Looking back on the career of an American rock icon
David Crosby, one of the most misunderstood famous musicians of our time, has died at age 81.
Co-founder of the Byrds, co-founder of Crosby, Stills & Nash (& Young), producer of Joni Mitchell’s first album, he’s an icon of ’60s and ’70s rock, but never had a hit single with any song he was the sole author of, because purely distilled Crosby music went above the heads of the masses. Instead, they saw him primarily as a political rabble-rouser and a junkie—and, unfairly, a buffoon. Having the most exquisitely refined sense of advanced harmony of any rock musician was not the way to have pop hits. How advanced? There are CSN tracks that Stills barely plays on, rumored to be because as a guitarist he couldn’t handle some of Crosby’s more sophisticated chord progressions. Which is no knock on Stills; hardly any rockers were dealing in 11th or 13th chords aside from a few of the more abstruse prog-rock bands.
Crosby described his “Guinnevere” (on CSN’s debut) to journalist Jeff Tamarkin as “an unusual tune. By that time I had hit my stride. It’s in a strange tuning; it’s a strange chord structure. The time signature goes from 4/4 to 6/8 to 7/4.” Miles Davis (one of the influences on Crosby) took a shine to “Guinnevere” and covered it. And it was Crosby who got Roger McGuinn and The Byrds into John Coltrane and raga, leading to “Eight Miles High.”
His voice was versatile. He could sing with a powerful rough tone, as on “Almost Cut My Hair,” or with perfect purity of intonation worthy of a choirboy (his version of the ancient French song “Orleans”), or with a gracefully casual conversational style (“Laughing”). This also means that in three-part harmonies, he could blend well with the very disparate timbres of Still and Nash. And amazingly, neither bad habits nor age damaged his “instrument.” The only change in Crosby’s timbre was a very slight slurring of diction.
But ask the average rock fan about Crosby and you don’t hear about that, but rather about drugs and prison time. When Melissa Etheridge used Crosby as a sperm donor, the public reactions were cruel, but if someone wanted their child to be musical on a profound level, with a superb “ear,” Crosby’s genes were ideal. Friction within the Byrds about his polyamory anthem “Triad” contributed to Crosby being kicked out of the band, and its free-love sentiments were ridiculed after CSN released it, but of all the members of CSNY, Crosby was the only one who never divorced; he married wife Jan Dance in 1987 and they were together for the rest of his life (36 years)—and his blunt criticisms of the divorces of bandmates Neil Young (from Pegi Young, wife of 36 years) and Graham Nash (from Susan Nash, wife of 38 years) seem to have been the triggers for them refusing to work with Crosby, thus breaking up CSNY.
Born into a family with a filmmaker father who was rarely around and was disapproving of young David when he was at home, David reacted by rebelling against authority figures, leading him to get kicked out of multiple schools. Then he had to drop out of college when his parents divorced. He joined the Los Angeles folk scene, but didn’t particularly fit in; CSNY biographer David Browne quotes an early Crosby girlfriend describing his music as “I’m really horrible, everybody hates me, I’m different, isn’t it sad, I can get attention this way and self-destruct in the end.” A couple years later, David and older brother Ethan joined folk group Les Baxter’s Balladeers, but David was too individualistic to fit in and quit the group. Crosby, hearing Roger (then Jim) McGuinn and Gene Clark at the Troubadour and convinced them to let him join their band by flaunting his connection to producer Jim Dickson, with whom Crosby had already recorded some demos. The trio added bluegrass player Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke and eventually morphed into the Byrds and, having been enchanted by the Beatles, moved towards rock, in the process inventing folk-rock and, with their versions of Bob Dylan songs, helping Dylan to mainstream success. Crosby’s high vocal harmonies were a huge part of the group’s sound.
After the airplane-phobic Clark left the band, Crosby picked up the songwriting slack with songs that were psychedelic before psychedelia was a thing, as heard on the July 1966 album Fifth Dimension, featuring “Eight Miles High,” a co-write by Clark, McGuinn, and Crosby; Crosby co-wrote two others, co-arranged two traditional songs, and authored the gnomic “What’s Happening?!?!” by himself. On the following year’s Younger Than Yesterday, Crosby really came into his own, with the brilliant McGuinn-Crosby co-writes “Renaissance Fair” and “Why” and two Crosby songs, the starkly beautiful “Everybody’s Been Burned’ and the much-hated raga-esque parable “Mind Gardens.”
