For a guy like me who has always held a special place in my heart for David Crosby and the marvelous music he has made, it has been most gratifying to see the abundance of heartfelt tributes paid to him in traditional and social media in the days and weeks since his death on January 18th at age 81.
Let’s face facts. “Croz,” as he was known to his closest associates, could be a prickly guy, full of challenging opinions and harsh words for friends and foes alike, so it’s not hard to imagine that some of them, when told of his passing, might have privately thought “good riddance.”
And there’s no denying that, thanks to a harrowing descent into full-blown drug addiction in the ’70s and ’80s that culminated in convictions and jail time, he became something of a poster boy for the risks of excessive behavior.
But I’m willing to overlook all of that, because David Crosby has written, sung and played on some of my very favorite songs of the past 60 years — songs that have comforted me, exhilarated me and generally accompanied me on life’s ups and downs, and I’m eternally grateful to him for it.
He was a study in contradiction. He wrote gentle, ethereal music, but he was cantankerous and blunt. He was an extraordinary singer and arranger of layered harmonies, but he was inexorably drawn to hard drugs that put him in prison and almost killed him in the 1980s. He was outspoken and defiant about social issues but also wrote serene, mystical lyrics about love and karma. He was a fun-loving guy with a twinkle in his eye, but he was notoriously difficult to work with. As his longtime musical compatriot Stephen Stills put it, “He was both a genius and an asshole.”
As far as I’m concerned, Crosby earned his place in the annals of rock music based on his contributions to two titanic albums: “Crosby, Stills and Nash” (1969) and CSNY’s “Deja Vu” (1970). The lovely “Guinnevere,” the haunting “Long Time Gone,” the apocalyptic “Wooden Ships,” the angry “Almost Cut My Hair” and the magical “Deja Vu” have been hugely influential and impactful in my own musical development, and I never tire of hearing them.
There are so many others — tracks he recorded as a member of The Byrds, on seven solo albums, on a handful of duo LPs with Graham Nash, and on reunion albums with CSN and CSNY. Taken as a whole, which I invite you to do with my Crosby playlist on Spotify at the end of this essay, Crosby’s recorded legacy ranks right up there with the best of the singer-songwriters who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s and beyond.
He has been rightfully praised as one of the very best harmony singers and vocal arrangers in rock music history. He had an uncanny ability to move between the harmonic lines of his various singing partners, crafting unusually creative vocal parts that added uncommon warmth and depth to the songs to which he contributed. As an amateur singer myself, I love to sing along to the harmony parts of great old songs, but if I try to find and stick to Crosby’s parts on the CSN numbers, I fail every time. They’re so densely layered and almost hidden in the mix.
Crosby’s own compositions were typically not very commercial, and consequently, they weren’t heard on Top 40 radio. But on the FM stations, his dreamily eccentric melodies and chord changes were just what the doctor ordered. Take his fascinating debut solo LP, 1971’s “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” an eclectic batch of introspective tunes (“Traction in the Rain,” “Laughing,” “Song With No Words”) marked by start-and-stop rhythms, shimmering acoustic guitars and his crystal-clear voice.
British musician Robyn Hitchcock said, “Crosby let jazz, folk and rock’n’roll flow into each other, like a child playing with cups of water by a sink. There was a liquid quality to his songs and music.”
His lyrics could be dense or sharply defined. There’s an eight-minute track on the above LP called “Cowboy Movie” that told the tale of a group of Old West outlaws torn apart by a beautiful woman. In actuality, Crosby was singing about Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and how singer Rita Coolidge played a pivotal role in the quartet’s initial breakup because both Stills and Nash had strong feelings for her.
Crosby was a rebel almost from the very beginning. Soon after partnering with Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark to form The Byrds in Los Angeles in 1964, Crosby made it known that he didn’t want to spend his career reimagining the songs of Bob Dylan and others, despite the fact that the group had spectacular success doing exactly that. While he enjoyed coming up with and providing the harmonies that made “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “My Back Pages” so popular, he kept pushing the group to record their own songs. Tentative at first, Crosby grew bolder with enigmatic material like “Everybody’s Been Burned,” “Eight Miles High” and, tellingly, a song about a ménage à trois called “Triad” that the band refused to record. His stubborn individualism ended up getting him fired from The Byrds, but it merely fed his need to further explore and experiment.
He happened upon a then-unknown Joni Mitchell in a Florida coffee bar, took her to L.A. and supervised production of her debut LP. Around the same time, he met Stills and developed a simpatico musical relationship with him, and when Mama Cass Elliott brought Nash into their sphere and they discovered the indelible three-part harmonies they were capable of producing, the trio found themselves in the vanguard of the “back to the garden” movement that served as a counterpoint to the psychedelic experimentation going on concurrently.
