The Song Remains: David Crosby (1941 – 2023)

Photo by Anna Webber

The death of David Crosby, who passed on the 19th of January, was hardly unanticipated – it’s not just that he was 81, but he had been saying in interviews “how am I still alive?” as something of a mantra for many years. And it’s easy to see why – in many ways a life lived to excess David Crosby suffered from many ailments in later life, to the extent that he had a year ago declared that he would not be able to tour again. His love of alcohol and his Hepatitis C was a driver for his liver replacement in 1994 (paid for by Phil Collins), and his indulgence in drugs made him an absent presence in his own life for more than a decade. There was a time in the 1980s when his loss of control of himself was plain for all to see – put aside the weight gain, the erratic behaviour, the setting himself on fire, the degeneration from being the smart dressing and gorgeous youth, put all that aside and there still remained that CSN had to recruit a Crosby sound-a-like both for touring and, devastatingly, recording purposes. A move that was either unforgivably cynical or pragmatic depending on one’s viewpoint – and hindsight suggest that since eventually CSN did get to sail free again the pragmatic call is appropriate in this circumstance. His recent late spurt of solo releases showed the world that we did have a fully functioning Crosby back again – and it would be easy to mourn those lost years but five good albums in seven years was a remarkable resurgence from a man who at his lowest point had been written off as hopelessly gone.

David Crosby was one of the key figures in the creation of what we now recognise as rock music – as distinct from rock and roll – most obviously through his two bands The Byrds and Crosby Stills and Nash, but also as a vital hub in the burgeoning music scene in California of the 1960s.  A mover and shaker with Grateful Dead, helping Buffalo Springfield to limp on a little longer, sharing the ‘Wooden Ships‘ credit with Kantner and gifting Jefferson Airplane ‘Triad‘, hanging with The Mamas and The Papas and particularly with Cass Elliot, championing Joni Mitchell, and a friend and inspirer (‘Day of the Locusts‘) of Dylan are just a few examples.

Born in 1941 into a Hollywood family, his father was the award winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby, his mother Aliph Van Cortlandt Whitehead was the granddaughter of a Bishop. They divorced in 1960, by when Crosby’s rebellious streak had already started to show – he did not complete school, opting instead for a first acting, but he dropped out of drama school, and then took up a musical path. His early career was in folk, his first recordings being with the Les Baxter’s Balladeers (you can find those recordings on the ‘Byrds Parts‘ rarities albums). It was a legendary meeting of Crosby with Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark that led to the formation of The Byrds, with Crosby’s unprompted adding of his harmonizing vocals to McGuinn and Clark’s singing that gained him that gig – a story that was repeated with slight changes of detail in the formation legend of CSN. And The Byrds flew high – they took Dylan and made him electric, they took jazz and made it psychedelic rock, they took influences from Indian traditional music, they made folk and country cool. Across the first five albums Crosby was key. Already, though, that famous friction was there – sometimes to the band’s benefit as in the general chagrin at Clark getting the most royalties spurring on in-band songwriting and a fight to get songs selected. Sometimes less positive as Crosby annoyed band mates by being overtly political, or covering topics that they disapproved of. There are layers of irony in his expulsion during ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers‘ sessions – on one side because the band didn’t want ‘Triad‘ and chose ‘Goin’ Back‘ instead to Crosby’s ire – his song rejected for a Goffin and King choice? Ironic because of his insistence on recording ‘Hey Joe‘ for ‘Fifth Dimension‘ even though it had already been a hit for The Leaves. Petulant, perhaps, because Crosby had brought it to The Byrds first. It could have been their hit.  Such smarting obviously continued to rankle as, when the fates switched their places at the end of the decade and The Byrds were in decline it was the CSN superstar that reconvened the original line-up in 1973 for one last time. ‘The Byrds‘ is that line-ups “missing” album – and despite its oft cited reputation as a poor record it is actually very, very good. It brilliantly reverted to their original method of album construction of some new songs, some reworked folk and some songs by outside songwriters – here swapping out Dylan for Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and that was surely Crosby’s doing.

For all the excellence and ongoing influence of The Byrds, it was Crosby Stills and Nash / Crosby Stills Nash & Young that conquered the world, their debuts defining the Woodstock generation. A golden era of just a few years offered up gems from all participants either solo or in combinations, with Crosby & Nash making for a particularly tight pairing. The two musketeers! And then….it all fell apart, with jealousy both artistic and romantically a factor – and the excesses of the infamous 1974 world tour that more or less invented the Stadium gig concept – or at least refined it to a very modern looking state. A summary of some of the albums of that era can be found here. Suffice to say that, despite all that what would come later, neither CSN or CSN&Y ever fully equalled their first achievements.