The same year, the non-album single “Lady Friend,” Crosby’s sole Byrds A-side, only made it to #82 on the Billboard pop singles chart, but later became a cult favorite covered by such diverse bands as the Flamin’ Groovies and the Posies. But the rarely diplomatic Crosby offended McGuinn and Hillman by substituting his own vocal harmonies for theirs on the song, and during the making of the following year’s album Notorious Byrd Brothers, he was kicked out of the band. Besides his sin of authoring “Triad” (which he gave to his friends Jefferson Airplane, who recorded it on their LP Crown of Creation) and insisting that The Byrds’ version of Carole King’s “Goin’ Back” shouldn’t be on the LP, Crosby alienated the others at their Monterey Pop Festival appearance by talking about politics between songs and by sitting in with the Buffalo Springfield to replace the AWOL Neil Young. Nonetheless NBB included three of his best songs (“Draft Morning,” “Tribal Gathering,” and “Dolphin’s Smile”), and he plays on half the album. Note, though, that my pal Jeff Conklin heard Crosby say, before playing “Triad” at a show, “A lot of people say this song got me kicked out of The Byrds, but that’s not the case. I was kicked out for being an asshole.”
VIDEO: Croz on The Howard Stern Show
Needless to say, Crosby landed on his feet by teaming up with buddy Stephen Stills (remember that Buffalo Springfield team-up) and then convincing Graham Nash to quit The Hollies to join their new band. Their eponymous debut spent a whopping 107 weeks on the Billboard album chart, peaking at #6, and made them superstars. Adding Neil Young to the lineup at the suggestion of Atlantic label head Ahmet Ertegun increased the hype but also introduced the tension that had already existed between Stills and Young in the Buffalo Springfield. When they fell apart after the first CSNY LP, Déjà vu (which hit #1 on the album chart, charting for 97 weeks), and its subsequent tour, Crosby and Nash continued working together and made three brilliant studio albums and a smoking live album in the ’70s before CSN reunited (without Young) for 1977’s CSN album, which held the #2 spot for a month and stayed on the chart for 33 weeks.
There was considerable drama between Déjà vu and CSN that I’m omitting, but with at least three excellent CSN(Y) bios by Dave Zimmer, David Browne and Peter Doggett, plus autobiographies by Young, Nash and Crosby, you can easily catch up on all that stuff. What must be included, though, is the tragedy that altered Crosby’s life in 1969: his girlfriend Christine Hinton died in a car crash minutes from their house. Nash says, “David went to identify the body, and he’s never been the same since.” It might not be oversimplifying to ascribe Crosby’s descent into levels of drug use (including freebasing) that even his decadent bandmates wouldn’t match to his despair over Hinton’s loss. Inevitably that, combined with carrying a gun for fear of another Charles Manson-style attack, led Crosby into legal hassles culminating in in 1985-86 prison time that perhaps was a blessing in disguise since he had to go cold turkey there.
Also in between Déjà vu and CSN came Crosby’s first solo album, the initially misunderstood/underappreciated classic If I Could Only Remember My Name. Some of it is in tribute to Hinton, most clearly “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here.”
Recorded in San Francisco with Crosby’s friends in Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, along with Young, Nash and Joni Mitchell, it was as far from what people expected as could be. Lester Bangs dismissed it snarkily in his Rolling Stone review; Robert Christgau graded it D- and called it a “disgraceful performance.” In the decades since, it has become an underground classic considered influential on the freak-folk movement.
Crosby began his post-prison comeback with the 1988 CSNY album American Dream; Young had promised in 1983 that if Crosby cleaned up, they’d make an album with him. Even Crosby didn’t consider the album very good. Better in this writer’s opinion was his 1989 solo album Oh Yes I Can; even if the production is dated, there are some fine songs on it. The 1993 follow-up, Thousand Roads, was unable to help him build momentum because he was then sidelined by liver problems due to hepatitis C.
Next came IRS troubles after his manager/accountant cooked his books and left him financially bereft after Crosby had managed to get his life back together, leaving him to start over yet again. There were also two CSN albums in the ’90s plus one by CSNY, but the less said about them, the better. More interesting and of better quality were 1998 and 2001 albums by CPR, a trio of Crosby, guitarist Jeff Pevar and Crosby’s son James Raymond, who’d been given up for adoption in 1962 but connected with Crosby in the late ’90s.
Then, starting in 2014 and continuing through 2022, Crosby made the lemons of CSNY’s dissolution into lemonade with a remarkable creative resurgence of five studio albums and two concert albums. Touring regularly except during the height of the pandemic, he worked with groups of younger musicians, including jazzers such as members of Snarky Puppy, reinvigorating his style while performing a mix of excellent new songs and highlights from his former bands. He made it clear that he was feeling his mortality; he dealt with more health problems, including cardiac issues, but was on a mission to make up for lost time. No longer having to compromise his vision in collaborative groups, finally working with jazzers who better understood his harmonic sense, he made the best David Crosby albums of his career barring only If I Could Only Remember My Name.
Crosby was a difficult man to work with, and he acknowledged this, most notably in the searingly honest 2019 documentary Remember My Name, directed by A.J. Eaton—a must-see. But all through his career he was prone to self-deprecating humor, and except while in the depths of his freebasing period, he always seemed to put music first. Music inspired him, and motivated him, not to make money but to create without limits or inhibitions.
He left a considerable body of work, not all great but frequently mesmerizing.