing and recording with CPR, a group helmed by his son James. His only millennial misdemeanour has been a conviction for possession of a firearm after he left a bag containing a gun and some marijuana in a New York hotel room in 2004.
He confesses that, as stated in one of his solo songs, the most precious thing to him these days is time – “It’s the final currency, you come to a point when you’ll do everything just to have another hour on this Earth. And I’ve found myself there a couple of times.” He’ll be touring again with CSN this summer, but alas, he never sees The Byrds re-forming. As we warmly bid adieu, he theorises why that should be, but insists his thoughts remain off-record. “If you print them, I will find you,” he winks.
And, knowing the world’s most loveable bad-ass hippy a little better, I think he means it.
Ten of the best from the honey-voiced, politically charged “cosmic yachtsman”.
Everybody’s Been Burned
Younger Than Yesterday (1967)
Crosby discovered his métier on this haunting lament, written in eerie Drop-D tuning
Younger Than Yesterday (1967)
Intoxicating Wicca folk melodies and bendy backwards guitars create the ultimate psychedelic trip.
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Long Time Gone
Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)
Outraged by the killing of Bobby Kennedy, Crosby urges folk to “speak out” against The Man.
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)
Crosby’s sailing bug inspired this grooving saga, replete with coded drug babble and sublime harmonies.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Almost Cut My Hair
Déjà Vu (1970)
Crosby resolves to “let his freak flag fly” on stark, impassioned soul-jam imploring political defiance.
Tamalpais High (At About 3)
If I Could Only Remember My Name… (1971)
Why use words when “do-do-do”s can take listeners on a mind-blowing jazzy trip?
Crosby & Nash
Wind On The Water (1975)
The death of Crosby’s mother led to this beautiful and unusually conventional soft-rock ballad.
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Wonderfully rich CSN harmonies gild this extraordinary nautical epic reflecting Crosby’s own troubled life-voyage.
Crosby, Pevar and Raymond
With pianist son James Raymond and guitarist Jeff Pevar, Crosby digs deep to write his finest song in years, full of wit, passion and soul.
Time I Have
A beautiful, nagging melody and soothing soft-rock chords make this wistful rumination on modern-life essential Crosby.