Crosby’s solo output was, for a long time, not large – but if you have ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name‘ to your credit then some resting on laurals can be forgiven. His accelerating decline into drug addiction did not help – and much of his first volume of autobiography ‘Long Time Gone: The Autobiography of David Crosby‘ is a gruelling slog covering this period and describing how the getting and using of drugs was his sole motivation for years, such that he lost his beloved yacht ‘Mayan‘ to neglect, he lived in filth, was continually under threat from those he owed money to, many of them his dealers, and periodically inflicted burn injures on himself by passing out whilst using his drug paraphernalia. It’s grim reading, and it makes clear that Crosby no longer found such drugs cool. It was a phase of his life that was only reversed through enforced drug denial – Crosby was jailed in 1983, served nine months and would later write his judge a thank-you note for locking him up.  He returned sporadically to solo recording and the album ‘Oh yes I Can‘ had some moments – particularly ‘Tracks in the Dust‘ – but the almost all covers ‘Thousand Roads‘ is probably best forgotten. It was not really until the formation of CPR with his adopted son James Raymond, who Crosby was unaware of until he had reached his thirties, and Jeff Pevar that Crosby started to hit his stride again. ‘Crosby-Nash‘ in 2005 was a real return to form of the duo, and live the pair and CSN were never less than excellent – even in their last falling out forever gigs each could deliver even if not being overly together as a unit. The appearance of ‘Croz‘ in 2014 kickstarted an excellent run of albums with Crosby collaborating with a new group of younger musicians. It was, as ever, bittersweet – here was Crosby with all this music, all these mostly co-written songs but he no longer had his big name band to take them to. He’d fallen out with Neil Young when he’d found new love with Darryl Hannah. He’d fallen out with Graham Nash when he’d found new love as well. Stephen Stills would still talk to him – but as Crosby acknowledged in his 2019 documentary ‘Remember My Name‘, none of his band mates from The Byrds or CSNY wanted to play with him anymore, he’d fallen out with everyone and if you fall out with everyone you have to wonder where the blame lies. He was in the end honest with himself. His death puts a line under the soap opera of CSN(Y), and removes the lingering desperate hope of a remaining Byrds reunion. Barring future archival releases the music we have – and there’s a lot in total – is now definitely it.

David Crosby would have argued – and let’s be honest he was a man who liked to argue – that jazz was the music that he loved the most. It was his earliest influence, and in his later solo albums jazz influences are all over the place. And yet it is as a rock musician – or even a folk-rock musician – that he is casually recalled. As one of the founders of The Byrds it might seem that that appellation is deserved – by someone who has never listened to The Byrds. What that band achieved – even more than their own inspiration The Beatles – was to bring together a talented band of musicians and songwriters who had a diverse palette of influences. Amongst the undeniable folk, rock and roll, country and particularly bluegrass grounding there was an injection of jazz influences – let’s cite ‘Mindgardens‘ and ‘Everybody’s Been Burned‘ and call that case closed. In concert Crosby would routinely refer to his songs as “the weird shit“, but often that weirdness was just a very open emotional state. Here was an egotist who would castigate himself for being egotistical, here was the child not given all the familial love he thought he deserved and then rebelling against parental controls and demands to conform to a rigid and loveless way of life. Here was the young man who grieved the death of his longtime girlfriend Christine Hinton and still had to record and tour. Here also was the political activist – he didn’t like war, he didn’t like whales being hunted to extinction, he didn’t like misogyny, cruelty and bullying. What a freak, huh?

About Jonathan Aird 2656 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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Thanks for the essay , as a casual listner of D C you have filled In the gaps for me .

Keith Hargreaves

great stuff Jonathan …..damn

Paul Higham

Fab bit of writing, thanks for putting it together. For someone who in recent years has seemed determined to look forward and not backwards, it is intriguing that the set list being rehearsed for a show at the Lobero theatre leaned heavily on the CSN(Y) era, including one by Young (“Ohio”, not a surprise as he’s often done it in concert) and one by Stills (“Carry On/ Questions”, which was a surprise). Additionally, the band lined up for the shows included Chris (son of Stephen) Stills on guitar and vocals.

Andrew Riggs

Great stuff, If Only I Could Remember My Name is essential and the highpoint of C & N Wind On The Water – carry me away. RIP