The threesome beefed up their on-stage sound with the addition of Neil Young, but things almost immediately went south for Crosby when his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in a car accident just as sessions for “Deja Vu” were getting underway. “David went to identify her body, and he’s never been the same since,” Nash famously said. Crosby himself added years later, “When I started out doing drugs, it was marijuana and psychedelics, and it was a lot of fun. We believed we were expanding our consciousness. But then the drugs became more for blurring pain, and you don’t realize you’re getting as strung out as you are.”
And yet, Crosby was an avid performer throughout the ’70s, mostly with just Nash and a backing band, contributing fine original songs like “Carry Me,” “Page 43,” “Low Down Payment,” “Wind on the Water” and “Shadow Captain.” As Stills put it in the wake of “CSN,” their marvelous 1977 reunion album, “His voice was the glue that held us together. He was a giant of a musician, and I will miss him beyond measure.”
By the early ’80s, his addiction to heroin and freebase cocaine proved stronger than his love for making music, and he withdrew deeper into his problems, ultimately bottoming out in a Texas prison in 1986. Miraculously, he rebounded from that difficult time with his singing voice intact, and he returned to the road and the studio with his musical companions as they resumed their place as a reliable concert draw, offering classics and new compositions alike into the ’90s and 2000s.
Robyn Hitchcock said he marveled at Crosby’s longevity. “Because David did such a great job pulling himself out of the narcotic vortex in the late 1980s, it seemed like he’d be around forever,” he said. “It’s disturbing that he’s gone, almost as much as it’s sad. People like Crosby were built to endure, the way their love of music does, so even 81 seems too soon for him to be called away.”
In documentaries and a couple of autobiographical books, Crosby was as candid as we’ve come to expect from him. When asked if he had any regrets, he said, “Sure I do. I regret all the time I wasted being smashed. More recently, I’ve alienated nearly everyone I know. All the guys I’ve made music with won’t talk to me now. I don’t quite know how to undo the things I’ve said and done.”
Despite his unfortunate tendency to say things he later regretted, he somehow managed to collaborate with many dozens of artists over the years, participating in recording sessions or special live performances with a virtual Who’s Who of rock-era musicians. In addition to Stills, Nash and Young, his voice can be heard on records with James Taylor, Paul Kantner, Jerry Garcia, Phil Collins, Lucinda Williams, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Dave Mason, Art Garfunkel, Dan Fogelberg, Bonnie Raitt, David Gilmour, John Mayer, Marc Cohn, Donald Fagen, Shawn Colvin, Michael McDonald, Joe Walsh, Elton John and Carole King.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, Crosby established a productive musical partnership with his long-lost son, James Raymond, and between 2014 and 2022, he released five albums of quality new material, and presented it in concert. I had the good fortune of seeing him perform at LA’s fabled Troubadour in 2014 as he was promoting “Croz,” the first of these recent releases, and found him to be in fine form indeed.
As he aged, Crosby wrote more often about his mortality and the need to make good use of the time he had left. He told Howard Stern in 2021, “I’m at the end of my life, and it’s a very strange thing. Here’s what I’ve come to realize: It’s not how much time you’ve got, because we really don’t know. I could have two weeks, I could have ten years. It’s about what you do with the time that you do have. People get old and die, and that’s how it works. But in the meantime, I’m going to have myself a bunch of fun. I’m going to make some more music.”
He added in a 2022 interview, “I’m too old to perform live anymore. I don’t have the stamina or the strength. But I’ve been making records at a startling rate lately. I’m trying really hard to crank out as much music as I possibly can.”
Consider these lyrics from “I Won’t Stay For Long,” from his final LP: “I’m facing a squall line of a thousand-year storm, /I don’t know if I’m dying or about to be born, /But I’d like to be with you today, /Yes, I’d like to be with you today, /And I won’t stay for long, /I’ve got a place of my own, a little slice, There’s a sliver of air between the water and the ice, /It’s where I live, where I breathe…”
Nash, who stood by Crosby far longer than most but had recently severed ties with him, had only gentlemanly things to say about him after his death. “David was fearless in life and in music,” Nash said. “As one of his lyrics goes, ‘I’m not giving in an inch to fear.’ He leaves behind a tremendous void in terms of sheer personality and talent in this world. He spoke his mind, his heart, and his passion through his beautiful music and leaves an incredible legacy. These are the things that matter most.”
Bruce, great write up. His history is definitely close to your heart. So glad we got to see CSNY in Atlanta ( my first time ) several years back. It was great to hear your comments that it was a great show.